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Monthly Gleanings: January 2009

By Anatoly Liberman


I received many questions from our correspondents and from those who listened to my talk show on Minnesota Public Radio (“Midmorning”), January 1. (Is 9 AM on such a day really midmorning?) Some questions were not posted on OUP’s blog but came to me by email. Those I will repeat or summarize. Today I’ll be able to touch on less than one third of what I have. More next Wednesday.

Etymology and Etymologists. In my post on serendipity and luck in etymological studies, I noted that researchers’ conclusions are sometimes influenced by their knowledge of one group of languages. hose who are well versed in Scandinavian linguistics tend to find the etymons of English words in Icelandic and Norwegian, specialists in Romance discover the etymons of the same words in French dialects, and so on. Miracles of omniscience turn up rarely, and because few people display the mastery of even one foreign language comparable to that of their mother tongue, solutions about the origin of obscure words depend partly on our limitations. A correspondent calls my attention to Hester Thrale Piozzi, who traced all words to Welsh. He concludes his letter so: “Some of us once thought of bringing out a book entitled Etymology by Hester Thrale with nothing but well-known, but quite false derivations, including hers, of course. Others, before us and after us, have accomplished that without trying.” He also writes: “I hope you will one day devote a blog to the etymologists whose narrow focus caused these people to overlook more compelling solutions…. I would be interested in seeing these people collected in one place, perhaps with examples and your solutions.”

I would love to write such a book, rather than a blog, on this subject (I devoted only a few lines to etymology and obsession in Word Origins… and How We Know Them; the subject has been explored more fully in my dictionary). Such a book with a coy title like Matchless Incendiaries or Convicted by Their Convictions would be a joy to write and become a national bestseller. Here a few remarks will suffice. Ernest Weekley, the author of several excellent books on English words and of an English etymological dictionary, called those who attempted to trace all words to one language monomaniacs. Not all of them have been tarred with the same brush or cut out of the same cloth. For many centuries it was customary to derive one language from another: Latin from Greek, German from Gothic, and so forth. All of them were supposed to go back to Hebrew, the language Adam and Eve allegedly spoke in Paradise. No one remembers hearing Adam and Eve; consequently, opinions regarding their language differed. Perhaps the most famous guess (famous for its craziness) identified it with Dutch. The curious thing is that enough similar-sounding words exist in Dutch, Latin, Greek, and even Hebrew to boost the most bizarre hypothesis of origins.

Later, political monomaniacs, inspired by patriotic feelings, moved center stage. In English studies, Celtomania flourished for a long time. John Cleland wrote not only a memorable book about Fanny Hill, a woman of pleasure, but also a learned work on English etymology. Unlike his novel, it is unrewarding reading: English words are derived in it from fanciful Celtic roots. Even more notorious was Charles MacKay, an erudite 19th-century scholar, the author of good books on English vocabulary, but a slave of the idea that most words of English and other languages go back to Irish Gaelic. Monomaniacs who believe that the bulk of the vocabulary of modern European languages is traceable to Slavic, Arabic, or Hebrew are still active and have a sizable following. Singleness of purpose and ignorance form durable and dangerous unions.

A last group is comprised of excellent scholars who make worthwhile discoveries but overuse their expertise and tend to search for the sources of obscure words in the material they know best. This is where Scandinavian and Romance come in. It is not hard to dig up a specious ancestor of an English word in some neighboring language, be it Welsh, Irish, French, or Icelandic. There is no recipe against blunders in this area, and perhaps only an instinct akin to the instinct that saves an experienced chess player from making a wrong move can rein in an etymologist’s enthusiasm. On the other hand, as I mentioned in my blog on serendipity and luck, familiarity with some language, especially a good grasp of one’s native language, can provide valuable associations closed to others. All in all, an author planning a book about the etymologists who went astray will not run out of material. A tragedy in five acts with an interlude and an epilogue is also possible.

Spelling. A correspondent from India asks why English spelling has not been made strictly phonetic if a close sound to letter correspondence is possible for other languages. Many books have been written on the subject of English spelling. At one time the written image of English words did reflect their pronunciation with some accuracy. After 1066 (the Norman Conquest), French scribes imposed their rules that ran counter to the phonetic reality of English. It took centuries for a writing system obligatory for all to be accepted, and the norm that emerged turned out to be inconsistent and conservative. No radical reform of English spelling has so far gained enough public support. As a result, we often spell words according to medieval rules, and English abounds in homographs like bow “bend” and bow (to play a string instrument) and homophones like slow and sloe. It is hard to find another language in which four words are spelled differently—write, rite, right, and Wright/wright (as in playwright)—but pronounced the same. This blog has existed for nearly three years, and eleven posts have dealt with what I called “The Oddest English Spelling”; two more addressed Spelling Reform.

English versus German. An argument arose in which one side insisted that German was a better medium of thought than English because English, with its multiple homophones, often obscures the message, while in German such cases are nonexistent. How true is this statement? I don’t think it is true, even though English has numerous words like sloe and slow. Punning is indeed easier in English and French than in German. Other than that, homophones present no danger to communication because context disambiguates them (to use a technical linguistic term). Even in a piece of constructed nonsense like not everything is right in the drama on the rite of spring that Mr. Wright, a rightwing playwright, promised to write hardly anyone will misunderstand the meaning despite the cacophony. And some homophones also exist in German, for example, denen (a pronoun) and dehnen “prolong, lengthen,” Rhein (the river) and rein “clean,” and so forth. I would in general object to any statement to the effect that a certain language serves it purpose inadequately. Language is a self-regulating system, and especially in the vocabulary sphere it borrows from various sources, gets rid of deadwood, produces synonyms, and develops new ways of derivation, so that at any moment it is both “perfect” and open to change.

Shakespeare’s pronunciation. How should the word eisel be pronounced? his question came one day after I submitted my previous set of gleanings, and I hope that someone getting ready to play Hamlet or read out loud excerpts from the play will still be able to profit by my answer. The word eisel “vinegar,” from Old French (ultimately from Latin), was recorded as early as the 13th century but barely survived Shakespeare’s well-contented day. We remember it because it occurs in Hamlet’s passionate questions hurled at Laertes in the churchyard: “’Swounds, show me what thou’lt do: / Woo’t drink up eisel? Eat a crocodile? / I’ll do’t” (V, 1: 295-99). And in Sonnet 111, we read: “Whilst, like a willing patient, I will drink/ Potions of eisel ‘gainst my strong infection.” In old editions, the word also occurs in the forms esill, esile, and eysell. Today no one knows how it was pronounced (this is the reason the OED gives no transcription), but the spellings suggest that two variants competed (assuming that Shakespeare’s vowels had more or less the same realizations as today): one must have been homophonous with our easel, the other began with ay as in ay, may, nay. Both can be heard. It seems that in the United and Canada eezel predominates, while in England actors usually say ayzel.

Separate words

Weird. Long ago it was a noun meaning “fate.” It had cognates (also nouns) in all the other Old Germanic languages.< In the middle period, English lost a verb related to this noun but preserved, for example, in German (werden “become”; originally “happen, come to pass”). Its trace exists in the formula woe worth the day, but today few people will recognize this formula and even fewer will guess that worth is the ancient subjunctive of the once common verb (“may woe befall the day,” that is, “let the day perish”). Since Fates were supposed to control our destiny, the phrase werde sisters arose in the 14th century. It would probably have been forgotten but for Shakespeare’s weird sisters in Macbeth. Nowadays weird turned into slang for “odd” (“he is so weird”), and the noun weirdo was coined, a far cry from the dignified wyrd that dominated Old English poetry, with its fatalistic view of life and death. Schadenfreude. This German word meaning “joy felt at someone’s misfortune, vindictive glee” has become so common that like angst it is no longer italicized in our books and can be found in English dictionaries. It is made up of two German nouns: Schaden “harm” and Freude “joy.” Willy-nilly. This is a contraction of the phrase wil I nil I “I am willing, I am unwilling”; nyl goes back to Old Engl. nyllan, that is, wyllan “will” preceded by ne. Cater-corner ~ kitty corner. Most probably, from a Scandinavian word for “left” (hence “not right, not straight; going across”), rather than from French quatre “four” (see a long entry on this word in my dictionary). Dickens “devil.” From a proper name (Dick, Dickon, Dicken), a common case (compare Old Nick, Old Harry, and Rob/Hob), with reinforcing -s.

To be continued.

Anatoly_libermanAnatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them as well as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. 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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One Response to “Monthly Gleanings: January 2009”
  1. ‘A correspondent from India asks why English spelling has not been made strictly phonetic if a close sound to letter correspondence is possible for other languages.’
    If India is, at a billion strong, the largest nation with English as an official language, would it be unreasonable to look for a solution there?

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