Thursday, 17 December 2009

The City & The City

I've just finished China Miéville's new novel, The City & The City. It's not as good as Perdido Street Station or The Scar, but it's very enjoyable. I'm impressed at how he manages to make the central conceit last for a whole novel without it seeming silly.

There are a few paragraphs of linguistic interest which I quote for your amusement. It concerns the two languages, Illitan and Besź.

If you do not know much about them, Illitan and Besź sound very different. They are written, of course, in distinct alphabets. Besź is in Besź: thirty-four letters, left to right, all sounds rendered clear and phonetic, consonants, vowels and demivowels decorated with diacritics - it looks, one often hears, like Cyrillic (though that is a comparison likely to annoy a citizen of Besźel, true or not). Illitan uses Roman script. That is recent.

Read the travelogues of the last-but-one century and those older, and the strange and beautiful right-to-left Illitan calligraphy - and its jarring phonetics - is constantly remarked on. At some point everyone has heard Sterne, from his travelogue: "In the Land of Alphabets Arabic caught Dame Sanskrit's eye (drunk he was despite Muhamed's injunction, else her age would have dissuaded). Nine months later a disowned child was put out. The feral babe is Illitan, Hermes-Aphrodite not without beauty. He has something of both his parents in his form, but the voice of those who raised him - the birds."

The script was lost in 1923, overnight, a culmination of Ya Ilsa's relorms: it was Atatürk who imitated him, not, as is usually claimed, the other way around. Even in Ul Qoma, no one can read Illitan script now but archivist and activists.

Anway whether in its original or later written form, Illitan bears no resemblance to Besź. Nor does it sound similar. But these distintion are not as deep as they appear. Despite careful cultural differentiation, in the shape of their grammars and the relations of their phonemes (in not the base sounds themselves), the languages are closely related - they share a common ancestor, after all. It feels almost seditious to say so. Still.

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

yoga and syzygy

Proto-Indo-European *yeug- "to join" became Sanskrit योग yoga "union". Yoga philosophy teaches "self-concentration, abstract meditation and mental abstraction practised as a system… its chief aim being to teach the means by which the human spirit may attain complete union with Īśvara or the Supreme Spirit" (Monier-Williams). The English cognate is yoke.

In Greek *yeug- became ζυγόν "yoke", which combined with συν "with" to form συζυγία "union, conjunction". This was borrowed as syzygy thru Latin. A syzygy, by the way, is an astronomical term for a conjunction or opposition of two heavenly bodies.

Another Sanskrit reflex is युग yuga a term for an age of the world. I quote the complete definition from Monier-Williams here because it's so interesting:

an age of the world, long mundane period of years (of which there are four, viz. 1. Krita or Satya, 2. Treta, 3. Dvapara, 4. Kali, of which the first three have already elapsed, while the Kali, which began at midnight between the 17th and 18th of Feb. 3102 B.C. [O. S.], is that in which we live ; the duration of each is said to be respectively 1,728 ,000, 1,296,000, 864,000, and 432,000 years of men, the descending numbers representing a similar physical and moral deterioration of men in each age; the four Yugas comprise an aggregate of 4,320,000 years and constitute a "great Yuga" or Maha-yuga

The Kali of the Kali Yuga, the yuga we are currently in, is the male demon named Kali, not the goddess Kālī.

Friday, 4 December 2009

lox, lakh, shellac

lox is a kind of smoked salmon, from Yiddish לאַקס laks, from Old High German lahs "salmon". The Proto-Indo-European root is *laḱs- "salmon". The IEW has laḱ- 653 "to be spotted, salmon".

lakh/lac/lack is Anglo-Indian for "one hundred thousand", from Hindi लाख lākh, related to Sanskrit लक्ष lakṣa "one hundred thousand", also "mark, sign, token". Hobson-Jobson says the word has been borrowed into Southeast Asian languages like Malay and Javanese.

Pokorny derives Sanskrit lakṣa from *laḱ-; the sense development is presumably something like "spotted > lots of marks > a vast amount like one hundred thousand".

There is a homophonous Hindi word लाख lākh "gum-lac, a kind of wax formed by the Coccus lacca" (a scale insect that feeds on certain trees in south Asia). This is related to Sanskrit लाक्ष lākṣa "a kind of red dye", which is also possibly from *laḱs- (because salmon are red?). The Hindi word found its way to French as laque en écailles, which was calqued into English as shellac, that is, "shell-lac" - lac that has been melted and run into thin plates (OED).

Thursday, 3 December 2009

host and guest

Via Motivated Grammar, I have found the very entertaining blog the ragbag, entertaining for its wide-ranging and whimsical discussions on literary topics, including etymology.

A recent post on words wholly related or words wholly unrelated states that host "bread consecrated in the Eucharist", host "army", and host "one who entertains guests" are wholly unrelated. This is true up to a point, but if you go further back it turns out that the second and third hosts are both derived from the Proto-Indo-European root *gʰos-ti- "stranger, guest, host". Host the army is from Latin hostis "enemy", from the "stranger" sense. Host as in someone who receives guests is from Old French hoste from Latin hospitem, hospes "host, guest, stranger, foreigner". Latin hospitem is from the form *gʰos-pot- (*poti- "master").

However, the ecclesiastical host is wholly unrelated.

guest is from the same root via Old Norse gestr. According to Watkins in the American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots, the PIE root meant "someone with whom one has reciprocal duties of hospitality", which explains how it could come to mean both "guest" and "host".

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

the grammar gravy train

Geoffrey Pullum says

When you set yourself up as a grammar expert it's better than being an expert on plastics. To be an expert on plastics you actually have to know something about plastics. With grammar the analogous thing doesn't hold. Nobody asks, nobody checks, nobody knows enough to get suspicious. You are free as a bird to publish any garbage you might want to type out.

I discovered this myself while in my favourite used bookstore a few days ago. I was in the language section as usual, and I found The Wordsworth Dictionary of Modern English Grammar by Ned Halley. Says the back cover, "Is there a right way to speak and write English? This unique new guide to the language is dedicated to answering the question - in Plain English. Compiled for readers from school age onwards, this is a book of easy reference."

Well it turns out this book contains a few errors. Here are some:

active and passive In grammar a verb is in the 'active voice' when it describes an action by the subject of the phrase; as, "he gave her the flowers." When the verb describes an action affecting the object of the phrase, it is in the passive voice; as, "she received the flowers from him."

Both these sentences are active. The passive voice is formed by a form of be plus the past participle, for instance The flowers were given to her.

ablative In grammar, the 'case' of a noun or pronoun expressed in the context of location, direction, time or other influences. In the sentence "She sat next to him", the pronoun "him" is in the ablative case. As a determinant of word forms, ablative is not a distinct case in English. In Latin, where nouns, pronouns and adjectives are 'declined' into cases, ablative is the final case in the sequence nominative, vocative, accusative, genitive, dative, ablative.

If English has no ablative, how can him be ablative?

combat Once a mere noun, combat is now in common use as a verb...

The noun and verb are attested at about the same time.

imperfect tense In grammar the tense of a verb describing the progress of an action in the past. In "he was laughing" the verb 'was' is the imperfect tense of 'be'.

was is the past tense. The past imperfect is was laughing.

mood In grammar, the way a verb is used can always be identified with a 'mood.' There are five distinct ones:
1. Indicative mood expressing a fact: 'He is going'
2. Optative mood expressing a wish: 'Let's go'
3. Imperative mood expressing a command: 'Go!'
4. Interrogative mood expressing a question: 'Is he going?'
5. Subjunctive mood expressing a condition: 'Were he to go…'

Optative mood is at least a mood used by some languages (not English). But interrogative mood? It is to weep.

But that's nowhere near the worst of it. The book covers "the curiosities of current slang" as well. Here is the beginning of the entry for Goth:

Goth A worldwide youth 'counterculture' launched, according to some popular historians, by British pop singer Ziggy Stardust - known for his black clothing and eyeliner, white face and piercings - in 1979.

A black-clad, pierced Ziggy Stardust (scientific name: David Bowie) in its natural environment

[It seems that some languages really have an interrogative mood, including Koasati, Yupik and Cubeo.]

Thursday, 26 November 2009

niddering and lilac

A niddering is a coward, villain, outlaw. It's an alternation of niðing/nithing: according to the OED, in the 16th century "the letter ð (in niðing) was apparently taken to represent the letter d followed by a mark of suspension, thus giving rise to the form nidering."

Anglo-Saxon Chron. (Tiber. B.i) anno 1049, se cing þa ⁊ eall here cwædon Swegen for niðing. (Then the king and all the army proclaimed Sweyne an outlaw.)

1956 R. SUTCLIFF Shield Ring iv. 39 You know how hard it goes with me to play the nything.

1999 Sarasota (Florida) Herald-Tribune (Nexis) 27 May A2 On the perjury and obstruction of justice articles, five and 10 niddering Republican senators, respectively, conspired to obstruct honest judicial closure.

It's borrowed from "early Scandinavian", as in Old Norse níðingr "villain" (OED), from Proto-Germanic *nīþa- "animosity", from Proto-Indo-European *nei- "to be excited, shine" (AHD).

*nei- perhaps became Persian نیل nīl "blue, indigo", altered to līl and līlak "bluish". This was borrowed into Arabic as ليلك līlak, then Spanish as lilac, a shrub with bluish flowers.

It's tempting to connect Persian nīl or the Sanskrit cognate nīla- "dark blue" with Greek Νεῖλος, English Nile, but as far as I can tell no connection has been found.

Friday, 20 November 2009

meiosis and minestrone

In a striking example of how etymologies are not definitions, miniature and the adjective mini as in iPod mini, mini-me, etc., are from Italian miniatura "small brightly coloured image used to decorate books, manuscripts, etc." from Latin miniāre "to make red". The OED explains:

Italian miniatura originally denoted the painting of small images to decorate the initial letters of chapters in manuscripts (compare the use of post-classical Latin miniare in the sense 'to rubricate'). As these images were necessarily small, the term came to be used for small portraits, probably reinforced by an association by folk etymology with (ultimately classical Latin) min- in minore MINOR adj., etc., which has probably also affected the development of the extended senses in English and in other languages.

So mini and miniature are unrelated to minor, minus, minuscule and minimum. The latter four words are from Proto-Indo-European *mei- "small".

*mei- also gives us meiosis from Greek μείωσις "lessening".

And minister from Latin minister "servant, subordinate" - as in "inferior". The Latin minister is also found in minestrone - from Italian minestra "dish" plus the -one suffix. Minestra is from Latin minestrāre "to provide, supply" from minister.

Thursday, 19 November 2009


Oxford University Press has chosen unfriend, meaning "To remove someone as a 'friend' on a social networking site such as Facebook" as its word of the year for 2009.

The OUP word of the year announcement has nothing to do with whether the word is new or not; it's based on its "currency and potential longevity". But simply because I can, I looked into how old it is. And like so many other words the kids today are using to destroy our language, there's nothing new about unfriend, at least in the past participle:

Will you with those infirmities she owes,
Vnfriended, new adopted to our hate,
Dow'rd with our curse, and stranger'd with our oath,
Take her or, leaue her.
- Shakespeare, King Lear I i

I hope, Sir, that we are not mutually Unfriended by this Difference which hath happened betwixt us.
- Thomas Fuller, The appeal of injured innocence III. xxxjb, 1659

All quotes I could find are of the past participle. It's possible that unfriended was derived from friended, the past participle of the verb friend (which dates from 1225). In that case, unfriend as a verb, as in "I decided to unfriend my roommate on Facebook", really is new.

As a noun it's even older:

We sollen wende and wid ham fihten, slean houre onfrendes
(We should go and fight with them, slay our unfriends [enemies])
Layamon's Brut, c1275

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Thor, tornado, blunderbuss

The Proto-Indo-European root is *(s)tenh₂- "to thunder". This became Proto-Germanic *þunaraz, which is found in Thor from Old Norse Þōrr "thunder god", and also Thursday from Old English þunres dæȝ "Thor's day".

The o-grade form *tonh₂- became Latin tonāre "to thunder", and Spanish tronar "to thunder" and tronada "thunderstorm". Tronada was borrowed as tornado. The change in spelling seems to partly be due to folk-etymology: the word is often explained as being from Spanish tornar "to turn" (OED).

The form *tn̥h₂- became German Donner "thunder" (as in Donner and Blitzen), Dutch donder, and of course English thunder. Blunderbuss is borrowed from Dutch donderbus, from donder plus bus "gun". It was influenced by the word blunder "perhaps with some allusion to its blind or random firing" (OED).

Sunday, 15 November 2009

karma and tera-

Proto-Indo-European *kʷer- "to make" became both Greek τέρας teras "monster, marvel" and Aeolian πέλωρ pelōr "portent, prodigy, monster" (as in peloria), perhaps from the sense "that which does harm" (AHD). Τέρας is found in terabit, terawatt, terahertz, meaning a unit times 10¹², the next prefix up from giga-. The two Greek reflexes p and t are due to dialect differences.

The suffixed form *kʷer-mn̥ became Sanskrit कर्म karma "act, deed". The form *kʷer- became kr̥ "to make", which combined with sam- "together" to form संस्कृत saṃskr̥ta "put together, well-formed", Sanskrit.

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

swallow and manticore

Proto-Indo-European *swel- "to eat, drink" became Iranian *khvāra- "eating". This combined with Old Persian martiya- "mortal man" to form an unattested compound something like *martikhor, which was borrowed into Greek as μαρτιχόρας martikhoras "man-eater", ie "tiger". This changed to μαντιχώρας mantikhōras and was borrowed into Latin as mantichoras. This was borrowed into English thru French as manticore.

In English, *swel- became swallow.

Old Persian martiya- "mortal man" is from *mer- "to rub away, harm". This root shows up in Persian مردم mardum "man" and مردم گیا mardum-giyā literally "man-plant". This is a possible source of Greek μανδραγόρας mandragoras and Latin mandragora, the mandrake plant.

Monday, 19 October 2009

onion and union

Phonologically this is straightforward, but what the heck happened semantically?

Latin ūniōn- meant "oneness, unity" - understandably, since it's derived from ūnus "one". But it also meant "a single large pearl", and "a kind of single onion". Onion is from Anglo-Norman vngeon, oignon, oinion etc, in the 12th-13th centuries, while union is borrowed from French union in the 15th century.

So what's the connection between "oneness" and "onion" and "pearl"? The OED says

According to the classical Latin agricultural writer Columella, the peasants used ūniō for a certain variety of onion because it put forth no shoots, i.e. it represented a single entity. The application of the word to a pearl may represent an independent derivation from ūnus one, alluding to the fact that it was worn alone, or it may be a transfer from the sense ‘onion’, with reference to the similarity in shape.

Thursday, 15 October 2009

pashmina and peculiar

*peḱ- "pull out (wool)" in the form *peḱ-s-men- became Persian پشم pašm which means "Wool. Fleece. Hair on the privities, pubes" or if you prefer, "Hair, wool, fur, down; the pubes; anything insignificant or of no moment, anything worthless". This word is found in پشمینه pašmīnah "woolen cloth", borrowed into English as pashmina.

The extended form *peḱ-u-, meaning "herd" and then "wealth", became pecūlium "riches in cattle, private property" and pecūliāris "of or relating to a person's peculium, belonging to a person, one's own, personal, private". Borrowed into Middle English as peculier "Distinguished in nature, character, or attributes from others; unlike others", becoming English peculiar.

Also pecorino and fee

I originally had written that the root *peḱu- "wealth" shifted to "cattle" in other languages but to "wool" in Persian. I changed this based on Glen Gordon's comments. Thanks Glen!

Wednesday, 14 October 2009


I just found out that a few months ago New Delhi's court decriminalized homosexuality. In honour of this, the word today is hijra, a term for a transvestite who is considered neither male nor female.

From the OED, I see that Hindi हिजड़ा hijaṛā "eunuch, impotent man" is perhaps borrowed (via Marathi हिजडा hijaḍā and Oriya ହିଜଡ଼ hijaṛa) from Kannada ಹೆಣ್ಣಿಗ heṇṇiga "impotent man, coward", ultimately from Tamil பெண்டன் peṇṭaṉ "hermaphrodite, eunuch". This is the masculine form of பெண்டு peṇṭu "woman".

Wikipedia notes (there is no citation) that Kannada initial h- is a reflex of earlier p-. It seems likely that the Kannada and Tamil words are both derived from the same proto-form.

No relation to Arabic هِجْرَة hijra, the migration of Muhammed to Medina.

Hijras are men who sacrifice their genitalia to a goddess in return for the power to confer fertility on newlyweds and newborn children, a ritual role they are respected for, at the same time as they are stigmatized for their ambiguous sexuality.
- Gayatri Reddy, With respect to sex: negotiating hijra identity in South India

Portraits of hijras.

Friday, 9 October 2009

the story of Verner's Law

It's an amusing tale of the early discoveries in Indo-European linguistics. And parts 2 and 3. Seen on Mr Verb.

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

mouse, muscle, mussel, musk, nutmeg

Proto-Indo-European *mūs- became the word for "mouse" in English and many other languages. In Latin it became mūs "mouse", then mūsculus, literally "little mouse", borrowed into English as muscle. The OED tells us that the word for "mouse" also has the meaning "muscle" in many Indo-European languages, because of the resemblance of a flexing muscle to the movements of a mouse.

Weirdly, mūsculus is also the source of mussel, I guess because of the resemblance of the shellfish to mice in size. The Greek cognate μῦς was used for mice, muscles and mussels - and also "a large kind of whale", bafflingly.

It wasn't just muscles and molluscs that were compared with mice. *mūs- became Sanskrit मुष्क muṣka "testicle". Related to this is Persian مشك mušk "musk", since the musk-bags of deer were thought to resemble testicles. The Persian word was borrowed into Greek then Latin as muscus, which is the source of English musk. Muscus is also the source of the -meg in nutmeg, thru Old French mugue "musk", which was used to refer to a fragrant herb.

Monday, 5 October 2009

Welsh and walnut

Proto-Germanic *walho-z "foreigner" shows up in Old English wealh "Celt, Briton", Old Norse Valir "Gauls", French Wallon. It was borrowed into Slavic, for instance Czech vlach, apparently meaning "Italian". The Anglo-French Waleis shows up in the name Wallace. With the adjectival -ish suffix, *walho-z became English Welisc, then Welsh.

Old English walhhnutu is wealh plus hnutu "nut". Etymologically it "meant the nut of the Roman lands (Gaul and Italy) as distinguished from the native hazel" according to the OED.

According to Skeats, wealh in the plural was wealas "foreigners", which became Wales.

Thursday, 1 October 2009

turban and tulip

Persian دولبند dūlband "turban" was borrowed into Turkish as tulbant/tuliband, then found its way into Italian as tolipante, making its way into English as turban. It is not known exactly when the change of tul- to tur- took place.

The Turkish word was borrowed again as modern Latin tulīpa, Italian tulipano, French tulipan, tulipe, English tulip. According to the OED, the tulip was introduced into Europe from Turkey in the 16th century. It was so called because of its likeness to the turban in shape.

According to Yule, the dūl- of dūlband is from Arabic dul "to roll". I wonder if the -band is from Proto-Indo-Iranian bandh- as in Hindi bāndhanā "to tie" and bandanna.

Tuesday, 29 September 2009

vanilla and vagina

Proto-Indo-European *weh₂g- "to break; split, bite" (AHD) (or "cover, sheath") became Latin uāgīna "sheath", because sheaths were probably made from a simple split piece of wood.

Latin uāgīna became Spanish vaina, the diminutive of which is vaynilla/vainilla, borrowed into English as the word for the sheath-shaped vanilla bean. Cf. Italian vainiglia, Portuguese bainilha, French vanille.

Also: etymological vaginas (seen on the Valve).

Thursday, 24 September 2009

National Punctuation Day

Today is National Punctuation Day. I wrote about this last year, but here we are again.

One of the National Punctuation Day pages tells us the following "Punctuation Fact":

Punctuation first began to be added to texts because of declining standards of literacy. Readers had become less able to indicate their own punctuation.

English punctuation came about because people didn't know how to use punctuation?

If they mean that punctuation was standardized because of declining standards of literacy, I'm not sure how true this is. There were attempts to reform English spelling, but were there ever attempts to reform or standardize English punctuation?

There's also the implication that there is a correlation between punctuation and level of literacy. I don't know how true that is, but I do know that English writing has always had punctuation. It was sparse in Old English, but it was there. Middle English punctuation included these marks (this is from A Biography of the English Language by C.M. Millward:

By the 18th century, punctuation was much the same as it is today but it was much heavier - just look at a page of Tristram Shandy or Emma to get an idea of how heavy punctuation was then. We're actually using less punctuation now than we used to. But are we less literate?

One of the favourite things punctuation mavens like to do is complain about misused apostrophes. But in the interests of reasonableness, I'd like to point out the following bit of information, from The Oxford Companion to the English Language:

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.

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

climax and ladder

The first occurance of climax in English was for the rhetorical device in which a number of ideas are arranged in order of ascending effectiveness. For instance:

One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
- Tennyson, Ulysses

Later it came to mean "the last or highest term of a rhetorical climax" and "the highest point of anything reached by gradual ascent; the culmination". The OED says that these latter two meanings "are due to popular ignorance and misuse of the learned word". Who says the OED is a descriptive dictionary?

Greek κλῖμαξ meant "ladder". It's from Proto-Indo-European *ḱlei- "to lean". The suffixed o-grade form *ḱloi-tr- became Old English hlǣdder, then English ladder. But what is that *-tr- supposed to be?

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

vodka, whiskey, water

Both vodka and whisky come from words for "water". Coincidence? A poetic drunkenly-inspired coinage made far back in the mists of time?

Vodka is borrowed from Russian водка which is from вода "water". -ка is a diminutive suffix, so vodka etymologically means "little water". It's from Proto-Indo-European *wed- "water, wet".

Whisky was borrowed from Scots Gaelic uisge beatha and/or Irish Gaelic uisce beatha, meaning "water of life". (In my older post I say Scots Gaelic, but the OED doesn't seem sure.) It was also spelled usquebaugh and whiskybae, until the last syllable was dropped. Irish Gaelic uisce "water" is from *ud-skio-, a suffixed zero-grade form of *wed-.

Other unrelated words with the same sense are aquavitae from the Latin for "water of life", and French eau-de-vie meaning "brandy".

In English, *wed- became water, wet and wash.

Friday, 4 September 2009

Cons of linguistics

NetBase Solutions' healthBase is a semantic search engine which "takes a sophisticated linguistic approach, actually diagramming sentences to determine the relationship between words and phrases. It does particularly well with causal relationships, allowing it to tease out cause and effect from raw text." But as pointed out in a hilarious post on Language Log, results can sometimes be pretty weird. Searching for the pros and cons of linguistics made me laugh:

That's eerily accurate.

Friday, 28 August 2009

donkey ears

Thanks to epea pteroenta, I've learned that the Greek word for "rabbit" (λαγώς, as in lagomorph) etymologically means "floppy ears".

The Hindi-Urdu word for "rabbit" is ख़रगोश/خرگوش ḵẖargoś, borrowed from Persian, where it seems to etymologically mean "donkey ears". خر khar is "ass" and گوش goš is "ear".

devil and parliament

Proto-Indo-European *gʷelh₁- "to throw, reach, with further meaning to pierce" became Greek βάλλω "to throw". This combined with διά "through, across" to form διαβάλλω "to throw across; misrepresent, mislead". Διάβολος meant "slanderer" and also "Satan". It seems this was borrowed into Latin as diabolus, then borrowed into Old English as dēofol, becoming modern English devil.

Bάλλω combined with παρα "beside" to form παραβάλλω "to throw beside; compare". Παραβολή meant "comparison, analogy; parable", borrowed into Latin as parabola. This became Old French parable, and also parler "speech" and parlement "discussion, meeting". The -ia- spelling of parliament has not been fully explained (OED).

The OED says in the entry for bale "to dance":

a. OF. baler (since 16th c. baller) to dance (= Pr. balar, It. ballare, Sp., Pg. bailar):-late L. (Isidore) ballāre to dance. Some think the L. formed from Gr. βαλλίζειν to dance, some f. balla BALL n.1, on the alleged ground that, in the Middle Ages, tennis was accompanied with dancing and song.

The AHD claims that βαλλίζω "to dance, jump about" is derived from βάλλω "to throw", so words like ballad, ballet and ball "a formal gathering for social dancing" are ultimately from *gʷelh₁-.

In English, *gʷelh₁- became cwellan "to kill, destroy" and quell.

Thursday, 27 August 2009

chemical language

Titanian grammar is tricky. For example, the feel of wool cannot be used as the verb for the smell of wood smoke unless the object of the sentence has a pleasant flavor.

- Alfred Bester, The Deceivers

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

dragon, tarragon, rankle, darshan

Proto-Indo-European *derḱ- "to see" became Greek δέρκομαι derkomai "to see clearly", and δράκων drakōn "dragon, serpent" - "from his supposed sharp sight" says Skeat. Δράκων was borrowed into Latin as dracōnem becoming French dragon.

Δράκων was borrowed into Arabic as طرخون ṭarẖwn, a name for tarragon, also known as dragonwort, Latin name Artemisia dracunculus. This was borrowed back into Greek as ταρχών, then into Latin as tarchon, tragonia, then into English as tarragon.

Latin dracōnem became dracunculus, dranculus "small dragon", then Old French drancle, then Anglo-Norman rauncle "festering sore" and rauncler "to fester". The "festering sore" meaning is the earliest meaning of rankle in English.

In Sanskrit *derḱ- became दर्शनं darśanaṃ "seeing, meeting". Darshan refers to a sight or glimpse of a holy personage, such as a guru.

Monday, 24 August 2009

mooch and smoke

mooch "to dawdle in a bored or listless manner" is from mooch "to loaf, to skulk, to sneak". This is probably from Anglo-Norman muscher "to hide", as in Middle French muce, musse, mouce "hiding place". This is borrowed from an unattested Celtic form that is from the same base as Old Irish múch "smoke", Welsh mwg "smoke" (OED). Welsh mwg is from Proto-Indo-European *(s)meug- "to smoke". This became Old English smocian, English smoke.

No relation to French mouchoir or mouche.

Thursday, 20 August 2009

Rihanna's Sanskrit tattoo

Beckham's not the only one who has a Devanagari tattoo that's come under fire. This article reports that Rihanna is getting flack for having a misspelled Sanskrit tattoo.

I decided to see if I could find out how accurate it was, purely in the interests of linguistics of course...

The tattoo is upside down in all the photos I could find, so I rotated it:

This is from the Bhagavad Gita 10.4-5. The whole verse is

बुद्धिर्ज्ञानमसम्मोहः क्षमा सत्यं दमः शमः ।
सुखं दुःखं भवोऽभावो भयं चाभयमेव च । ४ ।
अहिंसा समता तुष्टिस्तपो दानं यशोऽश: ।
भवन्यि भावा भूतानां मत्त एव पृथग्विधा: । ५ ।

4. Discernment, knowledge, freedom from delusion, long suffering, truth, self-restraint, inward calm, pleasure, pain, birth, death, fear and fearlessness;
5. Non-violence, even-mindedness, contentment, austerity, beneficence, good and ill fame,—all these various attributes of creatures proceed verily from Me.

The tattoo starts with the second half of the first line, so
क्षमा सत्यं दमः शमः
kṣamā satyaṃ damaḥ śamaḥ
"long suffering, truthfulness, self-restraint, inward calm"

It's missing the anusvāra (the dot) over सत्यं (satyaṃ), and दम: (damaḥ) looks more like टम: (ṭamaḥ) to me. (The visarga on the last word is there but it's hidden by the clothing.) And the letters म (ma) and य (ya) look pretty much identical.

More important is the next line, which is incomplete. The original is
सुखं दुःखं भवोऽभावो भयं चाभयमेव च
sukhaṃ duḥkhaṃ bhavo 'bhāvo bhayaṃ cābhayam eva ca
"pleasure, pain, birth, death, fear and fearlessness"

In this photo we can see a bit more. It appears to be
भयं चा भय
bhayaṃ cābhaya
So the first half of the line is missing. But presumably the second half of the line is complete, because we know the tattoo ends with च ।।.

So her tattoo reads
long suffering, truthfulness, self-restraint, inward calm, fear and fearlessness
and it is missing
pleasure, pain, birth, death

Wednesday, 19 August 2009


It sounds like it's a folk etymology, but it's true: tawdry is short for tawdry lace, which is short for St. Audrey's lace. Skeat says that tawdry lace referred to lace bought at St. Awdrey's fair, celebrated on October 17. Tawdry obviously underwent some perjoration, perhaps by association with cheap and showy lace. According to the OED, it is told that St. Audrey wore many necklaces, and died of a throat tumour, which was considered just retribution for her vanity.

The name Audrey is from Old English Æþelðryþ, which is composed of æþel "noble" and þryþ "power, strength". A cognate of þryþ is found in the -trude of Gertrude (from Old High German gēr "spear" and drūd "strength"). Æþel is from Proto-Indo-European *at-h₂el- "race, family", from *at- "over, beyond", and *h₂el- "to grow, nourish". See also Alice and edelweiss.

Monday, 10 August 2009

Drambuie and Buddha

Drambuie is a delicious Scottish whisky liqueur. According to the label, the name comes from the Scots Gaelic an dram buidheach "the drink that satisfies". Dram is "drink" and buidheach is "satisfied". Buidheach is from Old Irish buide "thanks, satisfaction". According to Pokorny, this is from Proto-Indo-European *bʰeudʰ- "to be aware". However, Matasovic disagrees:

I fail to see the semantic connection to the root *bʰudʰ- 'wake, be conscient' (Skt. budhyate, etc.) proposed by some linguists.

In any case, *bʰeudʰ- became Sanskrit budh "to awake", and बुद्ध buddha "awaked, expanded, intelligent".

I'd thought that dram was borrowed into English from Gaelic, but the English word is actually from French drachme, from Greek δραχμή drakhmē, the drachma, the ancient Greek coin (perhaps from *dergʰ- "to grasp"). In English it came to mean a measurement of fluid, then a small draught of cordial. I don't know the origin of the Gaelic word.

Thursday, 6 August 2009

that which

A journey into usage today.

There's a new Twitter feed called thatwhichmatter, whose goal is "To honor the that/which distinction, and all grammar that which matters."

The that/which distinction, as given by usage writers like Strunk & White and Fowler, goes like this:
"Use that to introduce restrictive relative clauses, and use which to introduce nonrestrictive relative clauses."

A restrictive relative clause is one that adds essential information, as in this example from The Elements of Style:

1) The lawn mower that is broken is in the garage.

There is more than one lawn mower; the relative clause that is broken is essential because it tells us which one.

A nonrestrictive clause is one that adds nonessential information:

2) The lawn mower, which is broken, is in the garage.

There is only one lawn mower, and the clause which is broken adds additional but nonessential information.

Strunk and White go so far as to advocate "which-hunting", and replacing all restrictive whiches with thats:

Careful writers, watchful for small conveniences, go which-hunting, remove the defining [restrictive] whiches, and by so doing improve their work.

The problem is that altho careful writers might do that, good writers don't. Even E. B. White himself didn't:

...the premature expiration of a pig is, I soon discovered, a departure which the community marks solemnly on its calendar - E. B. White, "Death of a Pig"

The reality is that which introduces restrictive relative clauses and has been introducing restrictive relative clauses for as long as it's been a relative pronoun (the 14th century). It isn't which that signals a nonrestrictive relative clause, it's the commas.

Here are a few more examples of which introducing restrictive relative clauses, from good writers who knew what they were doing:

It was a concern which brought just employment enough. (Jane Austen, Emma, chapter 2)

However, she soon made out that she was in the pool of tears which she had wept when she was nine feet high. (Lewis Carroll, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, chapter 2)

He lived in chambers which had once belonged to his deceased partner. (Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol, Stave 1)

Buda-Pesth seems a wonderful place, from the glimpse which I got of it from the train and the little I could walk through the streets. (Bram Stoker, Dracula, chapter 1)

I think I can see a little into the springs and motives which being cunningly presented to me under various disguises (Herman Melville, Moby Dick, chapter 1)

...and Mrs. Heathcliff leaning over the fire, diverting herself with burning a bundle of matches which had fallen from the chimney-piece as she restored the tea-canister to its place (Emily Bronte, Wuthering Heights, chapter 2)

Given the choice between writing like Strunk and White's imaginary careful writer and good writers like Carroll and Austen, I know who I'd choose.

Trying to follow Strunk and White's that/which distinction can cause all kinds of unintended consequences, as explained by Zwicky on the Log.

So to quote Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage:

You can use either which or that to introduce a restrictive clause - the grounds for your choice should be stylistic - and which to introduce a nonrestrictive clause.

Friday, 31 July 2009

ski and shyster

ski is borrowed from Norwegian ski, from Old Norse skið "snow-shoe, billet of cleft wood". This is from Proto-Germanic *skītan "to separate, defecate" from Proto-Indo-European *skei- "to cut, split" (written about before by me).

According to the AHD, shyster is probably from the same Proto-Germanic form, from German Scheißer "son of a bitch, bastard" from scheißen "to defecate". But the OED says "of obscure origin".

Modern Norwegian ski is pronounced like she, but presumably the form that was borrowed into English was pronounced with /sk/. In the Mystery Science Theater 3000 short "Snow Thrills" we are told that the correct pronunciation of skiing is "she-ing". To which Joel responds "Yeah, well you're full of skit."

Proto-Germanic *sk- becoming /sk/ in some languages and /ʃ/ in others gives us some cool doublets, for instance:
scatter - shatter
skiff - ship
skirt - shirt
skit - shit
scot(-free) - shot
screed - shred
scuffle - shuffle

Thursday, 30 July 2009

school and hectic

Proto-Indo-European *seǵʰ- "to hold". The zero-grade form *sǵʰ- became Ancient Greek σχολή skholē which meant "stop, leisure", moving to "study," then "a place for study, school". This was borrowed into Latin as schola, then borrowed into Old English as scōl, which became English school, the h being added to the word to reflect the word's Latin/Greek origin.

The suffixed form *seǵʰ-es- became Ancient Greek ἔχω ekhō "to hold, possess, have", and ἑκτικός hektikos "habitual, customary, enduring", borrowed into Latin as hecticus, becoming Old French etique, then borrowed into Middle English as etik "recurring, consumptive". This became hectic in the 1500s, the h and c being added again to reflect the word's Latin/Greek origin. The word's meaning moved from "consumptive" to "feverishly intense activity" c1900.

Sunday, 26 July 2009

good etymology books

dayna asked for recommendations for good books about etymology aimed at the general public. I haven't read it, but this book sounds good:

Katherine Barber. Six Words You Never Knew Had Something to Do with Pigs: And Other Fascinating Facts About the English Language

It sounds entertaining, and Barber is a lexicographer so she knows what she's talking about (I'm guessing four of the six words are porcelain, porcupine, porpoise, aardvark).

This book might also be of interest, altho it's not specifically about etymology:

Erin McKean. Weird and Wonderful Words

Can anyone suggest some more?

Friday, 24 July 2009

carnival and scrabble

Doug Lennox's bestselling book Now You Know and the sequel Now You Know More trace "the concise and fascination history behind hundreds of expressions in our everyday language". Although these books are "thoroughly researched", I don't believe a word of them. Even so, I find them interesting, because although many of the etymologies are wrong or unsupported, I find myself wondering what the real answers are.

His entry "How did the word carnival come to mean a self-indulgent celebration" is a short explanation of Lent, and he only deals with the word itself in the final sentence:

In Church Latin, carne vale literally means "farewell to meat."

The OED tells us that theories like this one "belong to the domain of popular etymology" - i.e., are untrue. The real history of carnival involves metathesis. Latin carō, carnis is "flesh", and *carnem levāre is "the putting away or removal of flesh (as food)", which became carnelevārium, which became Italian carnevale, carnovale - the l and v switched places.

carō, carnis "flesh" is from a form *kar- from the Proto-Indo-European root *(s)ker- "to cut". In Proto-Germanic, this became the metathetic variants *skrap- and *skarp. *skrap- became Old English scrapian (modern scrape), and Dutch schrabbelen "to scrawl", borrowed into English as scrabble. *skarp- became sharp.

Thursday, 16 July 2009

kvetch and pasta

On Ms G's advice, I borrowed Born to Kvetch: Yiddish Language and Culture in All of its Moods by Michael Wex. It's a very entertaining and informative book - he goes into detail on the reasons behind the u/i variation in, for example, meshuge/meshige and kugl/kigl (in some words it originates in Hebrew and in others it comes from German). Early on he writes a sentence that struck me: "From a linguistic point of view, the Talmud is nothing less than Yiddish in utero" (page 15). He seems to be arguing that many Yiddish word and idioms reflect the Jewish worldview, that Yiddish arose "to give voice to a system of opposition and exclusion" (page 18). A simple example he gives is הײַנט haynt "today", which is derived from Middle High German heint "tonight" - "the Yiddish meaning depends on the notion of evening preceding morning, on the lunar calendar implied on the first page of Genesis and explain on the first page of the Talmud" (page 17).

Anyway, kvetch. קװעטשן kvetshn "press, squeeze, pinch, strain" is undoubtedly related to German quetschen "to squeeze" which was borrowed from Latin quatere "to shake" according to Grimm. Quatere is from Proto-Indo-European *kweh₁t- "to shake". In Greek, *kweh₁t- became πάσσω/παστός "to sprinkle". The derivative πασταί "barley porridge" was borrowed into Latin as pasta but with the meaning "small square piece of a medicinal preparation". This word became Italian pasta.

I've written about this root before, but I think the connection between kvetch and pasta is too cool not to mention.

Wednesday, 8 July 2009

Iran and Aryan

The history of the word Iran begins with *aryo-, which was a self-designation of the Indo-Iranians. It's found in Sanskrit ārya-, the most common translation for which is "noble", and Avestan airya "venerable". Old Persian āriya- "compatriot" became Middle Persian Ēr "Iranian", and the genitive plural Ērān (AHD), and Modern Persian ایران Īrān "Persia" (OED).

The Sanskrit ārya- is the source of the word Aryan. Fortson explains how this word came to have racist connotations:

During the nineteenth century, it was proposed that this [*arya-] had been not only the Indo-Iranian tribal self-designation but also the self-designation of the Proto-Indo-Europeans themselves. (This theory has since been abandoned.) "Aryan" then came to be used in scholarship to refer to Indo-European. Some decades later it was further proposed that the PIE homeland had been located in northern Europe (also a theory no longer accepted), leading to speculations that the Proto-Indo-Europeans had been of a Nordic racial type. In this way "Aryan" developed yet another, purely racialist meaning, probably the most familiar one today. In Indo-European studies, "Aryan" (and Arisch in German) and "Indo-Aryan" are still frequently used in their older sense - "Aryan" to refer to Indo-Iranian (less commonly, Indo-European) and "Indo-Aryan" to refer to Indic.

The OED still has many etymologies containing the terms "Aryan" and "Indo-Aryan".

It was undoubtedly the work of the nineteenth century philologist Max Müller that helped popularize "Aryan" as a linguistic term. Müller is quoted as saying "an ethnologist who speaks of Aryan race, Aryan blood, Aryan eyes and hair, is as great a sinner as a linguist who speaks of a dolichocephalic dictionary or a brachycephalic grammar".

I was asked recently if Ireland and Iran were related. Unfortunately they aren't; the origin of Ireland and Irish is uncertain.

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

cushy and vigorish

cushy is borrowed from Hindi ख़ुश ḵẖuś "pleasant", which is borrowed from Persian خوش khush "good, excellent". According to Platts, the word is cognate with Avestan usta "fortunate" (from uś + śtā) and Sanskrit ud + sthā. Maybe the meaning in Avestan and Sanskrit is something like "outstanding"?

Sometimes Platts's etymologies seem farfetched. Where did the initial consonant come from?

Anyway, Sanskrit ud "up, upwards; upon, on; over, above" is from Proto-Indo-European *ud- "up, out". This became Old Church Slavonic vъz- and Russian вы "out" in the word выигрыш (vyigryš) "gain, winnings". This word was borrowed into Yiddish and then into English as vigorish, defined by the OED as "The percentage deducted by the organizers of a game from the winnings of a gambler. Also, the rate of interest upon a usurious loan."

Also see Orthanc and hysteresis.

Monday, 29 June 2009

gift and malady

The German, Swedish, Danish and Norwegian word gift means "poison". What's up with that?

Proto-Germanic *ǥiftiz meant "something given or received", and that meaning is found in German Mitgift "dowry", and Dutch gift (altho the Dutch word can also mean "poison"). Something went horribly wrong semantically, and according to Grimm it happened in the 19th century, which is when the "poison" meaning arose in German. Then in the last third of the 19th century, the "poison" meaning was borrowed from German into Swedish, Danish, and Norwegian.

Old Norse gipt is "something given or received" - this is the source of the /g/ of modern English gift. Old English gift meant "payment for a wife", but we know it was replaced or influenced by the Old Norse word, because otherwise the modern word would be yift.

*ǥiftiz is from Proto-Indo-European *gʰebʰ-ti- from *gʰebʰ- "to give or receive". In Latin, the form *gʰabʰ-eh₂- (*-eh₂- formed stative denominative verbs) became habeō "to hold, possess" and habitus "condition, state, habit" (why did *bʰ not become f?) [answer: because it's not word-initial, thanks _duif]. Latin male habitus "in poor condition" became Old French malade "sick". The phonological development was something like male habitum - malabitum - malabde - malade. This was borrowed into English and became malady.

The image is one of Tove Jansson's illustrations for Moominpappa's Memoirs (Muminpappans memoarer).

Friday, 26 June 2009

bulletproof abugidas

Today I look at the use of Indic scripts in 2 movies, one where they get it somewhat right and one where they get it wrong.

The trailer for Bulletproof Monk has 4 Tibetan words which change into English words.

The first is གོང་གྲོ་ khong khro "anger", and it changes to the English word anger.
The second is ཞི་བདེ་ zhi bde "peace", which changes to peace.

So far so good. Then it gets a bit more open to interpretation.
ས་ sa "earth" changes to power.
ཆུ་ chu "water" changes to grace.
མེ་ me "fire" changes to enemy.
Finally རླུང་ rlung "wind" changes to yourself.

These words could be random, or they could have been chosen for their associations or relevance to the story. I can't remember; it's been a long time since I've seen the movie. But there's something I do remember - when the Nazi opens the scroll to read it, yes it's Tibetan, but he is shown reading it upside down.

But least they tried. In contrast, the trailer for Dead Like Me: Life After Death has the following image showing the jar that God trapped Death in:

"Contents: Death"? Not quite. More like "Sanskrit dictionary" (संस्कृत शब्दकोष). Now a movie where God traps Death in a Sanskrit dictionary sounds like my kind of movie.

Thursday, 25 June 2009

diamond and tame

Proto-Indo-European *demh₂- "to constrain, force" became Greek δάμαω "to tame", combined with ἀ "not" to form ἀδάμαντα "invincible". This was borrowed into Latin as adamantem and applied poetically for the hardest iron or steel, or anything indestructible. It became Old French adamaunt, and was borrowed into English as adamant. I love this part of the OED's definition of adamant:

Name of an alleged rock or mineral, as to which vague, contradictory, and fabulous notions long prevailed.

A distinction was made in late Latin between adamentem and its variant diamantem - the first meaning "loadstone" and the second meaning "diamond". Some folk etymology was involved: it was thought that adamentem was derived from adamō "to have an attraction for", so the word was associated with magnets and loadstones. diamantem was borrowed into English as diamond thru Old French diamant.

The suffixed o-grade form *domh₂-o- became English tame.

Wednesday, 24 June 2009


The flyer for Toronto's Green Bin recycling program has a problem with its Arabic. There are three languages that use the Arabic script here: the first two languages in the list are Arabic and Persian, and the second last language is Urdu. The Arabic is supposed to be أسئلة ʾâs'ilaʰ, the plural of سؤال su'âl "question". It's strange that the Arabic is rendered incorrectly, with all the letters disconnected, when the Persian and Urdu are rendered correctly.

It's interesting (or maybe not) that five of the languages use a related word for "question": Persian سوال suvāl, Gujarati સવાલી savālī, Punjabi ਸਵਾਲਾਂ savālāṃ and Urdu سوالات savālāt are all borrowed from Arabic سؤال su'âl.

Monday, 22 June 2009

monkey business

According to the OED, monkey business is a loan translation from Bengali.

colloq. (orig. U.S.).
[< MONKEY n. + BUSINESS n., probably after Bengali bā̃drāmi. Compare modern Sanskrit vānara-karman (< vānara monkey + karman action, work, employment), Hindi vānara-karma.] 

বাঁদর bāndara is "monkey" and বাঁদরামি bāndarāmi is "mischievousness; a monkey-trick; monkeyism". (Monkeyism?)

There are some interesting things about this OED entry, as pointed out on Wordorigins. It's given as "orig. U.S.", but the first citation is British:

1858 T. P. THOMPSON Audi Alteram Partem I. lxv. 249 The Native Indian term for the supreme of folly, is ‘monkey business’.

This quote is from Audi alteram partem, letters of a representative to his constituents by Thomas Perronet Thompson, a British MP. As Dave Wilton says, it's possible that the "orig. U.S." is a mistaken holdover from an older version of the entry, before they added the Thompson quote.

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

The online American Heritage Dictionary

is gone! (Due to "financial and usage considerations".) This includes their list of Indo-European and Semitic roots. The most accessible resource for extreme etymology, gone! Fortunately, the pages are still available in archived form (but the search form doesn't work). And Google Books has parts of the print edition available.

Monday, 15 June 2009

Chernobyl and Krishna

In Adam Roberts' novel Yellow Blue Tibia, he tells us that Chernobyl means "wormwood". Apparently Ukrainian Чорнобиль Čornobyl' is a combination of Ukrainian чoрний čornyj "black" and билля byllja "grass blades". Ukrainian čornyj is undoubtedly related to Russian черный černyj "black", which seems to be from Proto-Indo-European *kers-no- from *kers- "black". In Sanskrit *kers-no- became कृष्ण kr̥ṣṇa "black". This is where we get the name of the deity Krishna, who was so called perhaps because of his association with storm clouds, or perhaps because of his dark skin.

Yellow Blue Tibia is a very enjoyable read, like Jose Chung's from Outer Space if it was set in the USSR. The title is a cross-linguistic pun. See if you can figure it out.

Monday, 8 June 2009

opulent and manure

From Alfred Bester's Golem¹⁰⁰:

Ah yes, the first wild Opsday of Ops Week, traditional Opalia (the Women's Movement counter to Saturnalia) dedicated to reckless entertainment... as if the Guff needed any additional excuse for madness. Ops, wife of Saturn, Earth Goddess of Plenty (she gave her name to "opulent") in whose honor one touched earth instead of wood for luck, gave earthenware gifts, and fraternized regardless of rank or clout.

This is almost right. The fertility goddess Ops got her name from Proto-Indo-European *h₃ep- "to work, produce in abundance". This PIE root is also the source of opulent (the suffix -ulentus meaning "abounding in, full of").

The root became Latin operārī "to work" (as in opera, operate). Post-classical Latin manu operari "to perform manual labour as a feudal service" became Anglo-Norman mainoverer "to work or till land". This was borrowed into English as manure "to till or cultivate". This was soon used for "dung, excrement, compost" as spread over or mixed with soil to fertilize it. (OED) Also related is maneuver.

The Old English derivative efnan "to work" became the northern English eem "to spare time, to find and opportunity, to succeed (in doing a thing)"

1674 RAY N. Country Wds. Coll. 16 Chesh...I cannot Eem, I have no leisure, I cannot spare time.

Old English efnan "to throw down, to level" (English even) is unrelated.

Wednesday, 3 June 2009

dalek and long

No one knows for sure where Terry Nation got the word Dalek. I've read that he says he got it from a volume of an encyclopedia that spanned entries from DAL to LEK. This seems unlikely; how many encyclopedias cover that much in one volume?

Some Doctor Who sources mention the Serbo-Croatian word dalek "far". It's unlikely Nation borrowed the word from Serbo-Croatian, but let's pretend he did for the purpose of this exercise. This dalek is from Proto-Slavic *dalekú "far, distant", a suffixed form of *dalü "distance", perhaps from Proto-Indo-European *del- "long". The extended and suffixed zero-grade form *dlon-gʰo- became English long - and also linger, from the Proto-Germanic causative *langjan - that is "to make long".

bonze and samovar

Proto-Indo-European *sem- "one, together with" became Sanskrit saṃgha (combined with *gʷʰen- "to strike"). Monier-Williams says this means "close contact or combination" and also "the whole community or collective body or brotherhood of monks". This word was borrowed into Middle Chinese, then into Japanese as "monk", then was combined with bon "ordinary" to form bonsō, bonzō (凡僧) "unranked priest" (bonsō also means "foolish monk" according to WWWJDIC). This was borrowed into Portuguese as bonzo, then into French, then into English as bonze.

The above etymological madness is brought to you by the AHD. As usual, the OED doesn't go this far; it just suggests that the Japanese word might be from Chinese fă-sze "teacher of the law". (Has this anything to do with 法則 fǎzé "rule, law"?)

In the meantime, *sem- became Russian samo- "self", which combined with varit' "to boil" (from *wer- "to burn") to form самовар samovar literally "self-boiler".

Monday, 1 June 2009

bester was, bester is, bester the will be

The Bengali says "You will learn to drive in Bengali". The second last word is ড্রাইভিং ḍrāibhiṃ - "driving".

Thursday, 28 May 2009


This is a headline in my local paper. (It's online too!) When I first read this I thought nothing of it - the sculptures cause revulsion in some people, that's clear. Then later I looked at it again. Revulse? That's an everyday word. Isn't it?

The word is in the OED, but it's obsolete. It means "To drag, draw, or pull back; to tear away" - not the meaning intended by this article. All the cites are in the past participle. My favourite:

c1690 BEVERLEY Kingd. Christ 9 Any of the Ten, though if not Revuls'd from the Beast, they are in Prophetic Language, Horns of the Papacy.

M-W has revulsed "affected with or having undergone revulsion", dating from 1934, but no revulse. I found some online uses of intransitive revulse meaning "undergo revulsion" (1, 2, 3) and also transitive revulse meaning "cause revulsion in" (4, 5).

I wonder if the writer intended revulse "cause revulsion in", or if it's a mistake for repulse. Is this a new word in the making? Or am I suffering from the Recency Illusion?

Friday, 22 May 2009

dwarf and dream

The Return of the King, appendix F:

It may be observed that in this book as in The Hobbit the form dwarves is used, although the dictionaries tell us that the plural of dwarf is dwarfs. It should be dwarrows (or dwerrows), if singular and plural had each gone its own way down the years, as have man and men, or goose and geese. But we no longer speak of a dwarf as often as we do of a man, or even of a goose, and memories have not been fresh enough among Men to keep hold of a special plural for a race now abandoned to folk-tales...

The Old English was dweorġ, dweorh. The plurals were dwerwhes, dwerwes, dwerows, dwarrows (similar to how Old English beorġ became barrow, burrow) so Tolkien's right, the plural would have been dwarrows if it hadn't been regularized to dwarfs.

Its use in English to refer to the mythical beings doesn't happen until 1770. It seems that the Vikings were much more familiar with the mythological creatures. The Old Norse cognate dvergr is found in place names, like the Icelandic town of Dvergasteinn. An Old Icelandic word for "echo" is dverg-mál, literally "dwarf-talk" from the belief that dwarfs lived in rocks.

The etymology of dwarf is uncertain. The OED reconstructs a Proto-Germanic form *đwerǥoz and an Indo-European form *dʰwérgʷʰos. It connects the IE root to Greek σέρφος serphos (from *τϝέρφος *twerphos) "midge". Porkorny suggests either *dʰwergʰ- "low (in stature), crippled" or *dʰwer- "to ruin by deceiving", which is related to *dʰreugʰ- "to deceive, harm". If it's from the latter then it's cognate with dream (from the Germanic suffixed form *drauǥmaz). Old English drēam meant "joy, music" and the modern word "dream" was influenced in meaning by the Old Norse cognate draumr "vision, dream" (AHD).

Arnold Zwicky has more on dwarfs/dwarves.

Wednesday, 20 May 2009

naan and gymnasium

Proto-Indo-European *nogʷ- "naked" became Old Persian *nagna "naked, bare", then Persian نان nān "bread" - "probably from being baked uncovered in an oven rather than covered in ash" says the AHD. This was borrowed into Hindi as नान nān - in English naan, the north Indian flatbread.

The suffixed form *nogʷ-mo- had its sounds rearranged thru taboo deformation and became Greek γυμνός (gumnos) "naked". γυμνάσιον (gumnasion), borrowed into Latin as gymnasium, was "the public place where athletic exercises were practised", since the athletes practised naked.

The suffixed form *nogʷ-eto-, *nogʷ-oto- became English naked.

Friday, 15 May 2009

schmutter, slok, bippy

In the introduction to my edition of Alfred Bester's The Demolished Man, Harry Harrison writes:

New words, grammar, and slang abound. An etymologist might stop and nod his head at a neologism like slok, noting its similarity to the Yiddish schloch (as bippy came from pippich or, in Britain, schmutter, a garment, from schmata, a rag).

schmutter is from שמאַטע shmate "rag", borrowed from Polish szmata "rag".

slok is used in the line "You God damned eater of slok." There is שלאַג shlag "stroke, blow" (cognate with German Schlag and English slay) - this is apparently the origin of schlock. There's also German Schlacke "dross" (cf English slag), which seems like a more likely origin for slok, but I can't find a corresponding Yiddish word.

By pippich I guess Harrison means פופיק pupik "belly button", which I assume is borrowed from Polish pępek. However, the origin of bippy is "unknown" according to the OED.

Tuesday, 12 May 2009

Durga and Deuteronomy

The goddess Durga's name seems to be from Sanskrit दुर्ग durga "difficult of access or approach, impassable, unattainable", from dus/dur/duṣ "bad, difficult" plus gam "to go or pass" (according to Monier-Williams).

dus is from Proto-Indo-European *dus- "bad, evil" (as in dyslexia from Greek δυσ- "bad"). *dus- is a derivative of *deu- "lack, be wanting", which perhaps became Greek δεύτερος deuteros "second", and δευτερονόμιον deuteronomion "second or repeated law" (νόμος "law") and Deuteronomy.

gam "to go or pass" is from *gʷeh₂- as in juggernaut, come, event.

Monday, 11 May 2009

Saraswati and elodea

Proto-Indo-European *sel-es- "swamp, marsh, sea" became Indo-Iranian *saras- "body of water", then *saras-vatī "of waters" (*vatī meaning "containing"), then Sanskrit सरस्वती Sarasvatī, the name of a sacred river and the Hindu goddess.

*sel-es- became Greek ἕλος (helos) "marsh" then ἑλώδης (helōdēs) "marshy". This was borrowed into scientific Latin as Elōdea, a kind of aquatic plant. The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots misspells this as eloidea, I think. At least, eloidea doesn't mean anything that I can determine.

Friday, 8 May 2009

verdigris and ooze

The beautiful word verdigris evokes a greeny-grey colour due to its association with the French words vert "green" and gris "grey", but this is a folk etymology. It was originally Old French vert de Grece literally "green of Greece". The OED says "The terminal syllable at an early date was no longer understood and hence underwent various corruptions of spelling and pronunciation." In other words, the last element was interpreted as something that people understood, so vert de Grece became vert de grice then vert-de-gris.

Old French vert, verd "green" is from Latin uiridis "green, blooming, vigorous". This is related to Latin uireō "to be green", from Pokorny 1. u̯eis 1133 "to sprout, grow". This possibly became German Wiese "meadow" and Old English wīse "shoot, sprout" which according to the OED is related to wāse "mire, mud" and English ooze "soft mud or slime". The AHD places ooze with another homophonous root.

Wednesday, 29 April 2009

Ajira and angel

The name of Ajira Airways in Lost was well chosen. Hindi अजीरा ajīrā means island. The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots notes a possible connection between Sanskrit अजिर ajira "swift" and Greek ἄγγελος aggelos "messenger, envoy" - the source of English angel. The Sanskrit word is the traditional epithet of messengers (dūtaḥ).

R̥gveda 3.9.8
आ जुहोता स्वध्वरं शीरं पावकशोचिषम् । आशुं दूतमजिरं प्रत्नमीड्यं श्रुष्टी देवं सपर्यत ।।८।।
ā juhotā svadhvaraṃ śīraṃ pāvakaśociṣam | āśuṃ dūtamajiraṃ pratnamīḍyaṃ śruṣṭī devaṃ saparyata ||8||
8 Offer to him who knows fair rites, who burns with purifying glow,

Swift envoy, active, ancient, and adorable: serve ye the God attentively.

According to the AHD, the Greek word is not of Indo-European origin but from an "unknown Oriental source". Monier-Williams and Pokorny say Sanskrit ajira is from Proto-Indo-European *aǵ- "drive, draw, move".

That's not all - according to this dictionary, Arabic الآخرة al-ʾâẖira-t means "afterlife". Remove the definite article al-, and the feminine suffix -t to get ʾâẖira, and convert this to the Spanish Arabists School romanization system, and you get - what else? - ājira.

Tuesday, 28 April 2009

Sikh and Shakti

This Sunday was the Sikh Khalsa day parade in Toronto. A few years ago at the Sikh Khalsa celebrations, I remember a number of Anglophone politicians taking the stage and trying to outdo each other in their enthusiastic pronunciation of the phrase ਵਾਹਿਗੁਰੂ ਜੀ ਕਾ ਖਾਲਸਾ ।। ਵਾਹਿਗੁਰੂ ਜੀ ਕੀ ਫ਼ਤਹਿ ।। (vāhigurū jī kā khālasā, vāhigurū jī kī fatahi) - "the khalsa belong to God, victory belongs to God".

The English word khalsa is borrowed from Urdu, which is borrowed from Persian خالصه ḵẖāliṣah, from Arabic خالص ẖāliṣ "pure" (OED). But Hindi सिख sikh "disciple" is from Sanskrit शिष्य śiṣya from śak "to be able, to be strong" from Proto-Indo-European *ḱak- "help; be able". The Sanskrit is also the source of shakti.

The German cognate seems to be behagen "to please". Pokorny mentions some words to do with breeding, including English hatch "to produce young from an egg", but this seems phonologically doubtful.