Monday, 31 December 2007


"In my other life I would like to be a linguist. I am fascinated by languages."
- Kylie Minogue

Thursday, 27 December 2007

viper, whisky, zodiac

The Proto-Indo-European root is *gʷeih₃- "to live". The suffixed zero-grade form *gʷi-wo- became Latin *uīuipera "having live young", and this became uīpera "snake" - in the mistaken belief that snakes do not lay eggs, I guess. (And as pointed out in the comments, they sort of don't.) uīpera became English viper thru Old French.

This form also became Old English cwicu "alive", and Modern English quick.

The form *gʷī-wo-tūt became Old Irish bethu "life", and this combined with uisce "water" to form Irish Gaelic uisce beatha "water of life". This was borrowed into English as usquebaugh, and this was altered to whiskey.

The suffixed zero-grade form *gʷih₃-o- became Greek βίος bios "life", and this gives us words like biotic and amphibian.

The suffixed form *gʷyō-yo- became Greek ζῷον zōion "animal", giving us the words zoo and zodiac.

Monday, 24 December 2007


I was thinking of writing about eggnog, but this word's etymology is unknown. It might be derived from noggin "small drink" or nog "strong ale"; another theory is that it's a contraction of egg'n'grog - grog meaning "alcoholic drink". The earliest citation of eggnog in the OED (1825) has just been antedated to 1774 by Heidi Harley.

egg is possibly from Proto-Indo-European *h₂ewi- "bird". Proto-Germanic *ajjam, Old Norse egg. The Old Norse word supplanted Old English ǣg and Middle English ey plural eyren, from the same root.

The verb egg "to incite into action" is from a different PIE root: *h₂eḱ- "sharp". Proto-Germanic *aǥjan, Old Norse eggja.

The suffixed lengthened form *āḱ-ri- became Latin ācer "sharp, bitter", becoming Old French aigre "sour", which combined with vin "wine" to form vinaigre and English vinegar.

The suffixed o-grade form *oḱ-su- became Greek ὀξύς oksus "sharp, sour", and English oxygen.

Friday, 21 December 2007

chakra and wheel

Chakras are centres of life force energy. My favourite chakra is sahasrara (सहस्रर "thousand"), the thousand petaled lotus, located over the fontanel. Nectar dripping from the thousand petaled lotus is caught in ājñā (आज्ञा "command"), the third eye.

Sanskrit चक्र cakra means "wheel". The Proto-Indo-European root is *kʷel- "to revolve, move around, dwell". The initial syllable was reduplicated and a suffix was added to form *kʷ(e)-kʷl-o-. This became Sanskrit cakra. The initial /kʷ/ became /c/ (before a front vowel), the medial /kʷ/ became /k/, and the /l/ became /r/.

*kʷ(e)-kʷl-o- also became Proto-Germanic *hweh(w)ula-, then Old English hweogol, then hwēol, then wheel.

Also from *kʷ(e)-kʷl-o- we get cycle from Greek κύκλος kuklos "circle".

From the base form *kʷel- we get culture from Latin colere, cultus "to till". From the o-grade form *kʷol- we get collar from Latin collum "neck".

Thursday, 20 December 2007

fat and Irish?

The Proto-Indo-European root *peiH- "to be fat, swell" in the extended o-grade form *poid- became in Proto-Germanic *faitaz "fat". This became Old English fæt and then English fat.

In Proto-Celtic, the extended form *pī-wer- "fat, fertile" became *f–weryon- "earth, soil", which became Old Irish *īwer-iū "Ireland". This was borrowed into Old English as Īras "Irish", and thence our word Irish.

This is not completely certain; An etymological lexicon of Proto-Celtic notes in the entry for *f–weryon-:

"The Irish (and Welsh) name of Ireland, Ériu, W[elsh] Iwerddon, might also be related, but there are difficulties with this etymology, and there are alternative ones"

In Latin it became pītuīta "moisture exuded from trees." Thence English pituitary.

Another cognate is paneer, from Hindi पनीर panīr from Persian پنیر panīr from Indic *pēm "milk".

sources: Indogermanisches etymologisches Wörterbuch, An etymological lexicon of Proto-Celtic, The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots 2001

Wednesday, 19 December 2007

fathom and compass

The Proto-Indo-European root *peth₂- "to spread" in the suffixed o-grade from *pot(h₂)-mo- became Proto-Germanic *faþmaz "the length of two arms stretched out", then Old English fæðm "outstretched arms, embrace". A fathom is 6 feet, about the length of a person's arms outstretched. That was the original meaning of fathom, and then it developed into "take surroundings of" and then to "get to the bottom of".

compass is from Old French compasser "to measure", which is from Latin com plus passus "step". passus is derived from *peth₂-.

It's interesting that encompass also has a meaning similar to "embrace".

Tuesday, 18 December 2007

orphan and robot

Proto-Indo-European *h₃erbh- "to change allegiance or status". The suffixed form *orbh-o- meaning "bereft of father" or "deprived of free status" became ancient Greek ὀρφανός orphanós "orphaned". This became English orphan thru Late Latin.

It also became Old Slavic *orbŭ, then Old Church Slavonic рабъ rabŭ "slave" (a perjoration of "changed status"), then работа rabota "servitude", then Czech robota "drudgery, compulsory service". The Czech writer Karel Čapek's 1921 play R.U.R. was the first appearance of the word robot meaning "mechanical servant". Karel named his brother Josef as the inventor of the word.


- Karel Čapek, R.U.R. Act I, Simon and Schuster, 1973

From the same root are German Arbeit "work", Old English earfoþ "difficulty, hardship", and Latin orbus "bereft".

Thursday, 13 December 2007


A few pages that list etymologies have orange being from Sanskrit "naga ranga", meaning "fatal indigestion for elephants". The story goes that there is an ancient Malay fable of an elephant dying from eating an orange. This seems to me to be a great story, but false.

orange is from Sanskrit, specifically from Old French pume orenge, from Old Italian melarancio from mela "fruit" + arancio "orange tree", which is from Arabic nāranj, from Persian nārang, from Sanskrit नारङ्ग nāraṅga "orange tree". The trail ends there, altho the AHD says "possibly of Dravidian origin." There are some Dravidian words that could be the source: Tamil நாரம் nāram "orange", நாரங்கம் nāraṅkam "bitter orange tree"; Telugu నారింజ nāriñja "bitter kind of orange", నారంగము nāraṅgamu "orange tree", నారదము nāradamu "a sort of orange", నారిం౛ nāriṇẓa "orange"; Tulu ಣಾರೆಂಗಿ nāreṅgi. The Multilingual Plant Name Database has Malayalam narakam and Kannada naranga. Some of these might be borrowed from Sanskrit.

But "fatal indigestion for elephants" seems very fanciful, and not supported by these Sanskrit dictionaries. नाग nāga does mean "relating to serpents or elephants", but रङ्ग raṅga is "colour, hue; theatre, play-house, stage, arena" and राङ्ग rāṅga is "actor". Are oranges really poisonous to elephants?

The name of the French town of Orange is unrelated; it comes from Latin Arausio from Celtic.

ghee and fornicate

Ghee is a clarified butter used in Indian cooking. It doesn't require refrigeration, and apparently can be heated longer than other kinds of butter without burning. The word comes from Hindi घी ghī, from Sanskrit घृत ghr̥ta "clarified butter". The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology says this is the past participle of ghr̥ "to sprinkle", which is not of Proto-Indo-European origin. However, the American Heritage Dictionary and the database of Indo-Aryan inherited lexicon disagree; they say that the Proto-Indo-European root *gʷher- "to heat, warm" is the likely source of ghr̥ta.

*gʷher- in its suffixed o-grade form *gʷhor-no- became Latin fornix "arch, vault" (as in, vaulted brick oven). This became fornicārī "to fornicate", "what low-grade Roman whores did beneath the ovenlike vaulting of public buildings" (says Robert Claiborne in The Roots of English). I'm reminded of the vaulted Roman ruins where the prostitutes hang out in Fellini's Nights of Cabiria.

The zero-grade form *gʷhr- became burn from Old English, and brandy from Dutch brandewijn and branden "burn, roast, distill". The suffixed form *gʷher-m(n)o- became ancient Greek θέρμος "warm, hot" hence thermos.

Wednesday, 12 December 2007

study and tweezers

Latin studēre "to be diligent" ie, "to be pressing forward" (from the Proto-Indo-European root *(s)teu- "to push, stick, knock, beat") became studium "study, zeal" which was borrowed into English as study.

studium became Vulgar Latin *estudio, *estudiare, then Old French estuier "to keep, save", then estui "prison", then French étui. This was borrowed into English as étui or etwee, "small case for small articles". The plural étuis or etwees came to be thought of as a singular noun, spelled etweese. This became tweezer, and then was pluralized again as tweezers.

source: The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots, Calvert Watkins, 2001
The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology, 1991

Tuesday, 11 December 2007

fava bean

Fava beans (Vicia faba), also called broad beans or horse beans, are large beans that can be eaten raw from the pod. They're very good with pecorino (Italian sheep's cheese).

Both fava and bean are from the Proto-Indo-European root *bhabh-eh₂- "broad bean". Latin faba, Italian and Portuguese fava, French fève, Spanish haba.

The variant form *bha-un- became Proto-Germanic *ƀaunō: Old English bēan, Old Norse baun, German Bohne, Dutch boon. The Germanic words have been extended to cover any kind of beans, but the Italic words seem to still refer specifically to Vicia faba.

So both elements of fava bean are derived from the same root. Other phrases like this are chai tea and golden yellow.

source: The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots, Calvert Watkins, 2001
The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology, 1991
Multilingual Plant Name Database

pecorino and fee

Pecorino is an Italian sheep's cheese that goes well with fava beans. The word comes from Italian pecora "ewe, sheep", from Latin pecus "cattle". The Proto-Indo-European root is *peḱu- "wealth, movable property, livestock".

In Proto-Germanic, *peḱu- became *fehu, then Old English feoh "cattle, goods, money", and then English fee.

The suffixed form *peḱu-l- became Latin pecūlium "riches in cattle, private property", borrowed into Middle English as peculier "personal", becoming English peculiar.

The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots has an interesting note on *peḱu-. The Indo-Europeans differentiated between two-footed and four-footed wealth: *wī̆-ro- "man" referred to slaves, and *peḱu- referred to livestock. The two words were used together to refer to one's total movable wealth. Sanskrit वीरप्श vīrapśa "abundance of men and livestock" (from earlier *vīra-pśva from *wīro-pḱw-o-) corresponds to Latin pecudēsque uirōsque "both men and livestock", Umbrian uiro pequo "men and livestock", and Avestan pasu vīra "men and livestock".

Monday, 10 December 2007

arugula and horror

Arugula is a leafy green vegetable that's deliciously bitter and spicy. The arugula in Italy is very spicy. While I was there I ate a hecka lot of it. Arugula pizza, salads of nothing but arugula, etc. In Ontario it's much milder. It's also known as rucola and rocket. All these words are derived from Latin ērūca "caterpillar, plant with downy stems". The diminutive form became in French roquette, in Italian rochetta, ruchetta, rucola, and in Spanish arúgula, ruqueta.

Latin ērūca is from Proto-Indo-European *ǵhēr(s)-ūkā-, the suffixed lengthened-grade form of *ǵhers- "to bristle".

horror is from Old French horrour from Latin horrōrem from horrēre "to bristle, shudder, look frightful," from the suffixed o-grade form *ǵhors-eyo-. The suffix -eyo- formed causatives and iteratives.

Pokorny has two roots: 1. ghers 445 "disgust, horror" and 2. ghers 445 "used in names of weeds". However, neither have palatals and neither have any mention of horrōrem or ērūca.

source: The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots, Calvert Watkins, 2001

Friday, 7 December 2007

cheetah and poem

The Proto-Indo-European root is *kʷei-, "to pile up, build, make". The o-grade form *kʷoi- became Sanskrit काय kāya "body", which combined with चित्र citra "variegated , spotted , speckled" to form चित्रकाय citrakāya "striped-body, tiger or panther". This became Hindi चीता cītā, borrowed into English as cheetah.

The suffixed form *kʷoiw-eyo- became Greek ποιέω poieō "to create" and ποιημα poiēma, borrowed into Latin as poēma, borrowed into English as poem thru French.

Thursday, 6 December 2007

sarcophagus and Bhagavad Gita

The Proto-Indo-European *bhag- "to share out" (IEW 1. bhag- 107) became Greek ἔφαγον ephagon, infinitive φᾰγεῖν phagein "to eat" (ie "to have a share of food").

sarcophagus is from Greek σάρξ sarks "flesh" and phagein - in other words, "flesh eater". sarcasm is from the Greek σαρκάζω sarkazō "to tear flesh like dogs". sarks is from PIE *twerḱ- "to cut".

In Sanskrit the root became भग bhaga "dispenser, gracious lord, patron (applied to gods), good fortune", perhaps something to do with the idea of god sharing out good fortune. Sanskrit भगवद्गीता bhagavad gītā, "Krishna's song", is from bhaga and gītā "song" (from PIE *geh₁i- "to sing").

Wednesday, 5 December 2007

owe and Ganesh

The Proto-Indo-European root *h₂eiḱ- "to be master of, possess" (IEW ēik- 298) became Proto-Germanic *aiǥan "to possess", then Old English āgan, then English owe - and ought from the past tense form āhte. The Proto-Germanic word combined with the intensive prefix *fra- to form *fra-aihtiz "absolute possession, property", and this gives us fraught and freight thru Middle Dutch.

In Sanskrit, the reduplicated zero-grade form *h₂e-h₂iḱ- became ईश īś "to own, possess, rule over". This combined with गण gaṇa "throng, group of followers" to form गणेश gaṇeśa "master of throngs". This is the origin of the name of the Hindu deity Ganesh.

The weird thing is that Pokorny does not have this root with a palatal, to account for the Indic ś (but the AHD does).

Tuesday, 4 December 2007

fjord and Parvati

The Proto-Indo-European root *per- "to lead, pass over" in the suffixed form *per-tu- became Proto-Germanic *ferþuz "place for crossing over". This became Old Norse fjǫrðr "inlet, estuary", then Norwegian fjord and then it was borrowed into English.

The Hindu deity Parvati is from Sanskrit पार्वती pārvatī "mountain stream" which is from पार्वतः pārvataḥ "mountain", which is from the suffixed form *per-wr̥- meaning "bedrock", that is "what one comes through to".

source: The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots, Calvert Watkins, 2001

Monday, 3 December 2007

come and juggernaut

The Proto-Indo-European root *gʷeh₂- and its alternate form *gʷem- "to go, to come" became Proto-Germanic *kweman (or something), Old English cuman and Modern English come.

The reduplicated form *gʷe-gʷeh₂- became Sanskrit जिगाति jigāti "he goes" and जगत् jagat "world", that is "that which moves". jagat combined with नाथः nāthaḥ "lord" (from नाथते nāthate "to help" from PIE *h₃neh₂- "to help") to form जगन्नाथ jagannātha, one of the names of Krishna. A huge wagon bearing an image of Krishna is drawn anually thru the town of Puri, and sometimes devotees will be crushed under the wheels. Hence juggernaut.

The suffixed form *gʷ(e)m-yo- became Latin ueniō "to come" and many English words, usually thru Old French, like venue, adventure, and event.

The suffixed zero-grade form *gʷm-yo- became Greek βαίνω bainō "to go" and -batēs "one that goes, one that is based" and this combined with akros "high" to form acrobat.