Etymological gleanings for October 2013
By Anatoly Liberman
Touch and go.
I asked our correspondents whether anyone could confirm or disprove the nautical origin of the idiom touch and go. This is the answer I received from Mr. Jonathan H. Saunders: “As a Merchant Mariner I have used and heard this term for over thirty years. We use this term… to describe a quick port call, whether to take or discharge cargo or personal provisions, fuel, etc.” This comment sounds very much like the much earlier one I quoted in my post. However, we still do not know whether the idiom was coined by sailors or appropriated by them.
Our correspondent (he will remain anonymous because he has given only his first name) wonders whether, considering the popularity of Dutch nautical terms, capuzar could have come to Spain by way of Dutch, which has kapseizen. Is it Dutch into English or English into Dutch? Nothing is known about the history of this verb, which suddenly became popular in the eighteenth century, but Dutch etymologists are certain that its source is English, though in English it may be of Romance origin.
Italian aregna and Engl. ring (in boxing, etc.).
Is this meaning of the English word of Italian origin? I don’t think so. In Italian, gn signifies palatalized n, so that the real comparison is between Latin arena (from harena) and Engl. ring (from hrengaz). But the question was about Dante’s phrase entrare nell’ aringo rimaso, which (I am quoting the letter of our correspondent) “can be translated as ‘re-enter the ring.’ I am guessing that aringo rimaso is from Latin harena remensa, i.e. newly laid out sand. That suggests to me that the ring in boxing ring, circus ring, etc. has its origins in Italian and not the Germanic hringr.” This derivation seems unlikely for two reasons. First, the earliest citation in the OED of ring with reference to boxing does not antedate the beginning of the nineteenth century. Second, despite Dante’s spelling aringo, this word could never be pronounced with the g-sound, while the Germanic word always had g in ring. Also, it is hard to imagine why such a word should have been borrowed by English boxers from Italian. The coincidence is curious, but this is as far as it goes.
Scots bra, Engl. brave, and Latin pravus “ferocious.”
Scots bra is certainly related to Engl. brave. It is even believed to represent a local pronunciation of brave. The closest analog would then be Swedish bra “good.” The Romance etymon was bravus. The rest is less clear. All the authoritative dictionaries trace bravus to Latin barbarus (“foreign, barbarous,” hence “wild,” with more or less predictable shifts of meaning). Pravus “ferocious” has been mentioned more than once in discussion of brave. However, no one could explain away the change from b to p, so that the comparison has been abandoned. The existing etymology is far from perfect (it presupposes the reduction from barbarus to brabrus, brabus, and finally to bravus) but may be more realistic than the shorter leap from pravus to bravus.
Why is not unihorn? Because its etymon is Latin unicornis. The Latin for horn is cornu (as in cornucopia), with cornu being not only a gloss for but a cognate of horn.
Why dragon, if the Latin form is draco? Old English borrowed the Latin word with the predictable consonant in the middle, and drake (not related to drake “the male of the duck”) had a long history in English. Dutch draak and German Drache are easily recognizable cognates. In several Romance languages, k in this word became g, and Middle English took over this later form from Old French. Dragon supplanted drake, so that a rift appeared between it and the Latin (and Greek) etymon, but, by way of compensation, it aligned itself with its Romance siblings. Those interested in further ramifications are welcome to trace the history of Engl. dragoon. (I have also been asked about the origin of centaur. The word is from Latin, but its distant origin remains a matter of dispute.)
Ludic in English.
This word, borrowed from Modern French and meaning “of undirected or spontaneous playful activity,” was, according to the OED, coined by or at least had its earlier currency among psychologists, and in English it does not predate the late thirties. Unlike rare ludicrous, it is still rare (the root is the same; Latin ludus means “play, game, joke”). Specialists in the humanities know the term thanks to Homo Ludens, Johan Huizinga’s much-read and often-quoted 1938 book on the play element of culture.
Culottes, sans culottes, and related matters.
See the comment by J. Peter Maher on the first October post in this blog. You will learn that being “sans culottes” did not mean being without trousers. The picture accompanying the present post will dispel all doubts on this score.
I once wrote a post on Rotten Row. In the middle of August, I received a letter dealing with place names beginning with Rotten, Ratten, Rooten, and Rowton. They occur in locations where vaccaries (cattle farms) occupied the hillside and where the presence of great quantities of rats was unlikely. In my post, I cited the opinion that Rotten ~ Ratten Row was originally a place infested with rats. Our correspondent, Mr. John Davis, suggested that the place names had something to do with raising cattle or oxen (the business of the vaccaries). He also wrote: “…there are three places in Fife with Routine Rows. I don’t know if there were vacccaries in Fife, but cattle were big business for the Scots from medieval times onwards.”
My attempts to shed light on this question were of no avail (and I suspected this result from the start, but at least I tried). Those who will take the trouble to read or reread the post on Rotten Row will see that I knew about the existence of many Rotten Rows (and not only of the famous one in Hyde Park) but refrained from any conclusions. The origin of place names is a branch of etymology in which I am not a specialist. The easily available dictionaries supply no information. I can only say that quite often similar, almost identical place names go back to different etymons. There is no absolute certainty that all the names mentioned in Mr. Davis’s letter have the same origin. Rotten can of course be the product of folk etymology. The same holds for Ratten, with its reference to rats. If someone among our readers has hypotheses on this score, they will be most welcome.
Herring and sieve in the Scandinavian languages.
This is another echo of an old post. Norwegian has sil “sieve,” sil “lesser sand eel,” or “sand lance” (this is the fish the Germans call Tobiasfisch), and sild “herring.” In sil, the vowel is long and l is short. By contrast, in sild, in which d is mute, the vowel is short but l is long. In Old Icelandic, “herring” was sild (with both consonants pronounced), while the “sand lance” was síl (long i, short l). Even the relationship between the two fish names is disputable (though one of the best dictionaries says that they are undoubtedly akin, but the adverb undoubtedly occurs in etymological works only when there is serious doubt). Although the origin of sild “herring” poses problems, it cannot be a congener of sil “sieve,” which is related to German Seihe (the same meaning) and goes back to some form like sihila-. The verb related to it meant “to sift, strain.” And since I keep referring to my old posts (not a big surprise: there have been more than four hundred of them), I can mention my discussion of the idiom it is raining cats and dogs. The first component of Norwegian silregn (sil) “violent shower,” most probably, is cognate with sil “sieve” (and to the verb sile, one of whose senses is “to pour down with rain”; in Swedish and Danish, its cognates refer to straining and drizzling!).
Finally, I was very pleased to see both quotations from Oscar Wilde identified, and considering that the first one was from The Canterville Ghost and that the time is apt, I wish our readers a spooky and joyful Halloween.
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 on the OUPblog each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to him care of email@example.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.” Subscribe to Anatoly Liberman’s weekly etymology posts via email or RSS.