Q In cooking a “farce” is a type of stuffing made with meat or fish. Is there any connection between this type of “farce” and the “farce” that means a comic drama? – B.N., San Bernardino, Calif.

A: You’re right that “farce” is a culinary term, though that meaning is much less well known than the one referring to a light satirical drama. In fact, when “farce” first appeared in English, its connection was with cooking, not comedy. In the 14th century, English adopted “farce” (spelling it “farse” until the 18th century) from French, retaining its original meaning of “stuffing or forcemeat.” (“Farce” is ultimately derived from the Latin verb “farcire,” meaning “to stuff.”) The comedic sense of “farce” dates back to the 16th century, when England imported a kind of knockabout comedy that was already well-established in France and Italy. This dramatic genre had its origins in the 13th century practice of interlarding or “stuffing” Latin liturgical texts with explanatory passages in the vernacular. By the 15th century the practice arose of inserting unscripted buffoonery into performances of religious plays. Such farces, which included clowning, acrobatics, reversal of social roles, and indecency, soon developed into a distinct dramatic genre, a kind of broad comedy with a slapstick element.

Q How did a materialist who is lacking in culture come to be called a “philistine”? – D.S., Clearwater, Fla.

A: “Philistine” was originally applied to a native or inhabitant of ancient Philistia, a land along the eastern Mediterranean coast. The Philistines of the Old Testament were constant rivals and enemies of the neighboring Israelites, who portrayed them in the Bible as a crude and warlike race. Archaeologists paint a more favorable picture, saying that the Philistines had a significant culture and valued hard work. In other words, the Philistines were no philistines.

But the story doesn’t stop there. A figurative sense of “philistine” entered the English language as the result of a dispute between the townspeople and the university students in the German town of Jena in the late 17th century. The bloody confrontation prompted a local clergyman to address the issue in a sermon to the townspeople on the value of education, choosing as his text “The Philistines be upon thee” from the Book of Judges. “Philister,” the German word for “Philistine,” soon caught on with the students as an epithet, first for the town militia and then for the townspeople in general. Spreading more widely in German university slang, “Philister” came to be used for an outsider – someone who was not a member of the university community. Familiar with this usage, English Victorian social and cultural critics such as Matthew Arnold and Thomas Carlyle used “Philistine” as an epithet for a materialist. Since then, “philistine” has been widely used of any person who is indifferent or hostile to the arts and smugly accepts conventional values.

Q Since a lavatory is a place to wash, I am wondering if “lava-” in that word comes from the fact that lava is used in soap? – E. M., Council Bluffs, Iowa

A: It is true that lava, in the form of powdered pumice, has been long used as an abrasive in cleansers, and thus it would seem there’s a connection between “lava” and “lavatory.” But if we look at those words’ histories, the theory won’t wash.

“Lavatory,” like “lavation” (“a cleansing”) and “laundry,” comes from the Latin verb “lavare,” which means “to wash.”

Even “lye” is related.

“Lava,” too, has a Latin source. But it’s from “labes,” a noun which means “a falling,” both literal, as of substances falling on the earth, and figurative, as a downfall caused by misfortune. The Italians came up with “lava.” Apparently they first used the word for a downward flowing stream caused by a heavy rain. But when Mount Vesuvius erupted in 1611, the local Neapolitans used “lava” for the lava stream from the volcano. (The Latin word for lava is “harena urens,” which means literally “burning sand.”)

This column was prepared by the editors of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Tenth Edition.

Readers may send questions to Merriam-Webster’s Wordwatch, P.O. Box 281, 47 Federal St., Springfield, MA 01102.


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