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.