Thursday, 27 March 2008

the king is at a loss

Earlier this week I wrote about chess and check. What about checkmate? The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology says:

Aphetic - OF. eschec mat = Pr[ovençal] escac mat, It[alian] scaccomatto, etc. - Pers. shāh māt the king is helpless; see CHECK1 and MAT2.

(MAT2 is "lustreless, dull", and I think the ODEE is saying that this word is from the same French source as the mate in checkmate.)

But the AHD says

Middle English chekmat, from Old French eschec mat, from Arabic šāh māt, the king is dead : šāh, king (from Persian shāh; see shah) + māt, died (from earlier māta, to die; see mwt in Appendix II).

So, some disagreement, then. In searching for more info, I found M.E. Moghadam's "A Note on the Etymology of the Word Checkmate" in the Journal of the American Oriental Society (no. 58, pp. 662-664, 1938, the first page is here). Moghadam argues that the Persian derivation is the correct one. He begins

Both the Webster and the Oxford dictionaries derived the word checkmate ultimately from the Arabic al-shāh māta, meaning "the king died." There are several objections to this etymology.

Interestingly this is no longer the case for either the OED or Merriam-Webster. Moghadam asserts that

Every single word connected with the game of chess in Arabic is either borrowed from the Perisan and arabicised or translated from the Persian into Arabic.

Also, "the shāh in chess is not killed and does not die."

According to Moghadam, Persian māt means

"left (without a way to escape)," or "at a loss," or "perplexed"; hence "pressed" and "defeated" [...] This use of the word māt in Persian is not confined to the game of chess, but is used on all occasions and usually means "surprised" or "at a loss."


That it has nothing to do with the Ar. māta is further proved by the evidence in the older Persian manuscripts about chess, where the word used for "being checkmated" (māt shodan or shāh-māt shodan) is given as dar-māndan, māndan being the root of the word māt.


The verb māndan "to remain" (cf. Avestan mān- in Barth. Altir. Wört. 1124) when prefixed with the prepositions dar or , and often without any prefix, means "to be perplexed," "to be at a loss," or "to be exhausted." Shāh mānd means "the king is at a loss" or "has exhausted his resources." Māt is the abbreviated form of mānd, and such abbreviated forms are not at all unusual.

I know next to nothing about Persian, but it seems that Avestan mān- is from PIE *men- "to stay" (and here). By the way, Christian Bartholomae's Altiranisches Wörterbuch is on Google Books, but page 1124 is not available for preview. mānd is not in the IEED project's Indo-Iranian inherited lexicon.

His third point is

Moreover, if the word māt in Persian is a loan word from Arabic, it must preserve some trace of its original meaning, "died." But the word in Persian is never associated with death and we should therefore look elsewhere for its etymology.

Moghadam concludes

Undoubtedly what happened was this: the Arabs borrowed the game and its terminology from the Persians. The first element in the compound shāh-māt was already familiar to them, and to it they prefixed the def. art. al-; the second element was unfamiliar. The observed, however, that when the shāh was made māt, the game terminated. They naturally concluded that the shāh was dead, and by the familiar methods of popular etymology connected it with their own verb māta. Then through the Arabic the word was introduced into the European languages.

Since Moghadam's article, and possibly because of it, the Persian derivation has become more generally accepted over the Arabic derivation. It's certainly the cooler of the two.

be, future, physics

Old English "to be" was wesan, from Proto-Indo-European *h₂wes- "to live, dwell" and the source of was and were. The ODEE says "The orig. meaning is 'dwell, remain', and the use of this base is therefore appropriate to the imper[fect] (OE. wes, pl. wesaþ) and the [past]." Other forms of "to be" come from *h₁es-, which I've already written about.

PIE *bʰeuH- "to be, exist, grow" is the source of another Old English verb, bēon "to be", and which survives in be, been and being. *bʰeuH- is also the source of the Latin stem fu-, used in some conjugations of esse "to be", including the future participle futūrus - the source of future. In Greek, *bʰeuH- became φύω "to bring forth, make grow", and physics.

The origin of are is uncertain; the ODEE says "of unkn. origin", and the AHD says it's from *h₁er- "to move, set in motion". Old English had eart in the second person singular present indicative, and earon, earun, earan and aron as plural forms; it seems likely that these are from *h₁er- and are the source of are.

Romance languages developed another verb for "to be" from Latin stāre "to stand" (from *steh₂- "to stand"). So Italian and Spanish have 2 verbs each: stare and estar (from Latin stāre), and essere and ser (from Latin esse from *h₁es-). In French it seems that the two verbs were conflated into one: étais is from stāre and est, sont, serai are from esse.

Wednesday, 26 March 2008

queen and banshee

Proto-Indo-European *gʷen- "woman" in the suffixed form *gʷen-ā- (*gʷen-eh₂?) became Proto-Germanic *kwēnōn "woman, wife, queen", then Old English cwēn "queen, wife of a king", then Modern English queen. The respelling of cw to qu happened under the influence of Old French - other words respelled this way include quick and quiver.

*gʷen- became Old Irish ben "woman", and this combined with sídhe "fairy" (from Old Irish síd "fairy mound" from PIE *sed- "to sit") to form Irish Gaelic bean sídhe "woman of the fairies", anglicized as banshee.

Thursday, 20 March 2008

check, chess, Xerxes, shah

The Proto-Indo-European root *tḱeh₁- "to gain control of, gain power over" became Proto-Indo-Iranian *kṣayati "to own, control", as in Sanskrit क्षत्रिय kṣatriya, "a member of the military or reigning order (which in later times constituted the second caste)".

In Old Persian, *kṣayati became xšāyaθiya "king in the possession of the imperious power", then Persian شاه‌ šāh, as in shah. The name Xerxes (Ξέρξης) is apparently the Greek form of xšaya-aršan- "ruling over men". (Old Persian and Avestan aršan "man" from PIE *ere-s- "to flow".)

šāh was also used in chess as a warning when the king was under attack - ie, "check". This was borrowed into Arabic, then into Old French as eschec, then Middle English as chek. This came to mean, among other things, "identifying token" in the 18th century, spelled check or cheque. None of my sources tell me what the Arabic word was or where the /k/ came from - but according to this dictionary, "cheque" is الصكّ al-ṣakk.

The Old French plural of eschec was esches, borrowed into Middle English as ches. So chess, check and cheque come from the same Old French word. And according to the Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology, French chèque was borrowed from English. So some borrowed words do get returned!

knee and polygon

Proto-Indo-European ǵenu- "knee, angle" (homophonic with ǵenu- "jaw") in the form ǵneu- became Proto-Germanic *knewam, Old English cnēo, English knee.

The suffixed variant *ǵōnw-yā- (*ǵōnw-yeh₂?) became Greek γωνία gōnia "point, edge, angle", borrowed as the -gon of polygon. (poly- is from πολύς "many" from PIE *pelh₁- "to fill".)

In Latin the root became genū "knee", as in genuflect. The ODEE states that genuine is from Latin genuīnus "innate, natural" from genū: "The orig. ref. was to the recognition of a new-born child by a father placing it on his knees". Alternately, genuīnus is an alternation of ingenuus "native, indigenous, not foreign" (here), which is from *ǵenh₁- "to give birth, beget".

Wednesday, 19 March 2008

a society is generally as green as its language

The Vocabula Review has a regular column called "Mock Merriam" where they lament the inclusion of words in Merriam-Webster. Just so we know exactly where they're coming from, let me quote this statement by editor Robert Hartwell Fiske: "Descriptivists and laxicographers have really had their day. I really want to upset them. I want them to know that their purpose in life is really questionable."

So far they've complained about alright, ginormous, predominate, and fulsome. Each column repeats the same complaint from Fiske's review of Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary Eleventh Edition: Merriam-Webster's "promotes illiteracy" by documenting how words are used. Only the people at Vocabula Review know how words should really be used.

For ginormous, they say

Better than new, ill-defined words for simple concepts like largeness would be new words for less easily understood or less often encountered concepts like bravery or justice or truth. Having more synonyms of words such as these may, over time, affect people's behavior and increase the occurrence of bravery, the spread of justice, or the value of truth.

"May" as in "We have no evidence whatsoever to support this crazily extreme linguistic relativist position."

Once The Vocabula Review has excised these words from dictionaries, they will go on to remove the numbers of everyone they don't like from the phone books.

Tuesday, 18 March 2008


German Mist means "dung" - I had assumed the similarity to English mist was a coincidence, but it isn't. They are both from Proto-Germanic *mih-stu- "urine", and the English word took an unexpected semantic turn.

The Proto-Indo-European root is *h₃meiǵʰ- "to urinate".

The Proto-Germanic diminutive *mihst-ila- referred to mistletoe, which is propogated thru the droppings of the missel thrush. This became Old English mistel, which combined with tān "twig" to form misteltān. The tān was reanalyzed as being the plural of "toe", and the word changed to mistelto then mistletoe.

I'd better add that the ODEE has a different derivation: PIE *meigh- "to glimmer, twinkle; mist". Not sure how the German word fits in.

Monday, 17 March 2008

thug and stegosaurus

Proto-Indo-European *(s)teg- "to cover" became Sanskrit स्थगति sthagati "to conceal", then स्थग sthaga "cunning, sly, fraudulent, dishonest". This perhaps became Hindi ठग ṭhag, one of a band of professional assassins and thieves. This was borrowed into English as thug.

I don't know why PIE /*t/ became Sanskrit /tʰ/, or why Sanskrit dental /tʰ/ became Hindi retroflex /ʈʰ/.

This Hindi letter chart has ठग for the letter ठ, and a big mean looking guy to illustrate the word (from here). I can't find a higher rez image, so you'll have to trust me.

Here's the same word on a Gujarati letter chart: ઠગ (from here).

*(s)teg- became Greek στέγω stegō "to cover", and stegosaurus, which was covered in distinctive plates.

Friday, 14 March 2008

sin and swastika

Proto-Indo-European *h₁es- "to be", in the suffixed form *h₁snt-ya- "that which is", became Proto-Germanic *sun(đ)jō- "sin", then English sin. The semantic drift from "that which is" to "sin" is also suggested in a Hittite derivative used in confessional formulas: the word referring to the existence of the transgression is a form of *h₁es- and means "it (is) being, it (is) true" (this is from the American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots). The Latin word sons meaning "guilty" is also from *h₁es-, the semantic derivation being "he who was it, the real person, the guilty one".

*h₁(e)su- "good" was a suffixed form of *h₁es-. *h₁(e)su- was combined with *h₁es- to form *h₁(e)su-h₁es-ti-, I assume meaning "well-being", becoming Sanskrit स्वस्ति svasti "well being, fortune, success", then स्वस्तिक svastika "lucky or auspicious object".

*h₁es- became various forms of "be" in many languages. In Old English the present indicative looked like this:
ic eom
þū eart
hēo is
wē sindon
gē sindon
hīe sindon

eom (am) from the athematic first person singular *h₁es-mi- (Greek εἰμί, Sanskrit अस्मि asmi).

is from the athematic third person singular *h₁es-ti- (German ist, Latin est, Russian есть, Persian است āst).

sindon is from the athematic third person plural *h₁s-énti- (Latin sunt, Sanskrit सन्ति santi).

Wednesday, 12 March 2008

bed and fossil?

If something is fossilized, a trace of it is embedded in the earth's crust.

The Proto-Indo-European root *bʰedʰ- "to dig" in its o-grade form *bʰodʰ- became Proto-Germanic *ƀađjam "garden plot, sleeping place", then English bed. Finnish patja "cushion, bolster" is a borrowing of *ƀađjam.

In Latin, *bʰodʰ- became fodere, fossus "to dig", and fossilis "dug up", giving us fossil thru French.

The above is from the AHD. Unfortunately, the Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology is sceptical of this cool connection; saying about bed:

The ult. origin and primary sense are uncertain ; the Germ. base has been referred to IE. *bhodh-, as in L. fodere dig, fossa grave, ditch ; but uncertainty as to the priority of the chief Germ. sense, 'sleeping-place' and 'growing-paces for plants', invalidates conjecture

But it certainly wouldn't be the largest semantic drift we've seen.

Tuesday, 11 March 2008

MacKay and ether?

The name MacKay is from Scots Gaelic mac aoidh "son of the fiery one", from mac "son" and aodh "fire". (mac is from Proto-Celtic *mak-wo-s "son", perhaps from PIE *meh₂ḱ- "long, thin", as in meager and macron.) It seems likely to me that aodh is derived from Old Irish aed "fire", which is perhaps from Proto-Celtic *aydu- "fire" - the etymological lexicon of Proto-Celtic says "It is uncertain whether the British forms belong here, because the vocalisms are aberrant".

*aydu- is from Proto-Indo-European *h₂ei-dʰ-, an extended form of *h₂ei- "to burn" (AHD).

*h₂ei-dʰ- became Greek αἰθήρ aithēr "the upper air", then Latin æthēr, Old French éther, English ether. It was originally used in English to mean "clear sky" or to refer to the substance believed to permeate space.

Thursday, 6 March 2008

English and ankle

I'm a bit skeptical that the Angles were so called because they were from an area of land shaped like a fishing hook, but this theory is generally accepted. The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots says in the entry for ank-

ENGLAND, from Old English Englaland, "land of the Angles," from Engle, the Angles (< the shape of their original homeland, the Angul district of Schleswig)

The OED says of Angle

one of a LG. tribe that settled in Britain. XVIII. - L. Anglus, pl. Anglī, in Tacitus Angliī - Germ. *Aŋgli- (whence OE. Engle; cf. ENGLISH) the people of Angul district of Slesvig so called from its shape (mod. Angeln), the same word as ANGLE1.

ANGLE1 is "fishing hook".

The Proto-Indo-European root is *h₂enk- "to bend". The suffixed form *h₂enk-ula- (I assume with no stress on the initial syllable) became Proto-Germanic *anǥ-ul- becoming both angle "fishing hook, to fish" and Angle, England, English (AHD). Wordorigins has more.

The variant *h₂eng- became ankle from Old English anclēow and Old Norse *ankula "ankle", both from Proto-Germanic *ankulaz (AHD).

The other angle, "figure formed by two lines diverging from a common point," is from Latin angulus "angle, corner", also from *h₂eng-.

My question is: how did the Angles know their peninsula was shaped like a fish hook? Is it even shaped like a fish hook? (Angeln is to the right of the G of Schleswig.) There is an alternate theory: Angle might be from *h₂enǵh- "tight", as in German eng, Frisian ing "narrow" - since it is a peninsula. On the other hand, I'm not about to argue with the OED without more evidence.

Other cognates include Greek ἄγκυρα (as in anchor), and Old Church Slavonic ѫкотъ ǫkotǔ "hook", which uses one of those cool obsolete Cyrillic letters.

Monday, 3 March 2008

French and Ferengi?

The Germanic word *frankon- "javelin" was borrowed into Latin as Francus, to refer to the Franks, the Germanic tribes of the Rhine region who conquered Gaul circa 500. Francus became Old French Franc, and was borrowed into Old English as Franca and frensisċ, eventually becoming France and French.

*frankon- is also found in Frank from Old English Franca. The first OED citation is from Beowulf, "In Francna fæðm", "in the grasp of the Franks."

In the 10th century, the Old French Franc was borrowed into Arabic as faranji, where it was used to refer to European traders. This was possibly borrowed into Persian as farangi, and then into Hindi-Urdu as farangī (فرنگي), romanized as firangi, ferengi or feringhee, where it is a derogatory term for foreigners. The Hindi-Urdu word would seem to be where the creators of Star Trek the Next Generation got the name of the Ferengi race. (But wikipedia cites the liner notes of a Banco de Gaia album as the source of this.)