Monthly Gleanings: May 2010
By Anatoly Liberman
Dickens and non-standard speech. In connection with wash-up for worship in Pickwick, it has been noted that, according to some, Dickens’s phonetic spelling cannot be trusted. I am aware of this verdict (compare, among others, his enigmatic kyebosk for kibosh). His rendering of the Yorkshire dialect (in Nicholas Nickleby) and even of Cockney has been challenged more than once. Especially Sam Weller’s forms like wery vell strike some professional linguists as a parody. I can have no independent opinion about Cockney phonetics and am ready to admit that Dickens exaggerated certain features of London “vulgar” speech. But if he had concocted those features, his readers would have been astonished rather than amused. Dickens’s childhood and his experience as a journalist made him an expert in Cockney. At the time he began writing Pickwick he, still a little-known author, could not have afforded too great liberties with local accents. And it is a fact that he enjoyed neologisms. Quite a few slang words recorded in the OED first surfaced in his books, while Sketches by Bozz, to say nothing of Oliver Twist, bear witness to his firsthand familiarity with criminal cant.
Latin c. Did Cicero pronounce his name Kikero? There is no doubt about it. Only toward the end of the Classical period did Latin c change to ts before e, i, y, and the diphthongs ae and oe. Hence the pronunciation Tsitsero- in German and Russian. In English, which in this respect follows French, the spelling pronunciation of c before front vowels (such as i and e) prevails (Sisero). Italians say Chichero as in cicerone (which happens to be a derivative of Cicero: originally the word was applied to learned Italian antiquaries and only later developed the meaning “guide who shows antiquities”). For etymological purposes Latin c is always k.
Two meanings of scruple. I think we now use scruples almost only in its figurative sense, and few people know that it also means “20 grains, one-third of a drachm, a unit of apothecaries’ weight.” Latin scrupulus (a diminutive of scrupus) meant “a small sharp stone; weight, 1/24 of the ounce” and “a stone in one’s shoe,” hence “a troublesome thing” and “doubt; scruple.” The development from “pebble in a shoe” to “an unpleasant thing” needs no comment. English borrowed the French word with the meanings “hindrance, perplexity, doubt.”
Are Engl. balcony and Russian balagan “show booth at a fair” related? Possibly. We are dealing with several words of debatable origin the Europeans took over from the East. Engl. balcony is a 17th-century borrowing of Italian balcone (which at one time meant “stage”), and for a long time it was pronounced with stress on the second syllable. Without much confidence the Italian word has been traced to the unattested Germanic noun balkon “beam”: compare German Balken and Engl. balk. (There was also Old Engl. balca “gangway of a ship,” probably a cognate.) But the meanings match imperfectly. A better etymon seems to be Persian balakhaneh “high house; high baldachin,” but here the phonetic match is not quite satisfactory. Another similar word is Engl. barbican “outer fortification,” from Old French barbacone, whose source may also have been balakhaneh or Persian barbarkhanah “house on the wall,” or Arabic babkhana “gatehouse,” or none of the above. (Barbecue has nothing to do with any of them.) Russian balagan (stress on the last syllable) certainly goes back to Persian balakhaneh, though it appears to have reached Russian via some Turkic language, perhaps Kazakh. Thus, there is some chance that balagan and balcony are reflexes of the same word.
Is sesquipedalian “a foot and a half long” a sound imitative word? It would be hard to imagine a sound combination attempting to reproduce length. Perhaps our correspondent wonders whether it is a sound symbolic word, that is, a word whose form suggests its meaning. Here the answer is probably yes. The term was invented by Horace in Ars Poetica (sesquipedalia verba: verba “words”), and he must have enjoyed an inordinately long word denoting great length. Other than that, sesqui- is a regular Latin prefix meaning “one and a half.”
Inflammable versus flammable. This is an often asked question. In- (variants: il-, im-, ir-) is not only a negative prefix, as, for example, in the adjectives inflexible, illegal, irresolute, and immaculate. Its other function can be seen in dozens of bookish words like inbred and invoice, sometimes also with the phonetic variants il-, im-, and ir- (compare illuminate, implant, irrigate). The second in- has the same meaning as the preposition and adverb in, and it occurs in inflame inflammation, and inflammable. French en- is an etymological doublet of in-: compare inquire and enquirer. Flammable, a 19th-century technical term, was derived from the root of flame (Latin flamma) directly, without any prefix. Thus, by an accident of word formation, flammable and inflammable met in English and, instead of becoming antonyms, coexist as synonyms.
Warsh from wash. I would like to add two notes to my recent discussion of words like feller “fellow” and the weakening of r. 1. A very common form with false final -r is tater “potato.” 2. I said that the “rhotacism” of t (from weakened d), well-known in German and Frisian dialects, is rare in English and cited porridge from pottage. However, the confusion of d with r must have occurred with some regularity, for paddock “enclosure” is, most probably, a by-form of parrock (now chiefly dialectal), whose r is old. Those who say warsh also say Warshington, as many people, including our correspondent, have noted.
Kybosh. Stephen Goranson informed me that kybosh (given in quotes and capitalized) had been recorded in 1832, two years before Dickens. The spelling shows how recent the word was. I keep thinking that if we ever discover the origin of kybosh, an explanation will be found in the speech of architects and/or sculptors. Why capitalized? A proper name? Compare the questions usually asked about the etymology of wayzgoose. Read more about geese below.
W in answer. Last month I touched on the history of the letter w in answer. Not long ago, while leafing through Notes and Queries (my favorite occupation for years), I ran into the following: “I remember a venerable and esteemed professor in an ancient university who used to excite the admiration of the students by pronouncing answer as if the last syllable were like the word swerve. He was asked the reason, and, like a true Scotchman, replied by a question: ‘What is Latin for a goose?’” This was written in 1893, when any university student knew that the Latin for “goose” is anser. Engl. anserine “like or pertaining to a goose” exists, but I am afraid that the esteemed professor was a tiny bit gaga.
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.”