Monthly Gleanings: March 2009
By Anatoly Liberman
Returning to ghetto. Several days after I posted my etymology on ghetto, I received a letter from Doug Wilson, who has more than once supplied me with valuable information, but this time his tip was truly astounding. In my post, I came to the conclusion that all the attempts to explain the origin of ghetto were unconvincing and offered, albeit with great diffidence, my own conjecture. It resolved itself into the following. There seems to have been a European migratory word for “street; public space; market” that is reflected in Icelandic and Swedish gata “street” and that was current in several forms with the vowels a and e and, apparently, with the initial consonants g and j. Doug Wilson sent me a page (it is p. 130) from Johann Christoph Wagenseil’s book De Sacri Rom. Imperii Libera Civitate Noribergensi Commentatio, published in 1697 (!), in which the main part of my etymology was stated in plain Latin. From what I now know, a similar etymology turned up in a short 1854 publication. Cecil Roth, the author of a book about the Jews in Venice, also knew it, and it is mentioned in the Enciclopedia Italiana (the entry “Ghetto”). Only bad luck prevented me from consulting those sources in time, but I would never have run into Wagenseil, and I suspect that none of those who tried to discover the origin of ghetto was aware of their distant predecessor.
I have mixed feelings about the situation. Of course, I am sorry to have offered a novelty that is 312 years old. Something fresher would have been more to the point, but, being versed in medieval numerology, I see a hidden meaning in the event. The number of the house in which I live is 312. On a less mystical note, I must say that every time I have an idea and it turns out that I was anticipated (especially if I was anticipated by a great scholar: Jacob Grimm or N.S. Trubetzkoy, for example), my chagrin is tempered with satisfaction: it appears that my hypotheses are not so fanciful after all. I also believe that I have reinforced Wagenseil’s etymology. Those who connected ghetto and gata used to cite Gothic gatvo (the usual modern transliteration is gatwo). The path from gatwo to ghetto is tortuous; therefore, Wagenseil’s approach is more realistic. Yet gatwo existed, and the Goths, not the Vikings, had a kingdom in Italy. The relation of gatwo to gata has not been clarified, and the origin of those words (or of that word) is unknown. Gatwo spread to the north, as follows from Latvian and Lithuanian. Both borrowed the Germanic word with v and the meanings “passage between fences; pasture; street.” The Scandinavian form is also old, for the Finns, who took it over, call “street” kata. There is no certainty that the form with w was original. The word, not necessarily native in Germanic, could have circulated in two forms.
This is where my contribution comes in. I pointed out the existence of Engl. dialectal jetty “narrow street” competing with jutty, and jut (verb) alternating with jet, a fact that allowed me to reconstruct the variation a ~ e and g ~ j. Wagenseil’s conjecture needed boosting (for how did gata, let alone gatwo, become ghetto?), and I believe to have found the indispensable missing link. I was not the first to suggest that the oldest sense of ghetto was something like “living quarters; public space; street(s).” The similarity between ghetto and jetty also attracted the attention of an amateur more than a hundred years ago. His observation did not make the slightest ripple, while the attempt to trace ghetto to gatwo or gata has been ridiculed with special vigor. The truth is more valuable than the laurels of a pioneer, and if the gata/ghetto connection happens to be recognized, this is indeed a subject worthy of celebration. (Another correspondent suggested I look at Hebrew get “letter of separation/divorce”. I discussed this word in some detail and have a good database on the ghetto-get tie. I am sure it provides a false lead.)
Shakespeare and the Jews. Tolkien: ghetto in limbo. In the same blog, I mentioned the fact that Shakespeare, the author of The Merchant of Venice, had never seen a Jew in his life. Our correspondent reminded me of “ten lost years” in Shakespeare’s biography, the years in which he might have traveled and visited Italy. But he has no trust in this reconstruction, because, as he puts it, it is now “known” that Shakespeare’s plays were written by Henry Neville. Here I must disappoint him. The candidates for Shakespeare’s position are rather numerous. By being equally convincing, they cancel one another out. Nothing is “known.” Everything is fruitless guesswork, refuted with the same passion that informs the attempts to explain how the allegedly semiliterate actor of the Globe could produce immortal dramas displaying familiarity with practically everything on earth. I have followed those fancies for decades, and today they interest me no more than aliens visiting the United States in spaceships. As for the same correspondent’s second remark to the effect that if Tolkien were alive today, he would probably have been able to explain the origin of the word ghetto, I am afraid that this thesis is also dubious. Tolkien was a great specialist in Old English literature and knew Old Scandinavian poetry and prose. He enjoyed coining words, but his special contributions to philology show no inclination to deal with etymological problems, and ghetto is not even an English word. There is no second Tolkien around, but, if he were alive, the early history of ghetto would, most likely, not have attracted his attention.
Generic they. Quite some time has passed since I challenged my opponents to find pre-1970 examples of the type if a tenant was evicted, it does not mean they were a bad tenant. Two or three late 19th century examples have turned up with the possessive pronoun their referring to one person. The others had the expected someone, person, and so forth. Recently a correspondent posted a quotation from Chesterton. He found it in “The Blue Cross,” one of the Father Brown stories. In it Valentin, the best detective in the world, arrives in London, to arrest Flambeau, the greatest criminal in the world. By modern standards, Flambeau is an amiable fellow, a resourceful, non-violent thief. Valentin is certain that his prey will appear in disguise, but there was one thing Flambeau could not cover, namely, his gigantic height, so Valentin is on the lookout for anyone unusually tall. “If Valentin’s quick eye had caught a tall apple-woman, a tall grenadier, or even a tolerably tall duchess, he might have arrested them on the spot.” Surely, them does not refer to the apple woman, duchess, or grenadier separately. So thank you for remembering my challenge, but keep digging away.
Words from acronyms. In my post on tip that appeared two weeks ago, I said that, in my experience, all attempts to etymologize common words as acronyms were wrong (the case in point was tip, allegedly going back to T.I.P.). Our correspondent remarked: “Except OK.” However, OK never pretended to be anything but an acronym. It is a word like PC or BS. A better counterexample would have been snafu, but snafu can hardly be called a common word.
Anatoly 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 email@example.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”