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Monthly etymology gleanings for May 2012, part 1

By Anatoly Liberman
Shrew again. Soon after I posted an essay on shrew, in which I dissociated that word from a verb meaning “cut,” a correspondent asked me how my etymology (from “devil”) could be reconciled with the obvious connection between Old Engl. scirfemus (related to sceorfan “cut”) and German Schermaus (related to scheren, the same meaning), the latter from Middle High German scheremus. (The relevant forms can be found in the OED.) The connection referred to in the letter cannot be denied, but I think that both the Old English and the Middle High German word owe their existence to folk etymology: the shrew was associated with venom and its name underwent change.

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Bigger in size but equally ignorant: ‘shark’

By Anatoly Liberman
The fishy series in this blog began with shrimp, reached the heights of prawn, and now, bypassing countless intermediate steps, will offer a discussion of shark. I am sorry to admit that despite the monster’s size and voracity I can say deplorably little about the chosen subject, but, since I always deal with obscure vocabulary, I suffer from self-inflicted wounds and have no reason to complain. Before I come to the point, an apology is in order. While compiling my voluminous bibliography of English etymology, I didn’t encounter references to Tom Jones’s publication on shark.

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After ‘shrimp’ comes ‘prawn’

By Anatoly Liberman
Several people pointed out to me that I cannot distinguish a shrimp from a prawn, and I am afraid they are right. The picture copied for the shrimp post had the title “Shrimp cocktail,” but the shrimp there are too big and are really prawns. In any case, I decided to atone for my mistake and write a post on the etymology of prawn. This plan was hard to realize, because the origin of prawn is really, that is, hopelessly unknown: the word exists, but no one can say where it has come from. It is strange that more or less the same holds for shrimp and shark, though both are less opaque. There must have been some system behind calling those sea creatures. The fishermen who coined such names had a reason to call a shrimp a shrimp and a prawn a prawn.

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The Oddest English Spellings, Part 20

By Anatoly Liberman
Why don’t good and hood rhyme with food and mood? Why are friend and fiend spelled alike but pronounced differently? There is a better way of asking this question, because the reason for such oddities is always the same: English retains the spelling that made sense centuries ago. At one time, the graphic forms we learn one by one made sense. Later the pronunciation changed, while the spelling remained the same. Therefore, the right question is: What has happened to the pronunciation of the words that give us trouble?

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Further Adventures of Scr-words, or, the Taming of ‘Shrew’

By Anatoly Liberman
Two weeks ago, I pondered the fortunes of the gregarious shrimp. The next ingredient of the scr- ~ shr- cocktail will be the much maligned but innocent shrew. As The Century Dictionary puts it, “there is no foundation in fact for the vulgar notion that shrews are poisonous, or for any other of the popular superstitions respecting these harmless little creatures.” The shrew is an insectivorous mammal. An old etymology traced shrew to a root meaning “cut” (as in shear) and glossed the word as “biter” on account of its allegedly venomous bite. Another version of this etymology refers to the shrew’s pointed snout. The Old High German cognate of shrew meant “dwarf” (a figure cut short?).

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Monthly Etymology Gleanings for April 2012

By Anatoly Liberman
Is loan a verb? Few questions have been asked with such regularity, and few answers have been so definitive, but people keep asking. Perhaps I might make a short introduction. Since English nouns of native origin have no endings (book, rope, pig, cow, goat) and even old borrowed nouns are often monosyllabic (wall, chair, table, desk, pen, lamp) and since infinitives also lack endings (come, go, see, take), the line separating the two grammatical categories is blurred. Some nouns and verbs had different forms in Old English. Such were love (noun) and love (verb); later they lost their endings and now coexist as homonyms. Other verbs were derived from “ready-made” nouns. The opposite process is less common, but consider the nouns meet, say, and go from the corresponding verbs. In principle, any noun can be converted into a verb. “Do students Professor, Dr., or Mr. us at this university?” “Don’t you uncle me!” The messages are perfectly clear.

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A scrumptious shrimp with a riddle

By Anatoly Liberman
My romance with shrimp began when, years ago, I looked up the etymology of scrumptious in some modern dictionary. Naturally, it turned out that the word’s origin is unknown (this happens every time I try to satisfy my curiosity in the area of my specialization). The usually sensible Century Dictionary suggests that scrumptious is an alternation of scrimptious, from scrimption, a funny noun going back to scrimp. The OED thinks so too.

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Dudes, dandies, swells, and mashers

By Anatoly Liberman
My February blog on dude has been picked up by several websites, and rather numerous comments were the result of the publicity. Below, I will say what I think of the word’s “true” etymology and quote two pronouncements on “dudedom,” as they once appeared in The Nation. But before doing all that, I should thank the readers who pointed to me the existence of some recent contributions to the subject.

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The Seasons, Part 3: Rainy Winter?

By Anatoly Liberman
The Latin for “winter; snowstorm” is hiems, a noun related in a convoluted way to Engl. hibernate. It is a reflex (continuation) of an old Indo-European word for “winter,” and its cognates in various languages are numerous. Germanic must also have had one of them, but it lies hidden like the proverbial needle in a hayrick. Old Icelandic (OI) gymbr means “one-year old sheep.” In the Scandinavian area, this word does not have an exotic ring, as follows from Modern Icelandic and Norwegian gimber ~ gymber ~ gimmerlam (the latter refers specifically to a sheep that has not yet lambed), along with Swedish gymmer with its dialectal variants.

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Monthly Etymology Gleanings for March

By Anatoly Liberman
I have received many questions, some of which are familiar (they recur with great regularity) and others that are new and will answer a few today and the rest in a month’s time.

Nostratic Hypothesis. Our correspondent Mr. Steve Miller asked me whether I ever treat the topic of language evolution and, if I do, what I think of the Nostratic hypothesis.

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The Seasons, part 2. From three to four, summer.

By Anatoly Liberman
The ancient Indo-Europeans lived in the northern hemisphere (see the previous post), but, although this conclusion is certain, it does not follow that they divided the year into four seasons. Our perception of climate is colored too strongly by Vivaldi, the French impressionists, and popular restaurants. At some time, the Indo-Europeans dominated the territory from India to Scandinavia (hence the name scholars gave them). They lived and traveled in many climate zones, and no word for “winter,” “spring,” “summer,” and “autumn” is common to the entire family; yet some cover several language groups.

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The Seasons, part 1: spring and fall

By Anatoly Liberman
Since this blog is now in the seventh year of its existence (if I remember correctly, it started in March 2006), some questions tend to recur. Our correspondent wants to know the origin of the word winter. Long ago I touched on winter and summer, but briefly, in the “gleanings,” so that it may be useful to devote a short series to the Germanic names of the seasons, leave these posts in the archive, and thus avoid possible repetition.

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Monthly Gleanings, February 2012, part 2

By Anatoly Liberman
The Infamous C-Word. This is the letter I received soon after the publication of the post devoted to our (formerly) most unpronounceable word: “…I am writing to ask you if you have run across it [this word] as a nautical term. I am a former sailing ship mariner (a.k.a. “tall ships”) and sailmaker and currently maritime historian/editor for the National Maritime Historical Society.

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Monthly Gleanings for February 2012, Part 1

By Anatoly Liberman
There has been a good deal to glean this month because the comments and responses have been numerous and also because, although February is a short month even in a leap year, in 2012 it had five Wednesdays. Among the questions was one about the profession and qualifications of an etymologist. It is a recurring question from young correspondents, and I have answered it briefly more than once, but always in the “gleanings.” It occurred to me that perhaps I should write a short essay on this subject and, if someone else asks me about such things in the future, I will be able to refer to this post. The rest will be discussed next week.

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Oh Dude, you are so welcome

By Anatoly Liberman
I borrowed the title of this post from an ad for an alcoholic beverage whose taste remains unknown to me. The picture shows two sparsely clad very young females sitting in a bar on both sides of a decently dressed but bewildered youngster. I assume their age allows all three characters to drink legally and as much as they want. My concern is not with their thirst but with the word dude. After all, this blog is about the origin of nouns, verbs, and adjectives, rather than the early stages of alcoholism.

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Balderdash: A no-nonsense word

By Anatoly Liberman
Unlike hogwash or, for example, flapdoodle, the noun balderdash is a word of “uncertain” (some authorities even say of “unknown”) origin. However, what is “known” about it is probably sufficient for questioning the disparaging epithets.

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