Thursday, 29 January 2009

desi and avenge

Desi refers to things indigenous to India or South Asia, for instance desi food, desi movies, desi wear. It is used for people too, as in the movie American Desi. The OED says it's from Hindi देसी desī "indigenous, rural, from the country". It's also in Urdu (ديسي), Punjabi (ਦੇਸੀ) and Bengali (দেশি). According to the Oxford Hindi-English dictionary, it's derived from Sanskrit deśī "the vulgar dialect of a country, provincialism". According to Platts it's from deśīya "peculiar or belonging to or inhabiting a country , provincial , native".

The Cologne Digital Sanskrit Lexicon confirms my guess that deśī is related to deśa "region, spot, place" and the verb deś "to show, point out". deśa is found in place names like Bangladesh "country of Bengal", Uttar Pradesh "upper country", and Madhya Pradesh "middle country".

The Proto-Indo-European root is *deiḱ- "to show". It shows up in digit from Latin digitus "finger" (as in "pointer"), and possibly toe (from Proto-Germanic *taihwō-). And avenge, from Old French avengier, from Latin uindicāre "to avenge". The uin- is possibly from uis "force", and -dicāre is from *deiḱ-.

Wednesday, 28 January 2009

door, forest, thyroid

Proto-Indo-European *dʰwer- "door, doorway" is the source of English door.

In Latin, *dʰwer- became forīs and forās "out of doors", whence Old French forest. We also get forum and foreign from the Latin forms.

In Greek it became θύρα "door", and θυρεός "shield", then thyroid, because the thyroid is shaped like a shield.

In Indo-European Languages and Culture, Fortson says we have reconstructed a word for "door jamb" but doesn't say what it is. It must be this one, also here, which I'll write as *h₂énh₁t(e)h₂. It's found in anta from Latin antae "pilasters".

Thursday, 22 January 2009

goat song

Thanks to Jonathan for making me aware of this. Tragedy is from Greek τραγῳδία (tragōidia), possibly from τράγος (tragos) "goat" plus ᾠδή (ōidē) "ode, song".

The OED has a bit more info:

ME. a. OF. tregedie, tragedie (14th c. in Godef.), ad. L. tragœdia, a. Gr. τραγῳδία, app[arently]. goat-song, f. τράγος goat + ᾠδή ode, song.

As to the reason of the name many theories have been offered, some even disputing the connexion with ‘goat’. See L. H. Gray in Classical Quarterly VI. 60, and references there given.

The article is On the Etymology of Τραγῳδία, by Louis H. Gray, The Classical Quarterly, Vol. 6, No. 1 (Jan. 1912). (Not this Louis H. Gray, or he would have been 7 when he wrote it.) Gray considers a number of theories as to the connection with goats:

(1) The goat was a prize in early tragic contests... (2) there was a song of goats or goatmen... (3) there was a song of men dressed in goat-skins... the celebration being in honour of Dionysos Μελανάνγις; (4) there was a song of men dressed in goat-skins, such a costume being a survival of the archaic Greek dress... (5) a goat was led by the chorus to be sacrificed

Gray considers (4) to be the most plausible, assuming that τραγῳδία really does mean "goat-song". Another theory is that the word means "spelt song" from τράγος in its sense of "a mass of groats made of wheat" - however, this is probably a specialized meaning of τράγος "goat".

However, Gray prefers a different explanation, one that takes the etymological meaning of tragedy to be the antithesis of comedy. He looks for possible cognates of trago- in Old Norse þjarka "quarrel", þrekr "strength, courage, daring", Old English þracu "attack, pressure", and Old Irish trén "strong", from a Proto-Indo-European form *tereg-. In this theory, the original meaning of τραγῳδία was "the singing of bold (or terrible) things", and nothing to do with goats. I don't think this is accepted today; *tereg- isn't in any lists of PIE roots I can find.

ᾠδή is from ἀείδω "to sing" from *h₂wed- or *h₂weid- "to speak". Other -ody words include:
comedy, etymologically "revel song" (κῶμος "revel")
parody "wrong song" (παρά "beyond, amiss, wrong")
melody "tuneful song" (μέλος "limb, tune" from *mel- "limb")
rhapsody "sewn together song" (ῥάπτω (rhaptō, rhaps-) "sew together" from *wer- "to turn, bend").

Wednesday, 21 January 2009

tiger and thistle

Tiger is from Latin tigrem from Greek τίγρις. The AHD tells us that the Greek word is from the same Iranian source as Old Persian tigra- "sharp, pointed" and Avestan tighri "arrow". The Proto-Indo-European root is *steig- "sharp, pointed".

And also according to the AHD, the extended variant *teigs- became Old English þistel and English thistle. Where did the -tel come from?

The more conservative OED says about tiger (for "Zend" read "Avestan"):

(Some have conjectured connexion with Zend tīghri arrow, tighra sharp, pointed, in reference to the celerity of its spring; but no application of either word, or any derivative, to the tiger is known in Zend.)

*steig- is also found in raita.

Tuesday, 20 January 2009

anxiety about anxious

From Bill Bryson's Troublesome Words:

anxious. Since anxious comes from anxiety, it should contain some connotation of being worried or fearful and not merely eager or expectant. You may be anxious to put some unpleasant task behind you, but, unless you have invested money in it, you are unlikely to be anxious to see a new play.

The rule here is that anxious should not mean "eager". However, the only evidence Bryson supplies is etymological: "Since anxious comes from anxiety, it should contain some connotation of being worried or fearful". This is the etymological fallacy: the belief that a word's history determines its meaning. And the history that Bryson gives is wrong. The OED on anxious:

f. L. anxi-us troubled in mind (f. ang-ĕre to choke, distress) + -OUS.

The OED on anxiety:

ad[aptation of] L. anxietāt-em, n. of quality f. anxi-us: see ANXIOUS, and -TY.

So anxious is not derived from anxiety; both words are borrowed from different Latin words.

On the rule itself, Bryson is in good company: the rule that anxious should not mean "eager or expectant" is repeated in many usage books, and Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage tells us that it is a shibboleth in American usage. On the other hand, it has meant "Full of desire and endeavour; solicitous; earnestly desirous (to effect some purpose)" since 1742. Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage quotes Byron, Carroll, Dickens, Darwin, Thoreau, Kipling and Flann O'Brien all using anxious in this sense.

Friday, 16 January 2009

equine and Philip

All this talk about wheels and horses on the Log makes it a good time to look at *éḱwos, the Proto-Indo-European word for "horse". Ringe says it's apparently unanalyzable, but Watkins suggests it can be segmented *eḱw-o-, "a suffixed form akin to the lengthened o-grade adjective *ōḱu-, swift".

*éḱwos became Latin equus, then equine, equestrian. In Greek, *éḱwos apparently became ἵππος hippos, but this is problematic because the appearance of initial /h/ and the change from *e- to i- are unexplained. Greek ἵππος is found in words such as hippopotamus, Hippocrene... and Philip, from φίλιππος "fond of horses", from the combining form φιλο- (from φιλέω "to love") plus ἵππος.

In Valis, Philip K. Dick gives himself the pseudonym "Horselover Fat": Philip "lover of horses", and Dick, German for "fat".

In Old English, *éḱwos became eoh, which subsequently disappeared. The word horse has cognates in other Germanic languages, but it's thought to be of non-Indo-European origin - altho the OED mentions a theory that it's connected to Latin currere "to run".

In Italic languages, equus was supplanted by caballus (cheval, cavallo, etc), but the feminine form equa survived in Anglo-Norman ive "mare".

Wednesday, 14 January 2009

chowk and kitty-corner

I recently saw a preview of Chandni Chowk to China (I sat right behind Akshay Kumar!). It was very enjoyable - I think Chinese martial arts and Bollywood go together perfectly. So of course I began to think about the word chowk, also spelled choke, "An open place in the middle of a city where the market is held; a main street". It's borrowed from Hindi चौक cauk "square, market-place". Hobson-Jobson says

It seems to be adopted in Persian, and there is an Arabic form Sūḳ, which, it is just possible, may have been borrowed and Arabized from the present word. The radical idea of chauk seems to be "four ways" [Skt. chatushka], the crossing of streets at the centre of business. Compare Carfax, and the Quattro Cantoni of Palermo. In the latter city there is a market place called Piazza Ballarò, which in the 16th century a chronicler calls Seggeballarath, or as Amari interprets, Sūḳ-Balharā.

Sanskrit चतुष्क catuṣka "consisting of four" is from catur "four" from Proto-Indo-European *kʷetwer- "four". *kʷetwer- probably became English four - it's thought that the f is by assimilation with the following number, five.

*kʷetwer- became Latin quattuor, then French quatre, which is found in cater-cornered "diagonal". I know the word as the folk-etymologized kitty-corner, a word which indicates something at the opposite corner of an intersection.

Tuesday, 13 January 2009

dharma and farm

It would be cool if dharma and farm were shown to derive, sound for sound, from the same Proto-Indo-European preform. But that's not the case, altho they are from the same root: *dʰer- "to hold firmly, support". Sanskrit धर्म dharma "steadfast decree, statute, ordinance, law" is from *dʰer-mn̥-. Engish farm is from French ferme from Latin firmus "firm, strong" from *dʰer-mo-. Originally, farm meant "a fixed yearly amount", then later "a tract of land held on lease for the purpose of cultivation".

Friday, 9 January 2009


The Log has an great discussion of the linguistic situation of Europe "between the end of the last ice age and the coming of the Indo-European languages" by Don Ringe. It's worth reading if you're interested in that sort of thing, as I am.

Go, go now, and download, print out and proudly display the SNARK 2009 TRILINGUAL CALENDAR, probably the coolest calendar you will ever own. I had no idea that Nietzsche was decervellaged on Jan 3.

Wednesday, 7 January 2009

python and Donald

Greek Πύθων was a mythical monster slain by Apollo. There was another monster named Τυφων, and according to Watkins these words were doublets in Proto-Indo-European - *b(ʰ)ud(ʰ)-n- and *dʰub(ʰ)-n- - referring to "bottom," "foundation," "depths," and the monsters that lived there. They were from *dʰeub- (also *dʰeubʰ-) "deep, hollow". Greek Πύθων was borrowed into Classical Latin as Pȳthōn, and eventually used for a kind of snake.

In Proto-Celtic *dʰeub- became *dubno- "world" from the sense of "ground" or "bottom". The form *dubno-walos "ruler of the world" became the Old Irish name Domnall, the source of English Donald (also from Watkins).

Tuesday, 6 January 2009

the mother tongue

In any online discussion about language, it seems that someone will eventually mention how great Bill Bryson's "The Mother Tongue" is. It is a very entertaining book, but it does contain some frustrating errors.

All quotes from the Harper Perennial 2001 edition.

On runic letters:

When the Anglo-Saxons became literate in the sixth century, they took their alphabet from the Romans, but quickly realized that they had three sounds for which the Romans had no letters. These they supplied by taking three symbols from their old runic alphabet: w, ρ, and δ. The first, literally double u, represented the sound "w" as it is pronounced today. The other two represented the "th" sound: ρ (called thorn) and δ (called eth and still used in Ireland.)
(Chapter 8, page 123)

(The use of Greek characters here is a misprint.)

<w> is not runic. It was orginally a digraph formed by doubling the letter <v>. Maybe he's thinking of <ƿ> (wynn), a letter of runic origin used in Old English that was eventually replaced by <w>.

<þ> (thorn) is of runic origin.

<ð> (eth) is not runic, it's a variant of <d>. It is not used in Ireland, but it is still used in Iceland.

[I wonder why he says the Anglo-Saxons became literate when they adopted the Roman alphabet. It's true that literacy increased after the adoption of the Roman alphabet, but before that, some of them were literate in the runic alphabet.]

The richness of the English vocabulary, and the wealth of available synonyms, means that English speakers can often draw shades of distinction unavailable to non-English speakers. The French, for instance, cannot distinguish between house and home, between mind and brain, between man and gentleman, between "I wrote" and "I have written."
(Chapter 1, page 13)

According to my Concise Oxford French-English Dictionary:

house: la maison
home: la demeure

mind: l'esprit
brain: la cervelle

man: l'homme
gentleman: le monsieur

It's true that j'ai écrit can mean both "I wrote" and "I have written", but it's a bit more complicated than that. French has two other forms for "I wrote":

l'imparfait: j'écrivais ("I wrote him a letter every day for five years")
le passé simple: j'écrivis (used instead of j'ai écrit in written French)

And for the "past action with present relevance" sense of the English past perfect, French can use the passé récent: je viens d'écrire means "I have just finished writing (a letter)".

A second commonly cited factor in setting English apart from other languages is its flexibility... where the Germans can just say "ich singe" and the French must manage with "je chante," we can say "I sing," "I do sing," or "I am singing."
(page 15)

I am singing: je suis en train de chanter
I do sing: je chante vraiment

It's not that French does not distinguish between "I wrote" and "I have written" or between "I sing" and "I am singing," it's that it makes the distinctions in different ways than English does.

English, as Charlton Laird has noted, is the only language that has, or needs, books of synonyms like Roget's Thesaurus. "Most speakers of other language are not aware that such books exist." [The Miracle of Language, page 54]
(page 14)


The Eskimos, as is well known, have fifty words for types of snow - though curiously no word for just plain snow. To them there is crunchy snow, soft snow, fresh snow and old snow, but no word that just means snow.
(page 14)


Some cultures don't swear at all. The Japanese, Malayans, and most Polynesians and American Indians do not have native swear words. The Finns, lacking the sorts of words you need to describe your feelings when you stub your toe getting up to answer a wrong number at 2:00 AM, rather oddly adopted the word ravintolassa. It means "in the restaurant".
(page 214)