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 "second", and δευτερονόμιον "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.