Friday, 31 July 2009

ski and shyster

ski is borrowed from Norwegian ski, from Old Norse skið "snow-shoe, billet of cleft wood". This is from Proto-Germanic *skītan "to separate, defecate" from Proto-Indo-European *skei- "to cut, split" (written about before by me).

According to the AHD, shyster is probably from the same Proto-Germanic form, from German Scheißer "son of a bitch, bastard" from scheißen "to defecate". But the OED says "of obscure origin".

Modern Norwegian ski is pronounced like she, but presumably the form that was borrowed into English was pronounced with /sk/. In the Mystery Science Theater 3000 short "Snow Thrills" we are told that the correct pronunciation of skiing is "she-ing". To which Joel responds "Yeah, well you're full of skit."

Proto-Germanic *sk- becoming /sk/ in some languages and /ʃ/ in others gives us some cool doublets, for instance:
scatter - shatter
skiff - ship
skirt - shirt
skit - shit
scot(-free) - shot
screed - shred
scuffle - shuffle

Thursday, 30 July 2009

school and hectic

Proto-Indo-European *seǵʰ- "to hold". The zero-grade form *sǵʰ- became Ancient Greek σχολή skholē which meant "stop, leisure", moving to "study," then "a place for study, school". This was borrowed into Latin as schola, then borrowed into Old English as scōl, which became English school, the h being added to the word to reflect the word's Latin/Greek origin.

The suffixed form *seǵʰ-es- became Ancient Greek ἔχω ekhō "to hold, possess, have", and ἑκτικός hektikos "habitual, customary, enduring", borrowed into Latin as hecticus, becoming Old French etique, then borrowed into Middle English as etik "recurring, consumptive". This became hectic in the 1500s, the h and c being added again to reflect the word's Latin/Greek origin. The word's meaning moved from "consumptive" to "feverishly intense activity" c1900.

Sunday, 26 July 2009

good etymology books

dayna asked for recommendations for good books about etymology aimed at the general public. I haven't read it, but this book sounds good:

Katherine Barber. Six Words You Never Knew Had Something to Do with Pigs: And Other Fascinating Facts About the English Language

It sounds entertaining, and Barber is a lexicographer so she knows what she's talking about (I'm guessing four of the six words are porcelain, porcupine, porpoise, aardvark).

This book might also be of interest, altho it's not specifically about etymology:

Erin McKean. Weird and Wonderful Words

Can anyone suggest some more?

Friday, 24 July 2009

carnival and scrabble

Doug Lennox's bestselling book Now You Know and the sequel Now You Know More trace "the concise and fascination history behind hundreds of expressions in our everyday language". Although these books are "thoroughly researched", I don't believe a word of them. Even so, I find them interesting, because although many of the etymologies are wrong or unsupported, I find myself wondering what the real answers are.

His entry "How did the word carnival come to mean a self-indulgent celebration" is a short explanation of Lent, and he only deals with the word itself in the final sentence:

In Church Latin, carne vale literally means "farewell to meat."

The OED tells us that theories like this one "belong to the domain of popular etymology" - i.e., are untrue. The real history of carnival involves metathesis. Latin carō, carnis is "flesh", and *carnem levāre is "the putting away or removal of flesh (as food)", which became carnelevārium, which became Italian carnevale, carnovale - the l and v switched places.

carō, carnis "flesh" is from a form *kar- from the Proto-Indo-European root *(s)ker- "to cut". In Proto-Germanic, this became the metathetic variants *skrap- and *skarp. *skrap- became Old English scrapian (modern scrape), and Dutch schrabbelen "to scrawl", borrowed into English as scrabble. *skarp- became sharp.

Thursday, 16 July 2009

kvetch and pasta

On Ms G's advice, I borrowed Born to Kvetch: Yiddish Language and Culture in All of its Moods by Michael Wex. It's a very entertaining and informative book - he goes into detail on the reasons behind the u/i variation in, for example, meshuge/meshige and kugl/kigl (in some words it originates in Hebrew and in others it comes from German). Early on he writes a sentence that struck me: "From a linguistic point of view, the Talmud is nothing less than Yiddish in utero" (page 15). He seems to be arguing that many Yiddish word and idioms reflect the Jewish worldview, that Yiddish arose "to give voice to a system of opposition and exclusion" (page 18). A simple example he gives is הײַנט haynt "today", which is derived from Middle High German heint "tonight" - "the Yiddish meaning depends on the notion of evening preceding morning, on the lunar calendar implied on the first page of Genesis and explain on the first page of the Talmud" (page 17).

Anyway, kvetch. קװעטשן kvetshn "press, squeeze, pinch, strain" is undoubtedly related to German quetschen "to squeeze" which was borrowed from Latin quatere "to shake" according to Grimm. Quatere is from Proto-Indo-European *kweh₁t- "to shake". In Greek, *kweh₁t- became πάσσω/παστός "to sprinkle". The derivative πασταί "barley porridge" was borrowed into Latin as pasta but with the meaning "small square piece of a medicinal preparation". This word became Italian pasta.

I've written about this root before, but I think the connection between kvetch and pasta is too cool not to mention.

Wednesday, 8 July 2009

Iran and Aryan

The history of the word Iran begins with *aryo-, which was a self-designation of the Indo-Iranians. It's found in Sanskrit ārya-, the most common translation for which is "noble", and Avestan airya "venerable". Old Persian āriya- "compatriot" became Middle Persian Ēr "Iranian", and the genitive plural Ērān (AHD), and Modern Persian ایران Īrān "Persia" (OED).

The Sanskrit ārya- is the source of the word Aryan. Fortson explains how this word came to have racist connotations:

During the nineteenth century, it was proposed that this [*arya-] had been not only the Indo-Iranian tribal self-designation but also the self-designation of the Proto-Indo-Europeans themselves. (This theory has since been abandoned.) "Aryan" then came to be used in scholarship to refer to Indo-European. Some decades later it was further proposed that the PIE homeland had been located in northern Europe (also a theory no longer accepted), leading to speculations that the Proto-Indo-Europeans had been of a Nordic racial type. In this way "Aryan" developed yet another, purely racialist meaning, probably the most familiar one today. In Indo-European studies, "Aryan" (and Arisch in German) and "Indo-Aryan" are still frequently used in their older sense - "Aryan" to refer to Indo-Iranian (less commonly, Indo-European) and "Indo-Aryan" to refer to Indic.

The OED still has many etymologies containing the terms "Aryan" and "Indo-Aryan".

It was undoubtedly the work of the nineteenth century philologist Max Müller that helped popularize "Aryan" as a linguistic term. Müller is quoted as saying "an ethnologist who speaks of Aryan race, Aryan blood, Aryan eyes and hair, is as great a sinner as a linguist who speaks of a dolichocephalic dictionary or a brachycephalic grammar".

I was asked recently if Ireland and Iran were related. Unfortunately they aren't; the origin of Ireland and Irish is uncertain.

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

cushy and vigorish

cushy is borrowed from Hindi ख़ुश ḵẖuś "pleasant", which is borrowed from Persian خوش khush "good, excellent". According to Platts, the word is cognate with Avestan usta "fortunate" (from uś + śtā) and Sanskrit ud + sthā. Maybe the meaning in Avestan and Sanskrit is something like "outstanding"?

Sometimes Platts's etymologies seem farfetched. Where did the initial consonant come from?

Anyway, Sanskrit ud "up, upwards; upon, on; over, above" is from Proto-Indo-European *ud- "up, out". This became Old Church Slavonic vъz- and Russian вы "out" in the word выигрыш (vyigryš) "gain, winnings". This word was borrowed into Yiddish and then into English as vigorish, defined by the OED as "The percentage deducted by the organizers of a game from the winnings of a gambler. Also, the rate of interest upon a usurious loan."

Also see Orthanc and hysteresis.