Hello, Matthew Alice, most gracious knower of all things far and wide: I heard that the word “honeymoon” has its origins in ancient Icelandic culture. Mead (wine made from honey) was the customary drink for the bride and groom during the wedding ceremony. Sufficient quantities had to be brewed so that the couple could share mead together over the month immediately following the wedding, the “honeymoon.” Is this true? (See Edwin W. Teale, The Golden Throng, p. 127; John B. Free, Bees and Mankind, p. 103.) — Mark Collins, @qualcomm.com
Matt: Where did the term “cockpit” on an airplane come from, and why isn’t it used on any other vehicle? — Frank Pospisil, San Diego
Dear Matthew Alice: When you knock on wood for good luck, does it matter what kind of wood it is? Is oak luckier than, say, pine? And why is wood lucky in the first place? — Margie, Hillcrest
Mat mail: Why do people call a building a building when it’s already built? — rander8673, the Net
Autumn’s in the air, and the red-eyed wordwatchers are again migrating south into the M.A. mailbag. They seem to travel in large flocks, so I’ll hit ’em all here with one big stick. But first, I direct your attention to question number one. Not only does Mark open with some appropriately obsequious bootlicking, he includes a bibliography, a trend we here at the Straight from the Hip Answerteria would like to encourage. You do the work so we don’t have to — our new motto.
As for “honeymoon,” yes, the “honey” is mead, “moon” refers to a month, and the story does originate in some cold place, maybe Iceland, more likely Scandinavia. The idea of a period of seclusion following a wedding comes from the days when guys were sometimes obliged to swoop down on a stray female from another clan to gain a suitable wife. They’d then hide out until the girl’s family finally gave up looking for her. The groom’s “best man” was originally a tough homie who’d keep the in-laws at bay. This and the mead-drinking tradition are a couple of thousand years old. The word “honeymoon” has been in the English vocabulary since the 1500s. Back in those realistic times, writers used “honeymoon” as a sort of caveat to the happy couple. It implied that things are sweet at first, but, like the moon, love wanes. So I guess the moral is, make sure you have plenty of mead.
In what I swear is a completely unrelated matter, the word “cockpit” originally referred to — a cockpit. A small arena for cockfights. Then the meaning broadened to refer to any area of extreme conflict, like maybe a small, frequently overrun country. Next, we cut to World War I. The first military aviators are buzzing around the sky, bullets zinging past their ears, bugs in their teeth...no wonder they were the first to call the pilot’s seat the plane’s cockpit. So unless you have a car full of squabbling kids, the interior of the family sedan doesn’t have the proper ambiance to be called a cockpit.
Knock on wood: The first wood-knockers (a few millennia ago) were people who worshipped trees or at least believed that spirits lived inside them. To get the gods’ attention, you’d walk up to a tree and touch it. Or maybe knock on it if you could hear a loud party going on inside. Tree cults existed on virtually every continent, so of course the lucky species would vary with the geography. But if we’re talking North America and northern Europe, oak was much luckier than pine, oaks being big, tough trees that lived a long time, obviously home to the biggest, toughest gods who could do you the most good. I can’t say whether you’ll have good luck these days when you knock on wood. Odds are you’ll be knocking on chipboard covered with that weird paper veneer that’s a photograph of wood grain. Not sure the gods have figured that stuff out yet. And there’s a chance they’re laughing so hard at it that they won’t be able to hear you.
Whew. Okay, where are we? “Building”? Well, Rander, the Mona Lisa’s a painting, and I’m pretty sure da Vinci’s finished with it. So there are other examples. In the case of “painting,” the original verb was the Middle English peynten, “to decorate.” For “building,” it was the Old English byldan,“to build a house.” As the verb broadened to apply to whatever you were hammering together, it also came to apply to the thing itself.