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.

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.)

Monday, 14 July 2008

Glint, glisten, glitter, gleam

I've been reading a lot of Terry Pratchett lately, and I found this in his wonderful Wee Free Men:

Glint, glisten, glitter, gleam...

Tiffany thought a lot about words, in the long hours of churning butter. 'Onomatopoeic', she'd discovered in the dictionary, meant words that sounded like the noise of the thing they were describing, like 'cuckoo'. But she thought there should be a word meaning 'a word that sounds like the noise a thing would make if that thing made a noise even though, actually, it doesn't, but would if it did.'

Glint, for example. If light made a noise as it reflected off a distant window, it'd go 'glint!' And the light of tinsel, all those little glints chiming together, would make a noise like 'glitterglitter'. 'Gleam' was a clean, smooth noise from a surface that intended to shine all day. And 'glisten' was the soft, almost greasy sound of something rich and oily.

I think the word Tiffany is looking for is phonestheme or maybe ideophone (more here). I think Pratchett's view of the impression these gl- words give is spot on. I wonder how much that has to do with being a native English speaker. The Japanese ideophone for sparkling or glittering is キラキラ kira kira - a similar sound combination - velar stop plus lateral - used to represent the same symbol. [I know: most likely a coincidence. See words like click, clip, clink, as Paul D. astutely points out.] On the other hand, the Japanese ideophone uja uja represents "many small things gathered together and moving, such as a swarm of insects or a crowd of people seen from a distance" - not my first guess of what uja uja would mean.

The gl- phonestheme seems to be common to the Germanic languages. Here's a list of the English gl- words, all having something to do with light, with some cognates. This is all from the OED unless noted. According to the American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots, all these words are from *ǵʰel- "to shine", the same source as gold and yellow.

glad from Old English glæd "shining, joyful", cf. Old Norse glaðr "bright, joyous", German glatt "smooth"
glance "any of various minerals that have a brilliant luster", from Old High German glanz "bright" (AHD)
glare from Middle English glaren "to glitter", from Middle Dutch glaren "to gleam, glare"
glass cf. German Glas, Old Norse gler, Middle Low German glār "amber"
gleam cf. Old High German gleimo "glow-worm"
glee from Old English glēo "sport, merriment", cf. Old Norse glý
gleed cf. Dutch gloed "ember"
gleg from Old Norse glöggr "clear-sighted" (AHD)
glimmer cf. Swedish glimra "to glimmer"
glimpse cf. Middle High German glimsen "to gleam"
glint cf. Swedish glinta "to slip, slide, gleam"
glisten from Old English glisnian, cf. Middle Low German glisen
glister from Middle Low German glistern
glitter from Old Norse glitra "to shine", cf. German glitzern "to sparkle"
glitz from Old High German glīzen "to sparkle" (AHD)
gloaming from Old English glōm "twilight" (AHD)
gloat cf. Old Norse glotta "to grin"
glogg from Old Norse gloð "ember" (AHD)
gloss "surface shininess or luster", cf. Icelandic glossi "blaze"
glow cf. German glühen, Dutch gloeien, Old Norse glóa
glower perhaps from Low German glōren "to gleam, stare", cf. Icelandic glora "to gleam, stare"

Thursday, 10 July 2008

optician and window

Earlier in the week I saw an ophthalmologist for some vision problems. Of course this got me thinking about the different words we have for eye doctors. optician and optometrist are clearly from Greek ὀπτός optos "visible" from the Proto-Indo-European root *h₃ekʷ- "to see" (-metrist from Greek μέτρον metron "measure" from *meh₁-).

ophthalmologist is a bit more obscure. In the first place I had trouble finding it because I thought it was spelled ophthamologist. Anyway, it's from Greek όφθαλμος ophthalmos "eye", which is not in Liddell and Scott, [update: it is] altho they have many related words like διακῠνοφθαλμίζομαι diakunophthalmizomai "to look askance one at another", δῠσ-όφθαλμος dusophthalmos "offensive to the sight" and ἐξόφθαλμ-ος eksophthalmos "with prominent eyes".

The AHD says όφθαλμος is derived from *h₃ekʷ- with taboo deformation. Why the word for "eye" would be taboo, I don't know. The Ancient Greek word for "eye" that is more certainly derived from *h₃ekʷ- is ὤψ ōps "eye, face, countenance".

*h₃ekʷ- became Proto-Germanic *auǥon "eye", Old English ēaġe, and then Modern English eye.

In Old Norse, the Proto-Germanic word became auga "eye". Combined with vindr "wind" it formed vindauga literally "wind-eye". This was borrowed into Middle English as window, and replaced the Old English words for window, ēaġþyrl "eye-hole" and ēaġduru "eye-door".

The AHD also tells us that the Latin reflex, oculāris "of or belonging to the eyes", combined with ante- to form *anteoculāre "before the eyes". This became Old French antoillier "antler" and then Middle English antler. However, the Oxford Dictionary of Etymology says that the derivation of antoillier from *anteoculāre is not phonologically tenable.

Wednesday, 9 July 2008

cwm and cymbal

cwm, a word meaning "valley", comes from the Welsh cwm "valley" (pronounced [kum]). It's from Proto-Indo-European *keumbʰ-, an extended form of *keu- "to bend".

The same form became Greek κύμβη kumbē "hollow of a vessel: drinking-cup, bowl". The form κύμβᾰλον kumbalon was applied to the cymbal because of its bowl-like shape. This was borrowed into Latin as cymbalum.

Friday, 4 July 2008

ecology, villain, nasty

The Proto-Indo-European root is *weiḱ- "clan". In Latin it became vīcus "district", and this was borrowed into Old English as wīc "town". This survives today in the word bailiwick and many place names, such as Norwich and Chiswick.

*weiḱ- became Greek οἶκος oikos "house". English ecology is from oikos plus λόγος logos "discourse" (from PIE *leǵ- "to collect, speak").

The suffixed *weiḱ-slā became Latin vīlla "country house". Old French vilein was a serf, someone who lived in the country. In English it took on the meaning of "depraved scoundrel".

According to the AHD, nasty is perhaps from Old French nastre "bad, strange", a shortened form of villenastre - that is, vilein with the perjorative suffix -astre. villenastre was reanalyzed as vilein nastre, then nastre came to be used in other contexts like fol nastre "foolish, mad", and natre felun "poor wretch". The forms natre, nadre still survive in Normandy and Gascony with the meanings "bad, cruel, tricky, mad, brutal". (see "The Etymology of Nasty" by Ralph de Gorog, American Speech, Vol. 51, No. 3/4, pp. 276-278.)

The OED states: "Of obscure origin: cf. Du. nestig (? MDu. nistich) foul, dirty, the history of which is obscure. The early form naxty and Cotgrave's nasky may indicate a stem nasc-, which also appears in Sw. dial. naskug, nasket (Rietz) dirty, nasty, but the ultimate relationship of the forms is not clear."

Wednesday, 2 July 2008

squash and pasta

squash meaning "to press or beat into a pulp". Proto-Indo-European *kweh₁t- "to shake" became Latin quatere "to shake", the frequentative of which was quassāre "to shake violently, break to pieces". Combined with ex-, this became Vulgar Latin (the Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology calls this "Roman") *exquassāre then Old French esquasser "to crush", borrowed into Middle English as squachen.

In Greek, *kweh₁t- became πάσσω (passō) "to sprinkle" and the past participle παστός (pastos) "sprinkled". This was nounified to pástā, plural pastá, pastaí "barley porridge" and was borrowed into Late Latin as pasta "small square piece of a medicinal preparation" (in De medicamentis liber by Marcellus Empiricus, c400). This word became Italian pasta. paste and pâté are from the same Late Latin source thru Old French and French respectively.

squash the vegetable is from Narragansett askútasquash, apparently meaning "a green thing eaten raw", from asq "raw".