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This blog is about the fascinating, fun, and challenging things about the English language. I hope to entertain you and to help you with problems or just questions you might have with spelling and usage. I go beyond just stating what is right and what is wrong, and provide some history or some tips to help you remember. Is something puzzling you? Feel free to email me at wordlady.barber@gmail.com.
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Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Sounding the tocsin about toxins

 Image result for juicer

It being that time of year when various charlatans seek to separate us from our money by convincing us that our bodies are chock-full of "toxins" that we need to "cleanse", let us look at the origins of the word "toxin".

In ancient Greek, the word toxikon had nothing to do with poison: it meant "arrow". The Greeks had another word (actually they had many other words): pharmakon, which meant "drug" and "medicine", but also... "poison". (A pharmacist friend of mine says this makes perfect sense, because if you take enough of anything, it will kill you. Good to know.)

Clearly, the Greeks were not using archery to deliver doses of medication; a toxikon pharmakon was an arrow imbued with poison. But when this term was borrowed into Latin, confusion arose as to which of the two words designated the arrow and which the poison, and thus in Latin toxicum came to mean "poison" rather than "arrow" as it should have done.

For those who believe in the etymological fallacy (the idea that a word's origin conveys its true meaning) a "detox" would therefore have to be the removal of arrows from the body, which would indeed be a good thing but certainly not achievable with a diet of wheat grass juice.

"Toxin" has a much less frequent homophone, "tocsin" (an alarm bell or signal). This comes from Provençal tocasenh, from tocar to touch + senh signal bell, and is now used mostly figuratively:
A sharply shrieked "Tom!" coming from the kitchen is a definite sounding of the tocsin, a warning to head out the back door as quietly as possible because you are obviously in serious trouble and the only safe sanctuary is the most obscure bar you can find.
A Happy New Year to all Wordlady readers, and may 2017 subject you to neither toxins nor tocsins!
Want to know more about why the English language is the (weird) way it is? Let me know if you would be interested in taking my very popular "Rollicking Story of the English Language" course in Toronto on a weekday afternoon (or possibly a Saturday or Sunday morning) in January, February, or March. Email me at wordlady.barber@gmail.com

ALSO! "Hebrew and Yiddish Words in English" on a weekday afternoon.

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About Me

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Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.