Friday, 28 August 2009

donkey ears

Thanks to epea pteroenta, I've learned that the Greek word for "rabbit" (λαγώς, as in lagomorph) etymologically means "floppy ears".

The Hindi-Urdu word for "rabbit" is ख़रगोश/خرگوش ḵẖargoś, borrowed from Persian, where it seems to etymologically mean "donkey ears". خر khar is "ass" and گوش goš is "ear".

devil and parliament

Proto-Indo-European *gʷelh₁- "to throw, reach, with further meaning to pierce" became Greek βάλλω "to throw". This combined with διά "through, across" to form διαβάλλω "to throw across; misrepresent, mislead". Διάβολος meant "slanderer" and also "Satan". It seems this was borrowed into Latin as diabolus, then borrowed into Old English as dēofol, becoming modern English devil.

Bάλλω combined with παρα "beside" to form παραβάλλω "to throw beside; compare". Παραβολή meant "comparison, analogy; parable", borrowed into Latin as parabola. This became Old French parable, and also parler "speech" and parlement "discussion, meeting". The -ia- spelling of parliament has not been fully explained (OED).

The OED says in the entry for bale "to dance":

a. OF. baler (since 16th c. baller) to dance (= Pr. balar, It. ballare, Sp., Pg. bailar):-late L. (Isidore) ballāre to dance. Some think the L. formed from Gr. βαλλίζειν to dance, some f. balla BALL n.1, on the alleged ground that, in the Middle Ages, tennis was accompanied with dancing and song.

The AHD claims that βαλλίζω "to dance, jump about" is derived from βάλλω "to throw", so words like ballad, ballet and ball "a formal gathering for social dancing" are ultimately from *gʷelh₁-.

In English, *gʷelh₁- became cwellan "to kill, destroy" and quell.

Thursday, 27 August 2009

chemical language

Titanian grammar is tricky. For example, the feel of wool cannot be used as the verb for the smell of wood smoke unless the object of the sentence has a pleasant flavor.

- Alfred Bester, The Deceivers

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

dragon, tarragon, rankle, darshan

Proto-Indo-European *derḱ- "to see" became Greek δέρκομαι "to see clearly", and δράκων "dragon, serpent" - "from his supposed sharp sight" says Skeat. Δράκων was borrowed into Latin as dracōnem becoming French dragon.

Δράκων was borrowed into Arabic as طرخون ṭarẖwn, a name for tarragon, also known as dragonwort, Latin name Artemisia dracunculus. This was borrowed back into Greek as ταρχών, then into Latin as tarchon, tragonia, then into English as tarragon.

Latin dracōnem became dracunculus, dranculus "small dragon", then Old French drancle, then Anglo-Norman rauncle "festering sore" and rauncler "to fester". The "festering sore" meaning is the earliest meaning of rankle in English.

In Sanskrit *derḱ- became दर्शनं darśanaṃ "seeing, meeting". Darshan refers to a sight or glimpse of a holy personage, such as a guru.

Monday, 24 August 2009

mooch and smoke

mooch "to dawdle in a bored or listless manner" is from mooch "to loaf, to skulk, to sneak". This is probably from Anglo-Norman muscher "to hide", as in Middle French muce, musse, mouce "hiding place". This is borrowed from an unattested Celtic form that is from the same base as Old Irish múch "smoke", Welsh mwg "smoke" (OED). Welsh mwg is from Proto-Indo-European *(s)meug- "to smoke". This became Old English smocian, English smoke.

No relation to French mouchoir or mouche.

Thursday, 20 August 2009

Rihanna's Sanskrit tattoo

Beckham's not the only one who has a Devanagari tattoo that's come under fire. This article reports that Rihanna is getting flack for having a misspelled Sanskrit tattoo.

I decided to see if I could find out how accurate it was, purely in the interests of linguistics of course...

The tattoo is upside down in all the photos I could find, so I rotated it:

This is from the Bhagavad Gita 10.4-5. The whole verse is

बुद्धिर्ज्ञानमसम्मोहः क्षमा सत्यं दमः शमः ।
सुखं दुःखं भवोऽभावो भयं चाभयमेव च । ४ ।
अहिंसा समता तुष्टिस्तपो दानं यशोऽश: ।
भवन्यि भावा भूतानां मत्त एव पृथग्विधा: । ५ ।

4. Discernment, knowledge, freedom from delusion, long suffering, truth, self-restraint, inward calm, pleasure, pain, birth, death, fear and fearlessness;
5. Non-violence, even-mindedness, contentment, austerity, beneficence, good and ill fame,—all these various attributes of creatures proceed verily from Me.

The tattoo starts with the second half of the first line, so
क्षमा सत्यं दमः शमः
kṣamā satyaṃ damaḥ śamaḥ
"long suffering, truthfulness, self-restraint, inward calm"

It's missing the anusvāra (the dot) over सत्यं (satyaṃ), and दम: (damaḥ) looks more like टम: (ṭamaḥ) to me. (The visarga on the last word is there but it's hidden by the clothing.) And the letters म (ma) and य (ya) look pretty much identical.

More important is the next line, which is incomplete. The original is
सुखं दुःखं भवोऽभावो भयं चाभयमेव च
sukhaṃ duḥkhaṃ bhavo 'bhāvo bhayaṃ cābhayam eva ca
"pleasure, pain, birth, death, fear and fearlessness"

In this photo we can see a bit more. It appears to be
भयं चा भय
bhayaṃ cābhaya
So the first half of the line is missing. But presumably the second half of the line is complete, because we know the tattoo ends with च ।।.

So her tattoo reads
long suffering, truthfulness, self-restraint, inward calm, fear and fearlessness
and it is missing
pleasure, pain, birth, death

Wednesday, 19 August 2009


It sounds like it's a folk etymology, but it's true: tawdry is short for tawdry lace, which is short for St. Audrey's lace. Skeat says that tawdry lace referred to lace bought at St. Awdrey's fair, celebrated on October 17. Tawdry obviously underwent some perjoration, perhaps by association with cheap and showy lace. According to the OED, it is told that St. Audrey wore many necklaces, and died of a throat tumour, which was considered just retribution for her vanity.

The name Audrey is from Old English Æþelðryþ, which is composed of æþel "noble" and þryþ "power, strength". A cognate of þryþ is found in the -trude of Gertrude (from Old High German gēr "spear" and drūd "strength"). Æþel is from Proto-Indo-European *at-h₂el- "race, family", from *at- "over, beyond", and *h₂el- "to grow, nourish". See also Alice and edelweiss.

Monday, 10 August 2009

Drambuie and Buddha

Drambuie is a delicious Scottish whisky liqueur. According to the label, the name comes from the Scots Gaelic an dram buidheach "the drink that satisfies". Dram is "drink" and buidheach is "satisfied". Buidheach is from Old Irish buide "thanks, satisfaction". According to Pokorny, this is from Proto-Indo-European *bʰeudʰ- "to be aware". However, Matasovic disagrees:

I fail to see the semantic connection to the root *bʰudʰ- 'wake, be conscient' (Skt. budhyate, etc.) proposed by some linguists.

In any case, *bʰeudʰ- became Sanskrit budh "to awake", and बुद्ध buddha "awaked, expanded, intelligent".

I'd thought that dram was borrowed into English from Gaelic, but the English word is actually from French drachme, from Greek δραχμή, the drachma, the ancient Greek coin (perhaps from *dergʰ- "to grasp"). In English it came to mean a measurement of fluid, then a small draught of cordial. I don't know the origin of the Gaelic word.

Thursday, 6 August 2009

that which

A journey into usage today.

There's a new Twitter feed called thatwhichmatter, whose goal is "To honor the that/which distinction, and all grammar that which matters."

The that/which distinction, as given by usage writers like Strunk & White and Fowler, goes like this:
"Use that to introduce restrictive relative clauses, and use which to introduce nonrestrictive relative clauses."

A restrictive relative clause is one that adds essential information, as in this example from The Elements of Style:

1) The lawn mower that is broken is in the garage.

There is more than one lawn mower; the relative clause that is broken is essential because it tells us which one.

A nonrestrictive clause is one that adds nonessential information:

2) The lawn mower, which is broken, is in the garage.

There is only one lawn mower, and the clause which is broken adds additional but nonessential information.

Strunk and White go so far as to advocate "which-hunting", and replacing all restrictive whiches with thats:

Careful writers, watchful for small conveniences, go which-hunting, remove the defining [restrictive] whiches, and by so doing improve their work.

The problem is that altho careful writers might do that, good writers don't. Even E. B. White himself didn't:

...the premature expiration of a pig is, I soon discovered, a departure which the community marks solemnly on its calendar - E. B. White, "Death of a Pig"

The reality is that which introduces restrictive relative clauses and has been introducing restrictive relative clauses for as long as it's been a relative pronoun (the 14th century). It isn't which that signals a nonrestrictive relative clause, it's the commas.

Here are a few more examples of which introducing restrictive relative clauses, from good writers who knew what they were doing:

It was a concern which brought just employment enough. (Jane Austen, Emma, chapter 2)

However, she soon made out that she was in the pool of tears which she had wept when she was nine feet high. (Lewis Carroll, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, chapter 2)

He lived in chambers which had once belonged to his deceased partner. (Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol, Stave 1)

Buda-Pesth seems a wonderful place, from the glimpse which I got of it from the train and the little I could walk through the streets. (Bram Stoker, Dracula, chapter 1)

I think I can see a little into the springs and motives which being cunningly presented to me under various disguises (Herman Melville, Moby Dick, chapter 1)

...and Mrs. Heathcliff leaning over the fire, diverting herself with burning a bundle of matches which had fallen from the chimney-piece as she restored the tea-canister to its place (Emily Bronte, Wuthering Heights, chapter 2)

Given the choice between writing like Strunk and White's imaginary careful writer and good writers like Carroll and Austen, I know who I'd choose.

Trying to follow Strunk and White's that/which distinction can cause all kinds of unintended consequences, as explained by Zwicky on the Log.

So to quote Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage:

You can use either which or that to introduce a restrictive clause - the grounds for your choice should be stylistic - and which to introduce a nonrestrictive clause.