Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Monthly etymology gleanings for January 2013, part 1

By Anatoly Liberman


Last time I was writing my monthly gleanings in anticipation of the New Year. January 1 came and went, but good memories of many things remain. I would like to begin this set with saying how pleased and touched I was by our correspondents’ appreciation of my work, by their words of encouragement, and by their promise to go on reading the blog in the future. Writing weekly posts is a great pleasure. Knowing that one’s voice is not lost in the wilderness doubles and trebles this pleasure.

Week and Vikings.
After this introduction it is only natural to begin the first gleanings of 2013 with the noun week. Quite some time ago, I devoted a special post to it. Later the root of week turned up in the post on the origin of the word Viking, and it was Viking that made our correspondent return to week. My ideas on the etymology of week are not original. In the older Germanic languages, this noun did not mean “a succession of seven days.” The notion of such a unit goes back to the Romans and ultimately to the Jewish calendar. The Latin look-alike of Gothic wiko, Old Engl. wicu, and so forth was a feminine noun, whose nominative, if it existed, must have had the form vix. Since the phrase for “in the order of his course” (Luke I: 8) appears in Latin as in ordine vicis suae and in Gothic as in wikon kunjis seinis, some people (the great Icelandic scholar Guðbrandur Vigfússon among them) made the wrong conclusion that the Germanic word was borrowed from Latin. In English, the root of vix can be seen in vicar (an Anglo-French word derived from Latin vicarius “substitute, deputy”), vicarious, vicissitude, vice (as in Vice President), and others, while week is native. Its distant origin is disputed and need not delay us here. Rather probably, German Wechsel (from wehsal) “exchange” belongs here. Among the old cognates of week we find Old Icelandic vika, which also had the sense “sea mile,” and this is where Viking may come in. “Change, succession, recurrent period” and “sea mile” suggest that the oldest Vikings (in the beginning, far from being sea robbers and invaders) were called after “shift, a change of oarsmen.” But many other hypotheses pretend to explain the origin of Viking, and a few of them are not entirely implausible.

The present perfect.
More recently, while discussing suppletive forms, I mentioned in passing that the difference between tenses can become blurred and that for some people did you put the butter in the refrigerator? and have you put the butter in the refrigerator? mean practically the same. This remark inspired two predictable comments. The vagaries of the present perfect also turned up in one of my recent posts and also caused a ripple of excitement, especially among the native speakers of Swedish. As with week and Viking, I’ll repeat here only my basic explanation. In Germanic, the perfect tenses developed in the full light of history, and in British English a good deal seems to have changed since the days of Shakespeare, that is, the time when the first Europeans settled in the New World. To put it in a nutshell, there was much less of the present perfect in the sixteenth and the seventeenth century than in the nineteenth. In the use of this tense English, wherever it is spoken, went its own way. For instance, one can say in Icelandic (I’ll provide a verbatim translation): “We spent a delightful summer together in 1918, and at that time we have seen so many interesting places together!” The perfect foregrounds the event and makes it part of the present. In English, the present perfect cannot be used so. Only a vague reference to the days gone by will tolerate the present perfect, as in: “This has happened more than once in the past and is sure to happen again.” Therefore, I was surprised to see Cuthbert Bede (alias Edward Bradley) write in The Adventures of Mr Verdant Green: “Who knows? for dons are also mortals, and have been undergraduates once” (the beginning of Chapter 4). In my opinion, have been and once do not go together. If I am wrong, please correct me.

However, in my next pronouncement I am certainly right. British English has regularized the use of the present perfect: “I have just seen him,” “I have never read Fielding,” and so on. I mentioned in my original post that, when foreigners are taught the difference between the simple past (the so-called past indefinite) and the present perfect, they are usually shown a picture of a weeping or frightened child looking at the fragments on the floor and complaining to a grownup: “I have broken a plate!” American speakers are not bound by this usage: “I just saw him. He left,” “I never read Fielding and know no one who did,” while a child would cry: “Mother, I broke a plate!” A British mother may be really cross with the miscreant, whereas an American one may be mad at the child, but their reaction has nothing to do with grammar. Our British correspondent says that he makes a clear distinction between did you and have you put the butter in the refrigerator, while his American wife does not and prefers did you. This is exactly what could be expected. My British colleague, who has not changed his accent the tiniest bit after decades of living in Minneapolis and being married to an American, must have unconsciously modified his usage. I have been preoccupied with the perfect for years, and once, when we were discussing these things, he said, with reference to the present perfect, that during his recent stay in England, his interlocutor remarked drily: “You have lived in America too long.”

Blessedly cursed? Tamara and Demon. Ill to Lermontov’s poem by Mikhail Vrubel’, 1890. (Tretiakov gallery.) Demon and Tamara are the protagonists in the poem by Mikhail Lermontov (1814-1841). The poem is famous in Russia; there is an opera on its plot; several translations into English, including one by Anatoly Liberman, exist; and Vrubel’ was obsessed by this work.
Suppletive girls and wives.
In discussing suppletive forms (go/went, be/am/is/are, and others), I wrote that, although we have pairs like actor/actress and lion/lioness, we are not surprised that boy and girl are not derived from the same root. I should have used a more cautious formulation. First, I was asked about man and woman. Yes, it is true that woman goes back to wif-man, but, in Old English, man meant “person,” while “male” was the result of later specialization, just as in Middle High German man had the senses “man, warrior, vassal,” and “lover.” Wifman meant “female person.” The situation is more complicated with boys and girls. Romance speakers will immediately remember (as did our correspondent, a native speaker of Portuguese) Italian fanciullo (masculine) ~ fanciulla (feminine) and the like. In Latin, such pairs also existed (puellus and puella). But I don’t think that fanciulla and puella were formed from funciullo and puellus: they are rather parallel forms. But I am grateful for being reminded of such pairs; they certainly share the same root.

Lewis Carroll’s name.
I think the information provided by Stephen Goranson is sufficient to conclude that the Dodgson family pronounced their family name as Dodson, and this confirms my limited experience with the people called Dodgson and Hodgson.

PS. At my recent talk show on Minnesota Public Radio, which was devoted to overused words, I received a long list of nouns, adjectives, and verbs that our listeners hate. I will discuss them and answer more questions next Wednesday. But one question has been sitting on my desk for two months, and I cannot find any information on it. Here is the question: “I was wondering if you knew what the Latin and Italian translations would be of the term blessedly cursed? I know this is not a common phrase, but I would think that there would be a translation for it.” Latin is tough, but our correspondents from Italy may know the equivalent. Their help will be greatly appreciated.

To be continued.

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 blog@oup.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”

Subscribe to Anatoly Liberman’s weekly etymology posts via email or RSS.
Subscribe to the OUPblog via email or RSS.

Recent Comments

  1. Annie Morgan

    Dear Dr Liberman,

    The use of the perfect tense seems so much to depend on the words that follow, spoken or unspoken. I agree that ‘once’ does not follow the perfect tense, but the refrigerator sentence can be a real stickler, to my way of thinking.

    My take on ‘did you put the butter in the fridge’ is that the unspoken words might be ‘after you cleared the table’. ‘Have you put the butter in the fridge’ would need to be followed with ‘yet’, leading to more words like “well, don’t please, I still need some”.

    I belong to a chat group whose members are predominantly in the United States, with one member having been brought up in England until the mid-50’s, and so in the paragraphs written by the US folk there is, to my way of thinking, some pretty awkward grammar, most of the writers avoiding the use of the perfect tense almost entirely. My English-born friend and I have more haves and hases in our paragraphs than anyone else!

    However, after my immediate response to all this, I began to feel like the centipede who tumbled into the ditch and when she recovered, could not remember which leg came after which. The use of the perfect tense is so instinctive that I have begun to think of it as almost idiomatic…no doubt quite incorrectly, but there you are.

    Blessings for continuing with your so very interesting, informative and utterly delightful blog.

    (sorry if this came twice – my server is not behaving well and says one thing while doing another)

  2. Tom Edwards

    Once we have been corrected we can change our minds, but I agree, “have been” and “once” do not go together – at least not in that way.

  3. Ian Bauckham

    A fantastic blog and I was fascinated by the ‘week/vix’ exploration. On the present perfect, I always teach foreigners (and this applies to British not American usage) that if you are stil inside the timeframe you have in mind, whether explicitly or not, you use the perfect, whereas if you are outside that timeframe you use the preterite. So ‘I have read three books this year’ implies ‘so far this year’ with more of the year to go, whereas ‘I read three books this year’ implies that you are now at the end of this year, just as if you put in ‘last year’ it can only be ‘I read three books last year’. That explains why ‘once’ can only go with the preterite as it indicates that you are outside any timeframe you might have in mind. This way of conceptualising it helps English learners and helps then to see the subtle difference in meaning between eg ‘I went shopping today’ and ‘I have been shopping today’. One situated you at a different point in the day to the other.

  4. [...] I am picking up where I left off a week ago. [...]

  5. [...] present perfect. The comment of our correspondent reflects the classic rule: this tense allows the speaker to include a past action in the present [...]

  6. Nick

    Finch theory – use of the diminutive in English

    One aspect of the English language which baffled me for many years, until I came up with a solution, was the use of the sibilant forms. These I describe as follows; “sh” as in ship, “ch” as in chip, “j” as in gypsy, and “zh” as in vision. The problem is this:
    If English came from invaders from surrounding countries, how do we have these forms of consonants, when the surrounding countries don’t use them? The Welsh language doesn’t use any of these, and they are not really part of Dutch usage. French and German use only 2 of 4, Danish perhaps just the “sh”.

    But when I say that they are not part of Dutch, there is an exception in what is known as the diminutive, ‘t verkleinwoord. It is ubiquitous in the vernacular press and news. Almost any noun can be formed into its diminutive by the addition of -je or -tje, or sometimes -etje, depending on the original word ending, producing the “ch” sound at the end. So, for example, a man can be turned into a “little man” by writing “mannetje”. This form can be used to indicate a familiar item as opposed to a small one, so that mannetje could indicate a male animal, a dog rather than a bitch. All of these diminutive words are neuter in gender, so that in the case of “mannetje” this represents a neuter male animal. Confused? So am I.

    So it’s a modern Dutch idiom, why should we be bothered? Because it also occurs in German with “Männchen”, and in Frysk. So it’s clearly been around for a long time. But it won’t be found in old documents because it’s a slang form. And it’s not used in English, but….

    It was that little bird in the garden that finally convinced me that we have it, and just how extensively it is used in English. The chaffinch is seen as the commonest bird in Britain, and probably in most of Northern Europe. The brightly coloured male bird can be seen and heard in our gardens giving his alarm call “fink, fink, fink” but never “finch”. The Germans call him “fink” and the Dutch “vink”, just as he says, so why do we say finch?

    Because he is small and familiar, he readily attracts the diminutive, so I could write in Dutch “het vinkje” to produce the sound finch. When looking through old texts and trying to understand how words were pronounced in olden times, we have no idea. But I can be confident that the call that this small bird makes has not changed in the last 2000 years. That is why this bird was crucial in forming the theory.

    At this point I started to look for more words that could be diminutive forms. One problem that it resolved for me was that of the town of Brigg. It was obviously named because it was a bridge, the only one for miles around, so why is it spelt so? If we look in the Domesday Book there are a lot of places which have a name which currently ends in -bridge, but in Domesday they are mostly written as -brige or -bruge. Did people pronounce it differently in 1086, or should we see -brige pronounced as bridge? The answer to the first part is that by far the majority of places were pronounced in 1086 exactly as they are today. But we can see from the Dutch “brug” and the German “brücke” that the original word was brig or brug, so that a main large bridge would be written as brig, as in the town Brigg, and a small village bridge would take the diminutive form as in Dutch becomes “bruggetje”. Since in many English dialects the word bridge is pronounced without any audible vowel, it’s easy to see “bruggetje” reducing to bridge. I see the word bridge as being derived from an unrecorded form “beruggen”, to form a bridge; one can visualise a person on their hands and knees, where their back forms the platform of the bridge. We do not use the word “rug/rück” for back in modern English, but we have the word ridge which is another diminutive formed from this original word.

    Thus when the Domesday recorder, or his local advisor, hears a village name ending with “-bridge”, it can be recognised as a diminutive, a slang form, so that the original word “brige” can be used. It must also be noted that Domesday was written in Latin, to be read by non English speakers. The four sibilant forms which I mentioned earlier are not used in Greek, and in my view are not a part of classical Latin, so a diminutive form could not be allowed to stand in a Latin document.

    A similar situation occurs with names ending with -ditch. The 2 words dyke and ditch have survived alongside each other since ancient times. The Dutch word “dijk” now has a slightly different meaning, but the common intention of a man made structure is preserved, and produces the English verb dig. One example from Domesday is Ditchford, which is written as DICFORD. Here again the slang diminutive has been recognised and reduced to its original form.

    Another word which is useful to follow, because we can trace its history, is church. Like most words in the Christian religion church is derived from Greek, the original language of the written Gospels. These tell us that the Apostles referred to Jesus as Kyrios, Κυρισς, meaning Master or Lord, which becomes translated into Latin as Dominus. The adjective form of the word is kyriakos, κυριακός, so we have today the Greek word Kyriakee, Κυριακή, for Sunday, and Keerykas, Κήρυκας, for preacher. As the religion became widely adopted first by the Franks in the sixth century, and later by the English in the seventh, it seems quite practical that they used the word kerk/kirk for their place of worship, in contrast to the ekkleesia, εκκλησία, close out, word used in Rome. The main established churches of their rulers in the main cities would be Kerk, and the smaller villages would use the diminutive form “kerkje”. This gives us the final “ch” of church. For the first “ch” we need to see how words like Latin “castra” becomes “chester” in English, but in Welsh remains without the “ch” as “caer”. One comparison is the Frysk language version “tsjerk” and its diminutive form “tsjerkje” which is pronounced almost the same as church. And who was the first man to build the “tsjerkjes” for the Frisians? St.Willibrord, an Englishman.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *