Wednesday, 31 December 2008

what's Latin for "veni vidi vici"

There's some interesting language-related things happening in The Fires of Pompeii (which should have been called Doctor Who and the Laurel Wreath). The idea is, and this was established back in 70s Doctor Who, that the TARDIS translates alien languages for the Doctor and companion. In the new series, the Doctor reveals that the TARDIS makes a change in the companion's brain so she can comprehend any language.

In "The Fires of Pompeii", the Doctor and Donna are in ancient Pompeii on volcano day (AD 79), and... well here's the transcript:

DONNA (sobered)
Hold on a minute, that sign over there's in English.
She points to a board advertising 'Two amphoras for the price of one'.

Are you having me on, are we in Epcot?

No, no, no, that's the TARDIS translation circuits, just makes it look like English. Speech as well, you're talking Latin right now.


Uh huh.

I just said 'seriously' in Latin.

Oh yeah.

What if I said something in actual Latin? Like, 'Veni, vidi, vici'? My dad said that when he came back from football. If I said 'Veni, vidi, vici' to that lot, what would it sound like?

I'm not sure. You have to think of difficult questions, don't you?

I'm gonna try it.
She walks to a stallholder.

Afternoon sweetheart. What can I get you, my love?

Ehm... Veni, vidi, vici.


Huh? Sorry? (gesticulating wildly) Me-no-speak-Celtic. No-can-do-missy.

She walks back to the Doctor.

How's he mean, Celtic?

Welsh. You sound Welsh. There we are, learnt something.

Doctor Who is produced by BBC Wales, so you can see what they did there. Anyway, what conclusions can we draw about the TARDIS translation circuits? Clearly they don't just let you comprehend languages, they change your speech into another language, without you noticing.

And when someone affected by the translation circuits speaks to a native in the native's own language, the translation circuits render it as another language of the period and place. Or Welsh. In AD 79 the language we call "Welsh" was a putative language called Proto-Celtic. The stallholder is clearly hearing Proto-Celtic because he says "Celtic." He wouldn't recognize modern Welsh; it sounds nothing like what Proto-Celtic would have sounded like. The Doctor said "Welsh" because he was trying to be funny, but he could just as easily have said "Breton" or "Gaelic".

What made me think about this in the first place was Donna's Latin pronunciation. Her pronunciation of "vēnī vīdī vīcī" is something like

[ˈvɛneɪ ˈviːdeɪ ˈvitːʃe]

(Video here.) In one of the commentaries, David Tennant says they were coached by the BBC pronunciation department on the Latin. But I don't think that Donna's pronunciation is Classical Latin, the Latin of AD 79. In Classical Latin it would be pronounced something like

[ˈweːniː ˈwiːdiː ˈwiːkiː]

Would a Latin speaker of AD 79 have understood Donna's pronunciation? I don't know how different the Vulgar Latin of the period was from Classical Latin - how far palatalization had gone, etc. Maybe the translation circuits don't just translate what you say, they have to translate what you think you're saying. She thinks she's speaking the same language as the stallholder, the translation circuits interpret it as the Latin the stallholder speaks, then change her speech to another contemporary language.

Tuesday, 30 December 2008

gas, chaos, gums

As has already been noted, the word gas was invented by the Dutch chemist J. B. Van Helmont, based on Greek χάος "chaos".

Van Helmont also invented the obsolete word blas, a "term for a supposed ‘flatus’ or influence of the stars, producing changes of weather," altho this was presumably based on Middle English blas "blast, breath", or Dutch blas "bladder".

χάος is from Proto-Indo-European *ǵʰēu- "yawn, gape". In English, *ǵʰēu- became gōma then gums, which are exposed when you yawn.

Gum that you chew is based on gum "the secretion from certain trees," from Latin gummi, cummi from Greek κόμμι.

PS: because it's that time of year: grime and Christ.

Monday, 22 December 2008

Valkyrie and ragout

The Valkyries, warrior-maidens of Scandinavian mythology, get their name from Old Norse valkyrja, from valr "those slain in battle" plus kyrja "chooser". Valr is from Proto-Indo-European *welh₂- "to strike, wound".

Kyrja is from kjósa "to choose" from Proto-Indo-European *ǵeus- "to taste, choose" (also the root of English choose). *ǵeus- became Latin gustāre "to taste" and gustus "taste". Ragout is from French ragouter "to have a taste", formed from re + à + goût "taste" (OED).

*ǵeus- is also found in the name Fergus, meaning "having the strength of men", from Old Irish fer "man" (from *wiH-ro "man") + *ǵeus-.

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

thali and -stan

A thali is a dish served on a flat plate. It's from Hindi थाली thālī "flat metal plate", which is related to Sanskrit sthālā "a vessel, plate" from Proto-Indo-European *steh₂- "to stand".

Also from *steh₂- is Persian -stān "place where anything abounds" and Sanskrit sthāna "place". This forms the suffix in place names like Afghanistan, Hindustan, and Rajasthan.

In an interesting vegetable metaphor twist, thālī is found in the Hindi expression थाली का बैंगन thālī kā baiṃgan "eggplant on a tray", figuratively used to mean "one whose opinions follow his self-interest". The word for eggplant, baiṃgan, is related to aubergine.

Tuesday, 9 December 2008

Neptune and nephew

According to Fortson's Indo-European Languages and Culture, the Proto-Indo-European form for "grandson, nephew", *nepōt- became the name for the Indo-Iranian deity whose name means "grandson of the waters" - Vedic Apám Nápāt, Avestan Apąm Napā̊. He also connects it to the Irish deity Nechtan and the Roman god Neptūnus "Neptune". (The OED doesn't accept this derivation of Neptune.)

*nepōt- became Latin nepōs "grandson", becoming Anglo-Norman neveu, borrowed into English as nephew. The Latin feminine form neptis became Anglo-Norman nece and English niece.

There is a theory that naphtha is derived from Apám Nápāt thru Greek. This is unlikely; naphtha is either from Semitic or perhaps from PIE *nebʰ- "cloud".

Friday, 5 December 2008

Beckham's tattoo is spelled right

It made the news a while ago when it was reported that it was spelled wrong. It's व्हिक्टोरिया vhikṭoriyā (not Vihctoria as the article reports) and it should be विक्टोरिया vikṭoriyā in Hindi. Hindi magazine editor Pademesh Gupta said "Whoever did the tattoo was probably English and didn't know Hindi."

But I'm not so sure it is a mistake. In fact I don't think it's even Hindi, I think it's Marathi, a related language that is also written in the Devanagari script. The supposed error is in the first conjunct - व्हि (vhi) instead of वि (vi) - which seems like an strange mistake to make, since it shows a good knowledge of the conventions of Devanagari.

Hindi doesn't have the conjunct व्ह, but Marathi does, and it is used in the name Victoria. This page on Marathi Wikipedia about the Australian state of Victoria spells it the same way as Beckham's tattoo. A ship called the Queen Victoria is spelled the same way on this Marathi page.

Beckham has nothing to be embarrassed about.

Wednesday, 3 December 2008


The Hindi-Urdu word for "grape" shown here (अंगूर انگوُر aṅgūr) was borrowed from Persian angūr "grape", which is sometimes given as the ultimate source of gherkin.

The OED tells us that Greek ἀγγούριον "watermelon" became Italian anguria "cucumber" and French angourie "water melon". The word is also found in Slavic, like Czech okurka and Polish ogurek, with a diminutive -k suffix. One of these Slavic words is the source of German Gurke and Dutch gurkje "cucumber". An earlier form of Dutch word, something like *gurkkijn, was borrowed into English as gherkin.

What's not clear is where the Slavic and Greek words come from. Chambers says gherkin is of "Eastern origin, as in Pers. khiyâr." Skeats says "The word is thus based upon a form agur*, due to a (put for al, the Arab. def. article) prefixed to Pers. khiyár, a cucumber." But as the OED notes, Persian angūr doesn't mean "cucumber" or "watermelon", it means "grape".

Tuesday, 2 December 2008


In Indo-European Language and Culture, Benjamin Fortson has a list of names formed from compounds where both elements stand for concepts, virtues, or animals that were important in Indo-European society. The most interesting one is Ralph, which is from Old Norse Ráðulfr, meaning "counsel-wolf". Ráð "counsel" is from Proto-Indo-European *h₂reh₁(i)- "to reason, count". It's also found in German Rathaus "town hall". The English reflex is read.

The second element of Ráðulfr is ulfr "wolf" from *wlkʷo- "wolf". Probably because the wolf was feared, the word was deformed in some of the daughter languages, becoming Latin lupus and Proto-Germanic *wulfaz.

Monday, 1 December 2008

isinglass and soufflé

Isinglass is a substance obtained from the air bladders of sturgeons. I learned recently that it's used to clarify cask beer, so cask beer is not vegetarian. V. sad.

The word is possibly borrowed from an obsolete Dutch word huisenblas from Middle Dutch huisen "sturgeon" and blas "bladder". Blas is from Proto-Germanic ƀlēs-, an extended form of Proto-Indo-European *bʰleh₁- (possibly *bʰleh₂-) "to blow".

The zero-grade *bʰlh₁- became Latin flāre "to blow", combining with sub "under" to form sufflāre, which became French souffler "to breathe, blow". Soufflés are so called because they are made with frothed egg white and heated until they puff up.

Tuesday, 25 November 2008

hobbit and occult

Tolkien, The Return of the King appendix F:

Hobbit is an invention. In the Westron the word used, when this people was referred to at all, was banakil ‘halfling’. But..the folk of the Shire and of Bree used the word kuduk... It seems likely that kaduk was a worn-down form of kûd-dûkan [= ‘hole-dweller’]. The latter I have translated... by holbytla [‘hole-builder’]; and hobbit provides a word that might well be a worn-down form of holbytla, if the name had occurred in our own ancient language.

You gotta love someone who says "it seems likely" about languages he invented himself.

His holbytla is from Old English hol "hollow, cavern, den", and bytla "hammerer, builder". Hol (and modern hole) is from Proto-Indo-European *ḱel- "to cover, conceal" (which I've talked about before, but anyway).

In Latin, *ḱel- prefixed with *ob- "over" to form occulere "to cover over", and the past participle occultus, and English occult.

Thursday, 20 November 2008

more Toronto Tamil

என்.எஸ்.தர்சி கேற்றறிங் அன்ட் ரேக் அவுட்
eṉ. es. tarci kēṟṟaṟiṅ aṉṭ rēk avuṭ - N.S. Tharsi catering and takeout. "Catering" is kēṟṟaṟiṅ

"Are you new to Canada? Welcome to the Toronto Public Library"
"Toronto" is ரொறன்ரோ roṟaṉrō. Both Tamil r-letters are pronounced the same, but there seems to be a convention that one represents English /r/ and the other represents English /t/, at least on some signs.

Wednesday, 19 November 2008

Orthanc and hysteresis

The name of Saruman's tower, Orthanc, is probably from Old English orþanc "mind, genius, wit, understanding". This is a combination of or "original" (as in German ur-) and þanc "thought". Þanc is from Proto-Indo-European *tong-, the same root as thank and think. Or is from Proto-Germanic *uz- "out" from Proto-Indo-European *ud- "up, out".

*ud- in the comparative form *ud-tero- became Greek ὕστερος husteros "later, last", then ὑστέρησις husterēsis "coming short, deficiency". Hysteresis is "the lagging of an effect behind its cause, as when the change in magnetism of a body lags behind changes in the magnetic field."

Example sentence?

Flies trapped in amber... not even the Doctor can escape a chronic hysteretic loop. I've caught him inside a fold of time.

Tuesday, 18 November 2008

orc and arcane

Tolkien's orc is a revival of the Old English orc "demon" or "the infernal regions", found in the compound orcnēas "evil walking spirits" as in Beowulf 112:

Þanon untȳdras ealle onwōcon,
eotenas ond ylfe ond orcnēas,
swylce gigantas, þā wið Gode wunnon

there sprang
ogres and elves and evil phantoms
and the giants too who strove with God

It was probably borrowed from Latin Orcus "the lower world, the abode of the dead". Ogre is possibly from this word as well, thru French. Also Italian orco "demon, monster", Spanish huerco "devil", Sardinian orcu "demon", and early modern Dutch orck "unruly person".

The Proto-Indo-European root is *areq- "to guard, lock". I don't know what that q is supposed to be. This became another Latin word, arcānus "secret" and then arcane.

Monday, 17 November 2008

nirvana and Odin

The Proto-Indo-European root is *h₂weh₁- "to blow". In Sanskrit, it became वा "to blow". This combined with nis, nir "out, forth, away" to form निर्वाण nirvāṇa "a blowing out, extinction, bliss, nirvana".

The related form *h₂weh₁-t- "blow, inspire, spiritually arouse" became Proto-Germanic *wōđ-enaz one of the chief gods. In Old Norse it was Óðinn, borrowed into English as Odin. The Old English form, Wōden, is found in Wednesday.

Tuesday, 11 November 2008

dinghy and dryad

Proto-Indo-European *deru- "be firm, solid, steadfast", with derivatives referring to wood. In Indic it became droṇa "wooden trough", then Bengali ডিঙ্গি ḍiṅgi "small boat". This was borrowed into English as dinghy "a small boat or skiff". The sound change seems to be something like droṇa - ḍoṇa - ḍoṅga - ḍiṅgi.

*deru- in the form *drū- became Greek δρῦς drus "tree", then Δρυάς, Δρυάδος Druas, Druados "wood-nymph", then dryad.

Friday, 7 November 2008

on etymology

Recently I saw November Theatre's The Black Rider (created by Tom Waits, Robert Wilson, and William Burroughs), but I'm not going to talk about that (well, ok: it was awesome). I'm going to talk about something I read in the program:

While conventional plays are fascinating and complex pieces of art, it is easy to forget on viewing them that the word "theatre" has its roots in the verb "to behold".

True - θεασθαι "to behold". θέᾱτρον was "place for seeing, esp.for dramatic representation, theatre" (maybe related to zen.) And it certainly is easy to forget this, since most people probably didn't know it in the first place. And there's no reason why they should. Etymology is cool, of course, but knowledge of etymology is completely unnecessary for using a language. What's necessary is not what words used to mean, but what words mean now.

The author of this program is using etymology to make a point about art, not about language, so maybe it's unfair of me to use it as an example. But it's an opportunity to discuss something I have not discussed on this blog yet: the etymological fallacy. This is the belief that a word's etymology determines its meaning. We see it whenever someone claims that decimate should mean "destroy one tenth", or anxious should only mean "full of anxiety", or that unique should only mean "one of a kind". Or when someone claims that enormity should only mean "enormousness"... wait, no one claims that, but they should if they want to be consistent.

Sometimes it is claimed that an earlier meaning of a word is its literal or real meaning, but really all that can be said is that an earlier meaning is an earlier meaning. Word histories are endlessly fascinating, but for all practical purposes they are irrelevant. Those who say that the real meaning of decimate is "destroy one tenth" should destroy their calendars for mistakenly putting December as the tenth month. They should also correct everyone who uses nice to mean "pleasing" - every English speaker, in other words - when its "real" meaning is "ignorant".

Tuesday, 4 November 2008


down the preposition and down "an open expanse of elevated land" used to be the same word: Old English dūn "hill". Of dūne meant "off the hill or height", and this became the modern preposition down.

The AHD has the Proto-Indo-European root being *dʰeuh₂- "to close, finish, come full circle". This became *dʰuh₂-no- "enclosed, fortified place; hill-fort", then Old English dūn "hill".

town is from Old English tūn from Proto-Germanic *tūnaz- "fortified place". The German cognate is Zaun "fence, hedge; enclosed place". The AHD and Pokorny claim that Proto-Germanic *tūnaz- was borrowed (and shifted via Grimm's Law) from Celtic *dūnon "hill, stronghold" (as in Old Irish dún "fortress"), which is from PIE *dʰeuh₂-.

And that's how down and town might be related.

Monday, 3 November 2008

elephant hands

These notes on Kipling's "My Lord, the Elephant" says that the Hindi words for "elephant" (हाथी hāthī) and "hand" (हाथ hāth) are related, "referring to the trunk which serves the elephant as a hand". It's a nice story, and for once it's true. Sanskrit हस्त: hastaḥ meant "hand; an elephants trunk", whence modern hāth "hand", and Sanskrit हस्तिन् hastin meant "having hands, clever or dextrous with the hands; the animal with hands i.e. with a trunk", whence modern hāthī "elephant".

The image is from an Urdu children's book. I'm not sure why hamza is used as the first letter of these words, I thought the words were spelled هاتهي and هاتهہ.

Wednesday, 29 October 2008


Taoiseach is the term for Ireland's head of government. In English it's pronounced something like /ˡtiʃəx/. It's cognate with Scots Gaelic tòiseach and Welsh tywysog. It's thought to be from Proto-Celtic *to-vessiko-s "chief, leader", which according to Pokorny is from Proto-Indo-European *weid- "to see, know" (altho others connect it with a different root, *wedʰ- "to lead"). Other reflexes of *weid- include druid and Veda.

Monday, 27 October 2008

food and -abad

I mean the -abad found in place names like Faisalabad, Allahabad and Hyderabad. This suffix is from Persian آباد ābād "city, building, habitation; cultivated, peopled", from Indic *paH- "protect, keep". It's cognate with Sanskrit "to watch, keep, preserve".

The Proto-Indo-European root is *peh₂- "protect, feed", which in English became food, feed and fodder. In Latin it became pāstor "shepherd".

Friday, 24 October 2008

head and chapter

Proto-Indo-European *kaput- "head" became Proto-Germanic *hauƀuđam, Old English hēafod, then head.

In Latin *kaput- became caput "head", the diminutive of which, capitulum, became Old French chapitle, altered to chapitre borrowed into English as chapiter, which was later shortened to chapter. The "section of a book" meaning was first used in Latin.

Thursday, 23 October 2008

literature map

epea pteroenta has found a cool meme:

A simple, two-step approach for generating your own, fully personalized, 21st century, Web 2.0-based reading list:
1. Make a list of the top three books that have influenced your life, and make a note of the authors’ names
2. Visit Literature-Map, plug each author name into the text box (one at a time, naturally) and generate a cloud of related authors. That ought to keep you busy for a while!

Thanks for playing. Have a nice day.

Here are my three life-changing prose authors:

Mervyn Peake, Titus Groan
Italo Calvino, Cosmicomics
James Blaylock, The Last Coin

Peake is on Blaylock's list, but not vice versa. Blaylock is listed twice, once as James P. Blaylock. Weirdly, the closest author to Peake is Euripides. In looking around the map, I discovered that Phillip K. Dick's middle name was Kindred. Anyway, I need to do more reading.

Wednesday, 22 October 2008

mahout and ptarmigan

A mahout is an elephant-driver, from Hindi महावत mahāvat, from Sanskrit महामात्र mahāmātra "great in measure", applied to a high officer. Sanskrit mahā- "great" is from the Proto-Indo-European form *meǵ- "great".

A ptarmigan is a kind of grouse, and the word is from Scots Gaelic tàrmachan. The p was added apparently because it was thought the word was of Greek origin, like pterodactyl or ptarmica.

tàrmachan is possibly from tàrmaich "to gather, settle", from *tórmaich, a prefixed form of Old Irish mogaid "to increase", which is from PIE *meǵ-. The connection of "gather, settle" with the bird is "perhaps with reference to the birds settling to breed" (says the OED).

Friday, 17 October 2008

amygdala and almond

The amygdala is a part of the brain that is thought to process memory and emotions. Greek ἀμυγδαλη amugdalē means "almond", and the amygdala is so named because it is almond-shaped.

ἀμυγδαλη was borrowed into Latin as amygdala, becoming *amendola, then Italian mandorla, Portuguese amendoa. In Spanish and Old French it is almendra and alemandle. The al- prefix arose by confusing the initial a- with the Arabic article al- (which was found in other French and Spanish words). alemandle became Old French and English alemande, almaund, almond.

Wednesday, 15 October 2008

McIntyre and zaftig

The name McIntyre comes from Irish Gaelic mac an tsaoir "son of the carpenter". saor is "carpenter", which according to McBain's is from Proto-Celtic *sapiro-s "skill" from Proto-Indo-European *sep- "taste, perceive".

*sep- gives us savant and sapient from French from Latin sapio "to taste, be wise".

In Proto-Germanic it became something like *sap- (assuming an alternate PIE form *sab-), then English sap and Middle High German saft "juice, sap". This became Yiddish זאַפֿטיק zaftik "juicy", borrowed into English as zaftig.

The connection of *sep- with Gaelic saor is probably controversial; it's not given in Pokorny. But it's too cool not to mention.

Sunday, 12 October 2008

the conditional of doom

From The Sontaran Strategem (which should have been called Attack of the Clones):

Rattigan: If only that was possible.

The Doctor: If only that were possible. Conditional clause.

Of course the Doctor's just trying to annoy Rattigan. But who's right?

If only that was possible is a counterfactual condition - it refers to something that is not real or true. We know this. No one seriously thinks "he used was, not were! He's saying that it really is possible." And yet it's a favourite pasttime of peevologists to find instances of counterfactual was and insist they should be were. For instance, this rant on how counterfactual subjunctive were is an "important linguistic construct," and if we lose it, something terrible will happen.

There are many kinds of conditional clauses, but here are four, to keep things simple (borrowed from here):

1. present possible condition: I wonder if is possible.
2. past possible condition: I wondered if it was possible.
3. present counterfactual condition: If it was/were possible, I would travel back in time.
4. past counterfactual condition: If it had been possible, I would have traveled back in time.

Many speakers and writers use was in both 2 and 3. We can also use were in 3 - it's usually called the past subjunctive or the irrealis.

In using was, we're not "losing the subjunctive", we're simply using a different form. And in doing so, we are bringing be in line with every other verb in English, where we use the simple past tense:

5. If I was in Paris, I would visit the Eiffel tower.
6. If I lived in Paris, I would visit the Eiffel tower.

Why use were in sentences like 3 and 5? One argument is that it avoids ambiguity. But is there ever any real danger of confusing a past possible condition (as in 2) with a present counterfactual condition (as in 3 and 5) because we use the same verb form in both? The Doctor might argue that we don't know if sentence 5 is a possible condition or a counterfactual condition. Except that it's painfully obvious that it's counterfactual - it cannot be anything else. (The would in the main clause is a big clue.) And if there was (were) ambiguity, we would encounter this ambiguity with every other verb in English. But we don't. Sentence 6 is clearly counterfactual, even though it uses the simple past tense lived, which can be used in non-counterfactual clauses:

7. I asked him if he lived in Paris from 1970 to 1975.

Also, be has a special distinct form only used in the first and third person singular: if I were, if he/she/it were. Therefore, if you were, if we were, if they were are all potentially ambiguous - and yet in context there is never any confusion.

Furthermore (as Zwicky notes), the complainers are very good at noticing when was is a counterfactual and so "should" be were, thereby showing that they understand the construction perfectly well. The Doctor correctly identifies "If only that was possible" as a counterfactual condition. So ambiguity is not the problem.

So what is the problem? A good usage book will tell you that while counterfactual was is common and normal in speech, were is common in formal writing. The American Heritage Book of English Usage notes

In fact, over the last 200 years even well-respected writers have tended to use the indicative was where the traditional rule would require the subjunctive were. A usage such as If I was the only boy in the world may break the rules, but it sounds perfectly natural.

And if it sounds natural, you have to wonder about the rules it's supposed to be breaking.

So the difference is one of register. To insist that we should use if it were in conversational speech is to be unhelpful and obtuse. But it is very good for annoying child geniuses.

Friday, 10 October 2008

the grammar of the Maple Leafs

John McIntyre tells us that Martha Brockenbrough (from the Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar) wrote to the chairman of the Toronto Maple Leafs hockey team to complain about "their irresponsible plural." I guess this is the letter, where she complains that it should be Maple Leaves.

Steven Pinker talks about this in chapter 5 of The Language Instinct - in fact he explains why Maple Leafs is pluralized the way it is.

English has two kinds of compounds: exocentric or headless compounds and headed compounds. Headless compounds are compound words where the meaning is not specified by any of the parts:
still life
sabre tooth
Maple Leaf

A flatfoot is not a foot, a still life is not a kind of life, a sabre tooth is not a kind of tooth (it's a prehistoric tiger), and a Maple Leaf is not a kind of leaf. Compare this with headed compounds, where the meaning of the whole compound is specified by the head word:

... which are kinds of houses, boards, and birds respectively.

Headless and headed compounds behave differently. Headless compounds are usually pluralized by adding s. It's as if the headless compound is an indivisible unit, and the plural marker can't see inside it to pluralize it according to the how the head word is normally pluralized. As Pinker says, "If low-life does not get its meaning from life, it cannot get its plural from life either." So our headless compounds above are pluralized like this:
still lifes
sabre tooths
Maple Leafs

and not like this:

still lives
sabre teeth
Maple Leaves

On the other hand, headed compounds form their plurals the same way their head words form their plurals. So the headed compound "maple leaf" - a kind of leaf - is pluralized "maple leaves".

Wednesday, 8 October 2008


Helena asked about butterfly. It seems that this word is exactly what it looks like: butter plus fly. As for why this is the case, no one knows. podictionary lists some theories: they like milk or butter, they're yellow, they steal milk. The OED's theory:

The reason of the name is unknown: Wedgwood points out a Du. synonym boterschijte in Kilian, which suggests that the insect was so called from the appearance of its excrement.

I've previously written about butter and fly. I was struck with the etymology of butter in the OED:

[OE. butere wk. fem. (in compounds buttor-); ad. L. butyrum, ad. Gr. βούτυρον... The Gr. is usually supposed to be f. βους ox or cow + τυρός cheese, but is perhaps of Scythian or other barbarous origin.]

Barbarous origin? When was this entry last updated, I wonder. On the other hand, the earliest meaning of barbarous was "not Greek or Latin".

addendum: Wordzguy mentions the interesting fact that many European languages have their own unrelated words for this insect. But the OED mentions German and Dutch cognates (Butterfliege and botervlieg). I assume these words are old and were replaced with the modern Schmetterling and vlinder. Does anyone know more about this?

Tuesday, 7 October 2008

mantis and mandarin

Today's cognates are brought to you by the Proto-Indo-European form *men- "to think, mind; spiritual activity".

Greek μάντις mantis meant "prophet, seer" ("vocalism obscure" says the AHD). The OED says "Ancient etymologists attribute the name of the insect partly to its posture, and partly to the supposed divinatory significance of its appearance or movements."

1658 J. ROWLAND tr. T. Muffet Theater of Insects in Topsell's Hist. Four-footed Beasts (rev. ed.) xvi. 982, I have seen only three kinds [of the lesser Locusts]..they are called Mantes, foretellers... They do shew the Spring to be at hand, so Anacreon the Poet sang; or else they foretell dearth and famine, as Cælius the Scholiast of Theocritus have observed.

In Sanskrit it became मन् man "to think" and मन्त्र mantra meaning "counsel" among other things, and मन्त्रिन् mantrin "king's counsellor, minister". This was borrowed into Malay as menteri, then into Portuguese as mandarim, mandarin.

Friday, 3 October 2008

Toronto Tamil

I've been noticing that Tamil signs in Toronto are often straight transliterations of English. It's interesting to see how English is represented in another phonological and orthographical system.

Vowels are inserted in consonant clusters, and the same letter is used for more than one English phoneme, for instance /s/ and /tʃ/. Tamil doesn't make a phonemic distinction between /t/ and /d/, so in order to make the distinction, rhotic letters (/r/ sounds) are often used for English /t/. For instance, English great becomes கிறேற் kiṟēṟ.

btw, today wikipedia informs me about Tamil phonology that "Though many characters sound alike, the different tongue-teeth vocal coordinations, produce different sound tones." Thanks for that.

நித்தியாஸ் ரெக்ஸ் அன் ஜுவல்லறி - nittiyās reks aṉ juvallaṟi - Nithya's Tex and Jewellery

விடோ தியேட்டர் - viṭō tiyēṭṭar - video theatre

சில்க் - cilk - silk

கிறேற் பேணிச்சர் - kiṟēṟ pēṇiccar - that is, "Great Furniture", the name of the store

லைப்ஸ்டைல் ஹேர் சலூன் - laipsṭail hēr calūṉ - Lifestyle Hair Saloon

Wednesday, 1 October 2008

sneeze and pneumatic

sneeze is an interesting word... earlier it was fnese, from Old English *fnēosan "to sneeze". The fn combination, altho found in a few Old English words, fell out of use, and fnese became neeze, and then sneeze. The sn is possibly due to a misreading of the first letter of fnese, and also "probably assisted by its phonetic appropriateness; it may have been felt as a strengthened form of neeze" (OED). "Phonetic appropriateness" no doubt refers to sn- as a possible phonestheme; other sn- words connected with the nose are snore, snort, snark, snorkel, sneer, snot, snout, schnoz, snuffle, sniff, and possibly snip, snap, snub.

fnēosan is from Proto-Indo-European *pneu- "to breathe" (which itself is an "imitative root"), which in Greek became πνεῦμα pneuma "breath" and pneumatic.

Tuesday, 30 September 2008

dollar and thalamus

Proto-Indo-European *dʰel- "curve, hollow" became German Tal "valley". A coin called the Joachimstaler (so called because it was made at a silver mine in Joachimstal "Joachim's valley"), was clipped to taler. This corresponds to Dutch and Low German daler, where it was borrowed into English as daler, daller then dollar.

German Tal, also spelled Thal, is also in Neanderthal, the valley where its bones were first discovered.

In English the PIE root became dell and dale.

In Greek it became θαλάμη thalamē "lurkingplace, den, lair", also "of cavities in the body", as in English thalamus, a word which has something to do with the brain, and also flowers.

Pokorny suggests that it is also found in ὀφθαλμός ophthalmos "eye" from a combination of ὤψ ōps "eye" and thalamē. Others disagree.

Thursday, 25 September 2008

hanged, hung

From Terry Pratchett's Maskerade:

Salzella shrugged. 'We've got to do this properly. Did you know Dr Undershaft was strangled before he was hung?'

'Hanged,' said Bucket, without thinking. 'Men are hanged. It's dead meat that's hung.'

'Indeed?' said Salzella. 'I appreciate the information. Well, poor old Undershaft was strangled, apparently. And then he was hung.'

Bucket isn't the only one who makes a distinction between hung and hanged: hanged for people who are killed by hanging, and hung for everything else. No reason is given for this prescription, and it is not usually followed anyway. Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage provides many examples of the words being used interchangeably, and concludes that if you observe the distinction, "you will spare yourself the annoyance of being corrected for having done something that is not wrong."

hang has two forms of the past tense/past participle: hanged and hung. This is because it was originally two verbs:
the Old English strong verb hōn, past tense heng, past particle hangen "to hang"

and the Old English weak verb hangian, past tense hangode "to be suspended" - this is where the hang and hanged forms come from.

It seems that these verbs were originally a transitive-intransitive pair, like lay - lie and sit - set.

hōn and hangian are from the Proto-Indo-European root *ḱonk- "to hang", which is also the source of hanker. In Latin it's cūnctārī "to delay", as in cunctation which means "the action of delaying; delay, tardy action."

By the 14th century, the two verbs had collapsed into one: hangen, past tense heng, hong, hanged, past participle hanged. By the late 16th century, the past tense forms had become hung (by analogy with sing, sang sung) and hanged. However, the OED notes that Northern England dialects still have two verbs: hing, hang, hung and hang, hang'd, hang'd - the second one is reserved for referring to death by hanging. German also preserves a formal remnant of the older transitive-intransitive distinction with the verbs hangen and hängen, which both mean "to hang" and which are used interchangeably.

Wednesday, 24 September 2008

national punctuation day

In honour of National Punctuation Day, let me quote Dennis Baron:

As for punctuation, no one ever agrees where the commas go anyway, and it probably doesn’t matter. Punctuation has always changed with fashion, location, and context, a fact of language history which angers everyone who wants the rules of writing to remain both as constant as the ten commandments, and violated a lot less frequently.

One reason for its instability is the fact that no one ever agrees what punctuation is for. Sometimes it indicates pauses, sometimes syntactic units. Sometimes it’s deleted for aesthetic reasons, and sometimes writers pepper their prose with punctuation in the hopes that some of their commas and semicolons will hit the target. When punctuation becomes dysfunctional, we drop it. When we need new punctuation marks, we invent them.

Tuesday, 23 September 2008

slogan and care

slogan is from Irish Gaelic sluagh-ghairm "battle-cry", from sluagh "host" plus gairm "shout". gairm is from Proto-Indo-European *ǵār- "to call, cry".

*ǵār- became something like Proto-Germanic *karā-, becoming Old English caru "trouble, grief, care", which then became English care.

According to the OED, another Old English derivative is cearig, from earlier *cærig, where the vowel was ablauted, causing the palatalization of c and Modern English chary "careful, cautious".

Friday, 19 September 2008

pal and bully

pal is another word borrowed from Romani: phral "brother, mate", related to Sanksrit भ्रातृ bhrātṛ "brother". The Proto-Indo-European root is *bʰrāter- "brother".

*bʰrāter became English brother, Latin frāter. And also Dutch broeder, which was altered to boel "lover (of either sex); brother". This is a possible source of bully according to both the AHD and the OED. The earliest meaning of bully was "sweetheart, darling".

Wednesday, 17 September 2008

chav and church

chav is a British English word which according to the OED means "a young person of a type characterized by brash and loutish behaviour and the wearing of designer-style clothes (esp. sportswear); usually with connotations of a low social status". Of course I know it from Doctor Who. The OED tells us it's related to chavvy, an Angloromani word meaning "child", and both words are from Romani čhavo "child", related to Sanskrit शाव śāva "the young of any animal".

Monier Williams states that śāva is a form of श्वि śvi or श्वा śvā "to swell, grow, increase". Both śvi and śāva are from Proto-Indo-European *ḱeuH- "to swell; vault, hole" (IEW 592-594).

A suffixed form of *ḱeuH- became Greek κῡριος kūrios "master, lord" (from the sense "swollen, strong, powerful" (AHD)). Medieval Greek used it in phrases like κῡριακόν δῶμα kūriakon dōma "the Lord's house", and kūriakon was borrowed into West Proto-Germanic in the 4th or 5th century, becoming Old English cirice, which became church. Some of the other Germanic forms retain the /k/: Dutch kerk, Swedish kyrka, Scottish English kirk.

The OED has a long note on the etymology of church; there is some difficulty with the derivation of the Germanic word from the Greek, but it is the one generally agreed on.

The Proto-Indo-European form also became Latin cavus "hollow" as in cave and cavern.

Monday, 15 September 2008


Drew asked about words beginning with fl- that describe quick movement, usually thru the air. I guess this is another phonestheme, like the gl- of glint, glisten, glitter etc. Altho these fl- words might have come from a few different sources, it is possible that their meanings converged because they share the same phonestheme. The OED states that fly and flee are not related - the fl of flee was originally þl. Perhaps it became fl under the influence of the other fl words.
All info from the OED unless noted

fly from Old English flēogan from Proto-Germanic *fleugan from PIE *pleu- "to flow"
flee from Old English flēon from Proto-Germanic *þleuhan. The þ changed to f in all Germanic languages except Gothic. Compare Old Norse flýa, Dutch vlieden, Gothic þliuhan (OED). According to the AHD, flee is from the same PIE root as fly.
float from Old English flotian, weak grade of Proto-Germanic *fleutan from PIE *pleu-
fleet from Old English flēotan "to float" from Proto-Germanic *fleutan
flutter from Old English flotorian, a frequentative from the same root as flēotan.
flotilla from Spanish flota "fleet", borrowed from Old Norse floti "raft, fleet" (AHD)
fluster compare Icelandic flaustr "hurry, bustle"
flit from Old Norse flytja from the same Proto-Germanic source as float
flight from Old English flyht from the same source as fly
flash "of onomatopoeic origin... The synonymous French flache may have influenced the Eng. word; it is commonly regarded as a subst. use of flache, fem. of Old French. flac adj. soft: - L. flaccus."
flurry "omonatopoeic"
fling compare Old Norse flengja "to move impetuously"
flare compare Norwegian flara "to blaze, to flaunt in gaudy attire"
flail the noun, from Old English fligel, compare Dutch vlegel, probably from Latin flagellum "scourge". The verb flail is derived from the noun.
flay from Old English flēan from PIE *pleh₁-(i)ḱ- "to tear" (AHD)
flake from PIE *plag- "to beat" (OED) or PIE *pleh₂k- "to be flat" (AHD), compare Old Norse flóke "flock of wool, lock of hair"

Friday, 12 September 2008

Pluto and fowl

Proto-Indo-European *pleu- "to flow" became Proto-Germanic fluǥ-, "to fly" (becoming English fly). What the OED says is a dissimilated form, fluǥ-laz, became Old English fugol then English fowl (compare German Vogel "bird").

A suffixed form became Greek πλοῦτος ploutos "wealth, riches" (from the sense of "overflowing"). This was Latinized as Plūtō, god of the underworld, "from the belief that the underworld was the source of wealth from the ground".

More about fl- words later, probably.

Tuesday, 9 September 2008

clack, clang, clank

A while ago, Paul D. wondered about the history of words beginning with cl-. Unlike words beginning with gl-, these can be identified as onomatopoeic since they all describe sounds. Also unlike gl- words, they are not specific to Germanic, in fact they might have arisen independently in different languages.

These are from the OED except where noted.

clack from French claquer, compare Old Norse klaka "to twitter",
clang partly influenced by Latin clangere "to sound", Greek κλάζω klázō "clash, rattle"; German Klang "sound" is not related, "being an echoic word which has separately arisen in German"
clank, perhaps from Dutch klank, possibly of native origin, a combination of clink and clang
clap from Old English clæppan, clappian "to throb", compare Old Norse klappa, Old High German klapfōn "to clap" (AHD)
clash combination of clap, clack and dash, splash etc.
clatter from Old English *clatrian from PIE *gal- (AHD)
click, compare Old French clique "tick of a clock", Dutch klick "tick", "may have arisen independently in different languages. In English and Teutonic generally, it appears to stand in ablaut relation to clack, as expressing a thinner and lighter sound; cf. chip, chap, clip, clap, clink, clank."
clink compare Dutch klinken, "we cannot tell whether Middle English clinken went back with the Dutch to an Old Low German *klinkan, or was of later adoption or origination in England"
clip compare Old Frisian kleppa, Old Norse klýpa "to clip, pinch"
clip-clop "Imitations of sounds of alternating rhythm"
clock from Middle English clocke, from either Middle Dutch clocke "bell" or Norman cloke, cloque "bell". Compare German Glocke "bell". The Norman is from Medievel Latin clocca "bell", probably of imitative origin
cluck from Old English cloccian (as in the Scottish and northern dialectical clock "To make the peculiar noise of a brooding hen: to cluck"), compare Middle High German klucken, Swedish klucka (OED), Latin glōcīre, Greek κλώσσω klṓssō "to cluck" (AHD)

Friday, 5 September 2008

lights and lungs

lights is a 12th century word for lungs.

Then wofully sich wightys
Shall gnawe thise gay knyghtys,
Thare lunges and thare lightys,
- Townley Plays, 1460

The word appears to be still around in knock your lights out.

Lungs were called lights because they were light. Both the words lung and light come from the Proto-Indo-European *legʷh- "having little weight". light is from a form with a *-t suffix, and lung from the nasalized form.

In Latin it became levāre "to lighten, raise", which combined with carne "meat" to form carnelevāmen, metathesized to Italian carnevale, literally "cessation of flesh-eating" (ODEE) - carnevale is the festival immediately preceding Lent.

light "brightness" is from PIE *leuk- and is cognate with lunar.

Thursday, 4 September 2008

amethyst and mead

Proto-Indo-European *medʰu- "honey; also mead" became Greek μέθυ methu "wine". μεθύσκω methuskō meant "to get drunk" (with the iterative suffix *sḱo-) and ἀμέθυστος amethustos was "not intoxicating" (with the prefix α "not"). This was borrowed into Latin as amethystus, becoming Old French amatiste, then borrowed into English as amatiste, which was respelled as amethyst in the 16th century. The OED says the word was "applied subst. to this stone (as also to a herb), from a notion that it was a preventive of intoxication". Who exactly held this notion, and when was this word applied to the gemstone?

In Old English the PIE root became meodu, then mead. In Russian it became медведь medved' "bear" - etymologically "honey-eater".

Wednesday, 3 September 2008

between you and I

The song Proof-Reading Woman by the Rock Bottom Remainders:

I'm in love with a proofreading woman
I'm gonna love her till the day I die
She's got a big dictionary and real good grammar
She never says "between you and I".

Not as bad as this song, but come on, what's wrong with saying "between you and I"? I don't write about grammar much because Motivated Grammar does it so unfairly well, but I think it's worth talking about this construction.

Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage says that between you and I "seems to have no place in modern edited prose" but that it can be normal in informal speech and prose representing informal speech. It's been used by Shakespeare, Congreve, Pepys, Byron, Fitzgerald, and Defoe, and we keep using it, despite the many attempts to make us stop. Most recently I encountered it in Hot Fuzz (in the scene in the flower shop).

Since it has been used as early as 1596 (in The Merchant of Venice), and English grammar only began to be taught in the 18th century, hypercorrection cannot be the sole cause. Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage identifies two uses for between you and I. One, which they call confidential, occurs mainly in spoken English and conversational prose.

...without speaking disrespectfully of the sweet town; (which between you and I; I wish was swallowed up by an Earthquake...) - Lord Byron, letter, April 23 1805

The other, called "transactional," is not confidential, and indicates a transaction between two people.

All debts are clear'd between you and I - Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice, Act 3, scene 2, 1596

There was nothing between Mr. Robert and I - Daniel Defoe, Moll Flanders, 1722

Both the confidential and transactional forms are mainly spoken forms. Neither between you and I or between you and me occurs much in print at all, but when it does occur in print, between you and me is usually found.

It's different from other "preposition + X and I" constructions, for instance this one used by Prince Charles: "For my wife and I it really is the greatest possible joy to be in Pakistan." A prescriptivist might argue that for my wife and I is wrong because for I is wrong. But that doesn't work with between. Between requires two or more elements. You can't remove one of the pronouns from between you and I and still have it make any sense. For this reason I think between you and I is approaching something like an idiom.

This thesis looks at possible reasons for why two pronouns joined by and behave differently than single pronouns, and suggests that object-position "X and I" is a natural extension of subject-position "X and I", perhaps reinforced by, but not caused by, hypercorrection. Since subject-position "X and I" is more frequent than object-position "s/he and X", the former is more likely to be extended into object position. Furthermore, "X and I" is a prestige form (it's considered more polite), and so is more accepted in object position than "me and X" is accepted in subject position.

Tuesday, 2 September 2008

leprechaun and midriff

The Proto-Indo-European root *kʷrep- "body, form, appearance" became Latin corpus "body". This was borrowed into Old Irish as corp, which combined with "small" (from PIE *legʷh-) to form luchorpán. This became modern Irish Gaelic lupracán and was borrowed into English as leprechaun.

In Germanic, *kʷrep- became *hrefiz-, becoming Old English hrif "belly" (according to the AHD, Oxford says "of obscure origin"). This combined with mid to form midriff.

Saturday, 23 August 2008

the simplicity of English spelling

There's a lot of talk about how English spelling is chaotic, confusing, and could do with a complete redo, and that's all true. But I recently talked to someone who says English spelling is easy.

He's an English language learner from Tibet. He likes the English alphabet because the letters never change their shape are written one after the other. The Tibetan alphabet has 30 basic consonant letters, and altho the script is written horizontally left to right, some consonant letters can be combined vertically. For instance, the letters ས sa, ག ga and ཪ ra are stacked to form སྒྲ sgra. (more detail.) It's quite complicated, and it's not hard to see how a Tibetan might welcome the 26 letters of English that don't stack and don't change their form depending on the letters on either side of them.

In fact, most Brahmi-derived scripts do the same as Tibetan. In Devanagari, the cluster dr̥ṣṭhva is written दृष्ठ्व - द da + ृ r̥ followed by ष ṣa + ठ ṭha + व va. What makes Tibetan potentially more difficult is the mismatch between spelling and pronunciation. The Buddhist sect pronounced Kagyu is spelled བཀའ་བརྒྱུད bka' brgyud. This is because Tibetan spelling reflects a much earlier form of the language. As I understand it, simply hearing a Tibetan word will not give you enough information to write it correctly. It's sorta like English that way.

Wednesday, 20 August 2008

the use of linguistics

Finally, we may ask, of what use is linguistics? Very few people have clear ideas on the subject, and this is not the place to give a detailed answer. However, what can be said is that for obvious reasons linguistic questions are of interest to all those, including historians, philologist and others, who need to deal with texts. Even more obvious is the important of linguistics for culture in general. In the lives of individuals and of societies, language is a factor of greater importance than any other. For the study of language to remain solely the business of a handful of specialists would be a quite unacceptable state of affairs. In practice, the study of language is in some degree or other the concern of everyone. But a paradoxical consequence of this general interest is that no other subject has fostered more absurd notions, more prejudices, more illusions, or more fantasies. Form a psychological point of view, these errors are of interest in themselves. But it is the primary task of the linguist to denounce them, and to eradicate them as completely as possible. - Ferdinand de Saussure, Course de linguistique générale

Friday, 15 August 2008

phoney and anus

phoney is most likely an alternation of fawney "ring", a borrowing of Irish Gaelic fáinne "ring". A fawney rig was a swindle involving a fake ring, and has been in use since the middle of the nineteenth century (The Origin of 'Phoney', Peter Tamony, American Speech, Vol. 12 no. 2, pp. 108-110).

Irish Gaelic fáinne was an alternation of áinne, from Old Irish ánne. The Proto-Indo-European root is *āno- "ring", which became Latin ānus "ring, anus".

McBain's has

a ring, Irish fáinne, áinne, Old Irish ánne, *ânniâ; Latin ânus, English annular.

The Early Irish Glossaries Project in the entry for áinne "ring; circuit; anus" has "Cf. fáinne", but no word on how they are exactly connected.

Where did the /f/ come from? I know Celtic languages have a habit of losing initial /f/, but this one was added.

Thursday, 14 August 2008

bracket, breeches, brogue

Gaulish brāca "trousers" was borrowed into Latin as brācae, the source of bracket, thru French braguette "codpiece". The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology tells us, "It has been suggested that the bracket of architecture and of shipbuilding was so called from its resemblance to a codpiece or a pair of breeches."

The ODEE says about breeches

Old English brēć (pl. only) [...] :- Common Germanic (except Gothic) *brōks, monosyllabic feminine. The further relations are obscure; some favour the early adoption of pre-Germanic *bhrāg- in Gaulish brāca, whence Latin brāca, bracca.

Pokorny claims that Gaulish brāca is a borrowing from Germanic, but doesn't deign to tell us what the Germanic word is.

brogue, which refers to a strong Irish accent and the shoes worn by people with strong Irish accents, is from Irish Gaelic bróg "shoe" from Old Irish bróc "trousers", borrowed from Old Norse brók (ODEE) or from Old English brōc, the singular of brēċ "breeches" (AHD). It seems these words are related to Gaulish brāca, but it's not clear how.

Wednesday, 13 August 2008

fractal, sassafras, brioche

Our Proto-Indo-European root is *bʰreg- "to break". The zero-grade nasalized form *bʰr-n-g- became Latin frango "to break", pp. fractus "broken", giving us words like fractal, frangible, fragile.

The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology says sassafras is from Spanish sasafrás or Portuguese sassafraz, of unknown origin. But the AHD says the Spanish is from Late Latin saxifragus "rock-breaking" (from its being found in rock crevices), a combination of frango and saxum "rock" (from PIE *sek-). The plant genus Saxifraga is so named for the same reason.

*bʰreg- became Proto-Germanic *ƀrek- and English break and breach. The Proto-Germanic form was borrowed into Old French, becoming brier "to knead", then brioche.

Tuesday, 12 August 2008

dance with the verb who brung you

I've recently encountered a mix of opinions about brang, brung: they're mutilations, they're stupid, they're not words, they're brand new words. I'd assumed that brang, brung were recent innovations by analogy with sang, sung. It seems they are not.

Cædmon's Metrical Paraphrase of parts of the Holy Scripture
ꝥ he þa bẏꞅene ꝼꞃom ᵹoꝺe ·
bꞃunᵹen hæꝼꝺe ·

( he þa bysene from gode ·
brungen hæfde ·)
"that from God those mandates he had brung"

Exeter Book, Riddle 25
Ic eom ... brungen of bearwum ond of burghleoþum
"I am brung from woods and fortress-heights (cliff-sides)"

The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology claims that the Old English strong past participle gebrungen became modern dialectical brung. Bosworth & Toller has two Old English verbs: weak brengan, p. brōhte, pp. brōht, and strong bringan, p. brang or brong, pp. brungen.

Thursday, 7 August 2008

chintz and cheetah

Hobson Jobson has a quote showing that chintz, the "printed or spotted cotton cloth," wasn't always as déclassé as its adjective form chintzy might suggest:

No, let a charming chintz and Brussels lace
Wrap my cold limbs, and shade my lifeless face
Pope, An Essay on Man, i. 248., c. 1733

That's some fabric meant to be taken seriously. Or maybe not, I never got the hang of Pope.

And, when she sees her friend in deep despair,
Observes how much a chintz exceeds mohair.
Ibid., ii. 170

chintz is from Hindi छींट chīṇṭ "spot, speck, stain, blot; spattering, splash". This is probably from Sanskrit चित्र citra "conspicuous, excellent, distinguished; bright, clear, bright-coloured; variegated, spotted, speckled". (Altho Platts traces it to छींटना chīṇṭanā "to sprinkle, to scatter" from Sanskrit स्पृष्ट spṛṣṭa, past participle of स्पृश् spṛś "to touch or sip water, wash or sprinkle".)

The Indo-Aryan inherited lexicon traces citra to Proto-Indo-European *kʷit-ro- "conspicuous", but the link goes to *kʷei-1(t) "to observe, to appreciate". To make things even more confusing, the AHD and Pokorny claim that citra is from *(s)kai- "bright, shining", the source of hood in childhood, neighbourhood, cognate with the second element of the name Adelaide.

Anyway, *kʷei-1(t) happens to be the source of Old Irish cíall, a real word for "wisdom, intelligence" (as opposed to, say, another word).

citra also means "picture" as in Amar Chitra Katha (अमर चित्र कथा, "immortal picture stories"), the series of comic book retellings of Indian mythology.

citra is also found in Sanskrit चित्रकाय citrakāya "striped-body; tiger or panther", becoming Hindi चीता cītā, borrowed into English as cheetah.

Wednesday, 6 August 2008

say wha3t?

Actress Esha Deol's tattoo of the gāyatrī mantra:

The first word is om, but it's written ओ३म o3m - that's the letter ओ (o), followed by the number ३ (3), then म् (m). It's represented this way on the flag of the Arya Samaj, a Hindu reform movement. It turns out that the 3 is the symbol for प्लुति pluti, an extra-long vowel. Wikipedia claims that it appears twice in the R̥gveda, representing question intonation, giving the example

10.129.5d adháḥ svid āsî3d upári svid āsī3t "was it above? was it below?"

But in most versions it is written as three vowels:

R̥gveda 10.129
तिरश्चीनो विततो रश्मिरेषामधः सविदासी.अ.अ.अत |
tiraścīno vitato raśmireṣāmadhaḥ savidāsī |

pluti also means "overflowing, a flood; a leap, jump; capering, curvet (one of a horse's paces)".

So the next time you want to represent a long drawn-out vowel, use a 3. That way no one can accuse you of using new-fangled textspeak!

Friday, 1 August 2008

beer and poison

The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology informs us that beer is a West Proto-Germanic borrowing of monastic Latin biber "drink". The original Proto-Germanic word for the beverage was *aluþ- - modern English ale. Only English retains both beer and ale; the North Germanic languages have ale (Old Norse ǫl, Swedish öl, Danish øl), and the other West Germanic languages have beer (German Bier, Dutch bier). However, Old Norse also has bjórr, which according to Cleasby and Vigfusson

is a foreign word, as is indicated even by the expression in the Alvismál--öl heitir með mönnum, en með Ásum bjór, ale it is called by men, by gods beer.

Vulgar Latin biber is from Latin bibere "to drink", from the Proto-Indo-European *peh₃(i)- "to drink". (The Latin b is explained by assimilation: the reduplicated *pi-ph₃-o- was voiced to something like *pi-bo- then assimilated to *bi-bo-.)

The suffixed form *poh₃-ti- became Latin pōtiō, pōtiōnis "drink", then Old French puison, meaning "magic potion". potion is also from the same Latin word thru Old French.

Bosworth and Toller say:

Beer, made from malted barley, was the favourite drink of the Anglo-Saxons. In their drinking parties, they pledged each other in large cups, round at the bottom, which must be emptied before they could be laid down, hence perhaps the name of a tumbler. We are speaking of the earliest times, for beer is mentioned in Beowulf
Beowulf chapter 8:

ful ofꞇ ᵹebeoꞇeꝺon beoꞃe ꝺꞃuncne ofeꞃ ealo ƿæᵹe oꞃeꞇ mecᵹaſ ꝥ hıe ınbeoꞃſele bıꝺan ƿolꝺon ᵹꞃenꝺleſ ᵹuþe mıꝺ ᵹꞃẏꞃum ecᵹa ·

Seamus Heaney's version (480):

Ful oft gebēotedon     bēore druncne
ofer ealo-wǣge     ōret-mecgas
þæt hīe in bēor-sele     bīdan woldon
Grendles gūþe     mid gryrum ecga.

"Time and again, when the goblets passed
and seasoned fighters got flushed with beer
they would pledge themselves to protect Heorot
and wait for Grendel with whetted swords."

Here's another, ickier, occurrence, from a book of medicine:

Cockayne, Leechdoms, wortcunning, and starcraft of early England
ᵹenım beoꞃ ꝺꞃæſꞇan ⁊ ꞅapan · ⁊ æᵹeꞅ ꝥ hƿıꞇe ⁊ ealꝺe ᵹꞃuꞇ leᵹe on ƿıð omena ᵹeꞅƿelle.

"Take beer dregs and soap and the white of an egg and old groats, lay on for erysipelatous swelling."

Props to Language is the People's for talking about some cool brand names for the drink which gods call beer.

Wednesday, 30 July 2008

keelson and hyena

keelson is a nautical term for "a timber or girder fastened above and parallel to the keel of a ship or boat for additional strength." According to the Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology, it's an alteration of Middle English kelswayn, probably from Low German kielswīn (whence also German kielschwin, Danish kølsvin, Swedish kölsvin), a combination of kiel "keel" and swīn "swine". It seems that terms for animals, like cat, dog, horse, and swine were used to refer to timber.

swine and its various Germanic cognates are from the Proto-Indo-European root *suh₁- "pig" (in the suffixed form *suh₁-īno-, this seems to be the -no- adjectival suffix that survives in English past participle -en). *suh₁- became Greek ὗς hūs "swine", then ὕαινα huaina "hyena", then Latin hyaena, borrowed thru Old French and into English as hyena, an animal with piglike characteristics.

According to the AHD, the suffixed form *su-kā- became Proto-Celtic *hukk-, then Old English hogg, then Modern English hog. Chambers seems to agree but the ODEE doesn't.

Also according to the AHD *suh₁- is a contraction of seuh₁- "to give birth". This is the source of English son.


Language Log has more about cuil and how it does not mean "knowledge" in Irish, and means "hazel" only if you squint. Plus an excerpt from At Swim-Two-Birds!

Tuesday, 29 July 2008


You know Cuil, this new search engine all the kids are talking about. From the site:

Cuil is the Gaelic word for both knowledge and hazel

On the main page they say "old Irish" instead of "Gaelic". So does cuil mean either "knowledge" or "hazel" in any language? The Early Irish Glossaries Project has cuil: "fly; flea, gnat". "Hazel" is coll (cognate with hazel), altho it was sometimes spelled cuil, probably in inflected forms. MacBain's has Old Irish cuil: "corner, recess" (also). Here's on cuil: "fly, bug".

The Cuil site also implies that the word, whatever it means, is connected to the name of the legendary hero Finn McCool, which they spell McCuil. This looks like a folk etymology; the name is normally spelled Fionn mac Cumhail in Irish Gaelic.

Perhaps they should have googled it.

Friday, 25 July 2008

watch out for snakes

From the English Blog: a sign, apparently from a snake park in Pune, India.

I'm not convinced that this is a translation issue, since Indian English is spoken by millions of people thruout India - not as a first language, perhaps, but it's not a foreign language.

update: As Dave points out, it seems to be a sort of copy of this sign from San Diego.

Thursday, 24 July 2008

Divali and Zeus

Divālī (दिवाली) is "A Hindū festival celebrated on the day of the new moon of Kārttik in honour of Kārttikeya, the god of war" according to Platts.

The word is from Prakrit diva-āliā, meaning "row of lamps". It's related to Sanskrit दीप् dīp "to glow" and आवली āvalī "row". दीप् dīp is from Proto-Indo-European *dyeu- "to shine" with derivatives meaning "sky, heaven, god". This root also became Sanskrit देव deva "heavenly, divine" as in Devanāgarī.

In Greek, *dyeu- became Ζεύς Zeus, the *d being preserved in the genitive form Διϝός or Διός.

In Latin, *dyeu- became deus "god" and dīvīnus "divine". Jupiter was formed from a combination of Iovis and pater "father". Iovis, earlier Diovis, is from *dyeu-. Compare Greek Ζευς πατηρ Zeus patēr and Sanskrit द्यौष्पितृ dyauṣ-pitṛ "sky father".

In other news, I feel compelled to share my recent photos of Berlin graffiti.

Wednesday, 23 July 2008


Harry Harrison's The Technicolor Time Machine is a fun and silly book about a film crew that travels back in time to 1000 to shoot a film about the Vikings' passage to North America. There is some Old Norse in the book, but unfortunately the letters þ and ð are rendered as p and o in my edition: for instance pu skalt drekka meo mer! instead of þu skalt drekka með mer! "you shall drink with me." There's also an example of the word viking not as a noun, but as a participle:

He and Ottar used to go viking together

This is a cool reanalysis of the noun viking as a verb "to vike" with the -ing suffix. One possible etymology of Old Norse víkingr is that it is a combination of vík "creek, inlet" plus the suffix -ingr, which I assume is cognate with English -ing.

A second derivation is suggested by the Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology: the Old Norse word is dated from the 10th century, but the existence of Old English wīcingsċeaþa "piraticus"¹ in the 8th century, and Old Frisian wītsing, wīsing, suggests that víkingr was borrowed from Old English wīc or Old Frisian wīk in the sense of "camp": "the formation of temporary encampments being a prominent feature of viking raids." If this is true, it means that viking is derived from *weiḱ- and related to ecology and villain.

Uig, a town on the Isle of Skye, where I once spent a few days, is derived from Old Norse vík. Or so I was told.

Acephalous reports that the OED has a strange and outdated definition of viking: "One of those Scandinavian adventurers who practised piracy at sea and committed depredations on land."

1. I assume that "piraticus" refers to piracy and not spiders.

Tuesday, 22 July 2008

less, fewer

There's been some talk recently over the correctness of less with count nouns. Well, this talk has been going on for about 300 years, but recently some editing blogs are discussing it.

What the AHD calls the "traditional rule" is often stated as: "use fewer with things that can be counted and less with things that cannot be counted." Let's call this Rule A.

Rule A is neither helpful nor traditional. It's not helpful because following it produces things like 10 items or fewer, 25 dollars or fewer, one fewer member, fewer than 15 minutes, which sound downright weird. The rule often has an addendum saying it's ok to use less with time or money, as in less than 15 minutes or less than five dollars, because these are not viewed as countable. For instance, "we say less than six weeks, not fewer than six weeks, because we are not referring to six individual weeks, but to a single period of time lasting six weeks." (Also here.) But this isn't helpful because surely an amount of any kind of thing can be viewed as a single entity. With 10 items or less, can't we say that we're not referring to 10 individual items, but to a single cart of groceries?

Rule A is not traditional either, because it is not as old as Rule B, the rule that English writers have been following for 1000 years: "use fewer with count nouns, and use less with count and noncount nouns, especially, but not only, with nouns of time, money and distance, and in the constructions less than, or less and one less." (Not a perfect rule, but better.)

Here's an early example:

c888 King Ælfred, Boethius de consolatione philosophiæ. xxxv. §5
Forþæm ðu ne ðearft nauht sƿiþe ƿundrigan ðeah ƿe spirian æfter ðam þe ƿe ongunnon. sƿa mid læs ƿorda. sƿa mid ma. sƿæþer ƿe hit gereccan magon.
"Therefore thou needest not greatly wonder, when we are inquiring concerning what we have begun, whether we may prove it with less words or with more."

læs worda is a partitive genitive, literally "less of words". Altho English lost this construction, it retained the use of less with count nouns:

(a1393) John Gower, Confessio Amantis 7.3666: If it so is That I thin help schal undertake, Thou schalt yit lasse poeple take.

It turns in less than two nights? - Shakespeare, Timon of Athens, Act III, scene i

...Goldsmith took less pains than Pope... to create images of luxury in the reader's mind - John Butt, English Literature in the Mid-Eighteenth Century, 1979

(More examples can be found in the MWDEU entry)

Rule A was first expressed by Baker in 1770 as his personal preference - "No Fewer than a Hundred appears to me not only more elegant than No less than a Hundred, but strictly proper" - but with the passage of time has been turned into a rule. But in fact it seems that English writers follow and have always followed Rule B (see some data here).

The notion that less with count nouns is becoming more common might be the Recency Illusion: if you've noticed something only recently, you believe that it in fact originated recently. less with count nouns is certainly not a recent usage.

Thursday, 17 July 2008

felt and anvil

Proto-Indo-European *pel- "to thrust, strike, drive". The suffixed form *pel-de-, perhaps meaning "beat", became Proto-West-Germanic *feltaz "compressed wool", then Old English felt - felt was created by pressing animal and vegetable fibers together.

*pel-de- combined with Old English an (related to Modern English on) to form anfilte, anfealt "anvil" - that is, "something beaten on". The OED says this word was perhaps modeled on Latin incūs "anvil", from in plus cūdere "to beat".

Wednesday, 16 July 2008

on the hair of my buttocks is your praise

There's some Hindi in the trailer for The Love Guru. Sense or nonsense?

मेरे कूल्हा के बालो पर आपका अभिनन्दन है! (mere kūlhā ke bālo par āpakā abhinandan hai) "on the hair of my buttocks is your praise." (thanks livejournal.) So it's not wrong, but it doesn't make a lot of sense either. Apparently कूल्हा more usually means "hips" rather than "buttocks". (And the anusvāra is missing on बालो.)