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