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Etymology gleanings for November 2013

By Anatoly Liberman


Brave and its aftermath.
During the month of November, the main event in the uneventful life of the Oxford Etymologist (in this roundabout way I refer to myself) has been the controversy around the origin of bravus, the etymon of bravo ~ brave. When this blog was launched on 1 March 2006, the hope was that it would become a forum for all those who are interested in word origins. Since that memorable day in March, I have not missed a single Wednesday, so that by now I can view the undulating landscape behind me with its pinnacles and pits with a measure of objectivity (the topic inspired me to use as many Romance words as I could remember).

Anyone who will search the Internet will discover that etymological blogs are numerous. We are not in competition: the more sources of reliable information, the better. This blog has its own readership and enjoys the popularity it deserves. My formulation is intentionally vague, because it is not for me to assess the dimensions of its popularity. The topics that have attracted the greatest attention over six and a half years are smut, slang, and spelling (the alliteration is unintentional)—a worthy but limited repertoire, and I try not to beat a willing horse to death. People ask questions of the type “Where did such and such a word come from?” Some of those inquisitive people go beyond queries, and their comments are always welcome. A letter from England gave me the idea to add pictures to the text, and so it has been ever since. A recent post, with an applauding audience, reflects my dream: the world in raptures after discovering this blog. I have once referred to the sin of self-love (the phrase is from Shakespeare) and am shyly doing so again.

Along the way I have made my fair share of mistakes. They have always been noticed by our correspondents and corrected. Some time ago, I read that on a medal coined in the Vatican Jesus’s name was misspelled as Lesus. The official confronted by the irate public responded that everybody makes mistakes, and he was quite right, for what else could he say? With such a precedent I feel somewhat more at ease. Occasionally I learn from comments by other bloggers that the etymologies I offer are shockingly superficial or unpardonably wrong. I prostrate myself in humility, mindful of the Russian proverb that the sword does not cut off a repentant head. 

But sometimes, the criticism of what I say happens to be constructive, and I cannot wish for a better reward. This is what happened when Stephen Goranson expressed his strong disagreement with my treatment of kibosh. At one time, I fought the idea of the early origin of the plural in sentences like when a student comes to see me, I never make them wait and found the ensuing discussion productive. (Some results of this stultification are truly enjoyable. A student informs me: “I wanted to make an appointment with John and see if they may be able to look over my paper.” John’s last name is not Jekyll, and he does not suffer from the split personality disorder. Compare the end of this post.) And now I owe to Peter Maher’s remarks on the history of brave my renewed familiarity with his old book and my awakened interest in this word. My database has become twenty items richer. Those include some of Maher’s early articles and everything I could find on the etymology of brave, even though, as I have mentioned before, I try to avoid Romance words. This is an ideal case. Now everyone who wants to know how the adjective brave arose can turn to the sources and judge for him- or herself. I can only hope for more of such interventions.

Should Dr. Jekyll come, never make them wait.
Should Dr. Jekyll come, never make them wait.
Miscellaneous notes


Swedish bra “goodand Greek nectar.
Yes, bra is related to Scots braw (see my previous gleanings), and yes, I know the works Peter Maher mentioned in his comment on nectar, and a few more. Nektar är bra.

Gobsmacked (an unsolicited explanation in answer to the use of this word by Annie Morgan, our staunchest supporter).
I think gob means the same as gab in the phrase the gift of the gab, that is, “mouth”; so that to be gobsmacked is tantamount to being struck on the mouth; hence to be in a state of shock (flabbergasted).

Can repeating work it over and over again lead one to say twerk?
It probably can, but this origin of twerk, despite the “symbolic” connection between the word and the movement, seems unlikely. The existence of blends is in general hard to prove.

Minotaur (in the picture illustrating the blog on the verb amaze).
The creature in the picture is indeed half-bull, half-man, and Mollymooly clarified the situation in the best way possible. See his comment on that blog. I can only add that the belief in theriomorphic (divine or semi-divine) creatures has been attested in many cultures. Centaurs are half-men, half-horses, the Sphinx is half-lioness, half-woman, and the ancient gods who were later represented as being attended by animals (Athena and her owl, Zeus and his eagle, and others) were at one time hybrids of human-looking deities and beasts or birds, such as the Egyptian god Thoth. Zeus Lycaeus returns us to the times when he was worshiped in wolf shape. The tales explaining the name were invented in retrospect, like all etiological tales. The same holds for the Germanic gods. Thus, Odin seems to have once been venerated as a horse god, and not the world tree but he himself was Ygg-drasill “terrible horse.”

Why, when we are highly amused, do we say that we are in stitches?
Obviously, the reference, as our correspondent suggested, is to laughing so hard that one feels pain (“stitches”) in the side. The problem with this idiom (now mainly or only in the phrase to keep somebody in stitches) is not its origin but its sudden revival. It has been traced to Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, and then it reemerged in the twentieth century. Was it done in direct imitation of Shakespeare? Probably so. I cannot imagine that the phrase lay dormant for several hundred years and then resurfaced in colloquial usage. Slang words may have such history, but in stitches is not particularly slangy, just colorful. The amazing thing is that, once used, it has caught on and is now universally understood.

Naves, ships, and stables.
Nave, in church architecture, goes back to Latin navis “ship,” but there is no certainty whether the association that gave rise to this word is visual (the main part of a big church is elongated and looks like a ship) or spiritual (a ship of salvation, Noah’s Ark, or Jesus’s ship immune to storms). Our constant reader and correspondent Mr. John Larsson suggests that nave comes from shipbuilding. He also mentions the fact that in Västergötland (Sweden) big pig stables are called skepp, that is, “ships.” This is an interesting observation, to which I should add that skepp “stable” reminds me of English dialectal shippen (a word going back to Old Engl. scyppen) “shed, cowshed,” related to shop. Dictionaries give no Scandinavian cognates of shop ~ shippen, so that, most probably, I have succeeded only in muddying the waters, and skepp “pig stable” means just what it seems to be saying (“a ship”).

Another split personality.
Another split personality.

There is only one mayor in Toronto, but….
The vocabulary surrounding Rob Ford in press releases has been reduced to two items: hammered and in a drunken stupor. But three sheets in the wind or sober as a judge (mayor?), he knows his plurals. On discovering that he has been stripped of some of his powers, he said “in a flash of remorse”: “If I would have had a mayor conducting themselves the way I have, I would have done exactly the same thing.” Bravo!

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 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.

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Image credit: (1) Title page of the first London edition of Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886). Public domain via Wikimedia Commons. (2) A figure of Thoth carved on the back of the throne of the seated statue of Rameses II. Photo by Jon Bodsworth, 12 November 2006, the Egypt Archive. Copyrighted free use via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. Michael Lamb

    “At one time, I fought the idea of the early origin of the plural in sentences like ‘when a student comes to see me, I never make them wait’ and found the ensuing discussion productive.”

    That might mean that you no longer fight it, but I doubt it. If you mean on one occasion, it would have been nice to have a link, as I only have a vague recollection of the discussion. I do seem to remember that at some point in that or another discussion I expressed dismay at your entrenched position on this useful common-gender pronoun. In anything but hard-line prescriptive terms it does look increasingly untenable.

    On the other hand I would fight with you to the last ditch against such shambolic use of language as “I wanted to make an appointment with John and see if they may be able to look over my paper.” There does have to be a common-gender or indeterminate element to the anaphora, such as anyone, each, etc., or a person, student, or for that matter a mayor!

    Even the mayor’s use of the plural reflexive is of venerable antiquity (OED THEMSELVES, pron. 6), though I share your distaste for it. But in railing against ramifications of it I have been hearing all my life, such as “someone’s going to fall down those stairs and break their necks” I have been no less quixotic than you.

    If we were all more accepting of singular “they” and “them”, perhaps the merits of “themself” (OED THEMSELF, pron. 3b) might become more apparent.

  2. John Cowan

    Indefinite, indefinite, indefinite. That’s when anglophones use singular they.

    Of course, none of us have a problem with singular you any more.

  3. [...] Plural they with a singular antecedent [...]

  4. Peter Maher

    “American speakers who are thirty-five years old and younger have been taught to speak and write so and look upon such constructions as correct. Wrong. The school does not teach us to speak so; we do what comes natcherly. I was born in 1933. The Politically Correct feel compelled to say “he or she” and do so sometimes when only males are referred to. My wife, an Austrian, started speking English in 1961: She detested the NEW “he or she” nonsense. Another example: “African American’ instead of Black, even when the Black people referred are not American. E.g. movie director Steve Mcqueen (Britisher). And “On his birth certificate in 1927, Belafonte [Jamaican] said, he had been described as ‘colored’. Not long after that I became a Negro. Then I became black. Now I’m an African-American.”

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