Charles's Wain (n.)

Old English Carles wægn, a star-group associated in medieval times with Charlemagne, but originally with the nearby bright star Arcturus, which is linked by folk etymology to Latin Arturus "Arthur." Which places the seven-star asterism at the crux of the legendary association (or confusion) of Arthur and Charlemagne. Evidence from Dutch (cited in Grimm, "Teutonic Mythology") suggests that it might originally have been Woden's wagon. More recent names for it are the Plough (by 15c., chiefly British) and the Dipper (1833, chiefly American).

It is called "the Wagon" in a Mesopotamian text from 1700 B.C.E., and it is mentioned in the Biblical Book of Job. The seven bright stars in the modern constellation Ursa Major have borne a dual identity in Western history at least since Homer's time, being seen as both a wagon and a bear: as in Latin plaustrum "freight-wagon, ox cart" and arctos "bear," both used of the seven-star pattern, as were equivalent Greek amaxa (Attic hamaxa) and arktos.

The identification with a wagon is easy to see, with four stars as the body and three as the pole. The identification with a bear is more difficult, as the figure has a tail longer than its body. As Allen writes, "The conformation of the seven stars in no way resembles the animal,--indeed the contrary ...." But he suggests the identification "may have arisen from Aristotle's idea that its prototype was the only creature that dared invade the frozen north." The seven stars never were below the horizon in the latitude of the Mediterranean in Homeric and classical times (though not today, due to precession of the equinoxes). See also arctic for the identification of the bear and the north in classical times.

A variety of French and English sources from the early colonial period independently note that many native North American tribes in the northeast had long seen the seven-star group as a bear tracked by three hunters (or a hunter and his two dogs).

Among the Teutonic peoples, it seems to have been only a wagon, not a bear. A 10c. Anglo-Saxon astronomy manual uses the Greek-derived Aretos, but mentions that "unlearned men" call it "Charles's Wain":

Arheton hatte an tungol on norð dæle, se haefð seofon steorran, & is for ði oþrum naman ge-hatan septemtrio, þone hatað læwede meon carles-wæn. ["Anglo-Saxon Manual of Astronomy"] 

[Septemtrio, the seven oxen, was yet another Roman name.] The star picture was not surely identified as a bear in English before late 14c.

The unlearned of today are corrected that the seven stars are not the Great Bear but form only a part of that large constellation. But those who applied the name "Bear" apparently did so originally only to these seven stars, and from Homer's time down to Thales, "the Bear" meant just the seven stars. From Rome to Anglo-Saxon England to Arabia to India, ancient astronomy texts mention a supposed duplicate constellation to the northern bear in the Southern Hemisphere, never visible from the north. This perhaps is based on sailors' tales of the Southern Cross.

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blue (adj.1)

"of the color of the clear sky," c. 1300, bleu, blwe, etc., "sky-colored," also "livid, lead-colored," from Old French blo, bleu "pale, pallid, wan, light-colored; blond; discolored; blue, blue-gray," from Frankish *blao or some other Germanic source, from Proto-Germanic *blæwaz (source also of Old English blaw, Old Saxon and Old High German blao, Danish blaa, Swedish blå, Old Frisian blau, Middle Dutch bla, Dutch blauw, German blau "blue").

This is from PIE *bhle-was "light-colored, blue, blond, yellow," from root *bhel- (1) "to shine, flash, burn," also "shining white" and forming words for bright colors. The same PIE root yielded Latin flavus "yellow," Old Spanish blavo "yellowish-gray," Greek phalos "white," Welsh blawr "gray," showing the slipperiness of definition in Indo-European color-words. Many Indo-European languages seem to have had a word to describe the color of the sea, encompassing blue and green and gray; such as Irish glass (from PIE root *ghel- (2) "to shine,"); Old English hæwen "blue, gray," related to har (see hoar); Serbo-Croatian sinji "gray-blue, sea-green;" Lithuanian šyvas, Russian sivyj "gray."

The present spelling in English is since 16c., common from c. 1700. The sense "lead-colored, blackish-blue, darkened as if by bruising" is perhaps by way of the Old Norse cognate bla "livid, lead-colored." It is the meaning in black and blue, and blue in the face "livid with effort" (1864, earlier black and blue in the face, 1829).

The color of constancy since Chaucer at least, but apparently for no deeper reason than the rhyme in true blue (c. 1500). Figurative meaning "sad, sorrowful, afflicted with low spirits" is from c. 1400, perhaps from the "livid" sense and implying a bruised heart or feelings. Of women, "learned, pedantic," by 1788 (see bluestocking). In some phrases, such as blue murder, it appears to be merely intensive.

Blue pencil as an editor's characteristic tool to mark corrections in copy is from 1885; also as a verb from 1885. The fabulous story of Blue-beard, who kept his murdered wives in a locked room, is from 1798. For blue ribbon see cordon bleu under cordon. Blue whale attested from 1851, so called for its color. Blue cheese is from 1862. Blue water "the open ocean" is from 1822. Blue streak, of something resembling a bolt of lightning (for quickness, intensity, etc.) is from 1830, Kentucky slang. Delaware has been the Blue Hen State at least since 1830, supposedly from a nickname of its regiments in the Revolutionary War.

The exact color to which the Gmc. term applies varies in the older dialects; M.H.G. bla is also 'yellow,' whereas the Scandinavian words may refer esp. to a deep, swarthy black, e.g. O.N. blamaðr, N.Icel. blamaður 'Negro' [Buck]
Few words enter more largely into the composition of slang, and colloquialisms bordering on slang, than does the word BLUE. Expressive alike of the utmost contempt, as of all that men hold dearest and love best, its manifold combinations, in ever varying shades of meaning, greet the philologist at every turn. [John S. Farmer, "Slang and Its Analogues Past and Present," 1890, p.252]
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nigger (n.)
Origin and meaning of nigger

1786, earlier neger (1568, Scottish and northern England dialect), negar, negur, from French nègre, from Spanish negro (see Negro). From the earliest usage it was "the term that carries with it all the obloquy and contempt and rejection which whites have inflicted on blacks" [cited in Gowers, 1965, probably Harold R. Isaacs]. But as black African inferiority was at one time a near universal assumption in English-speaking lands, the word in some cases could be used without deliberate insult. More sympathetic writers late 18c. and early 19c. seem to have used black (n.) and, after the American Civil War, colored person.

Nigger is more English in form than negro, and was formerly and to some extent still is used without intent; but its use is now confined to colloquial or illiterate speech, in which it generally conveys more or less of contempt. [Century Dictionary, 1895]
"You're a fool nigger, and the worst day's work Pa ever did was to buy you," said Scarlett slowly. ... There, she thought, I've said "nigger" and Mother wouldn't like that at all. [Margaret Mitchell, "Gone With the Wind," 1936]

It was also applied by English colonists to the dark-skinned native peoples in India, Australia, Polynesia.

One hears the contemptuous term "nigger" still applied to natives by those who should know better, especially by youths just come from home, and somewhat intoxicated by sudden power. [Samuel Smith, "India Revisited," in "The Contemporary Review," July 1886]

 The reclamation of the word as a neutral or positive term in black culture (not universally regarded as a worthwhile enterprise), often with a suggestion of "soul" or "style," is attested first in the U.S. South, later (1968) in the Northern, urban-based Black Power movement. The variant nigga, attested from 1827 (as niggah from 1835), is found usually in situations where blacks use the word. Also compare nigra.

[F]or when a town black has called a country black (equally black with himself) a "dam black plantation nigga," you may know that he has been terribly provoked, and has now ejected his last drop of gall in that most contemptuous epithet. [The Pamphleteer, vol. XXVIII, No. LVI, 1827]

Used in combinations (such as nigger-brown) since 1840s for various dark brown or black hues or objects; euphemistic substitutions (such as Zulu) began to appear in these senses c. 1917. Brazil nuts were called nigger toes by 1896. Nigger stick "prison guard's baton" is attested by 1971. To work like a nigger "work very hard" is by 1836.

Slang phrase nigger in the woodpile "a concealed motive or unknown factor affecting a situation in an adverse way" [OED] is attested by 1800; Thornton's "American Glossary" (1912) defines it as "A mode of accounting for the disappearance of fuel," hence "an unsolved mystery." Nigger heaven "the top gallery in a (segregated) theater" first attested 1878 in reference to Troy, N.Y. Nigger-shooter "slingshot" is by 1876.

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fire (n.)

Old English fyr "fire, a fire," from Proto-Germanic *fūr- (source also of Old Saxon fiur, Old Frisian fiur, Old Norse fürr, Middle Dutch and Dutch vuur, Old High German fiur, German Feuer "fire"), from PIE *perjos, from root *paewr- "fire." Current spelling is attested as early as 1200, but did not fully displace Middle English fier (preserved in fiery) until c. 1600.

PIE apparently had two roots for fire: *paewr- and *egni- (source of Latin ignis). The former was "inanimate," referring to fire as a substance, and the latter was "animate," referring to it as a living force (compare water (n.1)).

Brend child fuir fordredeþ ["The Proverbs of Hendyng," c. 1250]

English fire was applied to "ardent, burning" passions or feelings from mid-14c. Meaning "discharge of firearms, action of guns, etc." is from 1580s. To be on fire is from c. 1500 (in fire attested from c. 1400, as is on a flame "on fire"). To play with fire in the figurative sense "risk disaster, meddle carelessly or ignorantly with a dangerous matter" is by 1861, from the common warning to children. Phrase where's the fire?, said to one in an obvious hurry, is by 1917, American English.

Fire-bell is from 1620s; fire-alarm as a self-acting, mechanical device is from 1808 as a theoretical creation; practical versions began to appear in the early 1830s. Fire-escape (n.) is from 1788 (the original so-called was a sort of rope-ladder disguised as a small settee); fire-extinguisher is from 1826. A fire-bucket (1580s) carries water to a fire. Fire-house is from 1899; fire-hall from 1867, fire-station from 1828. Fire company "men for managing a fire-engine" is from 1744, American English. Fire brigade "firefighters organized in a body in a particular place" is from 1838. Fire department, usually a branch of local government, is from 1805. Fire-chief is from 1877; fire-ranger from 1909.

Symbolic fire and the sword is by c. 1600 (translating Latin flamma ferroque absumi); earlier yron and fyre (1560s), with suerd & flawme (mid-15c.), mid fure & mid here ("with fire and armed force"), c. 1200. Fire-breathing is from 1590s. To set the river on fire, "accomplish something surprising or remarkable" (usually with a negative and said of one considered foolish or incompetent) is by 1830, often with the name of a river, varying according to locality, but the original is set the Thames on fire (1796). The hypothetical feat was mentioned as the type of something impossibly difficult by 1720; it circulated as a theoretical possibility under some current models of chemistry c. 1792-95, which may have contributed to the rise of the expression.

[A]mong other fanciful modes of demonstrating the practicability of conducting the gas wherever it might be required, he anchored a small boat in the stream about 50 yards from the shore, to which he conveyed a pipe, having the end turned up so as to rise above the water, and forcing the gas through the pipe, lighted it just above the surface, observing to his friends "that he had now set the river on fire." ["On the Origins and Progress of Gas-lighting," in "Repertory of Patent Inventions," vol. III, London, 1827]
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