Tuesday, 29 September 2009

vanilla and vagina

Proto-Indo-European *weh₂g- "to break; split, bite" (AHD) (or "cover, sheath") became Latin uāgīna "sheath", because sheaths were probably made from a simple split piece of wood.

Latin uāgīna became Spanish vaina, the diminutive of which is vaynilla/vainilla, borrowed into English as the word for the sheath-shaped vanilla bean. Cf. Italian vainiglia, Portuguese bainilha, French vanille.

Also: etymological vaginas (seen on the Valve).

Thursday, 24 September 2009

National Punctuation Day

Today is National Punctuation Day. I wrote about this last year, but here we are again.

One of the National Punctuation Day pages tells us the following "Punctuation Fact":

Punctuation first began to be added to texts because of declining standards of literacy. Readers had become less able to indicate their own punctuation.

English punctuation came about because people didn't know how to use punctuation?

If they mean that punctuation was standardized because of declining standards of literacy, I'm not sure how true this is. There were attempts to reform English spelling, but were there ever attempts to reform or standardize English punctuation?

There's also the implication that there is a correlation between punctuation and level of literacy. I don't know how true that is, but I do know that English writing has always had punctuation. It was sparse in Old English, but it was there. Middle English punctuation included these marks (this is from A Biography of the English Language by C.M. Millward:



By the 18th century, punctuation was much the same as it is today but it was much heavier - just look at a page of Tristram Shandy or Emma to get an idea of how heavy punctuation was then. We're actually using less punctuation now than we used to. But are we less literate?

One of the favourite things punctuation mavens like to do is complain about misused apostrophes. But in the interests of reasonableness, I'd like to point out the following bit of information, from The Oxford Companion to the English Language:

it appears from the evidence that there was never a golden age in which the rules for the use of the possessive apostrophe in English were clear-cut and known, understood, and followed by most educated people.

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

climax and ladder

The first occurance of climax in English was for the rhetorical device in which a number of ideas are arranged in order of ascending effectiveness. For instance:

One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
- Tennyson, Ulysses

Later it came to mean "the last or highest term of a rhetorical climax" and "the highest point of anything reached by gradual ascent; the culmination". The OED says that these latter two meanings "are due to popular ignorance and misuse of the learned word". Who says the OED is a descriptive dictionary?

Greek κλῖμαξ meant "ladder". It's from Proto-Indo-European *ḱlei- "to lean". The suffixed o-grade form *ḱloi-tr- became Old English hlǣdder, then English ladder. But what is that *-tr- supposed to be?

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

vodka, whiskey, water

Both vodka and whisky come from words for "water". Coincidence? A poetic drunkenly-inspired coinage made far back in the mists of time?

Vodka is borrowed from Russian водка which is from вода "water". -ка is a diminutive suffix, so vodka etymologically means "little water". It's from Proto-Indo-European *wed- "water, wet".

Whisky was borrowed from Scots Gaelic uisge beatha and/or Irish Gaelic uisce beatha, meaning "water of life". (In my older post I say Scots Gaelic, but the OED doesn't seem sure.) It was also spelled usquebaugh and whiskybae, until the last syllable was dropped. Irish Gaelic uisce "water" is from *ud-skio-, a suffixed zero-grade form of *wed-.

Other unrelated words with the same sense are aquavitae from the Latin for "water of life", and French eau-de-vie meaning "brandy".

In English, *wed- became water, wet and wash.

Friday, 4 September 2009

Cons of linguistics

NetBase Solutions' healthBase is a semantic search engine which "takes a sophisticated linguistic approach, actually diagramming sentences to determine the relationship between words and phrases. It does particularly well with causal relationships, allowing it to tease out cause and effect from raw text." But as pointed out in a hilarious post on Language Log, results can sometimes be pretty weird. Searching for the pros and cons of linguistics made me laugh:



That's eerily accurate.