Wednesday, 30 April 2008

a poem

Digesting Mr Biscotti by Robyn Hitchcock

Peace comes hard to the abandoned hotel.

By the lake that harbours telepathic trout
Hither and thither dart the thoughts of God
Signora Biscotti scrapes the offal of her husband Dino
Into the limpid waters flat
It's swallowed
First by the surface
And then by the fish. The peel of his guts
The rind, is funnelled through their yo-yo mouths into their fishy tubes.
They flick away.

Next evening, two are hooked and cooked.
With lemon, pepper and sauté potatoes
Signora Biscotti and a friend, still jittery, devour the fishes flanks
Leaving the heads to star through floured eyes,
And the spines to pump dead messages past the peas,
Hard to see in the candlelight.

"Dino loved peas"

Their interlocking fingers, lit by guttering light,
like parchment spiders, rest and pulse before commencing the duel of love,
Beside the lake of stars, of unmovingness;
As Signor Biscotti - Dino - passes through them,
Peace comes slow to the abandoned hotel.

Tuesday, 29 April 2008

banyan and venus

Proto-Indo-European *wen- "desire, strive for" became Sanskrit वाणिज vāṇija, also बाणिज bāṇija "merchant, trader", then Gujarati વાણિયો vāṇiyo "member of Bania caste; Bania; merchant; shopkeeper". This was borrowed into Portuguese as banian "Hindu merchant". This was applied to the "tree of the species in Iran under which such traders conducted business".

In Latin, *wen-es- became venus "loveliness, attractiveness, beauty, grace, elegance, charm", and was applied to the Roman goddess of love and beauty.

Monday, 28 April 2008

yes, yeah

I've recently encountered the opinion that yeah is a lazy way of pronouncing yes. I'd always assumed that yeah was a contraction of yes. Neither of these beliefs are true, the truth is more interesting.

The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology on yes:

word expressing an affirmative reply (peculiar to Eng.). OE. ġese, ġīse, ġȳse, prob. for *gīese, f. *ġīa sīe 'yea, may it be (so)'; formerly used spec[ifically] in response to a neg. question [contrary to] YEA.

on yea:

OE. ġe, (WS.) gēa, corr. to Ofris. gē, jē, OS., OHG, jā̆ (Du., G. ja), ON. , Goth. ja, jai; ult CGerm. *ja, *je, which was variously modified through stress or emotional emphasis. The standard sp. yea and pronunc. jei show retarded development, perh. partly due to assoc. with nay (but the normal development jī is current locally).

In other words, yeah and yea are older than yes. A form of yeah is found in most Germanic languages. yes is specific to English and was formed from (a form of) yea plus sīe "may it be so" (from PIE *h₁es- "to be".)

The ODEE states that yes was originally used for an affirmative response to a negative question - much like French si. Could si also be derived from a form of "to be"? I don't know; this etymology of si³ is the only one I could find, and it's not helpful. No!

Thursday, 24 April 2008

slime, oubliette, flummery?

Proto-Indo-European *(s)lei- "slimy, to glide" in an extended form became Old English slīm then slime.

In the suffixed form *lei-w- it became Latin oblīvīscor "to forget" (with the prefix ob from PIE *epi- "near"), the etymological sense being "to wipe, let slip from the mind" (AHD). This became French oublier "to forget" and oubliette - I guess because when you put someone in an oubliette, you can forget about them.

Some disagreement here, however: Lewis & Short state that oblīviscor "to forget" is from ob plus livēre "to become dark". The ODEE says "of obscure origin" for oblīviscor.

flummery, which originally referred to a kind of porridge, is from Welsh llymru "soft jelly from sour oatmeal." (The Welsh voiceless lateral fricative /ɬ/ can sound like /fl/ to English ears.) llymru is from llym "sharp, severe, pungent." This is perhaps derived from *(s)lei-. Pokorny has "perhaps Welsh llym 'sharp'" in the entry for 3. lei 662. The etymological lexicon of Proto-Celtic says Proto-Celtic *lim- "sharpen, polish" is probably from *(s)lei-.

Wednesday, 23 April 2008

les pierres sont remplies d'entrailles

April is National Poetry Month. Altho I'm not American, I feel like celebrating with some poems. Today we have two. Out of respect for The Queen's English Society, they don't rhyme.

Love Poem by Alexei Sayle

I know my love.
She treads lightly on the packed earth
Recently turned over by the plough.
Her hair is the colour of gvon.
Her eyes as bright as newly spun haakskin felt.
She waits for me.
Sucking a T.C.P. throat pastille.

Bypass through the Sky by André Breton and Philippe Sourpault (translated by David Gascoyne)

Child weaves a despair of pearls
Draws inspiration from the boxes he's received for his communion
Instigates the problem of birth in the form of a neat equation in the key of C
Barricades his window with his eyelashes
Plays with his little sister's prayer which is more silvery than his own
Endures the ill treatments
Of two to three
Multiplies himself in the manner of his book's microbes notably by schizogenesis the one which seperates itself from his has wings
He thinks about the beautiful karyokinesis
During mass

Tuesday, 22 April 2008


Thanks to AdamX, I've finally discovered Hot for Words, a very popular video blog by Marina, a Russian philologist who discusses word origins. I didn't know you could get a degree in philology, but she has two.

One of her latest episodes is on barbarian. As she says, it's from Greek βάρβαρος "foreign (esp. non-Greek-speaking), rude, prob. orig. referring to unintelligible speech" (ODEE). Specifically, βάρβαρος was borrowed into Latin as barbarus, and this is the source of barbarian and barbarous thru Old French.

βάρβαρος is related to Sanskrit बर्बर barbara "stammering" and Latin balbus "stammering, stuttering", all from Proto-Indo-European *baba- "barbaric speech". It seems it might have been the Indo-Europeans, and not the Greeks, who equated "foreign speech" with "bar bar bar".

At the end of this episode, Marina says that the Romans took the Greek word and applied it to another kind of person. I suppose she's referring to Latin barba "beard", but this has no relation to βάρβαρος. Latin barba is from Proto-Indo-European *bʰardʰ-ā- "beard" (also), and is the source of barber and barb (as in "sharp point"). beard is from the same root thru Proto-Germanic.

However, barb meaning "horse of a breed introduced by the Moors into Spain from northern Africa" is from Vulgar Latin *Barbaria "Barbary states" from βάρβαρος, according to the AHD. This implies that Barbary is from βάρβαρος as well. I cannot find any sources that convincingly connect βάρβαρος with Arabic بَرْبَر barbar "Berber".

I'm currently looking for a Russian blonde to host my blog.

Friday, 18 April 2008


I've been tagged by AdamX.

1. Pick up the nearest book of 123 (or more) pages.

Comic books won't work for this game, so I'll pick the novel I'm currently reading: At Swim-Two-Birds by Flann O'Brien.

2.  Open the book to page 123 and find the 5th sentence.

What in the name of God, he asked, do you mean by throwing a question like that at me?

3. Post the next 3 sentences.


I was wondering, said the Pooka.

A kangaroo?

4. Tag Five People.

I'm not going to tag anyone. If you want to be tagged, consider yourself tagged.

Interestingly, the blogger who tagged AdamX, Siegfried, calls this game a "me-me" instead of "meme". This is a reanalysis of the spelling of an unfamiliar word - a spelling eggcorn. I think it's the first one I've ever seen.

Thursday, 17 April 2008

bog, bow, bagel, buxom

The Proto-Indo-European root *bʰeug-, *bʰeugʰ- "to bend". In Proto-Celtic it became *buggo- "soft, tender", then Scottish Gaelic bog "soft", borrowed into English as bog, which bends beneath the feet.

In Proto-Germanic the form *bʰeugʰ- became *ƀeuǥon. This gives us several words:
bow the noun "a bent or curved object" is from Old English boᵹa "bow".
bow the verb is from Old English strong verb būᵹan "to bend".
bagel is from Yiddish בייגל beygl, a diminutive formed from Old High German boug "ring".
buxom is from Middle English buhsum from Old English *(ge)būhsum from būgan. The word originally meant "obedient, compliant" in Old English, then "flexible, blithe" (which are now obsolete), then "plump, comely".

Wednesday, 16 April 2008

gun and bezoar

gun probably comes from Old Norse Gunnhildr, a woman's name applied to ballistae and other weapons. The name is formed from gunnr and hildr, both meaning "war". gunnr is from Proto-Indo-European *gʷʰen- "to strike, kill".

A bezoar is "intestinal calculus", that is a stone in the stomach, believed to be an antidote to poison. The word is from Arabic bēzahr, a variant of bāzahr, bādizahr, from Persian pād-zahr, bād-zahr (پادزهر, بادزهر) from pād "protector" plus zahr which means "stone" according to the ODEE and "poison" according to the AHD. Steingass's Comprehensive Persian-English Dictionary says it's "poison".

zahr is from Old Iranian *jaθra- from *gʷʰen- (the zero-grade form *gʷʰn-tro-). So its etymological meaning is "killer". I wonder why the ODEE says it means "stone".

Tuesday, 15 April 2008

elixir and serene

The Proto-Indo-European root is *ḱsero- "dry". This became Greek ξηρός ksēros "dry, arid" and ksērion "desiccative powder for wounds". ksērion was borrowed into Arabic as al-'iksīr (أَلْإِكْسِير ?) (with an epenthetic initial vowel and the definite article al), and generalized to mean "elixir". This was borrowed into medieval Latin as elixir.

The suffixed variant *ḱseres-no- (*-no- formed adjectives) became Latin serēnus "serene, bright, clear", borrowed into English as serene.

Monday, 7 April 2008


I found this Telugu word for "orange" (nāriṃza) (which won't display properly unless you have a Telugu Unicode font) in Charles Philip Brown's Telugu-English Dictionary (the last entry on the page). The last character in this word is empty. What's going on?

Thanks to Unicode Checker, I see that its code point is U+0C5B, and it's unassigned. The equivalent point in Devanāgarī is U+095B ज़ - used for Hindi /za/. The mystery Telugu character must be the obsolete grapheme for ẓa, which can be seen on the second page of this document. The people behind the Digital Dictionaries of South Asia either know something about a future version of Unicode or are hoping that this character will eventually be supported. The forthcoming Unicode 5.1.0 has additional Telugu characters that "expand the support of Sanskrit", but they don't say which ones. But I don't think this grapheme, if it represents a voiced sibilant, would have been used for Sanskrit in any case.

teutonik is nit 1 fremd zunge fyr di teutonera

Seen on linguaphiles: alteutonik, 1915 by Elias Molee, a book on a constructed language to be used by "all teutons." The book begins with the quote "the baltic sea, between germany and scandinavia, has always been the true world's center of culture". But that's not all - it starts in an abbreviated English and then gradually switches to teutonik beginning on page 9, which might make learning the language a little tricky.

I found this part of the introduction amusing, as it reminded me of fanfic that makes the reader memorize a long list of orthographical conventions (/ means speech, * means Ginny's thoughts, ~ means Draco's thoughts, etc). It begins with a list of "easy abbreviations," like

e, the
v, ov (of)
n, and
tm, time
s, is

then continues:

before i go farther, it wl b well t give a few points v (ov) information t printers w,hr no "caps" are used.

one line drawn under a word in a manuscript indicates t e typesetter tht e word s t b in italics; two lines mean full face; three lines mean large letters from e lowercase for general headings; a waving line drawn under a word means "spacing"; tht s, an "n" quad t b placed between e letters n two quads between a several words, for e sake v emphasis or attention.

Who says kids today are to blame?

Wednesday, 2 April 2008

burglar and belfry

James Kilpatrick has an innovative derivation of burgle:

To burglarize! The bastard verb came out of nowhere about 1871. It served no useful purpose not already served by the derivative forms of "burglar," a fine old 16th-century noun. In those simpler days, a burglar was one who burgled, i.e., one who broke into another's dwelling at nighttime with the intent to commit a felony.

As so often happens, the apostles of nicey-nicey came along. They felt that "to burgle" had a vulgar ring to it. It rhymed with "gurgle." It had the sound of mouthwash swishing. "Dayclossay!" they cried. Thus they tacked on an "-ize" suffix...

What he seems to be saying here - it's not very clear - is that burgle is the oldest form, and burglar is a noun formed from it by use of an agentive suffix - like tester from test or runner from run. Z.D. Smith points out in the comments to yesterday's post that this is not true. burglar dates from the 15th century, and burgle is a much more recent (19th century) backformation (says the Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology).

Kilpatrick's second point is that burglarize was coined because burgle sounded too vulgar. In fact, burgle and burglarize appeared at the same time, and I'm not aware of any evidence that burglarize was motivated by some sort of language hygiene attitude.

In summary, the "derivative forms of 'burglar'", specifically burgle, that Kilpatrick assumes existed and served a useful purpose in the 16th century, did not exist. It was a jocular backformation some 400 years later. And burglarize appeared at the same time as burgle.

But enuf of Kilpatrick. burglar is from "legal Anglo-Norman" burgler, from a base *burg- (says the ODEE). According to the AHD, Old French burg "borough" (without the asterisk) is from Latin burgus "fortified town", of Germanic origin. The Proto-Germanic word is *ƀerǥan "to protect", from Proto-Indo-European *bʰerǵʰ- "high, with derivatives referring to hills and hill-forts".

Proto-Germanic *ƀerǥan combined with *friþu- "shelter" (from PIE *priH- "love", as in free) to form something like *ƀerǥ-friþu-. This was borrowed into Old French as berfrei "watchtower" - that is, "place of safety". This was borrowed into Middle English as berfrey "A movable tower used in sieges; the chamber in a bell tower where the bells are hung". An Old French variant spelled with <l>, belfroi, influenced an English form spelled with <l>: belfrei, bellefrei. The association of towers with bells no doubt influenced this spelling as well. The spelling with <l> eventually prevailed: belfry.

Tuesday, 1 April 2008

I blame the apostrophe

James Kilpatrick, linguistic socialist, writes that The English language, as every pessimist will tell you, has been going to the bow-wows for 500 years.

Only 500? That places the beginning of the rot at 1508. What's so special about this year? Why not the late 1500s, which saw the first occurrence of that error of unsurpassable grossness, between you and I? What about 1200, when we borrowed the Viking they, which serves no useful purpose, to replace the clearer and more logical hie? Why not the most popular choice, the 1960s?

It should be obvious: the apostrophe was introduced into English in the early 1500s.

The apostrophe is a mess: it was first used for elided letters, then for noun plurals, then to mark the genitive of nouns. Today it's used for all of these - people still use it for noun plurals, the plurals of abbreviations (VIP's), and for decades (1980's), despite all our attempts to make them stop. Its former widespread use as a plural marker is an embarrassment we'd like to forget about.

It's used for the genitive of nouns (the boy's dog, the dog is the boy's) but not the genitive of pronouns (the dog is ours, the end of its usefulness)! Total chaos.

It causes confusion everywhere. Take panda's. Is the apostrophe standing in for the elided letters (panda is or panda has), or it is marking the genitive (of the panda)? Who knows? Needless to say, all this orthographical confusion can only lead to unclear thinking, causing confusion in our minds between things belonging to pandas and verb aspects relating to pandas.

While some people like to pretend that you can't manage without apostrophes, or that without punctuation we have nothing, we were better off without the apostrophe. (As the Oxford Companion to the English Language says: "it appears from the evidence that there was never a golden age in which the rules for the use of the possessive apostrophe in English were clear-cut and known, understood, and followed by most educated people.")