From time to time I receive letters encouraging me to discuss not only words but also idioms. I would be happy to do so if I were better equipped. The origin of proverbial sayings (unless they go back to so-called familiar quotations) and idioms is usually lost beyond recovery.
As I mentioned last time, one of our correspondents asked me whether anything is known about this idiom. My database has very little on brown study, but I may refer to an editorial comment from the indispensable Notes and Queries (1862, 3rd Series/I, p. 190). The writer brings brown study in connection with French humeur brune, literally “brown humor, or disposition,” said about a somber or melancholy temperament.
It so happened that at the end of this past summer I was out of town and responded to the questions and comments that had accumulated in August and September in two posts. We have the adjectives biennial and biannual but no such Latinized luxury for the word month.
If you have read the previous parts of this “study,” you may remember that brown is defined as a color between orange and black, but lexicographical sources often abstain from definitions and refer to the color of familiar objects. They say that brown is the color of mud, dirt, coffee, chocolate, hazel, or chestnut.
Color names have been investigated in almost overwhelming detail, but it is not the etymology but usage that tends to “throw us off the scent.”
Dangerous derivations and chance coincidences
I was out of town at the end of this past August and have a sizable backlog of unanswered questions and comments. It may take me two or even three weeks to catch up with them. I am not complaining: on the contrary, I am delighted to have correspondents from Sweden to Taiwan.
Color words are among the most mysterious ones to a historian of language and culture, and brown is perhaps the most mysterious of them all. At first blush (and we will see that it can have a brownish tint), everything is clear. Brown is produced by mixing red, yellow, and black.
Like every other custom in life, kissing has been studied from the historical, cultural, anthropological, and linguistic point of view. Most people care more for the thing than for the word, but mine is an etymological blog.
Yes, this is Post 450. The present blog was launched on March 1, 2006 and has appeared every Wednesday ever since, rain or shine. Another short year, and the jubilant world will celebrate the great number 500.
The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology (ODEE) says about the verb wrap (with the abbreviations expanded): “…of unknown origin, similar in form and sense are North Frisian wrappe stop up, Danish dialectal vrappe stuff; and cf. Middle Engl. bewrappe, beside wlappe (XIV), LAP3.”
It occurred to me to write a short essay about the word verve by chance. As a general rule, I try to stick to my last and stay away from Romance etymology, even though the logic of research occasionally makes me meddle with it.
As can be guessed from the above title, my today’s subject is the derivation of the word road. The history of road has some interest not only because a word that looks so easy for analysis has an involved and, one can say, unsolved etymology.
Once John Cowan suggested that I touch on the murky history of the noun qualm and try to shed light on it. To the extent that I can trust my database, this word, which is, naturally, featured in all dictionaries, hardly ever appears in the special scholarly literature.
By Anatoly Liberman
On 20 November 2013, I discussed the verbs astonish, astound, and stun. Whatever the value of that discussion, it had a truly wonderful picture of a stunned cat and an ironic comment by Peter Maher on the use of the word stunning.
By Anatoly Liberman
Since I’ll be out of town at the end of July, I was not sure I would be able to write these “gleanings.” But the questions have been many, and I could answer some of them ahead of time.