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.

Thursday, 23 April 2009

borscht, fastidious, bristle

The Proto-Indo-European root is *bʰars- "projection, bristle, point" (the American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots says this is Pokorny bhar- 108 but I think they mean Pokorny bhares 109-110). The form *bʰrs-tio- became Russian борщ boršč "cow parsnip", due to its sharp leaves. This was one of the ingredients of borscht.

The form *bʰrs-ti- perhaps became Latin fastus "pride" from the notion of prickliness, and also fastīdium "disdain" (from *fasti-tīdium from fastus plus taedium "loathing"), borrowed into English as fastidious.

*bʰars- became English bristle, and also braird, a word for the first shoots of grass, corn or other crops. The OED quotes a Scottish proverb: "There is no breard like midding breard" (Kelly,
A complete collection of Scotish proverbs 1721). Midding is midden - I guess because corn grows well there.

still more unetymological plurals

I've mentioned virus and octopus. Memiyawanzi noted that syllabus is derived from Greek σιττύβας (sittubas), accusative plural of σιττύβα (sittuba) "parchment label", so etymologically syllabus is already plural.

Another weird one is bus, which is a shortening of omnibus, which is the Latin dative plural of omnis "all". It is sometimes pluralized as omnibi, apparently humorously.

apparatus and status are borrowed from the Latin fourth declension masculine nouns apparātus and status, so the Latin plurals are apparātūs and statūs.

agenda, erotica, opera, data, media, bacteria, candelabra, paraphernalia, trivia, graffiti are all borrowed from Latin plurals (Italian in the case of graffiti), so English plurals like agendas and operas are unetymological, as is treating these words as singular nouns.

And so on. The point is of course that if we insist on pluralizing words according to how they are pluralized in their original language, we run into all kinds of problems - not the least of which is that we shouldn't have to know the morphology of another language in order to use our native language. I take the sensible view that if it's an English word, pluralize it like English - that is, with (e)s.

Tuesday, 21 April 2009


Posh "smart, stylish, splendid, luxurious" has an interesting history. As Wordorigins says, it's probably from the word posh meaning "Money; spec. a halfpenny, a coin of small value." The OED says "the semantic development may thus have been either from ‘money’ to ‘moneyed, wealthy’, and hence to ‘upper-class’ and ‘smart, stylish, luxurious’".

Posh meaning "money" is a shortening of Welsh Romani påš xā̊ra "halfpenny". The second element xā̊ra "penny" is ultimately from German Heller "small coin", from Middle High German haller phenninc - haller from the name of the town of Hall in south-west Germany (now called Schwäbisch Hall), and phenninc meaning "penny" (OED).

The first element, påš, is from Romani paš "half", which is related to Sanskrit पार्श्व pārśva "side". This is from parśu "rib; curved knife, sickle" from Proto-Indo-European *perḱ- "rib, breast" (Pokorny 820). This is probably the source of Lithuanian pìršys "forepart of a horse's chest".

Friday, 17 April 2009

cheese and quibble

Not cheese the food, but cheese meaning "the right or correct thing" and also "an important or self-important person" as in the big cheese. It's probably from Urdu or Persian چيز cīz "thing", which is from Old Persian ciš-ciy "something", from a reduplicated form like *kʷid-kʷid- from Proto-Indo-European *kʷo-, the stem of relative and interrogative pronouns, and the source of English who, what, why, how, when and which. Hobson-Jobson notes

the expression used to be common among Anglo-Indians, e.g., "My new Arab is the real chīz"; "These cheroots are the real chīz"

*kʷo- became Latin quī "who", the dative plural of which is quibus. The OED says quibus occurred frequently in legal documents and so was associated with unnecessary complexity. It was borrowed into English as quib "An expression or point that serves to delay or obscure an argument; a quibble", and "A jibe, a taunt; a quip". It was later altered to quibble.

Monday, 13 April 2009

soma and prosciutto

Soma, the drug in Huxley's Brave New World, is from Sanskrit सोम soma "the juice of the Soma plant" from Proto-Indo-Iranian *sauma- from Proto-Indo-European *seuH- "to take liquid".

R̥gveda 9.66.7
प्र सोम याहि धारया सुत इन्द्राय मत्सरः | दधानो अक्षिति श्रवः || ७ ||
pra soma yāhi dhāramā suta indrāya matsaraḥ | dadhāno akṣiti śravaḥ || 5
Flow onward, Soma in a stream, effused to gladden Indra's heart,

Bringing imperishable fame.

In English, the extended form *seuH-g- became suck. In Latin, it became sūgere "to suck", and exsūgere, pp. exsūctus "to suck out". This became Italian asciutto "dried", which combined with the prefix pre- to form presciutto "thoroughly dried up". This was altered to prosciutto.

The soma in somatic is unrelated. It's from Greek σῶμα sōma "body" from Proto-Indo-European *teuh₂- "to swell". This root also gives us thousand, thigh, tumor, quark and butter, and of course the Soma Free Psychoplasmic Institute from the film The Brood.

Sunday, 12 April 2009

bollocks and folly

The AHD tells us that Proto-Indo-European *bʰel- "blow, swell" became Old English beallucas "testicles", then modern bollix, bollocks. The -ock diminutive suffix is found in other words such as hawk (earlier heafoc), bullock, hillock and buttock.

Also according to the AHD, *bʰel- became Latin follis "bellows", as in "windbag, fool". This became French folie, and English folly and fool. The Latin diminutive folliculus "little bag" became follicle.