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.

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.