Monthly Gleanings: January 2010
By Anatoly Liberman
A Bibliography of English Etymology: An Aftermath
I would like to thank all those who congratulated me on the appearance of A Bibliography of English Etymology. In connection with this publication I have been asked two questions. 1) What practical results do I expect from it? The answer is obvious. Now everyone who is interested in the origin of an English word can at once begin reading the relevant literature. The same holds, though to a lesser extent, for the cognates of English words in other languages. My lists are not exhaustive (because no bibliographical list is) but sufficiently representative. Since all kinds of obscure periodicals have been looked through in the preparation of the volume, many titles may enjoy the light of day for the first time. However, this bibliography is not a pot from a fairy tale to which one has to say: “Little pot, cook,” for sweet porridge to begin flowing into the plate and even down the streets. I have copies of all the articles in my office, but no one else does. Obtaining them takes time. Also, one has to read everything written about the chosen word (another time consuming procedure), and this brings me to the second question. 2) How many articles featured in the bibliography contain trivial and even nonsensical information? Very many of them do. But I could not be choosy. I felt like the compiler of a telephone book. Some people use their telephone all the time but never say anything worth hearing, let alone repeating. (A lot should even have been left unsaid.) Some others use the telephone for plotting against their neighbors and the rest of the world, and still others have a telephone and do very well without it. Yet a telephone book cannot pass judgment on the character and habits of the company’s customers. Although a foolish article on etymology is not murderous, triviality and self-admiring ignorance are the curse of scholarship, and a bibliography cannot aspire to remedy this situation. I have been working on a new etymological dictionary of English for over twenty years, and if I had had such a bibliography in the mid-eighties, by now, instead of being “the proud author” of An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction, I would have had all the work behind me. This is the greatest justification of the bibliography now published I can think of.
Etymology as a Profession
I regularly receive questions from young people who would like to become etymologists but do not know how to go about it. I can only repeat what I have said before. Someone who is interested in the history of recent slang should try to discover the earliest known citations and meaning of the word in question (which is hard: compare buzzword, below) and find out who used the word and why. Such a project can probably be completed without formal linguistic training, though the lack of training is a great handicap even in this area. For all other purposes, one has to study the history of several languages (the more, the better) and the methods of linguistic reconstruction, that is, take special courses from knowledgeable teachers. Reading popular books about the “fascinating” history of words and being “passionate” about the subject won’t do.
Husk. The word almost certainly contains the diminutive suffix -k, whereas the vowel of hus- goes back to u, as in put, and ultimately to “long u,” that is, the sound we now hear in hoo. Hus (with a long vowel) is the earlier form of house, so that the original meaning of husk emerges as “little house.” In some other Germanic languages, a similar form means “the core (or skin) of a fruit.” English has narrowed down this meaning somewhat, with emphasis on dryness; hence husky, said about the voice. The only unanswered question is whether husk is a native English word or a borrowing from some northern continental language. The uncertainty must remain because the suffix -k has wide distribution. However, the common English suffix is -ock, as in bullock “little bull.” Consequently, the Low German origin of husk is more likely.
Pike “eavesdrop on a telephone conversation.” My database contains no information on this slangy use of the verb pike. The OED mentions pike “depart.” It seems to have survived in chimneysweeps’ lingo in the sense “climb down from the roof.” I have one insignificant reference to it. Pike “eavesdrop” looks like a facetious extension of pike, the fish name, but without knowing the history of its use guesswork is unprofitable. Perhaps our readers can say something about this subject. The word is rare.
Buzz- in buzzword: why buzz-? I suspect that buzzword has been coined twice. According to the OED, it was used in the mid-forties at Harvard, but it does not seem to have spread from Harvard to the rest of the world, or if it did, then not at that time. The Random House Dictionary gives the dates 1965-1970. The hyphenated date makes little sense (it probably means that the editors had no citations prior to 1970). The 1969 edition of The American Heritage Dictionary does not list it. Much to my surprise, no source I consulted provided an explanation of any sort and only stated that buzzword is buzz + word. This is a foolproof etymology. My initial idea was that buzz- in buzzword refers to a rapid movement, as in buzz off and buzz in. A buzzword would then be the first overused word that comes to mind (and irritates sensitive ears by its predictability). Since the word is about forty years old, some of our contemporaries may remember how and where it arose. I polled several people between the ages of 24 and 68. Their suggestions were not unlike mine: a buzzword, it was said, creates a lot of buzz (excitement) devoid of substance or buzzes around and won’t go away. However, one respondent thought that it originated in game shows in which a wrong answer produces a buzz, but discounted his hypothesis as unlikely. Suggestions from our readers will be greatly appreciated.
Hoosier. See my post from July 30, 2008. I received a poem written by a man from the state of Mississippi some time after the Civil War but before 1900. He was returning to his home state after a failed attempt at farming in Texas. In the poem he uses the word Hoosier over and over. The correspondent asks: “I am wondering if he’s not trying to be funny. Is there any new insight we can gain on the word from the poem?” I will quote a few lines from that poem: “And we packed our trunks and boxes/ And we are ready for the train./ That will take us gallivanting to/ The Hoosier state again…. Going back to Old Mississippi/ Where the air is ever mild,/ Where the Hoosier was discovered,/ Running in the native wild.” There also are mentions of old Hoosier times, Hoosierdom, and Hooserite way. The poem confirms what is known about the word, which seems originated in the South in the thirties, but it is characteristic that as late as the last decades of the 19th century the man used Hoosier and its derivatives with love and pride.
Wake, awake, waken, awaken. Why do we have so many words for nearly the same concept? Indeed, one of them would have sufficed. Compare I wake (up) early and wake (up) the children (both transitive an intransitive). Some people say waked/waked, others prefer woke/woken. Originally the verb was strong, so that woke/woken has greater historical legitimacy, but nearly identical verbs were weak (hence waked). Awake is the same verb with a prefix. As always happens with synonyms, the two verbs demarcated their spheres of application. Thus, awake occurs mainly or exclusively in figurative senses (as in he awoke to the sad realization that…). In its present form, waken was borrowed from Old Norse. It is more often used intransitively (to waken someone). Awaken, which goes back to Old English, is intransitive and mainly figurative. It is indeed amazing that all four have survived.
This is part of a much longer question. Our correspondent rues the loss of distinction between compare tocompare with and . So do I. Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? (= Shall I liken you to a summer’s day?). Let us compare John’s grades with Mary’s. (= Let us see how similar or different their grades are.) Where I live I hear only compare to. I also rue the loss of the distinction between consist of (as in the test consists of three parts, where consists of means contains) and consist in (as in one of my duties consists in teaching students historical linguistics). I never hear consist in.
Words for concepts
From time to time I am asked to coin or discover a word for some concept. I am usually not equal to the task, but perhaps some of our correspondents like this type of game and can help. 1) A word that expresses equal measures of apology and forgiveness. For example, two people make it up, and each is ready to confess guilt and accept the other party’s apology and says: “I—you.” Fill in the blank. A verb for “apolo-‘cusing” would be welcome. Or perhaps there already is such a word? 2) What do we call a person who coins new words? If someone knows the name for a wordman (wordsmith) who produces neologisms, that is, a “neologist,” but not a logomachist, kindly share the information with this blog.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”