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Monthly Gleanings: January 2009: Part 2

By Anatoly Liberman

The Internet and language change. The question I received can be summarized in two points. 1) Will texting and the now prevalent habit of abbreviating whole phrases (the most-often cited example is LOL “laugh out loud”) affect language development in a serious way? 2) Will the unprecedented exposure to multiple dialects and cultures that the Internet provides result in some sort of universal language? Linguistic futurology is a thankless enterprise, but my inclination is to answer no to both questions. Every message is functional. Texting, like slang and all kinds of jargon, knows its place and will hardly escape from its cell-phone cage. Some abbreviations may become words, and a statement like she lol’ed when I asked her whether she would go out with me is not unimaginable. Countless acronyms like Texaco, BS, UNO, and snafu clutter our speech; if necessary, English will survive a few more. It is the collapse of reading habits and the general degradation of culture that threaten to reduce our vocabulary to lol’able basics. As to the second part of the question, I would like to point out that the Internet is only one component of globalization. It ignores borders, but new Compuranto, destined to replace our native languages, is not yet in the offing.

Disappearing words. The question runs as follows: “For years I’ve wondered if spell-check is responsible for the disappearance of the word pled (as in he pled guilty vs. the current he pleaded guilty) and similar words that were in common usage until about twenty or so years ago. Other words that seem to have disappeared are knelt, sunk, etc.” I wonder what our readers will say. As far as I can judge, all those words are still around. In student newspapers, which reflect the poorly edited and unbuttoned-up usage of the young, I see almost only pled guilty. If anything, it is pleaded that gave way to pled in the legal phrase, probably under the influence of bled and fled. (I am not sure how many people have gone over to we pled with her but in vain). In American English, sunk seems to be the most common past tense of sink, and once, when I used sank in this blog, I was taken to task and then forgiven, when it turned out that the OED “allows” the principal parts sinksanksunk, like shrinkshrankshrunk. Knelt seems to be the preferred form in British English. In any case, it is felt to be more elevated, though the OED gives both forms (knelt and kneeled) without comment. In a few other cases, American English has also chosen regular weak preterits: thus, burned, learned, spelled rather than burnt, learnt, spelt. Whatever the cause of the variation, it is clearly not the spell-check.

A family name. What is the origin of the family name Witthaus? Both witt- and haus are common elements of German family names. Strangely, Witthaus did not turn up in the most detailed dictionaries of German family names or of American last names of German descent. However, I will venture an etymology. Haus is clear (“house”). Witt- can have several sources, but, most likely, in this name it means “white” (if so, the form is northern German, Dutch, or Frisian). The European ancestors of the Witthaus family must have lived in or near a house painted white.

The origin of separate words. Handicapped. I am copying the information from The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology, which offers a curtailed version of what can be found in the OED. The word appeared in English texts in the middle of the 17th century and meant a lottery in which one person challenged an article belonging to another, for which he offered something in exchange, an umpire being chosen to decree the respective values. In the 18th century, the phrases handicap match and handicap race surfaced. They designated a match between two horses, in which the umpire decided the extra weight to be carried by the superior horse. Hence applied to the extra weight itself, and so to any disability in a contest. Presumably, from the phrase hand i’ (in) cap, the two parties and the umpire in the original game all depositing forfeit money in a cap or hat. Shampoo. From a Hindi verb meaning “press!” (The original reference was to massage). Meltdown. Amusingly, the earliest recorded form in the OED refers to ice-cream (1937). The word acquired its ominous meaning in connection with accidents in nuclear reactors and spread to other areas; hence the meltdown of the stock market. As our correspondent notes, it has become a buzzword (and therefore should be avoided, except when reactors are meant). Hoi polloi. From Greek. It means “all people, masses.” Sun dog. Judging by the earliest citations in the OED, in the thirties of the 17th century the word was already widely known. However, its origin is said to be “obscure.” I can offer a mildly intelligent guess. Considering the superstitions attending celestial phenomena, two false suns sometimes visible on both sides of the real one could have been thought of as dogs pursuing it. The idea of two wolves following the sun and the moon, both of which try to escape their enemies and constantly move on, occurred to the medieval Scandinavians. Even the names of the wolves, Skoll (Anglicized spelling) and Hati, have come down to us. When the world comes to an end (a situation described in great detail in Scandinavian myths), the wolves catch up with and swallow their prey. As regards sundog, the missing link would be a theological or astronomical treatise that introduced and justified the use of the word. In their absence all guesses are hot air. If it is any consolation, I can say that the origin of dog days and hot dog is not obscure. The etymology of hot dog required years of painstaking research.

A few Americanisms. Conniption. Everybody seems to be in agreement that it is a “fanciful formation.” However, this phrase simply means “an individual coinage.” The question is who coined conniption and under what circumstances. I wonder whether a search for some short-lived popular song or cartoon will yield any results. Such words often come from popular culture. At the moment, we can only say that despite its classical look, conniption, which does not trace to Latin or any Romance language, must have been modeled on such nouns as conscription, constriction, conviction, and so forth. Whether a conniption fit, that is, a fit of rage or hysteria, is “related” to nip is anybody’s guess. Jaywalk. This is an equally opaque word. The verb jaywalk is a back formation on the noun jaywalker, because no other model of derivation produces English compounds made up of a noun followed by a verb. In similar fashion, kidnap is not a sum of kid and nap, but a back formation on kidnapper, another Americanism (from kid and napper “thief”), a cant word, stressed originally, like the verb, on the second element; the reference is to the people, not necessarily children, decoyed and snatched from their homes to work as servants or slaves in the colonies; such servants were often called kids: compare boy in colonial English, busboy, and cowboy, as well as the title of Robert L. Stevenson’s novel Kidnapped). It is also clear that the reference in jaywalker cannot be to the bird. Crows do not fly in a straight line, “kiddies” do not cut corners (kiddy-corner ~ cater-corner), and jays do not walk. Jay is one of the many words for a country bumpkin, along with hick, hillbilly, hayseed, redneck, and others. It has been suggested that people from rural areas (jays) came to town and, ignorant of street lights, crossed busy streets in an erratic way. Those were allegedly jaywalkers. The foundation of this etymology is shaky, since jay has never been a widespread word for a rustic. Other suggestions are even worse, and the literature on the word is all but nonexistent. Jukebox. Also a crux. Several meanings of juke have been attested, one of them being “roadside inn; brothel,” allegedly an Afro-Caribbean word. Juke refers to things disorderly and noisy, and jukeboxes were installed in saloons and other cheap places. Since jukebox originated in Black English, its African etymology is not improbable. But I would like to point out that the sound j often has an expressive function in English, whether it occurs word finally (budge, fudge, grudge, nudge) or word initially (job, jog, jig, jazz). It is perhaps a coincidence, but note that both jaywalker and juke begin with this sound. Haywire. From the use of hay-baling wire in makeshift repairs; hence “erratic, out of control.”

Hunyak. A derogatory term for a person of non-western, usually central or eastern, European background; a recent immigrant, especially an unskilled or uneducated laborer with such a background. The Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE), which has citations for these words going back to 1911, makes a plausible suggestion that hunyak (sometimes capitalized and alternating with honijoker, honyak, etc.) is perhaps a blend of Hun or Hunk “Hungarian” and Polack. There may be no need to posit a blend, for -ack is a common suffix in Slavic; it could have been added to hun-. DARE gives multiple citations of Hunk ~ hunk ~ hunks (with reinforcing -s) ~ Hungy, and so forth. Stupnagel. “Moron.” I risked a conjecture that proved to be correct. First, I rejected any connection with Hitler’s general Fr. von Stupnagel, who was not a fool (the opposite is true) and not a familiar figure in the United States. As with conniption, I suggested that the word had emerged in popular culture (a sketch, a show, or a series of cartoons) and reconstructed a character whose name was made up of stup- (from stupid) and -nagle, from finagle. Mr. Nathan E. J. Carlson, an assistant at DARE, has kindly sent me the information provided by Dr. Leonard Zwilling, that in 1931 a radio program in Buffalo, NY featured two idiots: Stoopnagle (so spelled) and Buddy. In 1933 a film was released with those characters, the first of them becoming Colonel Lemuel Q. Stoopnagle. There must have been a good reason for the change, because Lemuel is the first name of Swift’s Gulliver. I do not know what made the author introduce Stoopnagle, but my etymology (a blend of stupid and finagle) looks good. The author could also have been inspired by the German word Nagel “nail” (compare stud “nail,” with its obscene meaning, and the hero of Farrell’s novel Studs Lonigan) or perhaps wanted one of the characters to be a German, to invite a few cheap laughs. But the word stupnagle almost certainly goes back to that radio program. Judging by what one finds in the Internet, the word, but not its origin, is well-known.

A few comments on comments. Buzzwords. A fellow professor agrees with my negative attitude toward academic clichés like cutting edge and interdisciplinary, for which I am grateful. Those words shape our thought and pretend to disguise our shallowness. No grant can be received without brandishing a cutting edge, as though it were a bare bodkin, and proving one’s interdisciplinary ability to sit between two stools. Every elected official is “proud and humbled,” administrators (a vociferous chorus) rail against “an overblown sense of entitlement” by constantly promoting it, eagle-eyed journalists see the simplest things only through a “lens,” and no ad in the sphere of education will dare avoid the adjective diverse. What a dull new world! When asked about verbs like to Blagojevich, I said that verbs derived from last names seem to be rare. Several correspondents sent me what they believed to be such verbs; however, with one exception, they remembered words having suffixes (like macadamize). The exception is to Bork. Bork, a monosyllable, lends itself naturally to becoming a verb. I was glad to read that my post on Swedish kul, published in the middle of an inclement winter, warmed the cockles of a Swedish teacher’s heart (I pointed out that kul is not a borrowing of English cool), and it was interesting to read another late 19th century example of the superlative degree coolest (cool “impudent”). The correspondent who thinks that the phrase that’s all she wrote has nothing to do with Hazlitt’s time (because the contexts are different) may be right, but the old citation shows that the model for such phrases existed long before World War II.

Note. I received a question about the origin of akimbo. This word needs more than a few lines of discussion. See my post on it next Wednesday.


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.”

Recent Comments

  1. Matt Wolf

    “Crows do not fly in straight lines . . .” Are you saying that the expression “As the crow flies” doesn’t allude to the black bird? What is your etymology for this expression?

    Hunyak. Reading this paragraph reminded me of a word that people of my parents’ generation used in rural Minnesota: hunyucker. I don’t remember it having a racial connection, but it was mildly derogatory. I wonder if the words are related. A Google search for hunyucker only returns references to a band of that name.

  2. Brian Barker

    An interesting insight on how a “universal language” might develop.

    As the “International Year of Languages” comes to an end on 21st February, you may be interested in the contribution, made by the World Esperanto Association, to UNESCO’s campaign for the protection of endangered languages.

    The following declaration was made in favour of Esperanto, by UNESCO at its Paris HQ in December 2008. http://portal.unesco.org/culture/en/ev.php-URL_ID=38420&URL_DO=DO_PRINTPAGE&URL_SECTION=201.html

    The commitment to the campaign to save endangered languages was made, by the World Esperanto Association at the United Nations’ Geneva HQ in September.
    http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=eR7vD9kChBA&feature=related or http://www.lernu.net

  3. John Cowan

    The verbs lynch and boycott are the only ones in common use (that I know of) based on proper names: note that they are no longer capitalized, unlike Bork and Blagojevich. My favorite proper-name-with-suffix verb is the now-forgotten fletcherize, meaning to chew food until thoroughly liquefied, prototypically 28 times.

  4. RL

    Two verbs from proper names, which are in vigorous use in the spoken language: to hoover, and to bogart.

    Interestingly, bogart seems to have shifted meaning. In the 1970s, it meant to allow something to go to waste,whereas now it’s often used to mean to gather something rapaciously — to hoover it, in fact.

  5. Bryce Carlson

    The etymology of the word “stulpnagel” to mean a foolish idiot is interesting. It is of fairly recent derivation, and derives from one General Carl von Stülpnagel who, along with Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, was one of the main conspirators in the July 20, 1944 attempt on Hitler’s life. When Stülpnagel got word that the bomb had actually detonated in the room with Hitler, he assumed Hitler was dead and went around arresting high-ranking Nazis. The only problem was that Hitler was NOI dead; he wasn’t even seriously injured. Oops, that Stülpnagel, what a stulpnagel.

    Bryce Carlson

  6. [...] hillock, buttocks, and a host of other mainly British regional words), hobo (hardly from ho, boy), hoi polloi (Greek: “all people”), honky dory (Japanese: “the main street”), hunyack (a derogatory name [...]

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