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(Bi)Monthly Gleanings

By Anatoly Liberman

In June and July there were several queries about word
origins and a general question about the availability of linguistic information,
which shows that no heat wave can dry up people’s interest in etymology.

Wayzgoose. This word appeared late and is odd
because it denotes an entertainment given specifically to printers at
Bartholamew-tide (August 24; we are a month away from it). One could suppose
that if the feast originated after the invention of printing, its name would
contain some reference to book production, but it does not. On the other hand,
if at one time wayzgoose referred to an entertainment thrown for some
other artisans, it would probably have been recorded in Middle English. The
earliest citation of wayzgoose goes back to Nathan Bailey’s 1731
dictionary, in which it is explained as “stubble goose,” for wase (a
regional word) means “straw pad.” However, straw and stubble are
not synonyms, and no geese are fed on straw. Bailey’s wayzgoose is a
side form of waygoose, which is also fairly recent, as word history goes
(no pre-1683 citations). If wayz- stands for ways- or way’s-
and if a goose was indeed consumed at the feast, the coexistence of wayzgoose
and waygoose finds a natural explanation, even though neither waygoose
(a giveaway goose?) nor way’s goose makes sense. In the last two
decades of the 19th century, wayzgoose was often discussed in
Notes and Queries and other similar publications (I have twenty titles
in my database), and such worthies as Walter W. Skeat and A. L. Mayhew
participated in the exchange, but suggestions on the origin of wayzgoose
are uninspiring, such as the unlikely conjecture that Bailey invented this form
and that those who use it have been influenced by his dictionary. Wayzgoose
is a word used by printers, and I cannot imagine that they learned it from
Bailey. Probably wayzgoose did exist at the beginning of the
18th century, and Bailey knew it. Some foreign word may have been adopted for
the name of the feast, so that both waygoose and wayzgoose may be
its folk etymological alterations, but since their source has not been found in
French, Dutch, or Scandinavian, this suggestion does not go too far either.
Geese, I may add, give constant trouble to etymologists. Gossamer seems
to be made up of goose (with a shortened vowel, as in gosling) and
summer, but the meaning of the whole comes as a surprise. Likewise, gooseberry
is a word whose original form had nothing to do with the bird’s name.

In one of my posts, I wrote about tautological compounds,
that is, words, whose elements are nearly interchangeable synonyms, for
example, Middle English love-amour (one part being native, the other
foreign) or Modern English roadway. The question was whether cockboat
is one such compound. I agree, though folk etymology seems to have been in
play here too. Cock- in cockboat is an adaptation of a Romance
word for a small boat, but once it reached England, it was, naturally,
understood as meaning “cock.”

Is Scots braw “good, fine” a borrowing from French,
as “all dictionaries claim,” or from Scandinavian (such as Swedish bra
“good”)? Nowadays few people use the excellent Century Dictionary,
though it is known for detailed and learned etymologies. It suggests that the
source of braw may have been bra. Consequently, not all
dictionaries are unanimous in this respect, making a definitive answer hard to
give. Judging by the evidence of modern Romance languages, brav(e) has
always been a colloquialism with a wide spectrum of meanings, from “courageous”
to “praiseworthy.” According to the Oxford English Dictionary, Caxton
was the first to use brave “finely dressed; excellent.” In the long run
we are dealing with the same etymon, for Swedish brav and its cognates trace
back to the same Romance adjective. The Scandinavian word is a possible but
not necessary intermediary between brav and braw.

I received two questions of the crossword puzzle type. A
reader is looking for a word describing the art of making and a word that
describes the edge of the earth when people thought it was flat. I am afraid
such questions do not pertain to etymology or word history and will leave them
in limbo.

Now to a more general question, which I will reproduce in

“I was curious if there are resources for the general public where we
might find information such as investigative notes that may have been taken
during the process of etymological research. I know that Oxford and the like
provide brief etymologies in their dictionaries, but I’m wondering where I can
find more detailed lineages and perhaps even hearsay (or best guesses, so to
speak) where definite knowledge is not available.”

I think the question addresses
two processes. One is how language historians manage to discover word
origins. My latest book is devoted to exactly this problem. However, the
query, if I understand it correctly, is mainly about the presentation of etymological
knowledge. The etymology of many, if not most, words is controversial. This
means that conflicting suggestions on their derivation have been offered, some
of them fanciful, some reasonable, some excellent. We obviously need a
clearing house of such suggestions. When we open the multivolume etymological
dictionaries of Classical Greek, Latin, French, Russian, and nearly any other
major Indo-European language, we discover an informed survey of numerous
conjectures, references to the scholarly literature, and both tentative and
well-argued hypotheses on the origin of each word. By contrast, such an English
dictionary does not exist. Even Skeat says only what he thinks is good for the
public to know. The same is true of The Century Dictionary and the Oxford English Dictionary. The user comes away with a morsel of distilled
truth and no guidance as to what to do next. This is all the more regrettable
as English has been investigated more thoroughly than any other language in the
world. Twenty years ago I decided to write a dictionary that would finally
record the history of the search for the truth in English etymology. The main thing
was not to stun the world with a mass of dazzling solutions (though I am not
above showing the way when I can), but to provide users with a complete history
of research, revive good forgotten ideas, and put the best existing solutions
in perspective. At present I have a database containing about 18,500 titles,
from 1699 to 2005, in more than twenty languages. It will give everybody who
is interested in English etymology sufficient exposure to the literature on the
wisdom and folly of scholars, amateurs, and even cranks who have dabbled in
linguistics (and it allows me to write this blog!). The database has been
accepted for publication by the University of Minnesota Press and is scheduled
to appear in 2007. Until then students of English will have no one place in
which they can find the material they need, but if they know a cognate of an
English word in French, Latin, Gothic, Dutch, Icelandic, etc., etymological
dictionaries of those language will be most helpful.

Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to blog.us@oup.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”

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