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Monthly etymology gleanings for April 2014

By Anatoly Liberman


As usual, many thanks for the letters, questions, and comments. I answered some of them privately, when I thought that the material would not be interesting to most of our readers. In a few cases (and this is what I always say) I simply took the information into account. My lack of reaction should not be misunderstood for indifference or ingratitude.

Etymology and poetry


In tracing the origin of words, we often have to deal with sound symbolism and sound imitation. Sound effects are also the glue of organized speech. Old Germanic verses depended on alliteration (and were chanted), folklore is chanted all over the world, Greek, Latin, and Germanic poets distinguished between long and short syllables, and, until recently, European poetry was based on rhyme. But free verse seemingly has no phonetic foundation. Is it poetry? The question does not quite belong to this blog, so that I will confine myself to a brief response. Free verse is not devoid of a phonetic base, namely intonation. It is possible to read any piece of prose in such a way that it begins to sound like poetry. Conversely, one can read even well-organized poetry like prose. But traditional poetry, just because it used special devices, could often be attractive without being “clever,” while free verse, in order to impress, has to contain deep or original thoughts. Since few people have them and since for producing free verse one does not need any technical skills, it often degenerates into a string of trivialities parading as emotions. Paradoxically, the fewer devices poets have at their disposal, the harder it is to compose anything memorable and the poorer the outcome is. But rhyme, alliteration, assonances, and the rest do not always disguise banality. Fortunately or unfortunately, in order to produce good poetry (the same holds for any good art), one needs talent, a rare commodity, regardless of style.

Spelling problems. 


For years ingenious people have been composing sentences that can baffle spellers. This is what I found in The Spectator for 1933 (a letter to the editor):

“The following short sentences are made up of English words in common use, but I doubt if one in five of your readers would get full marks if they were given as a dictations exercise: ‘A harassed pedlar met an embarrassed saddler near a cemetery to gauge the symmetry of a lady’s ankle. The manoeuver they performed with unparalleled ecstasy’.”

Pedlar is peddler, while manoeuver lost one vowel in American English. Other than that, the exercise does not strike me as either too complicated or as a product of great wit. However, it was nice to hear that even eighty years ago at least twenty-five percent of the well-educated subscribers to The Spectator were already not fully literate. It is even nicer to  read the statement made in 1931 (another letter to the same worthy journal): “There is much to be said for the simplification of English spelling, however much it may offend the taste of lovers of English, but the world cannot wait while England sets her house in order.” Indeed it cannot; yet only the English speaking world has the authority of doing something in this area.

Grammar


A clever case of they. I am sure everything is correct in the sentence that follows, but it still sounds funny. My local newspaper has recently discussed coyotes prowling in the city. The deputy police chief said: “They’re an animal that does not like human contact.” Are analogs thinkable, for example: “They are a toy that can harm babies”?

To whom it may concern. (from News Service) “Meanwhile, Syria’s state news agency said that authorities liberated Austrian lawyer Anton Sander, whom had been held by rebels in Homs for the past four months.” Why won’t we pass a law prohibiting the form whom? Something like: “If you want to say whom, say who.”

Old languages and complexity. It was not my goal to compare the morphological complexity of Hittite (or Tocharian) and Sanskrit (Greek, Latin, Gothic). This kind of comparison is hard because a language recorded early may be more “advanced” than a language whose written monuments go back to a later date. I only wanted to point out that a hope to find simplicity in ancient languages has no foundation.

A not too primitive Hittite.
A not too primitive Hittite.
Small fry


Jixy ~ taxi. I received two responses to my note on the “jixy,” named after Joynson-Hickes. It was London cabmen who coined the word, and yes, the politician was known as Jix; hence the blend. Jixi is not only a blend of Jix and taxi but also a tribute to the popularity of this type of word formation. So those who hate the noun selfie should beware: such words have been around for a long time. Consider walkie-talkie, movie, to say nothing of Tommy, Jackie, and so forth. That the word (selfie) is inoffensive does not of course mean that the thing should be admired. But my area is language, not mores.

Speaking of words and mores: Old Engl. myltenhus “brothel.” Could this word be a reshaping of Latin multa ~ mulcta “fine, punishment” or multus “much, many”? In etymology, all kinds of things are possible. The question is how probable our solution is. According to traditional opinion, Old Engl. myltestre “prostitute” is an alteration of Latin meretrix. As I said in the post on brothel, I have no enthusiasm for this idea and prefer my own derivation (myltenhus = stew house, stews; this is, for example, what such establishments were called in Shakespeare’s days). However, it may well be that also in the seventeenth century the phrase common house meant the same (see Notes and Queries, June 2008, pp. 191-194). Perhaps in Anglo-Saxon England brothels ware also called “houses for many’’ (multi) or for the behavior that carried its own punishment, but such guesses can never be substantiated.

Wolf puns. In my previous gleanings, a picture by the great Russian artist Valentin Serov showed a wolf walking past a fence. There was a question whether I deliberately punned on the name Serov (stress on the second syllable; ser- means “gray”) and the color of the wolf, the more so as I had recently discussed the etymology of the word gray. I wish I had noticed the coincidence! No, the pun was unintentional. Other than that, Russian family names from color words are common: compare Belov, Chernov, and Krasnov, from “white,” “black,” and “red” respectively.

A final flourish.


“Mr. Snowden had an enthusiastic reception when he returned to London. He was hailed as a national hero. These revenges of time are amusing and also reassuring.” No, not our very own Snowden but Philip Snowden, the once wll-known British politician. This quotation is again from The Spectator (1929; a faithful volunteer is looking through this journal in search of materials for my etymological database, and I cannot help reading adjoining pages). But never say die! Edward Snowden was installed as Glasgow University’s rector and succeeded in this post Winnie Mandela and Mordechai Vanunu. These amusing and reassuring revenges of time… Nomen est omen.

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 articles via email or RSS.

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Image credit: Hittite orthostat – Teshub. Gaziantep, Turkey. Photo by Avi Dolgin. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 via dolgin Flickr.

Recent Comments

  1. Annie Morgan

    Family names of colours are popular in the English-speaking world too, aren’t they. I’ve often wondered why we have Black, Brown, Grey (Gray), White, and Green, but none of the bright ones. When I was a little girl (most likely long before anyone reading or writing this blog was born) I wanted to meet a Mr. Purple and have Purple children. Thank the gods I didn’t, but I still love purple, and still want to know why I’ve never come across a Mister of that name.

  2. Masha Bell

    The sentence from the spectator gives several examples of the very worst English spelling problem, namely its unpredictable use of consonant doubling:
    harassed – embarrassed, pedlar – saddler, cemetery – symmetry.

    The figures which i obtained during my analysis of the spellings of the 7,000 most used English words (give or take a few) explain why doubling causes endless difficulties for many people:
    503 words of more than one syllable have doubled consonants after their short, stressed vowels
    (e.g latter, butter, dinner) to differentiate them from ones with long vowels
    (later, cuter, diner),
    and as schoolchildren spend much time learning to do when lengthening one-syllable words with suffixes
    (slat + ed = slatted; slate + ed = slated).
    But
    554 multi-syllable are without double consonants after their short, stressed vowels
    (e.g. body, very, lateral), while
    195 have doublings which are unrelated to keeping a stressed vowel short
    (e.g. arrive – cf. arrow,arise; embassy – cf. ecstasy).

    In short, English consonant doubling is completely unsystematic. We have to learn word by word which ones have them and which don’t. The whole ‘short, closed’ and ‘long, open’ method of spelling vowels is pretty random: http://improvingenglishspelling.blogspot.co.uk/2010/06/long-and-short-vowels.html.

    Even Fowler thought that this mess was ripe for modernisation. This change alone, i.e. adopting consistent consonant doubling after short, stressed vowels (of which multi-syllable words invariably have just one) and not doubling anywhere else, would make learning to spell English much easier and less time-consuming, and reduce spelling errors enormously.

    Could we not at least begin to shed clearly totally surplus doublings, as in ‘attract’ (Spanish ‘atraer’)? If a more Latinate language like Spanish can get by perfectly well with ‘acomodacion’, does English really need ‘accommodation’?

  3. Walter Turner

    Annie, you’ve just had bad luck. I knew a Mr. Lavender. Wouldn’t that have done? The 1940 US census listed 251 people by the name Purple. They included two Rose Purples, two Blanche Purples, two Hazel Purples, a Martin Purple, a reduplicated Lilila Purple and a Fannie Purple who must have loathed alphabetization. That’s just with the English spelling. There were 145 Purpurs.

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