Monthly Gleanings: May 2009
By Anatoly Liberman
An Etymologist’s Status and Pastime. Below, I will try to satisfy the curiosity of our regular correspondent about how etymologists work. He guessed correctly that they do not form a “community.” The origin of words constitutes the shortest part of college courses devoted to the history of language, while courses in lexicology (the study of words) are rarely offered even to linguistics majors. Phonetics (phonology), grammar (mainly syntax) and semantics (all of them geared toward the latest version of a theory considered to be “cutting edge”) dominate the curriculum. As for the other language majors, they may graduate with only one course in linguistics; the rest is literature (predominantly modern), literary criticism, and “culture.” Add to it that, contrary to the tradition of the 19th century, descriptive, rather than historical, linguistics enjoys the greatest prestige in the profession. Fortunately, people have an ineradicable interest in the origin of language. Books on the rise and development of words appear in a steady stream, and some young people ignore the trend and the state of the academic market and choose to study language history. Etymology as a branch of scholarship owes its survival to public support, which one can observe in book stores and libraries, as well as at talk shows and lectures (see also what I wrote about this subject in my first post in March 2006). Etymologists do not meet at special congresses, and their “density” on any campus is minimal, but they often participate in linguistic meetings, and their papers appear in journals and miscellaneous collections with great regularity.
Finally, there was a question about why I usually devote my efforts to difficult and obscure words rather than to such as constitute the core of our vocabulary. My choice is determined by the requirements of the genre. A blog is not a textbook, and if I begin to repeat what anyone can find in a dictionary or the Internet, my essays will be of no use. Hence the focus on the controversial and exotic.
Split Infinitive. I keep collecting examples of what in the post “To Be or To Not Be” I called gratuitous splitting. Both of my latest excerpts are from reputable newspapers. “In his resignation letter, XX said the controversy had ‘made it impossible for me to effectively lead the … office’.” Probably no one will mind this syntax (I have no serious objections to it either), but why not “impossible for me to lead the … office effectively”? “An official with knowledge of the investigation said police stopped XX shortly after the shooting, spoke to him and let him go, only to later realize he was a suspect.” In my opinion, this is an ugly sentence. Only the vogue for splitting could make the author write to later realize.
Ghetto. Professor John Peter Maher, the author of a detailed comment on my post on ghetto, allowed me to disclose his identity and restated his views. We agree that most of the current theories on the origin of ghetto are untenable but do not see eye to eye on which one is the most convincing. He supports the derivation of ghetto from (bor)ghetto. I can only offer a suggestion. It will be remembered that I was struck by the history of the English word jetty “squalid neighborhood” and its variant jutty. It is as though jetty ~ jutty mirrored the history of ghetto ~ (Germanic) gata “street.” In the past, the words for “street” designated public space. Neither my explanation (ghetto ~ gata) nor the one that is based on borghetto, both of which were offered long ago, is specific enough. The fact that borghetto and numerous other words rhyming with it have been clipped to ghetto speaks for, as well as against, Maher’s reconstruction. True, living quarters anywhere could be called ghetto, but we are left wondering why such a common name was used for a new “reservation” and why the contemporaries of the first ghetto in Venice failed to associate ghetto with borghetto and invented Hebrew etymologies for it. This circumstance is also detrimental to my idea. The question, I believe, remains open.
The pronunciation of slough. The verb to slough (a snake sloughs its skin) rhymes with enough. In the Slough of Despond, slough should rhyme with now. In British English, slough “swamp” (also Slough, the name of a town) and slough “misery” are homophones, for they are two senses of the same word, “misery” being the figurative use of “swamp.” The Old English form of the noun slough was sloh ~ slog ~ slo (with a long vowel). In some dialects of Middle English, this vowel developed as in school, which accounts for the conservative (17th-century) American pronunciation of slough “marshy ground; stagnant pool” as slew. At one time, this pronunciation was confined to northern US and Canada, but it seems to have spread far beyond its original area of distribution.
The meaning of semolina. “There seems to be a consensus from most dictionaries that the word semolina derives from Italian semola ‘bran’, which in turn comes from Latin simila ‘fine flour’. As bran and fine flour are basically opposites, do you know how it came to be?” I do not know but I have a suggestion. Latin simila (Italian semolina is a diminutive form of it) meant “the finest wheat flour after being sifted.” Bran is the inner skin or husk of wheat (oats, etc.) separated from the grain. Both are the products of sifting, and it often happens that such a common semantic denominator allows divergent meanings to be assigned to the reflexes of the same word in related languages.
The etymology of demodromic. This is a term of mechanics, and our correspondent explained its meaning in his letter (which was inspired by the recent post on theodolite). In a demodromic valve system, the engine valves are opened and closed with a cam. Theodolite is obscure, but demodromic is obviously made up of two Greek parts. The element -dromic comes from Greek dromicos “swift, fleet” and also “pertaining to running or to a racecourse” (compare hippodrome). Greek dema meant “fetters,” and the element demo- has been used in several coinages with the sense “to fasten, bind, chain” (for the Greek connection compare diadem). Thus, approximately “binding quickly.” (Dema, with its short e, has nothing to do with demos “people,” in which e was long.)
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.”