Perhaps the story would not have been worth telling if German and Dutch klein, the closest cognates of Engl. clean, did not mean “small.” Long ago, on 4 July 2007, I devoted half of my post to the adjective mad.
As I have observed in the past, the best way for me to make sure that I have an audience is to say something deemed prejudicial or wrong. Then one or more readers will break their silence, and I’ll get the recognition I deserve (that is, my comeuppance).
In anticipation of the post on clean, I decided to say something about the idioms in which clean figures prominently, but chose only those which have the structure as clean as.
Last week, I mentioned Francis A. Wood’s rhyme words and rhyme ideas and cited his example cloud and crowd. In my life, such a pair is gleaning and cleaning.
Engl. cloud belongs so obviously with clod and its kin that there might not even be a question of its origin (just one more lump), but for the first recorded sense of clūd in Old English, which was “rock, cliff.”
Once again, no gleanings: the comments have been too few, and there have been no questions. Perhaps when the time for a real rich harvest comes, I’ll start gleaning like a house on fire. When last week I attacked the verb clutter, I planned on continuing with the kl-series; my next candidates were cloud and cloth.
In an old post, I once referred to Jack London’s Martin Eden, a book almost forgotten in this country and probably in the rest of the English-speaking world. Martin is not Jack London’s self-portrait; yet the novel is to a great extent autobiographical.
I expected that my series on dogs would inspire a torrent of angry comments. After all, dog is one of the most enigmatic words in English etymology, but the responses were very few. I am, naturally, grateful to those who found it possible to say something about the subject I was discussing for five weeks, especially to those who liked the essays.
My series on the etymology of dog and other nouns with canine roots has come to an end, but, before turning to another subject, I would like to say a few moderately famous last words. For some reason, it is, as already mentioned, just the names of the dog that are particularly obscure in many languages (the same holds for bitch and others).
I double dog dare you to reject my etymology, or the dog’s chances increase (even if ever so slightly)
The origin of Engl. dog will not look like a uniquely formidable problem if we realize that the names of our best quadruped friend are, from an etymological point of view, impenetrable almost all over the world. The literature on dog is huge, and the conjectures are many.
Here is a phrase whose origin seems to be known, but, as this does not mean that everybody knows it, a short discussion may not be out of place. I have such a huge database of idioms that once in six weeks or so I am seized with a desire to share my treasures with the public.
By this time, the thrust of the posts united by the title “Not a dog’s chance” must be clear. While dealing with some animal names, we plod through a swamp (or a bog, or a quagmire) and run into numerous monosyllabic words of varying structure (both vowels and consonants alternate in them), lacking a clear etymology, and designating several creatures, sometimes having nothing to do with one another (for instance, “doe” and “grasshopper,” though this is an extreme case).
Unlike tyke, bitch can boast of respectable ancestors, because its Old English form (bicce) has been recorded. The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology notes that bicce is obscurely related to Old Icelandic bikkja (the same meaning). The OED online never uses the phrase obscurely related, and this is a good thing, for this verbal formula, which so often occurred in the past, is itself obscure.
The word dog is the bête noire of English etymology. Without obvious cognates anywhere (the languages that have dog are said to have borrowed it from English), it had a shadowy life in Old English but managed to hound from its respectable position the ancient name of man’s best friend, the name it has retained in the rest of Germanic.
Responses to my plea for suggestions concerning spelling reform were very few. I think we can expect a flood of letters of support and protest only if at least part of the much-hoped-for change reaches the stage of implementation. I received one letter telling me to stop bothering about nonsense and to begin doing something sensible.
To reconstruct an ancient root with a measure of verisimilitude is not too hard. However, it should be borne in mind that the roots are not the seeds from which words sprout, for we compare such words as are possibly related and deduce, or abstract their common part. Later we call this part “root,” tend to put the etymological cart before the horse, and get the false impression that that common part generates or produces words.