Thursday, 31 January 2008

nostril and avatar

The Proto-Indo-European root is *terh₂- "to cross over". The suffixed form *trh₂-kʷe (*-kʷe being a clitic meaning "and" as in Latin -que and Sanskrit -ca) became Proto-Germanic *þurh, then Old English þurh, then through.

*þurh also became *þurhil, which became Old English þyrl "hole". (This is alternatively derived from Proto-Germanic *þur-ila- - I don't know what the *-ila- suffix is, but I hope someone does.) This combined with nosu "nose" to form nosþyrl, næsþyrel, nosterl, literally "nose-hole", which became nostril.

In Sanskrit *terh₂- became तरति tárati "to cross over", which combined with the verbal prefix अव ava "off, away, down" (from PIE *h₂eu- "off, away") to form अवतारः avatāraḥ "descent (especially of a deity from heaven)". Nowadays it's used for the form we take when we descend into the digital realm.

Friday, 25 January 2008


Mahendra Singh, author the wonderful blog The Hunting of the Snark, asked about the etymology of snark. I found nothing conclusive, but you might enjoy the ride. Try not to get your bowsprit mixed with your rudder on the way. Ready let's go!

My Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology says

imaginary animal invented by 'Lewis Carroll' (C.L. Dodgson) in 'The Hunting of the Snark', 1876.

Is that it? There's gotta be more to it than that! snark meaning "to snort" dates from 1866 according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, but I don't know the source of this. This easily predates 1875, when most of the poem was written (at least according to The Life of Lewis Carroll by Florence Becker Lennon, 1962).

Sources agree that snarky, meaning "crotchety, snappish" or "irritable or short-tempered; irascible", is derived from the verb snark "to annoy" or "to nag". The earliest citation for snarky is from Edith Nesbit in 1906.

1906 E. NESBIT Railway Children ii. 49 Don’t be snarky, Peter. It isn’t our fault.

Since words tend to show up in speech before they show up in writing, it is possible that snarky was around when Carroll wrote his poem. Or snark, for which the earliest citation is from 1882.

snark, 2. intr. and trans. To find fault (with), to nag. 
1882 Jamieson’s Sc. Dict. IV. 314/2 To Snark, fret, grumble, or find fault with one. 1904 E. NESBIT Phœnix & Carpet x. 185 He remembered how Anthea had refrained from snarking him about tearing the carpet.

There are two possible derivations for snark. According to Merriam-Webster, snark "to annoy" is perhaps an alternation of nark "to irritate". (More about nark below). The American Heritage Dictionary says of snarky: "From dialectal snark, to nag, from snark, snork, to snore, snort, from Dutch and Low German snorken, of imitative origin."

Fernando Soto, in The Consumption of the Snark and the Decline of Nonsense: A Medico-Linguistic Reading of Carroll’s ‘Fitful Agony’ (in The Carrollian 8) mentions the word snarker "a cinder", as in "The cake's burnt to a snarker" (from The English Dialect Dictionary (vols. V), p. 572).

Mahendra says

It's been long debated how LC came up with the word, it may be a portmanteau of shark & snail, perhaps "flavored" by a (collective) unconscious germanic memory?

There are many Germanic words containing the phonestheme sn- and having to do with the nose. Pokorny connects snorken with Proto-Indo-European *sner- "expressive root of various verbs for making noises". This is the source of German schnarren "to buzz", and also snorkel from German schnarchen "to snore", snarl from Middle Low German snarren, sneer, and perhaps Norn, from Old Norse (as in "the whisperer"). And also Norwegian-Swedish snerka "to snort", Swedish snurka "to groan", Old Norse snǫrgla "to groan", Norwegian-Swedish snarva "to growl, bare one's teeth".

There is also *snu-, a form limited to Germanic languages, and imitative of words connected with the nose. This apparently gives us snot, snout, schnoz, snuffle, sniff, snip, snap, snub, and snatch. To make things even more confusing, snore, snort and sneeze are from PIE *pneu- "to breathe" - Old English fnora and fnēosan. Compare Old Norse fnȳsa "to pant, sniff, snort", Middle High German pfnusen "to pant, sniff, snort, sneeze".

The sn- phonestheme could have influenced Carroll's choice, but unfortunately the poem is silent on the subject of the Snark's nose, and lacks any other sn- words in connection with the Snark (altho the Bandersnatch's jaws "Went savagely snapping around").

The Urban Dictionary says of snark: "Combination of "snide" and "remark". Sarcastic comment(s)." But I'd trust the Urban Dictionary as far as I'd trust a very untrustworthy thing.

Now, nark. This is the other possible source of snark "to annoy", if it's not derived from snorken. Wordorigins has a good history of nark. The Oxford Dictionary of Modern Slang (1993) says (I'm omitting the first sense because it's "mainly Austral and NZ"):

2 Brit a A police informer or decoy. 1860-.
b A policeman. 1861-.
verb 3 trans. To annoy, exasperate; often in passive 1888-.
4 trans. To stop; mainly in imperative in the phr. nark it. 1889-.
6 intr. To complain, grumble. 1916-.
[From Romany nāk nose.]

Wordorigins points out that the derivation from Romani is problematic, but that it is the most likely one. Romani nāk would be related to Hindi नाक nāk, Prakrit ṇakka, and Sanskrit नर्क narka, all meaning "nose". Probably also Sindhi نَڪُ naku , Kashmiri नाख् nākh, Panjabi ਨੱਕ nakk, Gujarati નાક nāk.

According to Watkins, these are all from Indic *nakka-, an expressive form of PIE *nas- "nose", which makes nark cognate with nose! Compare Sanskrit नस् nas, Latin nāsum, German nüschen "to dig with the snout", English nose, nuzzle, Russian нюхать njuxat' "to snuffle, sniff, smell".

Snarkskii seems to be a Slavic surname, for which the American spelling might be Snarsky.

The Snark Avenue Theatre shows late-night movies in Daniel Pinkwater's novels The Snarkout Boys and the Avacado of Death and The Snarkout Boys and the Baconburg Horror. "Snarking out" means sneaking out in the middle of the night to watch movies. Also check out Lizard Music - no snarks, but a great book.

Nothing conclusive, so no conclusion.

Then the bowsprit got mixed with the rudder sometimes:
A thing, as the Bellman remarked,
That frequently happens in tropical climes,
When a vessel is, so to speak, "snarked."

Update: more snarkian etymology.

Wednesday, 23 January 2008

eat and tooth?

The Proto-Indo-European root was *h₁ed- "to bite". This became Proto-Germanic *etan "to eat", Old English etan, then English eat. I assume that ate would be ultimately derived from the o-grade form *h₁od-.

The present participle was formed by adding *-ent- to the zero-grade form, so *h₁d-ent- "biting". The o-grade form of this, *h₁d-ont-, became Proto-Germanic *tanþuz, Old English tōþ, then English tooth. The form *h₁d-ent- became Latin dēns, dentis "tooth", and English dental.

The above is from Watkins. As I see it, the problem is that the initial laryngeal *h₁ should produce Greek *edontos instead of the attested ὀδόντος odontos "tooth". (Compare ἐννέα ennea from *h₁newn̥ "nine".) To get the initial Greek , we must assume the o-colouring laryngeal h₃ (compare ὀρέγω from *h₃reǵ-). But h₃ would yield something like English *at or *et, not eat. (as in erne from *h₃er-.)

Tuesday, 22 January 2008

precocious and apricot

Proto-Indo-European *pekʷ-, "to cook, ripen", in its assimilated form *kʷekʷ- became Latin coquō "to cook, ripen". Combined with prae "before, in front" it became praecox, praecocis "premature", that is, "ripening early". This was borrowed into English in the 1600s as precocious.

Meanwhile, praecox became the Latin word praecoquum "ripe early". This was borrowed into Greek as βερίκοκκον berikokkon and πραικόκιον praikokion, a word for the early-ripening apricot. This was borrowed into Arabic as برقوق barqūq "plum". Combined with the determiner prefix al gave البرقوق al-barqūq, and this was borrowed into Spanish and Portuguese as albaricoque and albricoque, and then borrowed into English in the 1500s as a word spelled abrecock or apricock. This became abricot thru dissimulation, and also by analogy with the French word, abricot. It finally changed to apricot perhaps thru folk etymology with the Latin in apricō coctus "ripened in a sunny place".

Friday, 18 January 2008

on translation

Toronto offers tax services in a number of languages. They have a flier that says, in 15 languages, "For information about your property tax bill in [language], please call 416 338 4829".

Except for the Panjabi. I'm pretty sure it says "For information about your property tax bill in English..." oops!

ਆਪਣੇ ਘਰ ਦੇ (ਰੀਅਲਟੀ) ਟੈਕਸ ਬਿੱਲ ਬਾਰੇ ਇੰਗਲਿਸ਼ ਵਿੱਚ ਜਾਣਕਾਰੀ ਲੈਣ ਲੲੀ 416 338 4829 ਤੇ ਫੋਨ ਕਰੋ ।

It's also interesting for using some English words: ਰੀਅਲਟੀ ਟੈਕਸ ਬਿੱਲ - rīalṭī ṭaiks bill for "realty tax bill", and ਇੰਗਲਿਸ਼ iṅgliś for "English" instead of the more usual ਅੰਗ੍ਰੇਜ਼ੀ aṅgrezī.

For the curious, the other languages offered are French, Cantonese, Italian, Tamil, Portuguese, Spanish, Russian, Persian, Vietnamese, Korean, Tagalog, Urdu, Polish, and Greek.

Thursday, 17 January 2008

whore and kamasutra

Proto-Indo-European *keh₂- "to like, desire". The suffixed form *keh₂-ro- (*-ro- is an adjectival suffix) became Proto-Germanic *hōraz "one who desires", which became Old English hōre, taking on the meaning of "adulterer". This became Modern English whore. The wh spelling corresponded to a widespread dialectical pronuncation with /w/. The same thing happened to whole from Old English hāl.

The suffixed form *keh₂-mo- (*-mo- is a noun suffix) became Sanskrit कामः kāmaḥ "wish, desire, love", which combined with सूत्रं sūtraṃ "thread, aphorism, aphoristic rule" to form कामसूत्रं kāmasūtraṃ "a treatise on sexual love by Vātsyāyana".

sūtraṃ is from PIE *syuH- "to bind, sew", and is cognate with sew and suture.

*keh₂-ro- became Latin cārus "dear", and cāritā cāritas "affection". charity and cherish are from Latin cāritā cāritas, borrowed into English from Old French charite and cherir respectively. charity originally meant "love", and then came to be used for the love you show others by giving them money.

Wednesday, 16 January 2008

science, shit, Saxon

Our Proto-Indo-European root today is *skei- "to cut". This became Latin sciō "to know" as in "to separate one thing from another". The nominal form scientia became English science thru Old French.

In Proto-Germanic the extended form *skeid- became *skītan "to separate, defecate" - ie "separate from the body" and then became Old English sċiten and English shit.

nice is from Old French from Latin nescius "ignorant", which is a combination of ne "not" and sciō.

*skei- is itself an extension of *sek- "to cut", the suffixed o-grade form of which, *sok-so-, became Proto-Germanic *sahsam "knife" (as in Old English seax "knife"), and possibly "swordsman" (as in Old English Seaxe, Old High German Sahsun, Icelandic Saxar, German Sachse "Saxon"). This was possibly borrowed into Latin as saxō "Saxon".

'This is a child!' Haigha replied eagerly, coming in front of Alice to introduce her, and spreading out both his hands towards her in an Anglo-Saxon attitude. 'We only found it to-day. It's as large as life, and twice as natural!'

Tuesday, 15 January 2008


mara is a Buddhist demon personifying temptation, from the Sanskrit मार māra "killing, destroying, death, pestilence". This seems to be derived from the verb mr̥ "to die". (This is the source of the Doctor Who mara.)

The Proto-Indo-European root is *mer- "to rub away, to harm". (Pokorny has two roots: "to die" and "to rub", the AHD has one). The prefixed and suffixed form *n̥-mr̥-to- (with the negative prefix *n̥-) became Greek ἄμβροτος ambrotos, as in ambrosia. This PIE form is also the source of Sanskrit अमृत amr̥ta "not dead, immortal" (perhaps the source of the name of the city of Amritsar), and Latin immortālis.

mara is also a demon in Scandinavian mythology. The Old Norse word mara is from Proto-Germanic *marōn "goblin", from PIE *mer-. Old English mare "goblin", from the same root, combined with night to form nightmare, originally "a demon that affects sleeping people".

Friday, 11 January 2008

fierce and treacle

The Proto-Indo-European root was *ǵhwer- "beast". The suffixed form *ǵhwer-o- became Latin ferus "wild, untamed", then Anglo-Norman fers, borrowed into English as fierce. One of the obsolete meanings of fierce is "proud", which is still a meaning of French fier.

The lengthened-grade form *ǵhwēr- became Greek θήρ thēr "wild beast, venomous animal". The diminutive of this, θηρίον thērion, was adjectified and then nounified into θηριακή thēriakē "antidote against venomous bites", and was borrowed into Latin as thēriaca, which became Old French triacle "antidote for poison". This was borrowed into English as treacle. The "molasses" meaning dates from 1694. The connection between "molasses" and "antidote" might be due to the fact that molasses was used to disguise the bad taste of medicine.

'What did they live on?' said Alice, who always took a great
interest in questions of eating and drinking.

'They lived on treacle,' said the Dormouse, after thinking a
minute or two.

'They couldn't have done that, you know,' Alice gently
remarked; 'they'd have been ill.'

'So they were,' said the Dormouse; 'VERY ill.'

Also, enjoy this language map of Toronto.

Thursday, 10 January 2008

know and quaint

The Proto-Indo-European root is *ǵneh₃- "to know". It became Proto-Germanic *knē(w)-, Old English cnāwan, and English know.

In Latin the form *ǵnō-sḱo- (with the iterative and imperfective suffix *-sḱo-) became gnōsco "to know". This combined with the intensive prefix com- to form cognōsco "to learn". The past participle of cognōsco was cognitus and this became Old French cointe, queinte "skilled (ie knowledgeable), clever, skillfully made, fine," and was borrowed into Middle English in the 13th century, also spelled cointe or queinte. In the 14th century the word took on the meanings "strange, unfamiliar", and in the 18th century it took on its modern meaning of "uncommon but attractive", and was spelled quaint.

The word's history is actually more complicated than this, and the OED says "some of the stages are obscure." acquaint has a similar history, but has retained the "know" sense.

The reduplicated form *ǵi-ǵnō-sḱo- became ancient Greek γιγνώσκω gignōskō "to recognize", then γνώμων gnōmōn "interpreter, pointer of a sundial". Klein in A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the English Language (1971) has Latin norma "carpenter's square" (the source of normal) as borrowed from gnōmōn thru Etruscan, but Watkins considers this improbable. The Barnhart Dictionary of Etymology says norma is of uncertain origin.

The Sanskrit cognate is जानाति jānāti "to know" and ज्ञान jñāna "knowledge".

Wednesday, 9 January 2008

raita and anorexia

Our Proto-Indo-European root is *h₃reǵ- "to move in a straight line". The suffixed zero-grade form *h₃r̥ǵ-yo- became Sanskrit ऋज्यति r̥jyati "to stretch out, strive after, long for", then राजी rājī and राजिका rājikā "streak, line, black mustard". This last combined with तिक्तक tiktaka "bitter" (from तेजते tejate "to be sharp" from PIE *steig- "to stick, pointed") to form *rājikātiktaka- "mustard pickle", which became Hindi रायता rāyatā and English raita.

Unfortunately I don't know the details of how the awesome word *rājikātiktaka- was contracted to rāyatā, but this derivation is given in both the AHD and the Oxford Hindi-English dictionary.

In Greek *h₃reǵ- became ὀρέγω oregō "to reach out, to reach after, grasp for", then orexis "appetite" - the "reach after" sense being extended metaphorically to "appetite". This plus the negative prefix an- formed anorexiā "without appetite".

The suffixed form *h₃reǵ-to- became Proto-Germanic *rehtaz, Old English riht "right, correct, straight", and English right.

Tuesday, 8 January 2008

chin and Hanuman

The Proto-Indo-European root was *ǵenu- "jawbone, chin" (not to be confused with its homophone *ǵenu- "knee"). The form *ǵenw- became Proto-Germanic *kinnuz, then Old English ċinn, then English chin.

The variant form *ǵ(h)enu- became Sanskrit हनु hanu "jaw". हनुमान hanumān means "having strong jaws". The monkey-god Hanuman was given this name probably because of the story of how Indra struck and injured Hanuman's chin.

Monday, 7 January 2008

Parcheesi and venti

Parcheesi is a trademark used for a westernized version of pachisi, an Indian game similar to backgammon. Hindi पचीसी pacīsī is from पच्चीस paccīs "twenty-five". This was formed from two words: Sanskrit पंच paṃca "five" plus विंशतिः viṃśatiḥ "twenty".

paṃca is from Proto-Indo-European *penkʷe "five" and so is related to five and finger.

viṃśatiḥ is from Proto-Indo-European *wih₁-ḱm̥t-íh₁- "twenty". This became Latin vīgintī then Italian venti, which Starbucks uses for their 20 ounce cup.

*wih₁-ḱm̥t-íh₁- is itself a compound formed from *wi- "in half, two" and *dḱm̥t-íh₁-, the suffixed zero-grade form of *deḱm̥ "ten".

Friday, 4 January 2008

cow and butter?

The Proto-Indo-European root *gʷou- "ox, bull, cow" became Proto-Germanic *kōuz, Old English , and English cow.

In Greek, *gʷou- became βοῦς bous "cow", which perhaps combined with τῡρός tūros "cheese" to form βού-τῡρον boutūron "butter". This was borrowed into Latin as būtȳrum. English butter is a very early, possibly pre-Old English borrowing of the Latin word.

τῡρός tūros is from the Proto-Indo-European *teuh₂- "to swell", which also gives us thousand from Proto-Germanic *þūs-hundi- "swollen hundred", and tumor from Latin tumēre "to swell".

And *teuh₂- gives us another dairy word: quark (the cheese), from Middle High German quarc from Old Church Slavonic тварогъ tvarogŭ.

Thursday, 3 January 2008

hangnail and anxious

The Proto-Indo-European root is *h₂enǵh- "tight, painfully constricted, painful". This became Proto-Germanic *anǥ- "compressed, hard, painful". In Old English, this combined with nægl "nail" (from PIE *h₃nogh- "nail, claw") to form angnail, which, influenced by the word hang, changed thru folk etymology to hangnail.

In Latin, the root became angō "to torment", then ānxius. This was borrowed into English as anxious probably in the 1600s.

Wednesday, 2 January 2008

evolution and willow

The Proto-Indo-European root was *wel- "to turn, to wind, round, curved". This became Old English welig and English willow - the notion of "curved" being applied to the willow's bendable branches. The vowel change from e to i might be due to association with Old English wilige "wicker basket".

The extended form *welw- became Latin volvere "to roll". The prefix ē "out" was added to form ēvolvere "to unroll." This became English evolve and evolution.

Other derivatives include:
waltz from German walzen "to roll, dance the waltz"
helix and helicopter from Greek ἕλιξ heliks "spiral" from the suffixed form *wel-lik-
valley from Old French valee from Latin vallēs, an area surrounded by hills.
whelk from Old English weoloc from Proto-Germanic *weluka- "whelk", so named because of its spiral shell.