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".