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.