Monday, 19 December 2011

khapra and phthisis

This is a khapra beetle.

The name is from Hindi खप्रा khaprā "destroyer" from खपना khapanā "to destroy". This is cognate with Sanskrit क्षापयति kṣāpayati, the causative of kṣiyate "to destroy". This is from Proto-Indo-European *dhgʷhi-yo-, the zero-grade suffixed form of *dhgʷhei- "to perish, destroy".

The zero-grade suffixed form *dhgʷhi-n-wo- became Greek φθίνειν "to decay" and φθίσις "wasting, consumption", borrowed as phthisis, an older word for tuberculosis.

*dhgʷhei- is found in the famous phrase *k̂leu̯os n̥dhgʷhitom, which some claim is an example of a reconstructed PIE phrase.

Monday, 21 November 2011

ciao and slave

Who knew that Italian ciao was a variation of schiavo "(I am your) servant" from medieval Latin sclavus "slave".

slave was borrowed from Old French esclave, which is related to the Latin sclavus. The Latin word was borrowed into English as Slav.

Further etymology of sclavus is uncertain. In my previous post I write that Slav and slave seem to be derived from Proto-Slavic *slovo "word" or *slava "fame, glory" but I think I was wrong. The OED says Old Slavic Slovēne is supposed to be derived from slovo, but is it really? The whole thing is a bit of a muddle.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

etiquette and stigma

Proto-Indo-European *steig- "to stick" became Proto-Germanic *stikkēn "to be stuck" (AHD) and Old Low German stekan. This was borrowed into Old French as estiquer "to stick, fix", becoming estiquette then etiquet, borrowed into English as ticket. The French word was for ‘a little note, breuiate, bill, or ticket; especially such a one, as is stucke vp on the gate of a Court, signifying the seisure &c of an inheritance by order of iustice’ (Cotgrave).

The same Old French estiquette is also the source of English etiquette, which was first used to mean "The prescribed ceremonial of a court; the formalities required by usage in diplomatic intercourse." The semantic shift from "ticket, label" to "prescribed routine" presents no difficulty, the OED tells us.

In Greek the suffixed from *stig-yo- became στίζω stizō "to prick, puncture", and στίγμα stigma "mark".

*steig- is also found in raita and possibly tiger.

Saturday, 8 October 2011

etymology at dawn

Friends have been raving about Sex at Dawn: the Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá, a book that questions widely held notions about the origins of human sexuality. I don't know much about anthropology, however at least one anthropologist has big problems with this book. But here on page 83, Ryan and Jethá talk about a subject I am familiar with:

Robert Farris Thompson, American's most prominent historian of African art, says that funky is derived from the Ki-Kongo lu-fuki, meaning "positive sweat" of the sort you get from dancing or having sex, but not working. One's mojo, which has to be "working" to attract a lover, is Ki-Kongo for "soul". Boogie comes from mbugi, meaning "devilishly good." And both jazz and jism likely derive from dinza, the Ki-Kongo word for "to ejaculate."

Have questions about etymology? Ask an art historian!

The fact is that the origin of all these words is unknown, except for funky, which is probably from French.

The reference is Flash of the spirit: African and Afro-American art and philosophy by Robert Farris Thompson. This is what he writes:

Many a Ki-Kongo-derived word has been described by etymologists as "origin unknown." The word "jazz" is probably creolized Ki-Kongo: it is similar in sound and original meaning to "jizz," the American vernacular for semen. And "jizz," suggestive of vitality, appears to derive from the Ki-Kongo verb dinza, "to discharge one's semen, to come." Dinza was creolized in New Orleans and elsewhere in black United States into "jizz" and "jism."

The slang term "funky" in black communities originally referred to strong body oder, and not to "funk," meaning fear or panic. The black nuance seems to derive from the Ki-Kongo lu-fuki, "bad body odor," and is perhaps reinforced by contact with fumet, "aroma of food and wine," in French Louisiana.

He goes on; you can read the whole thing.

This is pure speculation, as far as I can see, and in fairness Thompson qualifies his claims with "seems" and "probably" and "appears". It is not etymology; etymology requires evidence. As Grant Barrett says in his review of Daniel Cassidy's book How the Irish Invented Slang:

Evidence. Above all, Cassidy needs to support his claims with published evidence that shows the etymological path. Dated, continuous, in-context quotations from any written source will always be superior evidence over phonetic speculation based upon national, linguistic, or ethnic pride.

I am bothered that the authors of Sex at Dawn would simply repeat Thompson's claims, without bothering to consult an expert.

Friday, 30 September 2011

Sanskrit and hetero

Sanskrit was borrowed from संस्कृत saṃskr̥ta "put together, well-formed", from sam "together" and kr̥ "to make".

kr̥ is from Proto-Indo-European *kʷer- "to make".

sam is from Proto-Indo-European *sem- "one, together with". The zero-grade form *sm̥- combined with the adjectival suffix of comparative *-tero- to form *sm̥-tero-, becoming Greek ἕτερος heteros (earlier hateros) "one of two, other". This was borrowed as the English suffix hetero- as in heterogeneous, heterosexual.

And the o-grade form *som- became Greek ὁμός homos "one and the same", borrowed as English homo- as in homogeneous, homosexual.

Monday, 19 September 2011

Embassytown

I don't know how China Miéville does it. He takes what could be a really silly idea, treats it seriously, and sustains it for a whole novel. In The City & The City it was the idea of two cities occupying the same space. In his latest excellent book, Embassytown, it's a race of aliens whose language is impossible.

The Ariekei's language, simply called Language, has a phonological and grammatical structure that was easily learned by the first human linguists who studied it (using a science-fictiony methodology called Accelerated Contact Linguistics). But they discovered that in order for the Ariekei to understand an utterance in Language, the utterance must have a single sentient mind behind it.

There's an additional complication: the Ariekei have two vocal tracts, which produce different words simultaneously. So an utterance in Language consists of two voices, both of which must be present. This means that a single human can't speak Language. But two humans speaking simultaneously can't speak Language either, because there is no unified thought behind each word. The only people who can communicate with the Ariekei are the Ambassadors: pairs of identical clones, trained and modified since birth to present a unified mind.

For the Ariekei, Language and thought are the same, and furthermore Language constrains their thought. It's the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis to the extreme. This means they can't lie:

For Hosts [Ariekei], speech was thought. It was as nonsensical to them that a speaker could say, could claim, something it knew to be untrue as, to me, that I could believe something I knew to be untrue. Without Language for things that didn't exist, they could hardly think them; they were vaguer by far than dreams. What imaginaries any of them could conjure at ll must be misty and trapped in their heads.

They can make similes, but in order to speak a simile, they must first enact it. The main character takes part in a ritual so that the Ariekei would have the simile like the girl who ate what was given her. They can't make metaphors, since a metaphor is a lie. They can say I am like the girl who ate what was given her but not I am the girl who ate what was given her.

The main character's husband, Scile, is a linguist. He makes this meta-observation:

"Does it every occur to you that this language is impossible, Avice?" he said. "Im, poss, ih, bul. It makes no sense. They don't have polysemy. Words don't signify: they are the referents. How can they be sentient and not have symbolic language? How do their numbers work? It makes no sense.

I agree. I think he means signify in a Saussurian sense: words are signifiers which represent things or concepts, the signified. In Language, words aren't signifiers, they are doors to thought itself.

Scile says about how the Ariekei perceive the Ambassadors:

The Ariekei think they're hearing one mind but they're not… It's like we can only talk to them because of a mutual misunderstanding. What we call their words aren't words: they don't, you know, signify. And what they call our minds aren't minds at all."

But if their words don't signify, what about this:

"They shift tense," he said. "When they mentioned the negotiations they - the Ariekei, I mean - were in present discontinuous, but then they shifted into the elided past-present.

So Language has tense, apparently. But what is the point of tense, if not to signify? Either Language has tense and signifies, or it doesn't signify, therefore it doesn't have tense. But if it doesn't signify, how can humans understand it?

Scile answers this question: we don't understand it.

We can't learn it, Scile said. All we can do's teach ourselves something with the same noises, which works quite differently. We jury-rigged a methodology, as we had to. Our minds aren't like theirs. We had to misunderstand Language to learn it.

So at its heart it's a silly idea (but you could say that about a lot of science fiction). But Miéville makes it real.

People who believe that language constrains thought - for example, that English speakers couldn't conceive of Schadenfreude until we borrowed the word from German, or that Inuit words for snow causes Inuits to perceive the world differently, or that using lifeless, imitative phrases will force you to stop thinking - those people should read this book. This book asks "What would a language that constrained thought really look like?" And the answer is "Completely alien."

Thursday, 8 September 2011

geas, bid, infest

From Terry Pratchett's Wintersmith (the sequel to the sequel to Wee Free Men):

'We is under one o' them big birds,' said Daft Wullie, keeping his eyes averted from the witch's blind stare.
'He means a geas, miss,' said Rob Anybody, glaring at his brother. 'It's like a - '
'- a tremendous obligation that you cannot disobey,' said Miss Treason. 'I ken what a geas is.


In Irish folklore, a geis/geas, pronounced [gɛʃ], can be a taboo, or a positive obligation, or a curse. It's from Irish Gaelic geis, from Proto-Indo-European *gʷhedh- "to beg, wish for".

In English *gʷhedh- became bid "to ask, pray" (bid "to proclaim", as in forbid, is from a different source).

The affixed form *n̥-gʷhedh-to- meaning something like "unwished for" perhaps? (the AHD says "inexorable") became Latin infestus "hostile" and infestāre "to assail, molest", borrowed into English as infest.

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

भारत के रॉयल न्यायालयों की स्प्लेंडर महाराजा

This is a T-shirt from the Maharaja: The Splendour of India's Royal Courts exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario.



It's a shame that the script couldn't be rendered more elegantly.

Devanagari script is an abugida: consonant letters are read with an accompanying vowel, so स is sa. Other vowels are represented by diacritics: सी , से se सु su, etc. To indicate that the consonant letter should not be read with an accompanying vowel, a diacritic called virama is used: स् is s.

And usually when two or more consonants are clustered, they are combined using halved forms of the letters called conjucts. So स् s plus प pa is combined as स्प spa.

Two words on this shirt use virama when they could have used conjuncts. These words
न् यायालयों
स् प् लेंदार
could have been written more elegantly as
न्यायालयों
स्प्लेंदार

Whatever software they used to render the script displayed it… not wrong, but it could have been better.

The text is भारत के रॉयल न्यायालयों की स्प्लेंडर महाराजा bhārat ke răyal nyāyālayoṃ kī spleṃḍar mahārājā, which is Hindi for "splendour maharaja of the royal courts of India". In my inexpert opinion, it might have been better with mahārājā at the front like it is in English.

Thursday, 4 August 2011

Helpful advice to brow-beat your vocabulary into submission

Ladies and gentlemen: The Proper English Foundation. "The Proper English Foundation is similar to the Queen’s English Society, but slightly more militant." Be sure to check out the extremely informative articles on the Académie Von Anglais, George Orwell, and How languages don't evolve. And of course, The English-Speaking World.

Thursday, 14 July 2011

stomach and zawn

The AHD gives the Proto-Indo-European root as *stom-en- "Denoting various body parts and orifices". In Greek it's στόμα "mouth", whence στόμαχος "throat, gullet" then "stomach", and then borrowed as Latin stomachus, Old French stomaque, borrowed as English stomach. The English word was first spelled stomak/stomack, it seems that it was later respelled stomach after the Latin spelling.

In Celtic it became Middle Breton staffn, modern Breton staoñ "palate", Welsh safn "mouth, jaws, palate", and Cornish sâwn "cleft, fissure, ravine". The Cornish word was borrowed as zawn, a fissure or cave in a coastal cliff.

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

celebrity Sanskrit tattoos

Celebrity Tattoo Artists Urged to Get Their Sanskrit Right!

Just how wrong are these famous Sanskrit tattoos?

Beckham's tattoo is sometimes described as Sanskrit and sometimes described as misspelled, but it is neither.

Rihanna's Bhagavad Gita tattoo is reported to contain misspellings, but as far as I can see any mistakes are very small - although it is missing some words.

Gillian Anderson's wrist tattoo is the only serious mistake I've found. She says it means "every day", but it looks to me like प्रत्याहार pratyāhāra "Drawing back, marching back, retreat; Keeping back, withholding; Restraining the organs; Dissolution of the world" etc. I think it was meant to be प्रत्यह pratyaha "every day".



Jessica Alba's ink looks fine, altho it's upside down in all the pictures: पद्म padma "lotus".



Esha Deol has the gāyatrī mantra on her back - with added pluti.

Katy Perry and Russell Brand recently got the same Sanskrit tat on their right arms. Everyone is saying it's "Anuugacchati Pravaha", which apparently means "go with the flow".



However, the tattoo is actually अनुगच्छतु प्रवाहं anugacchatu pravāhaṃ. Let's look at the words separately.

The first word is the third person singular imperative of anugam "to follow" - etymologically "to go after" (anu is "after" and gam is "go"). anugacchatu might translate as "let one follow". I guess "let one follow the current" is a good translation of "go with the flow". This writer says the word should be अनुगच्छति anugacchati, but that's third person singular present - "he follows". It seems to me that anugacchatu "let one follow" is better.

It seems to me that the second word is a mistake, albeit a very small one. It should be प्रवाहम् pravāham, the accusative form of pravāha "stream, current". प्रवाहम् pravāham becomes प्रवाहं pravāhaṃ only if there is a following word that triggers sandhi. There is no following word, so I think the phrase should be अनुगच्छतु प्रवाहम्.

(anugam "to follow" is related to juggernaut, come, adventure, acrobat.)

Thursday, 2 June 2011

newfangled and pagan

newfangled first meant "caught up in a new experience". -fangled is from Middle English *fangel- maybe meaning "inclined to take", related to Old English fōn/fang "to grasp", cognate with German fangen "to take catch".

Closely related to the verb is the noun fang "plunder, spoils". It also meant "an instrument for capturing or holding", and this led to it being used to refer to canine teeth, or the dangerous teeth of any animal.



It's from a nasalized form of Proto-Indo-European *paḱ-/*paǵ- "to fasten". This root became Latin pāgus "of or belonging to a country community, civilian, inhabitant of a country community" (from "boundary staked out on the ground"). pāgānus initially referred to someone who lived in the country. This apparently became post-classical Latin paganus "heathen".

There are three possible reasons why the sense of paganus developed into "heathen".

1) Heathens lived in the country.
2) paganus also meant "civilian" as opposed to "soldier". Since Christians considered themselves soldiers of Christ, they used the term for "civilian" for non-Christians.
3) paganus had an intermediary sense "outsider", as in someone outside the city, and this came to be applied to people outside the community.

Friday, 6 May 2011

blasphemy and markhor

blasphemy was originally blasfemie, respelled with ph by scholars who wanted to show off. It's borrowed from Old French blasfemie, from Latin blasphēmia, from Greek βλασϕημία blasphēmia "slander, blasphemy".

Greek -φημος -phēmos is "speaking", from φημί phēmi "to speak, from *bheh₂-.

βλασ- might have meant "evil", as in βλάσϕημος "evil speaking". The AHD gives *ml̥s-bheh₂-mo- "speaking evil" as a possible etymon for βλάσϕημος. *ml̥s- is a form of *mel- "false, bad, wrong".

*mel- is found in Latin malus "bad" and male "ill", as in malevolence and malaria.

markhor, a wild goat found in central Asia, is borrowed from a Persian word that I think is spelled مارخور mārkhūr. It's thought to be a combination of مار mār "snake" and خوردن khūrdan "to eat" (as in manticore). The OED says this might be a folk etymology, but helpfully informs us that "A tradition that certain ungulates hate and consume snakes is well evidenced in medieval Persian and Arabic zoological literature."

Anyway, Persian mār "snake" is derived from *mel-.

Monday, 25 April 2011

pukka, cutcha, cook, pumpkin


"It was a great shock to me when she became engaged to this man Fink-Nottle, but I accepted the situation because I thought that that was where her happiness lay. Though stunned, I kept silent."

"Very white."

"I said nothing that would give her a suspicion of how I felt."

"Very pukka."

- PG Wodehouse, Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves

In Indian English, pukka is "sure, certain, reliable" and in British slang, "excellent, suberb". It's borrowed from Hindi or Panjabi पक्का pakkā "cooked, ripe, mature, thorough, substantial, permanent". This is related to Sanskrit pakva "cooked, ripe", from pac "to cook". The Proto-Indo-European root is *pekʷ- "to cook".

In contrast to pakka, there is cutcha "imperfect, slight, temporary, makeshift", from Hindi कच्चा kaccā "raw, unripe, uncooked". This is derived from the negative prefix ka plus pac.

The assimilated form *kʷekʷ- became Latin coquō "to cook" and coquus "a cook". The noun was borrowed into Old English as cōc, becoming cook.

In Greek, *pekʷ- became πέπων "ripe". Borrowed into Latin as pepōn-, becoming French pompon, a word for a kind of melon, borrowed into English as pompion. pumpkin is a variant of pompion with the -kin diminutive suffix (also found in names like Watkins and words like firkin, napkin).

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

myna, musth, masti, meat, mate

myna is borrowed from Hindi मैना mainā, derived from Sanskrit madana-śārikā a kind of bird, "with reference to the affectionate behaviour of kinds of birds" (OED). मदन madana is "love", from mad "to be drunk" from Proto-Indo-European *mad- "wet", also referring to various qualities of food.

*mad- also became Sanskrit matta "excited with joy... intoxicated" and Persian مست mast "drunk, intoxicated". The Persian word was borrowed into English as musth, a word referring to heightened agression in male elephants and camels due to elevated testosterone. The related Persian noun مستي mastī "intoxication" is used in modern Hindi to mean "mischief" or "fun". At least I assume that all the Hindi films entitled Masti and festivals like this one aren't meant to inspire you to get drunk.

In Germanic, *mad-i- became English meat. And Middle Low German mat "comrade" or the person one shares ones food with, which was borrowed into English as mate.

Thursday, 24 March 2011

dekko and tarragon


But now there was a listlessness about her, not the listlessness of the cat Augustus but more that of the female in the picture in the Louvre, of whom Jeeves, on the occasion when he lugged me there to take a dekko at her, said that here was the head upon which all the ends of the world are come.
- PG Wodehouse, Jeeves in the Offing

A dekko/dekho/decko is a look. It was borrowed as army slang in the late 1800s from Hindi देखो dekho, the imperative of देखना dekhanā "to look". This is derived in some fashion from Sanskrit द्रक्ष्यति drakṣyati, the future of दृश् dr̥ś "to see". And dr̥ś is from Proto-Indo-European *derḱ- "to look".

I've written about this root before. It's thought that it gives us tarragon thru a convoluted series of borrowings - Greek δράκων drakōn "dragon" to Arabic طرخون ṭarẖwn then back to Greek as ταρχών tarkhōn, then Latin as tragonia/tarchon, then English tarragon. Tarragon is also known as dragonwort, and its Latin name is dracunculus.

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

qindarka and decussate

qindarka is a unit of Albanian currency.



Albanian qindarka (the q represents the palatal stop /c/) is the definite form of qindarkë, which is qindar plus a diminutive suffix. qind is "hundred", from Proto-Indo-European *dḱm̥-tom "hundred". This is the source of Latin centum, Sanskrit śatam, and English hund-red.

*dḱm̥-tom is a zero-grade suffixed form of *deḱm̥- "ten". This became English ten, Latin decem, Sanskrit dasa, etc. Latin decussis was the number ten, hence X, and a kind of coin.



decussate means "To cross, intersect, lie across, so as to form a figure like the letter X".

Thursday, 3 March 2011

geezer and twit

The OED tells us that geezer is a dialectical pronunciation of guiser "one who guises, a masquerader, a mummer".

1893 R. O. Heslop Northumberland Words, Geezer, a mummer; and hence any grotesque or queer character.

guise "to go about in disguise, or masquerade dress" was derived from the noun guise "manner, method, way, fashion, style", borrowed from Old French guise, which was borrowed from Proto-Germanic *wīsōn- "appearance, form, manner" from Proto-Indo-European *weid- "to see" (AHD).

Old French guise plus the des-/de- prefix became desguisier, borrowed into English as disgisen/disguise "to alter the guise or fashion of dress and appearance" (OED).

*weid- became Old English wītan "to blame, reproach". This plus the prefix æt- became atwite "to cast an imputation upon, reproach". This became twite thru aphesis, then twit "a (light) censure or reproach; a taunt; a fool; a stupid or ineffectual person" (OED).

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

etymology woo

I'm a big fan of comic book writer Grant Morrison. Ever since I read Doom Patrol twenty years ago I've been hooked on his chaotic, eclectic style. I love his superheroes-fighting-in-the-sky-like-fireworks version of the JLA, and The Invisibles is the greatest thing ever. So I was interested in the talk he did with Deepak Chopra at Comic-con 2006, on "the seven spiritual laws of superheroes". Unfortunately, I only made it about three minutes in before Chopra said something that annoyed me:

The word myth in English comes from or is related to the word mother. Myth, mother, mater, meter, matter, time, music, mata, matrika, measurement, they're all the same word. They refer to the womb of creation.

He says the same thing on the twitter. It's completely untrue, but what bugs me more is that it's so easily checked. Take the Online Etymology Dictionary, a free online reference - it isn't authoritative but it's a very good place to start if you want to check things like this. The words mother, Latin māter "mother", Sanskrit māta and mātr̥kā "mother", and possibly matter are related to each other, from Proto-Indo-European *māter-. The words measure and meter are related to each other, from Proto-Indo-European *meh₁-. music is from *men- to think". time is from *deh₂- "to divide". The origin of myth is unknown.

I guess I know how this guy feels when Chopra says something silly about genetics or medicine.

chukker and palindrome


Gussie, you see, wasn't like some of my pals--the name of Bingo Little is one that springs to the lips--who, if turned down by a girl, would simply say, "Well, bung-oh!" and toddle off quite happily to find another. He was so manifestly a bird who, having failed to score in the first chukker, would turn the thing up and spend the rest of his life brooding over his newts and growing long grey whiskers, like one of those chaps you read about in novels, who live in the great white house you can just see over there through the trees and shut themselves off from the world and have pained faces.
- PG Wodehouse, Right Ho, Jeeves

chukker/chucker/chukka is given in the OED as a polo term - it's like a period in hockey. But it seems it was first applied to the circular discus used for quoits. The word was borrowed from Hindi चक्कर cakkar "potter's wheel, catherine wheel, discus or sharp circular missile weapon". This is cognate with Sanskrit चक्र cakra "wheel", from Proto-Indo-European *kʷel(H)- "to turn".

It is from this word that the chukka boot comes.


*kʷel(H)- is the source of cycle from Greek (but not circle and circus). If the AHD is to be believed, the suffixed zero-grade *kʷl̥H-i- became Greek πάλιν "again" from the sense of "revolving". palindrome is from Hellenistic Greek παλίνδρομος palindromos "running back again" (δρόμος dromos "running, course, racecourse").

My favourite palindrome is "Satan, oscillate my metallic sonatas".

Friday, 11 February 2011

funky and thyme

The words funky "mouldy, old, musty; smelling strong or bad" and funk "a strong smell" were used in the 30s to refer to things that were satisfying or approved of - in other words "swinging, hip". Then in the 50s they came to be applied to a musical genre.

funk "a strong smell" is from funk "to blow smoke upon (a person)", which was probably borrowed in the late 1600s from Old French funkier/fungier "to smoke". This is from Latin fūmigāre "to smoke (of a candle)", from fūmus "smoke" (OED). fūmus is from Proto-Indo-European *dhuh₂-mo-, the zero-grade of *dheuh₂-, a root meaning "to rise in a cloud, as dust, vapour, or smoke", among other meanings (AHD). (Altho the AHD equivocates about the laryngeal, Fortson in Indo-European Language and Culture says it's *h₂.)

According to the AHD, *dhuh₂-mo- became Greek θύμον "thyme", from the sense "plant having a strong smell". This was borrowed into Latin as thymum and English as thyme. However, the OED says θύμον is from θύω "to burn sacrifice" - which could still be from *dheuh₂- maybe.

Thursday, 10 February 2011

holistic and whole

… are wholly unrelated.

holistic is borrowed from Greek ὅλος "whole" (as in catholic) from Proto-Indo-European *solh₂- "whole".

whole is from Old English hāl from PIE *kailo- "whole, uninjured, of good omen". Also from this root are German Heil "health" and Irish Gaelic cel "omen".

whole began to be spelled with wh in the fifteenth century, apparently due to a dialectical pronunciation with /w/. It also happened with whore.

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

geyser and fondue

Proto-Indo-European *ǵheu- "to pour, pour a libation". The extended form *ǵheus- became Old Norse geysa "to gush". Geysir is the name of a particular Icelandic hot spring, which is where the English word comes from.

In Latin the nasalized zero-grade *ǵhu-n-d- became fundō/fundere "to pour", becoming French fondre "to melt". The past participle fondue was applied to a dish of melted cheese.

In Greek the suffixed zero-grade *ǵhus-mo- became χῡμός "juice", borrowed into English as chyme.

Watkins in The American Heritage Dictionary of Proto-Indo-European Roots suggests that the verbal adjective *ǵhu-to- "poured" might be the source of Proto-Germanic *ǥuđam and English god. *ǵhu-to- is found in Greek χυτη γαια khutē gaia "poured earth", referring to a burial mound. Perhaps the Proto-Germanic use of *ǥuđam was also in connection with a burial mound, in which case it could plausibly come to mean god. god is usually supposed to come from *gheu(H)- "to call, invoke".

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Upanishad and Eisteddfod

Proto-Indo-European *sed- "to sit" became Vedic ni-ṣad "to sit or lie down" (ni- "down" from PIE *ni as in English beneath). This combined with upa "near to" to form उपनिषद् upaniṣád "to sit down near to; to approach, set about" hence "the sitting down at the feet of another to listen to his words" (Monier-Williams). The Upanishads are prose writings that are important to understanding the Vedas.

In Proto-Celtic, *sed- became the typically over-prefixed *eks-dī-sedo- (*eks- "out" and *dī- "out") "sitting". This became Welsh eistedd "to sit", which combined with bod "to be" to form eisteddfod "session". An Eisteddfod is a congress of Welsh bards.

physics and भौतिक

The episode "The Pirate Solution" from the third season of The Big Bang Theory has a linguistically interesting exchange… Sheldon and Raj are arguing about the dark matter problem:

Raj: Do you understand we're talking about dark matter colliding in outer space?

Sheldon: Of course I understand. And who are you to tell me about outer space?

Raj: I'm the astrophysicist! "Astro" means "space"!

Sheldon: "Astro" means "star".

Raj: OK, well let me just tell you, if we were having this argument in my native language, I'd be kicking your butt!

Sheldon: English is your native language.

The Hindi for "astrophysics" is खगोल भौतिकी khagol bhautikī - composed of khagol "the vault or sphere of the heavens" and bhautik "existing, material, real, of this world" (according to my Oxford Hindi-English Dictionary).

So Raj is right that the Hindi word for "astrophysics" contains the word for "space". The writers have done their research. (But he's wrong that the etymology of the word, in any language, is relevant to his argument.)

Hindi भौतिक bhautik is of course related to English physics. It's borrowed from Sanskrit bhautika "anything elemental or material", from bhū "to be" - from Proto-Indo-European *bheuH- "to be, exist, grow". This is the source of Greek φυσικός phusikos "natural, physical" (English physics), Latin futūrus "that is to be" (English future), and Welsh bod "to be" (combining with eistedd "to sit" to form Eisteddfod).

Concerning Sheldon's comment about Raj's native language, I suppose it's possible that Raj, who comes from an educated family in Delhi - has two native languages - Hindi and English.

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

arsenic and zloty

Skeat, in his Dictionary of English Etymology, writes that arsenic is borrowed from Latin arsenicum, borrowed from Greek ἀρσενικόν "arsenic", from ἄρσην "male", so arsenic etymologically means "a male principle" - "the alchemists had the strange fancy that metals were of different sexes" writes Skeat. But the Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology calls this a folk etymology on the part of the Greeks. According to the ODEE, ἀρσενικόν means "yellow orpiment" and is actually borrowed from Arabic الزرنيخ azzernykh (the AHD says Syriac zarnīkā). This was borrowed from Middle Iranian *zarnīk- from Old Iranian *zarna- "golden" (AHD). And *zarna- is from Proto-Indo-European *ǵhel- "to shine".

The suffixed o-grade form *ǵhol-to- became Polish złoto "gold" (cognate with Russian золотой), and złoty "golden" (OED).

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

capillary and disheveled

Latin capillus "hair" beget capillāris "pertaining to hair", borrowed into English as capillary which first meant "Of, pertaining to, consisting of, or concerned with hair", then "Having a very minute or hair-like internal diameter; as a capillary tube or capillary vessel".

discapillātus/dēcapillātus meant "stripped of hair, shaven" (with the negative prefix dis-), becoming Old French deschevelé. This was borrowed into English as dishevelled/disheveled. It first meant "Without coif or head-dress; hence, with the hair unconfined and flung about in disorder" and then later "Disordered, ruffled, disorderly, untidy" (OED).

Is capillus perhaps a diminutive of caput "head"? I have no idea.