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.