I received a question about the greatest etymologists’ active mastery of foreign languages. It is true, as our correspondent indicated, that etymologists have to cast their nets wide and refer to many languages, mainly old (the deader, the better). So would the masters of the age gone by have felt comfortable while traveling abroad, that is, not in the tenth but in the nineteenth century?
This is my 500th post for “The Oxford Etymologist,” nine and a half years after this blog started in March 2006, and I decided to celebrate this event by writing something light and entertaining. Enough wrestling with words like bad, good, and god! Anyone can afford a week’s break. So today I’ll discuss an idiom that sounds trivial only because it is so familiar. Familiarity breeds not only contempt but also indifference.
Amnesia, disguises, and mistaken identities? No, these are not the plot twists of a blockbuster thriller or bestselling page-turner. They are the story of the word culprit. At first glance, the origin of culprit looks simple enough. Mea culpa, culpable,exculpate, and the more obscure inculpate: these words come from the Latin culpa, “fault” or “blame.”
The question then is: “What does the root gu– signify?” The procedure consists in finding some word in Germanic and ideally outside Germanic in which gu– or g-, followed by another vowel and alternating with u means something compatible with the idea of “god.” Here, however, is the rub. Old Germanic guð– certainly existed, but we don’t know what it meant when it was coined centuries before it surfaced in texts.
From what was said last week it follows that pagans did not need a highly charged word for “god,” let alone “God.” They recognized a hierarchy of supernatural beings and the division of labor in that “heavenly” crowd. Some disturbed our dreams, some bereaved us of reason, and still others inflicted diseases and in general worked evil and mischief.
Summer is a time when many of us have a little extra time for reading. For me, that means Go Set a Watchman, some Haruki Murukami and James Lee Burke, plus summer mysteries and thrillers. It means catching up on what local authors and friends have published. And it means reading new books in my field and writing book reviews.
Why should we commemorate Samuel Taylor Coleridge? The obvious reason is his high status as a poet, but a better one might be his exuberance as a wordsmith. As a poet, after all, he is widely known for only two relatively short works: ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ and ‘Kubla Khan.’ While the academy would no doubt add four or five others prized by specialists, the total number is still small.
While dealing with the etymology of the adjective bad, I realized that an essay on good would be vapid. The picture in Germanic and Slavic with respect to good is trivial, while the word’s ties outside those two groups are bound to remain unclear. Especially troublesome is Greek agathós “good,” from which we have the given name Agatha.
During the month of July I have received some questions, comments, and queries about things new to me. Thus, I know next to nothing about Latvian (my Indo-European interests more often make me turn to Lithuanian) and feel insecure when it comes to Romance etymology. The questions made me examine the areas that would under normal circumstances have not attracted my attention, and I am pleased.
Early this week the spacecraft New Horizons began its flyby of Pluto, sending a wealth of information to back to Earth about Pluto and its moons. It’s an exciting time for astronomers and those intrigued by the dark dwarf planet. Pluto has special significance because it is the only planet in our solar system to have its status as a planet stripped and downgraded to a dwarf planet.
For a long time the etymology of the word bad has been at the center of my attention (four essays bear ample witness to this fact), and the latest post ended with a cautious reference to the idea that Middle Engl. bad ~ badde, a noun that occurred only once in 1350 and whose meaning seems to have been “cat,” is, from an etymological point of view, identical with the adjective bad.
The authority of the OED is so great that, once it has spoken, few people are eager to contest or even modify its verdict. The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology adds perhaps (not probably!) to Murray’s etymology, cites both bæddel and bædling (it gives length to æ in both words) and adds that there have been other, more dubious conjectures.
Amid Fourth of July parades and fireworks, I found myself asking this: why do we call this day ‘Independence Day’ rather than ‘Revolution Day?’ The short answer,of course, is that on 4 July, we celebrate the signing of the Declaration of Independence, a day that has been commemorated since 1777.
Have you ever noticed that many of our swear words sound very much like German ones and not at all like French ones? From vulgar words for body parts (a German Arsch is easy to identify, but not so much the French cul), to scatological and sexual verbs (doubtless you can spot what scheissen and ficken mean, English and German clearly draw their swear words from a shared stock in a way that English and French do not.
Quite often the first solid etymology of an English word comes from Skeat, but this is not the case with the adjective bad. In the first edition of his dictionary (1882), he could offer, with much hesitation, two Celtic cognates of bad, one of them being Irish Gaelic baodh “vain, giddy, foolish, simple.” Much later, Charles Mackay, who believed that Irish Gaelic was the source of most English words, mentioned beud “mischief, hurt” as the etymon of bad.
Words have meaning. We use them to communicate to one another, and what we communicate depends, in part, on which words we use. What words mean varies from language to language. In many cases, we can communicate the same thing in different languages, but require different words to do so. And conversely, sometimes the very same words communicate different things in different languages.