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Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Monthly etymology gleanings for May 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.

Spelling Reform

As could be expected, the question about what to do with spelling has attracted considerable attention. I view our discussion with a measure of wistful concern. If a miracle happened and tomorrow someone said that society wants to reform English spelling, we would begin fighting among ourselves and never come to an agreement. We would behave like all revolutionaries in the world: there would be Bolsheviks/Montagnards (“All at once,” “Off with his/her head,” and the Kingdom of Heaven on earth built according to the first five-year plan), Mensheviks/Girondists, and the rest. In this discussion I represent only myself and prefer to stick to several propositions, not because they are supported by some profound linguistic theory, but because in all scholarly work I am more interested in results than in methodology, though I understand that without methodology there can be no results. This attitude comes from observing half a century of linguistic research, mighty long on theory and woefully short on memorable achievements, except for producing an army of tenured faculty.

So here are my propositions.

  1. The public will not accept a radical break with the past, so that, if we hope to get anywhere, we should work out a step-by-step plan and try to implement the reform gradually. I witnessed the fury of the opponents of a moderate spelling reform in Germany and the horror of the conservatives when a couple of hyphens were introduced in Russia about fifty years ago. “Step by step” should be defined. I only say: “Look well, O Wolves” (no trouble finding the source and context of this quotation).
  2. Phonetic spelling is out of the question. The base (the Roman alphabet) should remain untouched. Transcription as a teaching tool is fine, but it has nothing to do with our goal.
  3. The first steps should be extremely timid, almost unnoticeable, for instance, replacing sc in words like unscathed with sk, abolishing a few especially silly double letters, perhaps tampering with such low frequency bookish words as phthisis and chthonic, and so forth.
  4. Once the public agrees to such innocent changes (assuming that it does), we may perhaps go on. Here is a list of other painless measures: Americanize words like center, color, program, dialog, canceled (this experiment has been tried, so that such forms are by now familiar on both sides of the Atlantic) and the suffix -ize; abolish some superfluous letters: acquaint, acquiesce (or acquiesce), gnash, knock, intricate, and so it goes. My order is arbitrary, and the examples have been given at random.
  5. At present, we have to find influential sponsors among publishers, journalists, politicians (especially those who deal with immigration), and lexicographers. So far, despite my plea, no one from the staff of our great dictionaries has participated in the discussion. Perhaps our best bet is to get publishers interested: after all, it is they who produce books. If someone knows whom to approach and how to begin, don’t keep your information secret. Under a bushel candles are invisible.
A word of thanks

I have never been able to understand how Stephen Goranson finds things. But the fact remains that he does. Many thanks for the references to pedigree and many others!

Why do words change their meaning?

To answer this question I need a thick volume titled Historical Semantics. Unable to provide such a volume in the present post, I’ll give two examples from our recent experience. Everybody knows that kid is a young goat and a child. The sense “child” appeared much later. It was first slang and then became a regular item of everyday vocabulary, though we still say that so-and-so has no children or that children under five are not admitted, rather than kids. Since we more often speak about young boys and girls than about young goats, dictionaries now sometimes list the sense “kid” before the original one. A person who is twenty years old is no longer a kid except when he (probably always a he) burns tires or throws bottles at cops. Then newspapers speak about drunken kids who misbehaved after their team had lost (or won). Hence a new meaning: kid “a criminal of college age.”  We seldom notice how such shifts occur.

Here is another example. A correspondent has recently thanked me for a short and concise answer to his question. I was not surprised, for I had been exposed to this usage before. Concise (which means “brief, condensed,” as in A Concise Dictionary) has been confused with precise; hence the change of meaning. The correspondent was undoubtedly grateful for my “short and precise” reply.

Not particularly unique.
Not particularly unique.
Very unique

In a way, this is a continuation of the previous rubric. Another correspondent expressed his dismay at the phase given above. Very unique has been ridiculed more than once in my posts. Not long ago, I ran into the phrase particularly unique and rejoiced: here is something new. But, to make sure that I was not reinventing the wheel, I Googled for particularly unique: thousands of hits! Obviously, unique has almost lost its sense “one of a kind” and come to mean “unusual; exceptional.” We may rage, the way the heathen always do; however, the world will take no heed of us. A similar catastrophe has befallen the verb decimate “kill every tenth in a group.” Now it means “kill a large part of a group.” The etymology of both unique and decimate is still transparent (compare all kinds of uni- words, unicum, and decade). When the origin of the word is forgotten, it is even easier to fall into a semantic trap. But then this is what traps are made for.

Rather unique?
Rather unique?
Hubba-hubba, copacetic, and gook: their etymology

A correspondent sent me a letter with suggestions about the origin of those three words. His letter is too long to copy here, so I would be glad if he posted his remarks as comments. He is aware of my post on hubba-hubba (March 5, 2008) but missed the one on copacetic (“Jes’ copacetic, boss,” July 5, 2006). Like many of his predecessors, he believes in the foreign origin of those three words. Here I should only say that the Hebrew etymology of copacetic has been refuted quite convincingly, but the main problem with borrowings is this: If we believe that an English word has been taken over from another language, we should show under what circumstances, in what milieu, and why the process took place.

Family names like White and Black

Walter Turner has already clarified this point in his comment. I can only add the name Green and say that I lost faith in human decency after I discovered the family name Heifer. Meet the Heifers!

Agreement the American way

(By the Associated Press) “Russia is one of the few countries in the world that harbor vast reserves of the untapped hydrocarbons.” This is perhaps a borderline case. One can argue that harbor goes with countries in a legitimate way. But this is probably not what was meant. After all, Russia is one of the countries that harbors…. Never mind what it harbors. It is only grammar that interests us. Right?

Triggering the world and explaining individuals, or how university administrators write
  1. “It’s just a process to have that individual come into the office so they can be explained their rights and they can understand the process better.”
  2. [Ms. X urges Mr. Y] to re-evaluate “rules and regularities that allow outside community members to so heavily trigger and target students and faculty on this campus.” That is why administrators are paid so well. Who else would try to explain inexplicable individuals or try to so gracefully and without compunctions split an infinitive for the sake of triggering and targeting students and faculty? Unique examples? Not particularly.

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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Images: 1. Monstre by Rama. CC-BY-SA-2.0-fr via Wikimedia Commons. 2. Two-headed California Kingsnake by Jason Pratt.

Recent Comments

  1. Stephen Goranson

    “Copasetic” appears with “coralapus” as two words presented as uniquely part of the lexicon of Mrs. Lukas in a fictionalized tale about Abe Lincoln published in 1919, A Man for the Ages, by Irving Bacheller. I previously quoted the texts containing these two words and provided observations suggesting that Batcheller invented both for this best-selling book[1, 2]. Does anyone doubt that “coralapus” is new here? Or that the words are presented as similarly attested? And that the words are similar and vaguely Latinate? (Bacheller studied Latin in college.[3]) Mrs. Lukas is a character of European origin, then Vermont, Upstate New York, then to the midwest, not a likely speaker of Hebrew or Yiddish, Creole French, Black English, Italian or Chinese. Of course, as has been said (since at least Dec., 1895) “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence,” though many have searched for any pre-1919 evidence and not presented anything reliable.

    Rather than wait perpetually, I read a bit more of Bacheller, prolific journalist and fiction writer; even if his vast output (I surely haven’t read it all) may not prove “copasetic,” it may show a plausible inventor, even if a character (not he) once said “I tell you sir, words are an invention of the devil.” His early book, The Master of Silence (1892) mentions use of a few Sanscrit words and “a word from some language wholly unfamiliar”; Sanscrit words are held by many to have ritual effect. Elsewhere, one could “…resort to the economy of slang.” “I can sling some some rather big words.” Tea is called “murky”; ham could be “reesty.” In answer to “Fisht?” a very large fish is claimed, eliciting the reply: “‘M-mountaneyous!’ He used this word when contemplating in imagination news of a large and important character.” (Another word meaning, more or less, mighty fine.)

    “One does not feel like asking her to dispel his ignorance when she speaks the word ‘Shrimpstone’ as if it opened vistas of incomparable splendor and inspiration.” (Another word distinguishing a great individual.) “…whose first name was a kitchen word.””I think that the dictionary spells it wrong. It should be icesolation.”

    In Coming up the Road: Memoirs of a North Country Boyhood (1928) Bacheller recalls his childhood. In “‘Select school’ …I had a curious notion of the meaning of the words, for an older brother had told me that students were selected by tapping them on the forehead with an iron rod to see which could stand it the best.” (p. 41). “…My vocabulary was unusual. Large words caught my fancy. I loved to play with them. My mother was my dictionary.” (pp. 73-74) Bacheller attempts to recall a long speech from his Mother about words, including (p. 184): “When one man asks another: ‘What is the meaning of the words Addison Irving?’ would you have him say: “I have looked them up in the dictionary and I find this definition–a liar, a dishonest, ungrateful person, one who cannot be trusted’? Or would you have him say; “An honest boy, one who speaks the truth, a trustworthy person'” What could I say?…”

    What can be said? Perhaps that Irving Bacheller is the earliest known writer of “copasetic,” and plausibly, the first.

    [1] Comment at http://blog.oup.com/2006/07/jes_copasetic_b/

    [2] Ads-l string starting at http://listserv.linguistlist.org/cgi-bin/wa?A2=ind0708D&L=ADS-L&P=R7634&I=-3&d=No+Match%3BMatch%3BMatches

    [3] An onion skin carbon copy from his school, St. Lawrence U. of a 603 page Syracuse U. Ph.D. dissertation by Charles E. Samuels, Irving Bacheller: a critical biography, (here p. 98).

  2. John Cowan

    Then again, perhaps the “obvious etymology” of decimatus (which first appears as decumatus) is actually a folk etymology. It may be not decim + atus but de-cimatus, < Greek κυμα- ‘upper branch’ (of a tree)

  3. Mitch Frishman

    Per Professor Liberman’s suggestion, I am posting my remarks concerning “hubba hubba”:

    I was trying to find a discussion relating to the origin of the old slang term, “hubba-hubba,” and came across your blog of March 5, 2008. I would like to offer my thoughts.

    You wrote, “Yet attempts to trace it to some foreign source (Chinese, Spanish, and Yiddish) carry no conviction and have been abandoned. In all probability, hubba-hubba is English.” I strongly disagree, and propose a Mandarin Chinese origin.

    Other discussions also brush Chinese as a source aside, saying that the proposed source, “ni hao bu hao (shortened to “hao bu hao”) meaning “Are you well” (literally, “{you} good not good”), would need a complete mistranslation to get to an expression of approval, excitement, or pleasure. I think that this line of thinking is looking at the wrong phrase, and one that smacks of merely looking at a phrase book or dictionary. I’ve heard the phrase “hubba-hubba” spoken by an American (as a test, of course), to native Mandarin speakers in Taiwan, who would unlikely have known it’s usage in English. They instantly understood it with almost the identical meaning as the English term. In pinyin, it would be (without the tone marks), “hao ba hao ba,” and in quick pronunciation, pronounced extremely close to the English.

    To expand: “hao” means “good,” and “ba” is a particle that indicates suggestion. The dictionary translates hao ba as “okay”; doubling that to “hao ba hao ba” intensifies the meaning to a close approximation of “hubba-hubba.” And although Mandarin has no syllabic stress per se, the neutral tone on “ba” would likely cause an English speaker to hear a stress on “hao.” The fact that the term is found predominantly among World War II servicemen would lend credence to its origin from contact between U. S. and Chinese military personnel. (Similar to the adoption of “gung ho” in World War II from the Chinese.)

    I would appreciate you or your correspondents looking at this suggested origin more carefully, and not just brush it aside with the other “foreign-source” proposals. It would appear to be a better fit–phonetically and semantically–than any English-source proposal.

  4. Masha Bell

    Human nature being what it is, the spelling reforms which the public accepts will probably depend mainly on who proposes them. Our biggest problem remains lack of awareness of what disadvantages the irregularities of English spelling cause.

    After centuries of not modernising English spelling and 80 of the 91 main English spelling patterns now having some or many exceptions – http://englishspellingproblems.blogspot.co.uk/2013/01/english-spelling-system.html – deciding what to reform is almost as difficult as persuading people to support the reform cause.

    Perhaps adopting the motto of ‘least change for maximum gain’ would be the best approach?

    The two worst problems, in terms of the number of words they affect, the learning time they absorb and the spelling errors they cause, are inconsistent consonant doubling (shoddy body) and the many unpredictable spellings for ee (speak, speech, shriek, eke, protein, machine). So tidying up either of those would help learners quite a bit, without being too onerous for currently proficient readers and spellers.

    I remain convinced that given the will, tidying up English spelling would be quite easy, but creating that will seems fiendishly difficult.

  5. John Larsson

    I look forward to read the work “Historical Semantics”, but I think a volume of its own should be devoted to “Words in disguise”. Changing the meaning of a word can not really be separated from other processes like “Emerging of Synonyms”, “Displacing Words”, “Words conquering Words”, “Misunderstanding Words” etc., perhaps more graspable chapters for our honourable blogger? There is another interesting reason for exchanging words or ways of expression which I call “The Need for Redundancy”. Using more “bandwidth” than strictly necessary is often used to avoid misunderstandings. This is most clearly seen in the realm of command words.

  6. Steve Bett

    Dr. Liberman’s propositions (AL).

    AL: The public will not accept a radical break with the past, so that, if we hope to get anywhere, we should work out a step-by-step plan and try to implement the reform gradually. I witnessed the fury of the opponents of a moderate spelling reform in Germany and the horror of the conservatives when a couple of hyphens were introduced in Russia about fifty years ago. “Step by step” should be defined. I only say: “Look well, O Wolves” (no trouble finding the source and context of this quotation).

    SB: In the past, minimal reformers usually failed to indicate let alone implement the first step. The only step by step plan I am familiar with is the parody of the stages approach to spelling reform. SR-1 rejected a step 2 until the first step was fully implemented: /E/ = . e.g., *health /hElþ/ changed to

    AL: Phonetic spelling is out of the question. The base (the Roman alphabet) should remain untouched. Transcription as a teaching tool is fine, but it has nothing to do with our goal.

    SB: What about phonemic spelling? No one advocates phonetic spelling.
    Is a reform proposal such as “The bás Rómàn alfàbet shud rèmán ùnchánjd.” out of the question?

    AL: The first steps should be extremely timid, almost unnoticeable, for instance, replacing sc in words like unscathed with sk, abolishing a few especially silly double letters, perhaps tampering with such low frequency bookish words as phthisis and chthonic, and so forth.

    SB: Why start there if the goal is to accelerate literacy? Some proposed reforms keep double letters to mark stressed vowels. If the seemingly surplus letters actually mark something, they are not silly.

    AL: Once the public agrees to such innocent changes (assuming that it does), we may perhaps go on. Here is a list of other painless measures: Americanize words like center, color, program, dialog, canceled (this experiment has been tried, so that such forms are by now familiar on both sides of the Atlantic) and the suffix -ize; abolish some superfluous letters: acquaint, acquiesce (or acquiesce), gnash, knock, intricate, and so it goes. My order is arbitrary, and the examples have been given at random.

    SB: Extending Webster’s reforms is unlikely to make written English much more transparent. Changes have to be systematic to have an educational impact. One option is to allow more variant spellings and make the more logical spelling the preferred one. Lexicographers, however, are reluctant to take the lead on matters of usage.

    AL: At present, we have to find influential sponsors among publishers, journalists, politicians (especially those who deal with immigration), and lexicographers. So far, despite my plea, no one from the staff of our great dictionaries has participated in the discussion. Perhaps our best bet is to get publishers interested: after all, it is they who produce books. If someone knows whom to approach and how to begin, don’t keep your information secret. Under a bushel candles are invisible.

    SB: Have you identified the economic benefit to publishers from any proposed change? Few publishers are likely to adopt changes that will have a negative impact on their competitive advantage in the marketplace. Funk was ready to make even more changes than you have identified but he did not want to do it alone and lose sales.

  7. [...] mark, and concise. I am always glad to hear from our readers. This time I noted with pleasure that both comments on [...]

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