Champions, chums, cowboys, and other characters

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CHAMPION: BIG MAN ON CAMPUS This word for winner comes from the jousting fields of the Middle Ages, where knights in shining armor would compete. The Latin word for "field" is "campus." At the end of a competition, the last knight standing was the victor or "champiun." By 1730, a "champion" was someone who took first place in any sport, according to the Barnhart Dictionary of Etymology. To defend or support something, as in to "champion" a cause, came 100 years later.

Cowards hightail it when they spot danger An animal may wag its tail in delight or raise its tail in fright. Deer and rabbits, for instance, lift their tails to warn their fellow animals before they turn and flee. From the Old French "coue" for tail evolved "coart," which became "coward" in English. "Turning tail" means the same thing: to be so afraid as to flee.

A candidate's white garments Pure or not, political candidates in ancient Rome took their name from the Latin word "candidus," meaning "white." A "candidadus" would wear a white toga when he spoke at the Forum about his intentions and qualifications for office. The seeker would become a "candidate" only after he was elected. The color of the politician's garment both before and after a successful election was intended to indicate that his motives were as pure and spotless as his toga.

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Count your cronies over time The word for a close friend or lifelong chum used to be spelled "chrony," from the Greek word "chronios," meaning "long-continuing." Crony made its way into the English language through college slang at Cambridge University in England. Close friends were "chums" at Oxford University. "Chum" was originally "cham," clipped from "chamber," as in "chamber fellow" or "chamber mate." In other words, a roommate.

Revolutionary definition for 'cowboy' This word dates from the American Revolution. Originally, cowboys were guerrilla Tory bands who operated out of what is now Westchester County, N.Y. They would hide in bushes and lure guileless patriots into ambush by ringing cow bells, according to the Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins. Other sources say the antirevolution cowboys just rustled cows.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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