Let’s get strange this week because there were several news stories over the past few days reporting on some unusual phenomenon.
First, this long line of climbers on Mount Everest is probably more tragic than weird, but certainly nothing I expected. If you haven’t seen the picture of the inordinately long queue along the highest razor-thin ridge that is the gateway to Everest’s summit, you should. It’s harrowing and gives me goosebumps just looking at it.
Because of the logjam, 11 people have died. A record already set this year.
Referring to an accumulation of felled timber being transported down river, “logjam” was coined by Americans in 1851. But logjams themselves weren’t anything new. Even before European expansion in North America, naturally created log “rafts” were quite common among the continent’s larger rivers, creating dams or diverting water flow.
As a compound word, “logjam” is interesting because of its longevity in its figurative sense versus its literal sense. Its figurative sense, meaning a deadlock, originated in 1890, and is pretty much the primary definition today.
But the situation on Everest is a callback to its literal meaning.
The word “log” started to appear in English in the early 14th century, but word historians are unsure of its origin. There is a similar word in Old Norse, “lag,” which meant felled tree, but the history of how vowel sounds changed between Old Norse and Old English does not quite match up with “lag” and “log.”
Perhaps it is related to the Middle English word “clog,” which meant a lump of wood, and where we get the word for those wooden shoes. And, for what it’s worth, back then “clog” was a euphemism for male genitalia. But that both “clog” and “log” (as in “logjam”) are synonymous with impeding or blocking something, makes that case pretty strong.
The word “jam,” meaning to press tightly, is a much more recent addition to English. It began as a verb, coined in 1706, but, like the word “log,” is of unknown origin.
Speakers of Middle English used the word “cham” to describe biting down on something, like gnashing your teeth. That’s where we get the word “champ,” as in champing at the bit, from, and unrelated to the Latin word for champion. But maybe there’s a connection for the word “jam.”
Spruce trees in Alaska are jamming up a lot of Alaskan noses this year, as scientists are noticing extremely high levels of tree pollen namely in spruce and birch trees. And while high pollen counts aren’t unusual at this time of year, because of rising temperatures, scientists at the Allergy, Asthma and Immunology Center of Alaska notice that the pollen is appearing earlier each year and hanging around longer, giving those who suffer allergies quite the nasal logjam.
“Pollen,” in its botanical usage, was coined by the famous natural scientist Carl Linnaeus in his 1750 book, “Blomstrens Bilager,” in which he documents how wind transports pollen from male to female flowers. Linnaeus borrowed the word from the Latin “pollen” meaning flour.
“Pollen” also serves as the root for “polenta” and the Greek “poltos,” or porridge.
But when Linnaeus wrote about pollen, he wasn’t thinking about allergies at all. Even though allergies obviously existed in the 18th century, the word “allergy” wasn’t adopted by English until 1911. And even then, it had only been around for about five years prior.
“Allergy” was coined by an Austrian pediatrician named Clemens von Pirquet in 1906. Von Pirquet was experimenting with a smallpox vaccine, and noticed that kids getting a second injection would have a sensitive reaction to the shot.
So, calling on his knowledge of Greek, he invented a word: “allergy.” The first part of the word, “allos,” is Greek for strange or different; you can see that root in words like “alien” and “alternate.”
The second part, “ergon,” means activity or reaction. Its Proto-Indo-European root, “werg,” meaning to do, can be seen in energy, organ, work and surgeon.
Maybe that’s why my family can’t seem to shake all of this sneezing, coughing and runny noses, when we typically do not have allergies. Perhaps it’s a strange response we’re having to all of these new and sudden environmental changes.
“Strange” comes from Old French spelling of the Latin “extraneus,” meaning foreign or outside of, in this case, the norm.
Like the unusually high 55 tornadoes that ripped through the country in one day this week, we might be in for a strange, dangerous trek this summer.
Jared Griffin is associate professor of English at Kodiak College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.