Thursday, 30 December 2010

sweet and hedonism

Proto-Indo-European *sweh₂d- "sweet, pleasant" became Proto-Germanic *swōtja then English sweet.

The suffixed form *swād-onā became ancient Greek ἡδονή "lust", borrowed into English as hedonism.

The suffixed form *swād-wi- became Latin suāuis "sweet" then French suave "agreeable", then English suave.

The form *swād-es- became ancient Greek ἡδύς ēdus or ϝἁδύς wadus "sweet". This combined with α "not" to form ἁηδης aēdēs "unpleasant", giving us a word that is new to me: aedes, a yellow-fever mosquito of the genus Aëdes.

Thursday, 23 December 2010


The place where Christ was crucified was called in Aramaic gogulþō or gogolþā meaning "skull" (OED) - in Hebrew גולגולת gulgolet. Presumably this was because the hill was rounded like a skull.

In Latin it was called Caluāria "skull", which was borrowed into Engish as Calvary. Latin caluāria is from caluus "bald", from Proto-Indo-European *kl̥h₂-wo- "bald" (AHD).

English callow and German kahl "bald" are both from Proto-Germanic *kalwo-, which is thought to be borrowed from Latin caluus (OED). Although others think it's from another Proto-Indo-European root, *gal- "bald" (AHD).

In Old English the hill was called hēafod-pannan stōw "head-pan place", that is, "skull place".

Thursday, 2 December 2010

mullered and amaranth

mullered is a British English word meaning "smashed, wrecked, hammered"… that is, "drunk". muller means "ruin, wreck, destroy". It was probably borrowed from Angloromani mul-, the preterite stem of mer- "to die" (OED). This is cognate with Sanskrit mr̥ "to die", as in mara and amrita.

The Proto-Indo-European root *mer- "to rub away, harm" became Greek μαραίνειν marainein "to whither, decay". The adjective *-μαραντος -marantos "fading, corruptible" combined with ἀ "not" became ἀμάραντος amarantos, "everlasting". This was borrowed into Latin as amarantus. It was also written amaranthus due to the assumption that it was related to Greek ἄνθος anthos "flower" (OED). An amarant(h) is a flower that never fades.

Thursday, 25 November 2010

paan and fern

Paan or pan is a preparation of betel leaves and other ingredients which is chewed as a stimulant. It's quite buzzy. It also stains your mouth red.

Hindi पान pān is from Sanskrit पर्ण parṇa "feather, leaf" (OED) from PIE *por-no- "that which carries a bird in flight" (possibly). From the same PIE form is English fern, so called because it has feathery fronds.

*por-no- is a suffixed o-grade form of *per- "lead, pass over".

Thursday, 11 November 2010

hoosegow and judge

Hoosegow, an American word for prison, is borrowed from South American or Mexican Spanish juzgao, from Spanish juzgado "tribunal". This is from Latin iūdicātum/iūdicāre "to judge". This and the related iūdex/iūdicem "right, law" are from PIE *i̯eu̯es-deiḱ- - from *i̯eu̯es- "law" and *deiḱ- "to show".

iūdicem became French juge, borrowed into English as judge.

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

shinen, shined, shone

Gabe's excellent post on shined and shone prompted me to investigate the claim in the Huffington Post article:

Shine is one of those “strong verbs” that had an irregular past tense and past participle (shone) but later acquired a regular form ending in -ed as well.

If they mean that the past participle was shone first and then shined later, then no. A quick look in the OED tells me that shone only came to be used as the past participle in the second half of the 16th century. Before that the past participle was shined.

In fact, the verb has had three past participles.

sinen, from earlier *scinen - presumably this is the earliest past participle, compare the German past participle geschienen and Dutch geschenen:

Ðe leun ne stireð he nout of slepe Til ðe sunne haueð sinen ðries him abuten. - Bestiary, c1220

shined - as Gabe says, this was the most common past participle between 1300 and 1700:

The mone is alway halfe shyned of the sonne. - Trevisa, Bartholomeus (de Glanvilla) De proprietatibus rerum, 1398

We are sure, the good-will of Him who dwelt in the Bush has shined upon us. - Oliver Cromwell, Letters and speeches, 1648

And shone, originally the strong preterite form, started to be used as the past participle in the mid-1500s:

The aultars where the sacred flames haue shone. - George Gascoigne, Jocasta, 1566

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

shine, squirrel, tinsel

Proto-Indo-European *skeh₂i- "to gleam" in the suffixed zero-grade form *skeh₂i-no- became Proto-Germanic *skīnan and English shine.

It's thought the word also meant "shadow", or maybe its sense changed to "shadow" in some cases? Anyway the Greek derivative is apparently σκιά "shadow". This combined with οὐρά "tail" to form σκίουρος "shadow-tail, i.e. squirrel". This was borrowed into Latin as sciūrus, and diminutivized to scurellius, becoming Old French esquireul, escureul (whence modern French écureuil), becoming Anglo-French esquirel, borrowed into English as squirrel.

Possibly there was a suffixed form *skeh₂i-nto- which became Latin scintillāre "to sparkle, glitter". This became *stincillāre by metathesis, becoming Old French estinceler "to sparke, to sparkle as fire; to twinkle as a starre or Dyamond; to set thicke with sparkles" (Cotgrave). The past participle estincelé "sparkled, sparked, also powdered or set with sparkles" found its way into English as tinsel, tincel.

Sunday, 3 October 2010


I've trudged my way thru China Miéville's Kraken - I say trudged because altho I enjoyed it, I found his idiosyncratic prose style hard to get past. I don't remember having this problem with Perdido Street Station or The Scar. Anyway, the book's about a Neverwhere or King Rat-style magical London where various weird groups are fighting over a zombie squid. What's not to like? I learned a new word in this sentence about the Chaos Nazis:

Their symbol was the eight-pointed Chaos star altered to make a Moorcock weep, its diagonal arms bent fylfot, a swastika that pointed in all directions.

He's referring to the eight-armed symbol of Chaos used in the Elric novels. The fylfot or fylfot cross, tho, is a real thing, it's another word for swastika. The generally accepted etymology is simply fill-foot, as in a design to fill the foot of a painted window. The OED provides this citation from the Landsdowne manuscripts:

Let me stand in the medyll pane..a rolle abo[ve my hede] in the hyest..[pane] vpward, the fylfot in the nedermast pane vnder ther I knele

The OED notes that it might have been a nonce word in this citation, a word created for this particular purpose.

In French the design is cramponné "cramped", in German it's Hakenkreuz "hooked cross", and in Greek it's γαμμάτιον/γαμμάδιον (gammadion) because it's formed from the letter Γ gamma. In Sanskrit, svastika means "lucky or auspicious object".

Friday, 24 September 2010

national punctuation day

Like Gabe, I can't get excited by National Punctuation Day. So here's something I mentioned last year that I think bears repeating (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.

Thursday, 16 September 2010


To my surprise, bridal is not bride plus the suffix -al (as in, say, central).
Etymologically it's "bride-ale": Old English brȳdealo, "wedding ale" or "wedding feast", which is brȳd "bride" plus ealu "ale".

Tuesday, 14 September 2010


Latin lāmina "thin plate, scale, later, or flake (of metal, etc.)" had the diminutive lāmella, which became Old French lemel(l)e "blade". La lemelle was reanalyzed as l'alemelle, meaning "thin plate, blade of a sword or knife". This was further diminutized to *alemette, which was metathesized to amelette. By this time it meant "omelette", perhaps because of the omelette's thin flat shape. The initial o perhaps came about by association with oeuf "egg".

I learned this from Word Origins and How We Know Them by Anatoly Liberman, a very entertaining and informative read.

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

orchid and orchestra

English orchid was borrowed from the scientific name Orchideae, which is from Latin orchis "any of various kinds of orchid" - early botanists misinterpreted the Latin stem as ending in -d-. The Latin word was borrowed from Greek ὄρχις orkhis "testicle", from Proto-Indo-European *h₁erǵh- "to mount" (AHD).

Also according to the AHD, *h₁erǵh- in the suffixed o-grade form *h₁orǵh-eyo- became Greek ὀρχέομαι orkheomai "to dance", and ὀρχήστρα orkhēstra "in the theatre the space on which the chorus danced" - which was the earliest meaning of orchestra in English.

Pokorny has two roots: *orĝhi-, *r̥ĝhi- "testicle" and *ergh- "to shake, tremble" - the latter is the source of orchestra. Connecting both roots with the meaning "to mount", as the AHD does, seems a stretch to me.

The OED says the etymology of ὀρχέομαι is uncertain, and says its derivation from Pokorny's "to shake, tremble" is "unsatisfactory".


escape was borrowed from Old Northern French escaper, from Late Latin *excappāre, from ex "out" and cappa "cloak". So escape is etymologically out of the cape.

Thursday, 19 August 2010


Once upon a time there was cokes meaning "A silly fellow, fool, ninny; a simpleton, one easily ‘taken in’", possibly related to cockney. The phrase make a cokes of appeared to be shorted to cokes, later spelled coax. The OED:

f. COKES n. According to Johnson 1755-73, ‘a low word’, and probably in vulgar use long before it became usual in literature, which may account for want of literary evidence for the early history of the senses. The original meaning seems to have been ‘make a cokes of’: cf. to fool, to pet, to gull; and the transition from ‘make a fool of’ to ‘make a pet of’, is paralleled by the passage of fond from ‘befooled’ to its present sense.

Saturday, 14 August 2010

holocaust and ink

Proto-Indo-European *keh₂u- "to burn" became Greek καίω kaiō "to burn" and καυστός kaustos "burnt, burnable". ὁλόκαυστος holokaustos meant "burnt whole", from ὅλος holos "whole". Borrowed into Latin as holocaustum, it originally meant "a whole burnt offering".

The related word ἐγκαίω egkaiō meant "to brand, paint with encaustic" - encaustic being a process of painting with wax and fixing the colours with fire. ἕγκαυστον egkauston was the ink used in the signature of Greek and Roman emperors - this was borrowed into Latin as encaustum, which developed into Old French enque, borrowed into English as ink.

Thursday, 5 August 2010

catholic and insouciant

The OED on catholic:

[a. F. catholique (13th c. in Littré) ad. late L. catholic-us, a. Gr. καθολικός general, universal, f. καθόλου (i.e. καθ' ὅλου ) on the whole, in general, as a whole, generally, universally, f. κατά concerning, in respect of, according to + ὅλος whole. (If immed. derived from L. or Gr., the Eng. word would, according to the regular analogy of words in -IC, have been accented caˈtholic).]

In other words, a word used to mean "broad in sympathies, tastes or interests" is derived from a phrase meaning "in general, on the whole".

Greek ὅλος "whole" is from Proto-Indo-European *solh₂- "whole". This became Latin sollus "entire", which perhaps combined with citus "set in motion" (from *kei-) to form sollicitus "thoroughly moved, agitated, disturbed" and sollicitāre "to vex". sollicitāre became French soucier "to care" and insouciant "careless".

while and coy

Both while and whilst are from Old English hwīl. The Proto-Indo-European root is *kʷiH- (in Fortson, the AHD has *kʷeih₁- "to rest, be quiet"), and hwīl is from the suffixed zero-grade form *kʷiH-lo-.

coy is from Old French coi "quiet, reserved, shy," from Latin quiētus, the past participle of quiēscere "to rest", from *kʷiH- plus the suffix *-sḱe-.

while is a shortening of Middle English þe while þat "during the time that". whilst is from Middle English whilest, from whiles, the being added perhaps by association with the superlative est (as in fastest). We also find it in amongst and amidst. whiles was while plus the adverbial suffix -s, as in "He works nights."

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

snails, snakes, and snarks

Browsing other etymology books, I had a look at Anatoly Liberman's Word Origins and how we know them - and was struck by one of the covers, which shows the word snark formed from a snake and a shark. Liberman writes:

Snark is certainly, not probably, a blend of snake and shark, because Lewis Carroll explained his coinage.

I've written about snark in the past, and I found this curious. The Century Dictionary gives the snake/shark derivation. It's repeated in other places too. But as far as I know, the only real evidence we have is the fact that Beatrice Hatch wrote that Carroll told her that it was a portmanteau of snail and shark. Where and when did Carroll explain that he coined the word from snake and shark?

Friday, 30 July 2010

noise and argonaut

Proto-Indo-European *neh₂u- "boat" became Greek ναῦς naus "ship" and Ionic Greek ναυσίη nausiē (Attic ναυτία nautia) "seasickness". This was borrowed into Latin as nausea.

Latin nausea probably developed into Anglo-Norman noise, which found its way into English. The OED says the semantic development is probably from "malaise" to "disturbance, uproar", then "noise, din, quarrel" (OED).

Greek ναύτης nautēs "sailor" is the source of words ending in -naut like cosmonaut, astronaut, argonaut. An argonaut is a sailor in the ship Argo - but it's also a kind of octopus that inhabits a shell.

Thursday, 29 July 2010


I'm sure anyone reading this blog is familiar with the Queen's English Society and their mission to protect English from the rampaging hordes of young people and Americans. I didn't write about it because Stan Carey at Sentence First said everything that needed to be said. But recently Gabe at Motivated Grammar addressed a specific complaint the QES makes, and I became interested in doing the same (or biting his style, as the kids say).

The QES objects to either pronounced with /i/ (the "ee" sound) instead of /aɪ/ (the "eye" sound). Their reasoning is twofold:

1. The /aɪ/ pronunciation is "upper-class" and "cultured", and changed to /i/ in the 50s "probably" under American influence.
2. "many words in English come from some form of Old German", and in German the letter combination ei is pronounced /aɪ/, so therefore in English words of Germanic origin, ei should be pronounced /aɪ/ as well.

Regarding point 1: I'm not sure how the QES knows how and when the pronunciation changed. For the record, both pronunciations of either are standard. The /i/ pronunciation is usual in American English, while /aɪ/ is more common in British English. However, /aɪ/ is found in the speech of "well-educated speakers in urban areas of the Northeast" US.[1] I find it weird that pronouncing a word with a high front unrounded vowel as opposed to a falling diphthong is seen as a "regrettable" infiltration.

Regarding point 2: there are several problems with this. From one point of view it is true that many English words are derived from a form of "Old German", but this in turn means that many German words are derived from a form of Old English. The ancester of both languages is a putative language called Proto-Germanic, so Proto-Germanic is a very old form of German, but it's also a very old form of English. So why don't the Germans look to English to find out how to pronounce their words?

Next, the claim that ei should be /aɪ/ in English because that's how it's pronounced in German looks like a form of the etymological fallacy: the belief that we need to look to another language to determine what makes correct English.

Finally, the argument that the /aɪ/ pronunciation is correct because of the word's Germanic history doesn't make sense because historically, the /aɪ/ pronunciation is wrong. Either developed from Old English ǣġhwæðer, a combination of ā "always" plus ġehwæðer "each of two" (modern whether). It was contracted to ǣgðer, then later spelled either[2] - so it's the development of the initial ǣ that concerns us here. Old English ǣ was usually pronounced /æː/, and this generally became Middle English /ɛː/ which became Modern English /i/. For instance, Old English tǣcan with /æː/ became Middle English teche which became Modern English teach with /i/.[3] So it seems that the etymologically correct pronuncation of either is with /i/.

The OED notes that the /aɪ/ pronunciation is "not in accordance with the analogies of standard Eng[lish]" (I'm not even sure what that means, actually) but that it is "in London somewhat more prevalent in educated speech" than the /i/ pronunciation.

Summary: The /aɪ/ pronunciation still seems common in British English, but even if it isn't nothing important has been lost, and German spelling is irrelevant to English pronunciation.

[1]The American Heritage Book of English Usage (1996).
[2] Oxford English Dictionary, either.
[3]Millward, A Biography of the English Language (1988), p. 131.

Wednesday, 28 July 2010

narwhal and nudnik

Proto-Indo-European *neh₂u- "death; to be exhausted" became Proto-Germanic *nāw-i- "corpse" and Old Norse nár "corpse" (AHD). Narwhal is borrowed from Danish narhval, from Old Norse náhvalr. It's thought that the Old Norse word is from nár plus hvalr "whale" with reference to the deathly colour of its skin. Or it could be from nál "needle". The presence of the r in the modern Scandinavian forms is unexplained (since the Old Norse word didn't have it), but it could have been added by folk etymological association with nár "corpse" (OED).

The Old Norse nár is cognate with the second element of Old English orcnēas "evil spirits, walking corpses". It's also cognate with need, but that's another story.

Nudnik "a pestering, nagging, or irritating person; a bore" is borrowed from Yiddish נודניק nudnik, which is from nudyen "to bore", borrowed from Polish nudzić "to bore" or Russian нудить "to wear out (with complaints)". Both of these are from Proto-Slavic *naud-ā- from *neh₂u- (AHD).

Thursday, 22 July 2010

dacha and Pandora

Proto-Indo-European *deh₃- "to give" became Russian дать "to give" and дача dacha "grant (of land)". A dacha is a summer villa.

In Greek, *deh₃- became δῶρον "gift", which combined with πᾶς/πᾶν "all" to form Πανδώρα "all-gifted", borrowed into Latin as Pandōra, the first woman that all the gods gave gifts to.

Saturday, 17 July 2010


The Indian government has developed a new symbol for the rupee:

It's pretty cool, because it looks like both R and the Devanagari र ra. However, I think it would be better as a रु ru (for Hindi रुपया rupayā) or रू (for Sanskrit रूप्य rūpya).

This is because Devanagari is an abugida: the vowels are respresented as diacritics attached to the consonant letters. When you abbreviate a word that begins with a consonant in Devanagari, you don't abbreviate to the first consonant, you abbreviate to the first consonant and vowel. So the usual abbreviation for rupee in Hindi is रु॰. (The circle is an abbreviation sign.)

On the back of one of my Hindi children's books is the name of the publisher:

Pitambar Publishing Company Productions Private Limited. The last two words are प्रा॰ लि॰ prā li - an abbreviation for "productions private limited" (I think).

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

sloe, livid, lavender

Proto-Indo-European *sleiH- "bluish" became Serbo-Croatian šljìva "plum" and šljivovica "plum brandy", borrowed as slivovitz. *sleiH- also became Old English slāh and English sloe, blackthorn fruit.

According to the AHD, *sleiH- became Latin līuēre "to be bluish" and līuidus "bluish", borrowed thru French as livid.

Lavender is from Anglo-French lavendre from medieval Latin lauendula. It was thought to be connected to lauare "to wash", either because the plant was used in perfuming baths or laid among linen. But the OED notes that "on the ground of sense-development this does not seem plausible; a word literally meaning 'washing' would hardly without change of form come to denote a non-essential adjunct to washing". Another suggestion is that lauendula is from *līuendula, from līuidus. Lavender is bluish.

Friday, 9 July 2010


I just got back from a vacation in Hawaiʻi, and while I was there, surrounded by dolphins, sea turtles and squid, I of course got to thinking about the ʻokina, the symbol used to represent the Hawaiian glottal stop. At first I thought it was an apostrophe, but closer inspection revealed that it usually resembled a single left quote:
According to the prescriptive and citation-free wikipedia page, it should only look like a single left quote, and any other rendering is wrong. However, in some places, like on signs in the ʻIolani Palace museum, it's rendered as a backquote, and on some street signs it's an acute accent:

On other street signs, it's a straight apostrophe:

And once with a double left quote:

This article has a lot of detail on the different ways the ʻokina is rendered.

In other news, I spotted this awesome multilingual sign in a restaurant (click for bigger image).

Can you guess them all? Here's the answer.

Friday, 18 June 2010

Pakistan and Puritan

The creation of the name of Pakistan is usually credited to activist Chaudhary Rahmat Ali in 1933. The OED states that he derived the name from Urdu پاک pāk "pure" plus the suffix -stan "place", but that he additionally explained it as an acronym formed from Punjab, Afghania, Kashmir, Sind and Baluchistan. Other sources imply that he came up with the acronym first.

Urdu pāk is related to Sanskrit पावक pāvaka "pure" and the verb punāti "to clean", from Proto-Indo-European *peuh₂- "to purify". In Latin the zero-grade adjectival form *puh₂-ro- became pūrus "pure". Puritan is probably borrowed from the related pūritās "purity".

Wednesday, 16 June 2010


from Y: The Last Man

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

The Oxford Guide to Etymology

A while ago I asked about good etymology books. After thinking about it for… a year, I've got Philip Durkin's The Oxford Guide to Etymology (thanks _duif). This book promises to investigate "every aspect of where words come from and how they change."

Dr Durkin investigates folk etymology and other changes which words undergo in everyday use. He shows how language families are established, how words in different languages can have a common ancester, and the ways in which the latter can be distinguished from words introduced through language contact. He examines the etymologies of the names of people and places. His focus is on English but he draws many examples from languages such as French, German, and Latin which cast light on the pre-histories of English words.

Quite a tall order, and I'm looking forward to it. I've just read the section on the etymological fallacy, where he talks about objections to the modern meaning of meticulous ("painstakingly careful"). Because the word is derived from Latin metus "fear", it was thought that meticulous should convey some sense of fearfulness. (Bill Bryson, in Troublesome Words, still seems to believe this).

To show how silly this idea is, Durkin uses the example of deer, which used to refer to any animal (and still does in German and Dutch), and was narrowed to refer only to Cervidæ in Early Modern English. If you're using etymology to define meticulous, why not deer as well?

Friday, 11 June 2010

samosa and bagel

Two of my favourite foods, together at last.

Samosa is from Hindi समोसा samosā, probably from a Persian form equivalent to Sanskrit sam plus bhuja and meaning "having equal sides". Samosas do have somewhat equal sides, if you make them right.

Sanskrit bhuja means "the side of any geometrical figure", but also "arm, branch, bough, bending, curve". The latter meanings let us trace it Proto-Indo-European *bheug- "to bend".

In Germanic, the variant form *bheugh- is found in Yiddish בייגל beygl, a diminutive formed from Old High German boug "ring". Bagels are vaguely ring-shaped, if you make them right.

Monday, 7 June 2010

organic and boulevard

I have a friend who complains about the term organic food. Isn't all food organic, he says. My response is yes, but that's the neat thing about language - a word can have more than one meaning. Organic has been used in connection with farming without chemicals since 1861, so it's here to stay. Interestingly, the earliest use of organic in English was "designating the jugular vein", and if the meaning can change from that to "relating to organs", then to "having the characteristics of a living organism", there's no reason why it can't change further to "of, relating to, or derived from living matter" then to "of food: produced without the use of artificial fertilizers, pesticides, or other artificial chemicals" (OED).

The Proto-Indo-European root is *werǵ- "to do". The o-grade *worǵ- became Greek ὄργανον "tool", and English organ. And also ὄργια "secret rites, secret worship", and English orgy.

The suffixed form *werǵ-o- became English work. Boulevard seems to be a French borrowing of a Germanic word akin to English bulwark, the second element of which is related to work. The first element is either bole or something like the Middle High German boln "to throw". So a bulwark, and a boulevard, is etymologically either a "work constructed from tree trunks", or "catapult".

Wednesday, 2 June 2010


shamefaced is a folk etymology. The Old English word was sceamfæst, a combination of sceamu "shame" and fæst, which was a common suffix similar to ful. Sceamfæst meant "bashful, modest".

Ther nas no lak, but that he was agast
To love, and for to speke shamefast.
- Chaucer, The Legend of Good Women

Since this use of fast fell out of use, the second element in this word was reanalyzed as faced.

fast meant and still means "firm, fixed" and was from Proto-Germanic *fastuz, from Proto-Indo-European *past- "solid, firm". The verb fast "to abstain from food" is from the same PIE root, by way of Old English fæstan from Proto-Germanic *fastējan "to hold fast, observe abstinence". Breakfast is from break plus the Old Norse verb fasta "to fast", also from *fastējan.

The adverb fast shifted from meaning "firmly", as in stand fast, to "stoutly, strongly vigorously"

Tristrem as aman, Fast he gan to fiȝt
- Sir Tristrem, c1320

And then to "quickly".

Takens, war-thurgh he may understande, þat þe day of dome es fast comande.
- Hampole, The pricke of conscience, c1340

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

phlogiston and beluga

Proto-Indo-European *bhel- "to shine" extended to *bhleg- became Greek φλόξ "flame" and phlogiston, the substance thought, in the 18th century, to exist in combustible substances and to explain why some substances burned and others didn't.

*bhel- became Russian белый belyj "white" and beluga. The suffix -уга/уха is, I think, an embiggening suffix.

Two more interesting derivatives are black, possibly from Proto-Germanic *ƀlakaz "burned", and bleach, from Proto-Germanic *ƀlaikjan "to make white" from *ƀlaikoz "white". This survived in Old English blāc "pale" and an obsolete word blake meaning "pale" or "yellow".

Thursday, 13 May 2010

Captain Nemo speaks Punjabi

Having just finished 2000 Leagues Under the Sea, I naturally turn to wikipedia, which claims that Nemo comes close to revealing his Indian ancestry in that book, but that it's only obvious in retrospect. This suprised me; I thought Nemo outright says he's from India. My copy has

"That Indian, professor, lives in the land of the oppressed, and I am to this day, and will be until my last breath, a native of that same land!"

The original is

<< Cet Indien, monsieur le professeur, c'est un habitant du pays des opprimes, et je suis encore, et, jusqu'a mon dernier souffle, je serai de ce pays-la ! >>

I guess it is ambiguous - ce pays-là ("that country") could refer to India, or to oppressed nations generally.

In the sequel, The Mysterious Island, which I haven't read, it is revealed that Nemo was Prince Armitage Ranjit Dakkar, a descendent of both Hindus and Muslims. In The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill make Nemo a Sikh, and fit out the Nautilus with Indian design and iconography.

And in the latest book, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Volume III: Century, Nemo speaks Punjabi with his daughter Janni.

I can't translate it, but I'm pretty sure it's real dialogue, as opposed to random Punjabi copied and pasted from another source. Of course, understanding the conversation isn't necessary to enjoy the story - the gist of it is repeated later. But I include the Punjabi below the fold in case someone wants to have a go at translating it.

I found a translation.

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

ayurvedic and gallowglass

Proto-Indo-European *h₂oi̯u- "life force" became Vedic ā́yus "life force" and आयुर्वेद āyur-veda - veda meaning "knowledge".

The AHD claims that *h₂oi̯u- was a variant of *h₂i̯eu- "youth, vigor" altho I haven't seen anyone else make this claim. *h₂i̯eu- is the source of Old Irish óac "young" which combined with the abstract noun-making suffix -lach to become Irish Gaelic óglách "youth, servant, warrior".

Óglách is the second part of the Irish Gaelic gallóglách, the first part being from gall "foreigner, stranger" - borrowed from Latin Gallus "Gaul" (according to MacBain's). A gallowglass was a mercenary class in Scotland and Ireland, but its etymological meaning is apparently "foreign warrior, possibly Gaulish".

The mercilesse Macdonwald
… from the Westerne Isles
Of Kernes and Gallowgrosses is supply'd

- Macbeth I, ii

(A kerne is an Irish foot-soldier, from Irish Gaelic ceithern.)

Friday, 30 April 2010

giddy and god

Here's another example of how etymologies are not definitions. Those people who complain when decimate is used to mean something other than "destroy ten percent", or when unique is used to mean something other than "one of a kind", should complain whenever giddy is used to mean something other than "possessed by god".

It's from Old English gidiġ "mad, insane, foolish, stupid", from *gydiġ, an ablauted version of Proto-Germanic *ǥuđīǥo-, which is composed of *ǥuđo- "god" and the suffix *-īǥo-. The OED says the primary meaning is "possessed by a god". If *-īǥo- is English -y as in icy, rainy, dusty etc. then giddy is "goddy" or "full of god".

There is a similar etymology in enthusiasm.

The further etymology of god is disputed. Both the OED and the AHD offer two theories. It might be derived from PIE *ǵhu-tom, the neuter verbal adjective of *ǵheu- "to pour, pour a libation" (Sanskrit hu "to sacrifice", Greek χέω "to pour", Latin fundō "to pour"). Or it could be from *ǵheu(H)- "to call, invoke" (Sanskrit "to call"). So it could have the etymological meaning of "what is worshipped by sacrifice" or "what is invoked".

Monday, 26 April 2010

queasy and Jain

The origin of queasy is uncertain - according to the OED, a possibility is that it is a borrowing from early Scandinavian, cf. Old Icelandic kveisa "boil" and Norwegian Nynorsk kveis "hangover". These words might be from PIE *gʷeiH- "to prevail, be mighty" ("to press down, conquer" in the AHD). Cf. Old English cwysan "to crush".

*gʷeiH- is the source of Sanskrit ji "conquer, overcome" and जिन jina, "victor", a Buddha. From this comes the word जैन jaina "a worshiper of the Jinas" and Jain. The Sanskrit is also the source of Hindi जय jay "victory" as in Jai Ho.

Thursday, 22 April 2010

numskull and nemesis

The num in numskull and numb are both from nomme - the past participle of nim "to take" (as in German nehmen). The earliest meaning of nomme was "deprived of physical sensation", ie "taken". Nim fell out of use around the 15th century. It's from Proto-Indo-European *nem- "to assign, allot" (not this *nem-).

The OED says the semantic development from "allot" to "take" is difficult to account for, but to me it seems like auto-antonymy, similar to how bad is used to mean "good".

The Greek derivative νέμω "to allot" became νέμεσις "distribution of what is due, retribution", and Nemesis, the goddess of retribution.

There's a similar connection between distributing things and deities with *bhag-.

Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Monday, 19 April 2010

sewer and island

Proto-Indo-European *akʷ-ā- "water" became Latin aqua. Combined with ex- "out", it became *exaquāria, becoming Old French sewiere "channel to carry off overflow from a fishpond".

*akʷ-ā- became Proto-Germanic *aǥwiō (AHD) or *ahwiō- (OED) then *aujō- "thing on the water". This became Old English īeġ "island". This combined with land to form īeġland - the s was added to the word sometime after the 15th century because it was thought to be related to isle.

*akʷ-ā- is also found in the name of the glacier covering the troublesome Icelandic volcano, Eyjafjallajökull. Ey is "island", from Proto-Germanic *aujō-. Fjöll is "mountain", from PIE *peli-s- and cognate with English fell "mountain". Jökull means "glacier" and is from PIE *i̯eg- "ice", and I think is exactly cognate with Old English ġicel "ice", which became the -icle in icicle.

Friday, 9 April 2010

Richard and cancer

Proto-Indo-European *kar-/*ker- "hard" in the o-grade suffixed form *kor-tu- became Old High German hard "hard, bold, stern". Combined with rīhhi "rule" (from *h₃reǵ-) we get Rīcohard "strong in rule", and Richard.

*kar- was possibly extended to refer to things with hard shells, like crabs, as in Greek καρκίνος (from *kar-k-ino-) and the Latin cancer (dissimilated from the reduplicated form *kar-kr-o-) - both meaning "crab, sign of the Zodiac, cancer".

How do we get from "crab" to "tumour"? According to medieval writers, it was because the swollen veins around a tumour resembled the legs of a crab.

Thursday, 8 April 2010

kirpan and bias

The kirpan, the Sikh ceremonial dagger, is back in the news in Toronto because someone was recently attacked with one.

Hindi and Punjabi किरपन/ਕਿਰਪਾਣ kirapan/kirapāṇ is derived from a source akin to Sanskrit कृपाण kr̥pāṇa "sword". According to IEW 938 this is from *(s)kerp-, an extended form of the root *(s)ker- "to cut". (I've discussed this root before.)

One of the more surprising derivatives of *(s)ker-, according to the AHD, is bias. The zero-grade suffixed form *kr̥s-yo- became Greek κάρσιος "cross-wise", combining with ἐπί "upon" to form ἐπικάρσιος "cross-wise, at an angle". This was supposedly borrowed into Vulgar Latin as *(e)bigassius, becoming Old French biais "oblique". I'm skeptical; the OED makes no mention of this. The theory actually mentioned and rejected by the OED is more interesting: Diez's theory that it is from Latin bifax "two-faced".

Tuesday, 6 April 2010

pretzel and mirth

I love pretzels.

Pretzel was borrowed from German Bretzel, borrowed from 12th century Latin bracellus "kind of cake or biscuit", from Latin brāchiātus "having arms" plus the suffix -ellus. According to the OED, the biscuit was so named "on account of the resemblance to folded arms".

The OED also notes "The English form with initial p- probably represents a perception of the unaspirated pronunciation of b- in regional German (south.)." But that doesn't explain how we get the aspirated /p/ from an unaspirated /b/.

Latin brāchium "arm" was borrowed from Greek βραχίων "arm", the comparative of βραχύς "short", also "upper arm" as opposed to the longer forearm.

βραχύς is from Proto-Indo-European *mreǵʰ-u- "short".

The zero-grade form *mr̥ǵʰ-u- became Old English myrge and English merry, altho the semantic development is obscure to me. With the Proto-Germanic *-þō suffix it became Old English myrgð "joy", and English mirth. So the pair merry/mirth was formed the same way as foul/filth, heal/health, strong/strength, slow/sloth, etc.

Monday, 29 March 2010

pajamas and peccadillo

The Proto-Indo-European root *ped- "foot" became Persian پای pāy "foot". This combined with جامه jāmah "garment" to form پای جامه pāy-jāmah "drawers, trousers", borrowed thru Hindi-Urdu into English as pajamas.

In Latin *ped- became ped- "foot", and perhaps peccāre "to do wrong", as in "stumble". (Ped- plus the adjective-forming suffix -cus.) Peccātum was "error, moral lapse", becoming Spanish peccadillo "minor sin".

In English the lengthened o-grade form *pōd- became foot.

Saturday, 27 March 2010

loot and rouble

loot is from Hindi लूट lūṭ, related to Sanskrit लोप्त्र loptra "stolen property, plunder" from lup "to seize" from Proto-Indo-European *reup- "to snatch".

According to the AHD, the root became Old Russian rupiti "to chop, hew", then rublĭ "cut, piece (probably originally a piece cut from a silver bar)", then Russian рубль rubl' "rouble".

Sunday, 14 March 2010

torpedo and starve

Proto-Indo-European *(s)ter- "stiff" in the extended zero-grade stative form *tr̥-p-eh₁-i̯e- became Latin torpēre "to be stiff". Torpēdo "stiffness, numbness" was applied to the electric ray, genus Torpedo, family Torpedinidae, because

Torpido is a fisshe, but who-so handeleth hym shalbe lame & defe of lymmes that he shall fele no thyng.
- Lawrens Andrewe, The noble lyfe & natures of man

In the 18th century, torpedo was used for an underwater bullet, and then later for a self-propelled underwater missile.

The extended form *ster-bʰ- became Old English steorfan "to die", as in "become stiff", becoming English starve.

Tuesday, 9 March 2010


The Canadian government has new posters in Toronto advertising English classes. The poster shows the phrase "English classes" in a few different languages, but tragically the Arabic script is badly rendered.

Not only are the letters disconnected, but they're printed in the wrong direction (left to right instead of right to left).

Reverse the direction, and you get كلاساى زبان انگليسى klāsāī zabān ānglīsī. I'm guessing this is Persian for "English language classes".

The associated website has an unfortunate problem as well. The list of languages on the left includes Arabic:

This is اربيك ārabīk - it seems to be just a translisteration of the English word "Arabic" into Arabic script. Why did they use this and not العربية al-ʿarabīyah? Either it's a mistake or I'm missing something; there are a lot of google hits for اربيك.

Thursday, 4 March 2010

grammar and crayfish

The Proto-Indo-European root is *gerbʰ- "to scratch". The zero-grade form *gr̥bʰ- became Greek γράφω "to write" and the zero-grade suffixed form *gr̥bʰ-mn̥- became γράμμα "written letter". Γραμματική τέχνη (grammatikē tekhnē) meant "the art of letters" (τέχνη "art, craft, skill" from *teḱs- "to weave, fabricate"), and this was borrowed into Latin as grammatica, which became Old French grammaire "learning, especially Latin and philology". This was borrowed into English as grammar.

The OED tells us that

In the Middle Ages, grammatica and its Rom[ance] forms chiefly meant the knowledge or study of Latin, and were hence often used as synonymous with learning in general, the knowledge peculiar to the learned class. As this was popularly supposed to include magic and astrology, the OF. gramaire was sometimes used as a name for these occult sciences. In these applications it still survives in certain corrupt forms, F. grimoire, Eng. GLAMOUR

So both glamour, which originally meant "magic, enchantment, spell", and grimoire, a manual for summoning demons, used to be the same word as grammar.

There seems to be a similar language/magic association with the word spell.

In Proto-Germanic *gerbʰ- became *kraƀiz-, then Old High German kerbiz "edible crustacean". The "scratch" meaning was extended to crustaceans, because they move by scratching the ground. This was borrowed into Old French as crevice, then borrowed into Middle English as crevise, which was folk etymologized to crayfish and crawfish. Crab is probably from the same Proto-Germanic word.

Some older posts on grammar:

Last year I asked what is grammar, anyway?

The grammar of the Maple Leafs.

What's up with between you and I?

Using that or which in relative clauses.

Conditional clauses: if it was or if it were.

And check out Motivated Grammar's Ten More Common Grammar Myths, Debunked.

Monday, 1 March 2010

despot and timber

The Proto-Indo-European root is *dem- which meant "house" and also "to build" according to Fortson. Fortson talks about the phrase *dems potes "master of the house, lord, master", found in Vedic dám-patis and Greek δεσπότης des-pótēs - whence English despot.

In Proto-Germanic, *dem-ro- became *timram, and German Zimmer "room", and English timber.

Wednesday, 24 February 2010

'li ch 'o' 'uy' 'ul'?

The coolest part of the Olympics opening ceremonies for me was seeing members of four west coast First Nations saying a welcome in their respective languages. The nations and languages were the Squamish Nation (Squamish or Sḵwx̱wú7mesh), Musqueam Indian Band (Hun'qumi'num' or Downriver dialect of Halkomelem), Lil'wat First Nation (Lillooet or St'at'imcets), and Tsleil-Waututh First Nation (Downriver dialect of Halkomelem). This map shows where these languages are spoken. These are all Salishan languages, related to Nuxálk, the language that freaked out Mattitiahu, because of its profusion of consonants and the difficulty of syllabifying them.

Linguistically, these are very interesting languages. Halkomelem and St'at'imcets have glottalised sonorants, which are extremely rare sounds, and St'at'imcets has glottalised voiced pharyngeals. How cool is that?

St'at'imcets uses reduplication for various purposes, for instance kl'axʷ "muskrat", and kə-kl'axʷ "muskrats"; and qʷal'út "to talk", and qʷə-qʷal'út "to talk loudly, to bawl out".

Halkomelem has a suffix to express an action done accidentally or with limited control, as opposed to an action done on purpose. For instance, the sentence "The child accidentally clubbed the woman with the paddle" contains the limited control suffix, and the sentence "The child clubbed the woman with the paddle (on purpose)" contains the general transitive suffix; otherwise the sentences are identical. (I don't know why linguistic examples are always so violent.)

Here are some lessons in Halkomelem, including sound files and grammar points. I like the word stl'itl'qulh [stɬʼitɬʼqəɬ] "child", which I might be able to say after a few years of practice.

Here are some useful phrases. The phonetic transcriptions are mine, so they're probably wrong. (Wikipedia was helpful, altho they use the wrong symbol for glottalisation.)

'li ch 'o' 'uy' 'ul'?
How are you?

'I tsun. 'li ch tl'o' 'uy' 'ul'?
[ʔitʃən ʔiːtʃtɬʼuʔəjʔəlˀ]
I'm fine. And how are you?

Huy ch q'u.
Thank you.

Namut kwu.
You're welcome.

Excuse me.

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

enthusiasm and fanatic

Proto-Indo-European *dʰeh₁s- was used in words for religious concepts, and was possibly an extension of *dʰeh₁- "to set, put". In Greek it became θεός theos (from earlier *thes-os) as in theology. ἔνθεος or ἔνθους was "inspired by god", and ἐνθουσιασμός was "inspiration, frenzy", whence enthusiasm.

The suffixed zero-grade form *dʰh₁s-no- became Latin fānum "temple" and fānāticus "belonging to a temple, inspired by a divinity" (Skeat).

The suffixed form *dʰeh₁s-to- became Latin fēstus "festive" and festa "festal ceremonies", and Italian festone, borrowed into English as festoon, as in "decoration for a feast".

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Khan from the epiglottis

I haven't seen My Name is Khan, but I'm told that Shah Rukh Khan's character makes a big deal out of the pronunciation of his name. "Khan, from the epiglottis," he keeps saying.

He's confusing epiglottis with uvula; at the end of the trailer (2:49) he pronounces the name with a uvular fricative. The uvula is the thing hanging at the back of the throat that cartoon characters grab when they get eaten by bigger cartoon characters.

Altho the Hindi-Urdu sound (written ख़/ﺥ) is sometimes pronounced as a uvular, most sources I've looked at say that it is not uvular, but velar. The velum is the soft palate. At the beginning of this promo (0:14), Khan pronounces the name with a velar fricative.

So what is the epiglottis? It is a bit of cartilage located just above the larynx that is thought to protect the trachea when we swallow. Speech sounds made with the epiglottis are extremely rare. They can be found in the Caucasian language Agul.

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

khan and asana

Not khan the lord or prince, but khan a building for the accomodation of travellers, as in gymkhana "place of public resort at a station, where the needful facilities for athletics and games of sorts are provided." According to the OED, gymkhana is a refashioning of Hindi gend-khāna "ball house", from गेंद gend "ball" plus ख़ाना ḵẖānā "house", borrowed from the Persian word below.

Proto-Indo-European *h₁ēs- "to sit" (a lengthened-grade form of *h₁es- "to be") in the suffixed form *h₁ēs-en-o- became Iranian *āhanam "seat" then Middle Persian خان ḵẖān "house".

In Sanskrit *h₁ēs- became ās "to sit" and आसन āsana "sitting", used as a term for yoga positions.

khan meaning "lord" or "prince", and probably also the source of Shahrukh Khan's name, is from Turkish.

Thursday, 11 February 2010

spelling reform

In the 16th century, some words were respelled to clearly show their Latin origin. det became debt (Latin dēbitum), scol became school (Latin schola), and etik became hectic (Latin hecticus). But sometimes the spelling reformers got it wrong. They changed iland to island, in the belief that the word was related to isle from Latin insula - but in fact it's from Old English īeġland, a combination of īeġ "island" and land.

The same thing happened in France. Letters were added to reflect the words' Latin origins, even tho the sounds had long been lost. doi became doigt "finger" (Latin digitum), pié became pied "foot" (Latin pedem), and set became sept "seven" (Latin septem). Mistakes were made: pois became poids "weight" in the belief that the word was derived from pondum "weight", but in fact it is from pensum, neuter past participle of pendo "to weigh".

Friday, 5 February 2010

banal and fairy

The Proto-Indo-European root *bʰeh₂- "to speak" became Proto-Germanic *ƀannan "proclaim" (as in English ban), and this was thought (according to the AHD) to have been borrowed into Old French as ban "proclamation, publication, summons". This became Old French banal. According to the OED, banal in English first meant "Of or belonging to compulsory feudal service", then "Open to the use of all the community", which then came to mean "Commonplace, common, trite; trivial, petty".

*bʰeh₂- became Latin fārī "to speak", the past participle of which is fātum, literally meaning "that which has been spoken". It was used to mean "prophecy", similar to Greek προφήτης (prophētēs) "prophet", from φημί "to speak", also from *bʰeh₂-.

The Latin plural of fātum, fāta, was used in the singular to mean "fairy, Fate", and this became Old French faerie and English fairy.

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

lady, dough, dairy, fiction, paradise

Our Proto-Indo-European root today is *dʰeiǵʰ- "to build, to form". In Old English it became dag "dough", *dig "knead", and dǣge "bread kneader, female (farm) servant, dairy-woman". Hlāf "bread, loaf" plus *dig equals hlǣfdige "mistress of a household", becoming Middle English lafdi, then lady. dǣge became Modern English dairy.

The zero-grade form with a nasal infix *dʰi-n-ǵʰ- became Latin fingere "to shape", past participle fictus, which gives us fiction.

In Avestan, the suffixed o-grade from *dʰoiǵʰ-o- became daēzō "wall", as in "something that is built". This combined with pairi "around" (from *per- "forward, through") to form pairidaēza "enclosure". This was borrowed into Greek as παράδεισος "enclosed park, pleasure ground", then into Latin as paradisus, and then thru Old French into English as paradise.

Friday, 22 January 2010

sitar and testicle

sitar is borrowed from Hindi-Urdu, from Persian ستار sitār, composed of sih "three" and tār "string". sih is from Proto-Indo-European *trei- "three". I'd always assumed that sitar was related to guitar and zither in some way; apparently not.

In Italic, *trei- combined with *steh₂- "stand" to form the compound *tri-stis or *trito-stis meaning "third person standing by", that is, "witness". This became Latin testis "witness". This gives us words like testimony, testify, contest, and maybe also testicle, from Latin testiculus, a diminutive of testis. How the meaning of Latin testis changed from "witness" to "male reproductive gland" is unclear. One hypothesis is that Romans would put one hand over their testicles when giving testimony, so the word came to be associated with the body part. Skeat says the testis was "probably considered as a witness of manhood". However Walde considers a connection between testis "witness" and testis "testicle" unlikely.

Monday, 18 January 2010

heaven and vinegar

I finally got my hands on Indo-European Language and Culture: An Introduction second edition by Benjamin Fortson, an engaging and accessible textbook on Indo-European linguistics. I'll start with this quote from the section on religion:

…the PIE word for 'stone' secondarily refers to 'heaven' in Indo-Iranian and Germanic; while we are not entirely certain of the underlying association, it may rest on a conception of the heaven as a stony vault, from which fragments might fall in the form of meteorites; or it may be connected with the stony missiles thought to be hurled by the god of thunder.

The Proto-Indo-European root is *h₂eḱ-men- "stone", a suffixed form of *h₂eḱ- "sharp". In Proto-Germanic, *h₂eḱ-men- metathesized to something like *ke-men- then *himin, dissimilated to *hiƀin-. This became Old English heofon, then heaven. Presumably German Himmel is from the undissimilated form.

The Indo-Iranian word that Fortson mentions is Sanskrit aśman- "stone, heaven", and Persian āsmān "heaven". It's worth noting that, according to the OED, the connection between the Indo-Iranian and Germanic words is "rejected by many" on both semantic and phonological grounds.

A suffixed form of *h₂eḱ-, *h₂eḱ-ri-, became Latin ācer "sharp, bitter", becoming Old French aigre "sour", which combined with vin "wine" to form vinaigre and English vinegar.

Wednesday, 6 January 2010

smorgasbord and gonzo

smorgasbord is borrowed from Swedish smörgåsbord: smörgås "(slice of) bread and butter" plus bord "table" (cognate with board). smörgås is composed of smör "butter" (cognate with smear) and gås "goose, lump of butter".

gås is from Proto-Indo-European *ǵʰans- "goose", as in English goose, Latin ānser, Greek χήν. The Old High German word was gans, and the AHD tells us that this word or a closely related word was borrowed into Spanish as ganso "goose, fool". The OED tells us that this is a possible source of gonzo. It could also be from Italian gonzo "foolish"; I don't know if this is related to the Spanish word.

This quote from the OED gives some clues to gonzo's origin:

1972 in R. Pollack Stop Presses (1975) 184, I ask Hunter to explain... Just what is Gonzo Journalism?.. ‘Gonzo all started with Bill Cardosa,..after I wrote the Kentucky Derby piece for Scanlan's..the first time I realized you could write different. And..I got this note from Cardosa saying, ‘That was pure Gonzo journalism!’.. Some Boston word for weird, bizarre.’

Monday, 4 January 2010

cleave and glyph

Proto-Indo-European *gleubʰ- "to cleave" became Proto-Germanic *kleuƀ-, then Old English clēofan "to separate, split", then English cleave.

In Greek, *gleubʰ- became γλύφω gluphō "to carve", and this was borrowed into English as glyph. Hieroglyph is from Greek ἱερος hieros "holy" plus glyph.

cleave "to stick fast, adhere" is derived from a wholly unrelated verb: Old English clīfan "to adhere". This verb is now regular, with the past tense/past participle cleaved. Cleave "to separate" kept the strong verb forms clove and cloven, and also the form cleft, which is now differentiated from cloven in some words, like cloven hoof vs cleft palate.