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.