Tuesday, 25 November 2008

hobbit and occult

Tolkien, The Return of the King appendix F:

Hobbit is an invention. In the Westron the word used, when this people was referred to at all, was banakil ‘halfling’. But..the folk of the Shire and of Bree used the word kuduk... It seems likely that kaduk was a worn-down form of kûd-dûkan [= ‘hole-dweller’]. The latter I have translated... by holbytla [‘hole-builder’]; and hobbit provides a word that might well be a worn-down form of holbytla, if the name had occurred in our own ancient language.

You gotta love someone who says "it seems likely" about languages he invented himself.

His holbytla is from Old English hol "hollow, cavern, den", and bytla "hammerer, builder". Hol (and modern hole) is from Proto-Indo-European *ḱel- "to cover, conceal" (which I've talked about before, but anyway).

In Latin, *ḱel- prefixed with *ob- "over" to form occulere "to cover over", and the past participle occultus, and English occult.

Thursday, 20 November 2008

more Toronto Tamil

என்.எஸ்.தர்சி கேற்றறிங் அன்ட் ரேக் அவுட்
eṉ. es. tarci kēṟṟaṟiṅ aṉṭ rēk avuṭ - N.S. Tharsi catering and takeout. "Catering" is kēṟṟaṟiṅ

"Are you new to Canada? Welcome to the Toronto Public Library"
"Toronto" is ரொறன்ரோ roṟaṉrō. Both Tamil r-letters are pronounced the same, but there seems to be a convention that one represents English /r/ and the other represents English /t/, at least on some signs.

Wednesday, 19 November 2008

Orthanc and hysteresis

The name of Saruman's tower, Orthanc, is probably from Old English orþanc "mind, genius, wit, understanding". This is a combination of or "original" (as in German ur-) and þanc "thought". Þanc is from Proto-Indo-European *tong-, the same root as thank and think. Or is from Proto-Germanic *uz- "out" from Proto-Indo-European *ud- "up, out".

*ud- in the comparative form *ud-tero- became Greek ὕστερος husteros "later, last", then ὑστέρησις husterēsis "coming short, deficiency". Hysteresis is "the lagging of an effect behind its cause, as when the change in magnetism of a body lags behind changes in the magnetic field."

Example sentence?

Flies trapped in amber... not even the Doctor can escape a chronic hysteretic loop. I've caught him inside a fold of time.

Tuesday, 18 November 2008

orc and arcane

Tolkien's orc is a revival of the Old English orc "demon" or "the infernal regions", found in the compound orcnēas "evil walking spirits" as in Beowulf 112:

Þanon untȳdras ealle onwōcon,
eotenas ond ylfe ond orcnēas,
swylce gigantas, þā wið Gode wunnon

there sprang
ogres and elves and evil phantoms
and the giants too who strove with God

It was probably borrowed from Latin Orcus "the lower world, the abode of the dead". Ogre is possibly from this word as well, thru French. Also Italian orco "demon, monster", Spanish huerco "devil", Sardinian orcu "demon", and early modern Dutch orck "unruly person".

The Proto-Indo-European root is *areq- "to guard, lock". I don't know what that q is supposed to be. This became another Latin word, arcānus "secret" and then arcane.

Monday, 17 November 2008

nirvana and Odin

The Proto-Indo-European root is *h₂weh₁- "to blow". In Sanskrit, it became वा "to blow". This combined with nis, nir "out, forth, away" to form निर्वाण nirvāṇa "a blowing out, extinction, bliss, nirvana".

The related form *h₂weh₁-t- "blow, inspire, spiritually arouse" became Proto-Germanic *wōđ-enaz one of the chief gods. In Old Norse it was Óðinn, borrowed into English as Odin. The Old English form, Wōden, is found in Wednesday.

Tuesday, 11 November 2008

dinghy and dryad

Proto-Indo-European *deru- "be firm, solid, steadfast", with derivatives referring to wood. In Indic it became droṇa "wooden trough", then Bengali ডিঙ্গি ḍiṅgi "small boat". This was borrowed into English as dinghy "a small boat or skiff". The sound change seems to be something like droṇa - ḍoṇa - ḍoṅga - ḍiṅgi.

*deru- in the form *drū- became Greek δρῦς drus "tree", then Δρυάς, Δρυάδος Druas, Druados "wood-nymph", then dryad.

Friday, 7 November 2008

on etymology

Recently I saw November Theatre's The Black Rider (created by Tom Waits, Robert Wilson, and William Burroughs), but I'm not going to talk about that (well, ok: it was awesome). I'm going to talk about something I read in the program:

While conventional plays are fascinating and complex pieces of art, it is easy to forget on viewing them that the word "theatre" has its roots in the verb "to behold".

True - θεασθαι "to behold". θέᾱτρον was "place for seeing, esp.for dramatic representation, theatre" (maybe related to zen.) And it certainly is easy to forget this, since most people probably didn't know it in the first place. And there's no reason why they should. Etymology is cool, of course, but knowledge of etymology is completely unnecessary for using a language. What's necessary is not what words used to mean, but what words mean now.

The author of this program is using etymology to make a point about art, not about language, so maybe it's unfair of me to use it as an example. But it's an opportunity to discuss something I have not discussed on this blog yet: the etymological fallacy. This is the belief that a word's etymology determines its meaning. We see it whenever someone claims that decimate should mean "destroy one tenth", or anxious should only mean "full of anxiety", or that unique should only mean "one of a kind". Or when someone claims that enormity should only mean "enormousness"... wait, no one claims that, but they should if they want to be consistent.

Sometimes it is claimed that an earlier meaning of a word is its literal or real meaning, but really all that can be said is that an earlier meaning is an earlier meaning. Word histories are endlessly fascinating, but for all practical purposes they are irrelevant. Those who say that the real meaning of decimate is "destroy one tenth" should destroy their calendars for mistakenly putting December as the tenth month. They should also correct everyone who uses nice to mean "pleasing" - every English speaker, in other words - when its "real" meaning is "ignorant".

Tuesday, 4 November 2008


down the preposition and down "an open expanse of elevated land" used to be the same word: Old English dūn "hill". Of dūne meant "off the hill or height", and this became the modern preposition down.

The AHD has the Proto-Indo-European root being *dʰeuh₂- "to close, finish, come full circle". This became *dʰuh₂-no- "enclosed, fortified place; hill-fort", then Old English dūn "hill".

town is from Old English tūn from Proto-Germanic *tūnaz- "fortified place". The German cognate is Zaun "fence, hedge; enclosed place". The AHD and Pokorny claim that Proto-Germanic *tūnaz- was borrowed (and shifted via Grimm's Law) from Celtic *dūnon "hill, stronghold" (as in Old Irish dún "fortress"), which is from PIE *dʰeuh₂-.

And that's how down and town might be related.

Monday, 3 November 2008

elephant hands

These notes on Kipling's "My Lord, the Elephant" says that the Hindi words for "elephant" (हाथी hāthī) and "hand" (हाथ hāth) are related, "referring to the trunk which serves the elephant as a hand". It's a nice story, and for once it's true. Sanskrit हस्त: hastaḥ meant "hand; an elephants trunk", whence modern hāth "hand", and Sanskrit हस्तिन् hastin meant "having hands, clever or dextrous with the hands; the animal with hands i.e. with a trunk", whence modern hāthī "elephant".

The image is from an Urdu children's book. I'm not sure why hamza is used as the first letter of these words, I thought the words were spelled هاتهي and هاتهہ.