Monthly Gleanings: September 2011
By Anatoly Liberman
Ingle and inkling
Ingle is usually derived from Celtic. The Scots form is the same as the English one, while Irish Gaelic has aingeal. The Celtic word is a borrowing of Latin ignis “fire” (cf. Engl. ignite, ignition). Therefore, some etymologists derive Engl. ingle directly from the Latin diminutive igniculus; ingle nook gives this derivation some support. Be that as it may, no path leads from ingle to inkling.
Coleslaw, its origin
Coleslaw came to us from Dutch via American English. Dutch kool means “cabbage” (cf. German Kohl, known to most as the family name of Helmut Kohl, the Chancellor of Germany, 1982-1998), while Dutch sla is the common colloquial form of salade “salad.” Thus, the etymon is koolsla. It is unclear why the second element of coleslaw rhymes with haw, paw, raw, rather than with spa. Words like spa are rare in Modern English; outside baa-baa, blah-blah-blah, bah and their ilk they are exotic borrowings (ah sounds more natural in the unstressed syllables of names like Sarah, Hannah, and so forth, including Monty Python’s Peckinpah). The change from ah to aw may have been the result of the word’s domestication. Or do we owe the shape of the vowel to the Midwesterners, in whose speech Shaw is indistinguishable from Shah?
Salad days, its origin
The link from coleslaw to salad needs no justification. Since the phrase has not been found before Cleopatra, or rather Shakespeare, used it (“My salad days, / When I was green, cold in blood”; Anthony and Cleopatra, 1606), it has been ascribed to him. Green evokes the idea of spring, youth, and inexperience. Compare greenhorn (though a young bull’s horns are really green, just as young creatures are really wet behind the ears, or so I understand). We know who coined the phrase, but we cannot answer the question why Shakespeare used salad, rather than lettuce, in it. Possibly, he meant not only the color of salad, which, in English at any rate, is the name of a dish, not of a vegetable. From contemporary literature one can cite the title of Joseph Cronin’s novel The Green Years; however, green has multiple connotations in it. Salad days is a so-called familiar quotation and thus should be avoided, along with all such hackneyed phrases that add a fake air of gentility to one’s speech but in reality betray the speaker’s lazy mind.
Sanction “punishment” and “encouragement”
How can two opposite meanings coexist in one word? Nowadays we mainly hear and see the first sense of sanction(s), but to sanction something still means “to authorize, ratify it.” The ambiguity already existed in French, from which English borrowed the noun. There, sanction denoted an authoritative approval of a law and penalty prescribed in an enactment. French inherited the double meaning from Latin. The root of the word is sanct- “saint, holy.” In Rome, sanctio referred to an act of establishing something as inviolable under a penalty. The law was wise and included a mechanism for enforcing it.
Silent b in climb and related matters
I don’t think the loss of b in pronunciation depends on the use of -ing after climb, as Mr. Cowan suggests (if I understand his comment correctly). Climbing cannot have been more frequent than the finite forms of climb, while lamb, thumb, comb, and others were surely used more often that lambing, thumbing, and combing. In -mb, with its two voiced labial consonants in succession, b is shed not only in English. Parallel to this phenomenon is the insertion of parasitic p after m, as in empty, sumpter “packhorse,” and words like Humpty-Dumpty and umpteen. Another correspondent cited the obsolete verb limn “draw, paint, portray,” pronounced like limb. Limn sides with damn, condemn, solemn, and others. Final n did not fare too well even in kiln: in some people’s speech kiln is indistinguishable from kill.
An extreme case of the who / whom confusion
We are accustomed to sentences like: “Everything depends on whom will be elected.” Instead of allowing the pronoun to serve as the subject of the subordinate clause, it is made to depend on the preposition preceding it. The confusion of who and whom is at least as old as the hills of America. By this time many people use whom in all situations. Yet the following sample (from a letter to the editor) stands out: “‘Equal rights’ is a radical concept. It means that no matter whom you are or what your gender identity, sexual preferences or religious faith may be, you can participate fully in public life.” As I know from experience, letters to newspapers are edited for content, but perhaps it is not considered proper to edit them for style. Conversely, the editor may have seen nothing wrong in “no matter whom you are.”
The subjunctive in British English
I am grateful to Mr. Michael Lamb, who, although he watches with amusement my struggle with linguistic windmills, agreed to comment on the use of if we would have been in power. It appears that careful speakers across the ocean react to such forms without enthusiasm but without active resentment. The origin of this subjunctive in present day English cannot be established with certainty. In popular speech, the form may have led an underground existence for a long time. Such explosions are always “sudden.” As a parallel, I may refer to an example from Skeat, who grew up in London, and, according to whom, one barely ever heard kite for Kate in the years of his youth, while in 1899 (the date of the note) one could hardly hear anything else. His observation is, of course, also valid for our time. If one has to change trains at eight o’clock, one invariably hears long i in all three words. This is the ultimate triumph of Cockney phonetics. If we would have been in power may be a phenomenon of the same type (toyp). Assuming this to be the case, British English has met its Shakespearean past and American pronunciation (which is more or less the same thing). With regard to both sounds and forms, Shakespeare may have felt more comfortable in Ohio than in today’s Stratford-on-Avon. Whether he would have enjoyed life in Ohio is not for us to decide. One can write sonnets anywhere.
The origin of ship (an answer to a comment)
Here are my reasons for questioning the native origin of ship. 1) We do not know what vessels were called ship when the word came into being. As evidenced by Old Norse, some cognates of Latin navis existed in Germanic, but they receded into the mythological sphere or at least became archaic. I assume that ship could not have been coined too early, and I doubt that it designated a primitive dugout. After all, for dugouts we probably have the word boat (to which the next post will be devoted). Nor am I convinced that old ships (those that speakers called ships) were covered by skins, as Jost Trier suggested. He did not refer to any linguistic or archeological data. Some Mediterranean ships were covered with wickerwork, but none of the Germanic ships known to us bears the slightest resemblance to such vessels. And if the vessels called ships were meant for navigating seas, they were anything but canoes, kayaks, or pirogues. 2) All the obviously related verbs (Old Icelandic skipa and skipta, to name the two most important ones) mean “organize, arrange,” and the like. Cautious authors add probably, before glossing them as “cut, carve.” The only related verbs with the meaning “carve, cut” occur in Latvian and Lithuanian. One could have expected some such forms closer to home. The age of the Baltic senses is, naturally, unknown. The history of make shows how careful one should be in dealing with words of this semantic sphere. 3) I don’t see why those who allegedly coined skip- should have used a different grade of ablaut attested in the related verb (forgetting for the moment about the difference in meaning). This type of derivation is possible, but it is not the one we would predict. Compare the origin of spoon. The earliest spoons were made of wood, and the word for “wooden chip, splinter” is in full view, having the same grade of ablaut as spoon (the meaning developed by a well-known process: from “material” to “a thing made of or from it).” 4) Given the obscurity of the Germanic maritime vocabulary, a paradoxical situation has arisen. It is more natural to posit borrowing (not necessarily from the mysterious substrate) than a native origin, and those who opt for a Germanic etymology of ship are expected to produce truly convincing arguments to the opposite side. Two Baltic verbs cannot tip the scale. 5) The latest etymological dictionary of Dutch, to which our correspondent refers, is not the most inspiring reference book I have used in my work.
Where did Germanic-speakers come from?
Unlike Mr. Cowan, scholars are not certain how to answer this question. The ethnogenesis of hardly any old nation has been ascertained to everybody’s satisfaction. This is not the place to discuss such a complicated question, but I would like to cite a characteristic example. The Goths preserved the memory of migrating from Scandinavia (history finds them on the shores of the Black Sea). A few linguistic features seem to confirm that legend, though this evidence is less impressive than philologists contended a century ago. Place names also seem to point in the direction of Scandinavia, but archeologists failed to find traces of massive migrations from the north at the time suggested by the Gothic historian Jordanes. As a result, the riddle remains unsolved. The prehistory of all Germanic speakers is, obviously, more complicated than that of a single tribe.
“I hear cooking shows use the word decadent to describe their delicious food, but decadent comes from decay. Ick!” Ick indeed. Fortunately, we do not have to remember the origin of the words we use. The term decadence was coined by the opponents of new art (it was new in the second half of the 19th century), with its cult of artificial beauty, and later adopted gleefully by the “decadents” themselves. Ever since that time decadent has been used as a synonym for “sumptuous; luxuriously self-indulgent; meeting the highest aesthetic criteria.” The New Oxford American Dictionary gives a curious example (at decadence). “‘French’ connotes richness and decadence, and that’s the idea of this ice-cream.” In the mind of many, French stands for “depravity,” for which reason they enviously adore it. Anyway, be grateful that those shows do not call their dishes tantalizing, which would mean that you will see but never be able to touch them (another popular epithet in advertising the wonders of the American cuisine).
Enjoy a truly decadent ice cream, a mountain of cholesterol and beauty (this is what decadence really means).
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.”