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December 2010

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Monthly Gleanings: December 2010

By Anatoly Liberman

This is the last time I go gleaning in 2010. We are snowed in in the American Midwest (but so is everybody else), and, while looking for linguistic crumbs, I feel like the girl in the fairy tale who was sent by her evil stepmother to the forest in the middle of winter to return with a basket of wild strawberries. She met Father Frost (January). The old man, who had often seen the girl before, was touched by her sweet meekness and asked his brothers to help her. For one hour January gave way to his younger brothers, and “in May” the girl gathered the berries and returned home with a full basket and wearing a dress of incomparable beauty. Father Frost is around, the berries are on display in supermarkets, May will certainly come, and in the meantime I’ll go ahead and comment on the questions still unanswered in the previous twelve months.

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A Missionary Imposition (or a rambling sermon on miss/mess/mass and their kin)

By Anatoly Liberman
Probably everybody knows that Christmas, despite one s at the end, is a compound made up of Christ and mass. But few, unless they are word or church historians, have followed the intricate development of the word mass. In the 16th century, Martin Luther and the theologian Claudius de Sainctes derived mass from Hebrew missah “oblation; sacrifice”; this derivation still has supporters. Their opponents pointed out that such New Testament words as were coined in Hebrew (for instance, messiah and amen) came to Europe from Greek, but the Greek authors of the Christian epoch did not use missah. Closer to our time, opinions were divided over the original meaning of mass: did it designate “service” or (since mass mainly occurred in situations connected with the Eucharist) “feast”? Here mess “dish of food” gave trouble to etymologists. Is it a doublet of mass? And where does mass “a body of matter” (as in massive) come in?

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A “Basket” Case of Etymology

By Anatoly Liberman

Words related to material culture often end up in a trashcan labeled “origin unknown.” This is not surprising, for things are regularly imported with their names, and those may be hard to trace to their roots. The number of English words for “basket” (some of them local and little used outside their dialects) is great, and the etymology of some has not been ascertained. For example, we have maund, strongly reminiscent of Dutch mand and possibly a borrowing from Dutch (“of debatable origin”), creel, from Old French (also “of uncertain origin,” perhaps ultimately from Latin craticulum, that is, a little cratis “wickerwork”), and punnet “a chip basket” (it surfaced only in the 19th century and appears to be a diminutive of pun, a dialectal variant of pound, for punnets, like other baskets, were in some places used as a measure; compare a basketful of…

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Low-Key Thoughts on ‘Highfalutin’

By Anatoly Liberman

Allegedly a nineteenth-century Americanism, highfalutin is now known everywhere in the English speaking world, but, as could be expected, its etymology has not been discovered—“as could be expected,” because the origin of such words is almost impossible to trace. Many years ago, while investigating the history of skedaddle, I think I found a reasonable source of this verb. I was neither the first nor the second to discover it, but I put some polish (“kibosh,” as sculptors said 150 years ago) on it. My thoughts on highfalutin are low-key for an obvious reason. As will be seen, I have only one feeble idea and am offering it in the hope that, despite the lack of a persuasive solution, it may redirect the search for the source of this enigmatic adjective. But before sharing my small treasure with the world, I would like to quote the explanation given in John Hotten’s Slang Dictionary (the spelling and punctuation of

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Monthly Gleanings: November 2010

By Anatoly Liberman

Many thanks for the letters, questions, and corrections. I am especially grateful to Benjamin Slade for calling my attention to the post on rum (beverage) in his blog and to Michael Quinion, who grappled with dilemna long before me, came to similar conclusions, and cited 18th-century examples of this horrific spelling. It seems to be ineradicable, and the sad thing is that some teachers insist on writing -mn- in this word, to the despair of their literate charges and the charges’ parents. It is also a pleasure to receive irrelevant personal letters telling me, for example, about a visit of a fox in the correspondent’s garden (in connection with my post on foxglove). Guilty of what Shakespeare in Sonnet 62 called the sin of self-love, I particularly relish letters that begin with introductions like: “I enjoy reading your blog.” I enjoy writing it, but aging actors need constant encouragement. So now that Thanksgiving is behind, thank you all very much.

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