Monthly Gleanings: May 2011
By Anatoly Liberman
I was delighted to hear from a fellow journalist that his experience matches mine: no reaction when one’s work is good and immediate rebuke when one errs. However, critics save us from complacency, so may they keep their vigil. I am particularly grateful for the explanation about the difference between in future “from now on” and in the future “in days to come,” because, according to at least one German informant, the distinction between in Zukunft and in der Zukunft is exactly the same (future/Zukunft appears to be closer to the speaker than the future/die Zukunft). Curiously, two of my friends, speakers of American English, suggested that in future is more formal and therefore British. But I am afraid they are wrong. The OED does not seem to have recorded in future, and if this trait of German usage is old, it may have influenced American, especially Midwestern, speech. It would be interesting to hear from other correspondents and from Britain what their thoughts on in future are.
Among the questions I received two were about the origin of the words penguin and jump. Both deserve a close look, and I’ll devote my next two posts to them. Other than that…
Dutch Words in English
Larrup. In a recent post on this word, I expressed doubts about the Dutch origin of the verb larrup, for Dutch larp does not seem to have ever had enough currency to become popular in English. George H. Goebel from Dictionary of American Regional English pointed out to me that in addition to larp, mentioned in The Century Dictionary, Dutch lerp exists. Indeed, it does. I was happy to read that lerp “whip” is of unknown origin, possibly connected with Frisian larp, about which I wrote in my post and whose origin is also unknown. Dutch lerp enjoyed the peak of its popularity in the 17th century and became obsolete soon after. Its near synonym lerf is likewise obsolete and local. The verb lerpen means “strike with a whip” and it has a cognate in Low German; perhaps (so Goebel) Charles Scott, the etymologist for The Century Dictionary, used this cognate in trying to determine the descent of the English verb. Unless Scott’s notes have been preserved in some archive, we will never know. But I see that the great Dutch dictionary also has dialectal lerpen “slurp” or “suck” (the latter said about animals). No etymology is offered. Those who express strong opinions about word origins are usually punished for their arrogance, but I am sure that lerpen and s-lurp are related, as are lerp “whip” and lerp “slurp,” and that they belong to the Germanic group Francis Wood discussed in his book (I referred to it in the post on larrup). The equally rare and regional Dutch larp “tongue” accords well with the sense “a piece cut off.” Many thanks for the tip.
Plug-ugly (again). The question was about the origin of plug-ugly “very ugly.” Our correspondent knows the senses of plug-ugly “a nasty gob of chewing tobacco” and “a chunk of feces.” But why “very ugly”? I have no answer and can only risk a conjecture. The entire history of the Americanism plug-ugly is obscure, with most explanations sounding like exercises in folk etymology. But perhaps plug-ugly was understood like one of those numerous words of the type pitch-dark and stone-deaf, in which the first element reinforces the adjective. Since to modern speakers plug in the compound plug- ugly is meaningless, it could have been reinterpreted as meaning “very.” Plug is a borrowing from Dutch and, like plod and pluck had an expressive (“symbolic” or sound imitating) coloring from the start.
Two Questions Connected with milk
Milky Way. In the European languages in which there is an equivalent of this phrase it is a translation of Latin via lactea (lactea is familiar from lactation). The image seems to have been suggested by the picture of countless bright stars situated so close in the firmament that they resemble spilled milk. Galaxy (from Greek; the root is -lact, as in galacto-) also contains the root for “milk.” Whether the Latin and the Greek word are related is unclear, but the names of milk are often of controversial origin. This also holds for colostrum (from Latin) “beestings.” The discussion entails many niceties of Greek and Latin phonetics, and I’d rather not go into them here but will say that, given the words’ obscurity, few of their cognates are certain.
Pay through the nose / take it in the ear
Since I once claimed that I knew something about the origin of the idiom pay through the nose, I was asked whether I also know where the phrase take it in the ear came from. Alas and alack, I don’t. Nor have I ever seen, let alone heard (!), the phrase in any context save for Take it in the Ear Holiday (December 8). The origin of this holiday seems to be as puzzling as the origin of the phrase. On the face of it (as usual, I could not resist the pun), take it in the ear means “listen and remember,” an idiom of roughly the same structure as the no longer politically correct put it in your pipe and smoke it. I would like to repeat what I have said many times: the etymology of words is hard to detect, but idioms are even more elusive. Stephen Goranson, who was not satisfied by the nautical explanation of pay through the nose I dug up from Notes and Queries, sent me the following 1662 quotation: “Our actions are as good as those / That gull the People through the nose.” I agree that the idea of deceiving people “through the nose” is old, but whether pay through the nose is an extension of that practice remains open (at least in my mind).
Who versus whom. The most elementary trap in American English is illustrated by: “The mothers of two U.S. hikers held in Iran for nearly two years said they are starting a hunger strike on Thursday in solidarity with their sons, whom they believe are fasting while awaiting trial on espionage charges.” Obviously, not whom they believe, but who, they believe, are fasting. It appears that British speakers are also vulnerable to this confusion. From the Cambridge commentary on Shakespeare’s Sonnet 135: “Some… argue for two Will’s: Shakespeare and the ‘friend’ of the first series, whom they claim was also named William (the lines are: “Whoever hath her wish, thou hast thy Will, / And Will to boot, and Will in overplus….”). Again: who, they claim, was named, not whom they claim. It is well-known that rephrasing a sentence is sometimes preferable to taking it by storm. A British author writing about the Scandinavian myth of the mead of poetry (I mentioned this myth in the post on mead) says: “They [the dwarfs] mixed his [Kvasir’s] blood with honey, and it became the mead which makes whoever drinks of it a poet or scholar.” The syntax may be acceptable to some, but it is tense, because one expects makes whomever and whoever drinks. The blend does not contribute to the elegance of the passage, though who are you talking to? is now the norm (compare the person to whom you are talking).
Shibboleth. I received the following question: “A friend with a background in biblical studies suggests that two Hebrew words, one meaning ‘stream’ and the other ‘head of the grain’, may have been confused because of differing vowels that were not expressed orthographically, although the consonants are the same. If that explanation proves correct, then the OED reference seems more likely incorrect, insofar as the incident in Judges takes place at a crossing of the Jordan River.” The question, though not stated explicitly, pertains to the origin of the word shibboleth. Some time ago, I discussed it in a special post. Those interested in the more recent publications on shibboleth will find several references in my Bibliography of English Etymology. Everyone who has a serious interest in etymology should consult the scholarly literature on the subjects that have caught their fancy, for, as a rule, their problems are old and have been addressed more than once.
Let me repeat: penguin and jump are coming next.
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 him care of email@example.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”