Friday, 24 August 2012


hamburger is derived from the town of Hamburg which, we're told, has nothing to do with ham. Or does it?

The OED says ham "the thigh of a slaughtered animal" is from ham "the hollow or bend of the knee", apparently from Proto-Germanic *ham(m)- "to be crooked". Skeats derives this from the Proto-Indo-European root *kam- "to bend". Nowadays this is written as *kamp- and might be the source of gam "leg" and jamb, both from French.

Assuming that ham is from an earlier form meaning "to be crooked" or "bend", then it's tempting to say that Hamburg was named because it is a burg at the ham, or bend, of a river.

But the AHD says English ham is from Proto-Indo-European *konh₂-mo- "shin, leg, bone". In that case the Proto-Germanic form was hamma- meaning "leg", not "crooked". Although it's plausible that the "leg" sense changed to "bend" at some point, and that this sense could be the origin of Hamburg, but I'm just speculating now. 

Another possible derivation is German dialectal hamm, which according to Grimm means "meadow, forest, house, yard" in Frisian and Lower Saxon.

*konh₂-mo- gives us gastrocnemius from Greek κνήμη "calf of the leg" (plus γαστήρ "belly"). gastrocnemius is the calf muscle that sticks out, like a belly.

Monday, 20 August 2012

wassail and divan

wassail is from Middle English wæs hæil, a calque of Old Norse ves heill "be healthy". Apparently the expression was used as a toast by the Danes in England, and it spread to the English. One said wæs hæil when drinking someone's health, or when presenting a cup of wine to someone. The reply was drinc hæil "drink healthy".

heill and hæil are cognate with hale, whole and healthy and are from Proto-Indo-European *kailo-.

wæs, ves are from Proto-Indo-European *h₂wes- "to live, dwell, pass the night", which gives us was and were. The suffixed form *h₂wes-eno- became Old Persian vahanam "house" according to Pokorny and the AHD. Also according to the AHD, this became Persian دیوان dīvān, which could refer a collection of poems, account book, or royal court. Borrowed into English as divan, it originally referred to "An Oriental council of state", then "A room having one side entirely open towards a court", then "a long seat consisting of a continued step, bench, or raised part of the floor, against the wall of a room, which may be furnished with cushions, so as to form a kind of sofa or couch" (OED). That's what I think when I think divan: a sort of long chair-type thing with cushions.

The word shows up in French as douane "customs".

Friday, 17 August 2012

Toronto Korean

영 헤어 살롱 yeong heeo sallong = Yonge Hair Salon - where 헤어 heeo sounds like a nonrhotic version of "hair"

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

grace and bard

Proto-Indo-European *gʷerh₂- "to favour" in the suffixed zero-grade form *gʷr̥h₂-to- became Latin grātis "pleasing, beloved, agreeable, favorable, thankful". This gives us words such as grace, grateful, congratulate.

According to the AHD, *gʷerh₂- might have combined with *dheh₁- "to set, put" to form *gʷr̥h₂-dh(h₁)-o- "one who makes praises", becoming Proto-Celtic *bardo-, Welsh bardd and Scots and Irish Gaelic bard.