The word cross was initially used in English to refer to a monument in the form of a cross. The source is Old Norse kross, which in turn goes back to crux, a Latin word that gave us crucial, crucible (Late Middle English) originally a night light or the sort that might be hung in front of a crucifix (Middle English), and excruciating.
People cross their fingers to ward off bad luck. What they are doing is making a miniature ‘sign of the cross’, whether they know it or not. To cross someone’s palm with silver is to pay them for a favour or service. It probably comes from the idea of tracing the shape of a cross on a fortune-teller’s palm with a silver coin before you are told what the future has in store.
In 49 bc Julius Caesar, having defeated the Gauls, brought his army south to fight a civil war against Pompey and the Roman Senate. When he crossed the Rubicon, a small river marking the boundary between Italy and the Roman province of Gaul, he was committed to war, having broken the law forbidding him to take his troops out of his province. Cross meaning ‘annoyed’ dates back to the 17th century. It derives from the nautical idea of a wind blowing across the bow of your ship rather than from behind, which produced the senses ‘contrary, opposing’, and ‘adverse, opposed’, and then ‘annoyed, bad-tempered’. Crosspatch (early 18th century) is based on the obsolete word patch meaning ‘fool, clown’, perhaps from Italian pazzo ‘madman’.
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The Latin word crux, ‘a cross’, is the source for crucial. It was originally a technical term, especially in anatomy, meaning ‘cross-shaped’, and a close relative appears in the name of the knee’s cruciate ligament (late 19th century). The meaning ‘decisive’ or ‘very important’, as in ‘at a crucial stage’, can be traced back to the Latin phrase instantia crucis ‘crucial instance’, coined in the early 17th century by the English statesman and philosopher Francis Bacon (1561–1626). His metaphor was based on the idea of a signpost at a crossroad—a place where you have to choose which way to go next.
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The source of excruciate is Latin excruciare ‘to torment or torture’, which was based on crux. This meant ‘a cross’, of the kind used to crucify someone, and is the root not only of cross but also of crucial, and crux (mid 17th century). In English to excruciate someone was originally to torture them.
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