Jewish World Review March 22, 2004 / 29 Adar, 5764
Editors of Merriam-Webster's Collegiate
"King Canute"; "vodka"; "Cheese it. The cops!''
In a recent newspaper article, an ambitious and arrogant public figure was compared to King Canute. Who is King Canute?
H. D., Albany, New York
Dear H. D.:
King Canute, or Canute the Great, was ruler of England (from 1016), Denmark (from 1018), and Norway (from 1028) until his death in 1035. He is believed to have ruled wisely, and he was able to maintain peace in the regions he ruled during a time when that was not so easy.
The famous legend about King Canute is that he arrogantly commanded the tide not to turn - a foolish command even for a good king - and so became the namesake of any person who makes preposterous statements, especially ones about his or her own power or importance.
According to the original 12th century story, however, Canute's act was not so foolish. His command to the tide was intended to demonstrate the limits of a king's power to his subjects. By commanding something he knew to be impossible, he showed that he could not do everything the people wanted.
I am told that the Russian word "vodka'' came from Russians mispronouncing the western European word "aqua vitae.'' I find it hard to believe that Russians couldn't pronounce "aqua vitae'' and am inclined to utterly discountenance that theory. Where exactly did the word "vodka'' come from?
C. S., Alameda, California
Dear C. S.:
When the alchemists of the Middle Ages discovered how to distill alcohol from wine, they named this new liquid "aqua vitae,'' Latin for "water of life.'' French "eau-de-vie'' (for a clear brandy distilled from fermented fruit juice) is a direct translation of the Latin term, as is "aquavit'' (or "akvavit''), the name of a Scandinavian liquor often flavored with caraway seeds, and Irish "uisce beatha,'' now better known as "whiskey.''
The Russians concocted their version of aqua vitae sometime in the 14th century, and they opted to call their drink not "water of life'' but simply something on the order of "dear little water'' - "vodka'' being a diminutive form of "voda'' (pronounced vah-DAH), the Russian word for "water.'' Though vodka wasn't really popularized in the West until after World War II, 19th-century reports of Russian drinking habits first saw the word introduced into English.
Incidentally, the Dutch also named their distilled liquor something besides "water of life''; it was more prosaically termed "burnt (distilled) wine'' (since distilling entails the application of heat) or, in Dutch, "brandewijn'' - thus in English "brandywine,'' shortened to "brandy'' in the mid-17th century.
Can you please tell me the origin of the expression "Cheese it. The cops!''?
S. O., Cleveland, Ohio
Dear S. O.:
The actual fixed idiom here is simply "cheese it'' (because that part of the phrase can be used alone and still keep the same meaning), so we'll leave "the cops'' out of this explanation. "Cheese it'' has been part of English slang since at least the mid-1800s. The word "cheese'' has been used with the meaning "to put an end to'' or "to stop'' since at least 1812, and this is the sense which led to the idiomatic expression. Whoever began using "cheese'' in that way apparently decided to "cheese it'' when people asked why, though, because no one has ever determined where that sense came from or why putting an end to an action should be related to cheese. The exact origin of the phrase must be labeled unknown.
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