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Monthly Etymology Gleanings for March 2006

This blog column has existed for a month. It was launched with the idea that it would attract questions and comments. If this happens, at the end of each month the rubric “Monthly Gleanings” will appear. Although in March I have not been swamped with the mail, there is enough for a full post. Also, one question was asked privately, but in connection with the blog, so that I think I may answer it here.

The first comment “saluted the initiative” of the blog. Since, like most people, I prefer praise to censure, I am grateful for the encouragement. Another post suggested that I temper my enthusiasm, because people are allegedly interested not in etymology, but in “words and slang; they ask about posh or the whole nine yards. They’d see no point in asking for etymologies of water, wind, wool, winter, well, [and] wine,” unless those “could be illustrated with lantern slides of Life in Roman times.” I’ve been taught never to assume anything and not to generalize in a hurry. This advice I’ll pass on to anyone who will take it. Queries reflect the sophistication of the questioners. The more people know, the less trivial their questions become. If they realized how interesting the etymology of water, wind, wool, and the rest is, they would have asked about it. Consequently, I am not losing heart, for I hope that the blog will arouse the curiosity of some and whet the inquisitiveness of others. This said, I must admit that people have a certain fondness for slides and are surprised when a lecturer does without a power point.

A man whose name is Gavin wants to know whether it is of Celtic origin, as he has been informed, and why authorities hedge when it comes to its ultimate source. Etymology is a matter of reconstruction. In the process of tracing a word’s past some facts come to light, while others do not. It is the same with reconstructing the events of epochs gone by, ancient customs, artistic forms, and the appearance of the universe for that matter. The name Gavin (from Gawain), formerly limited to Scotland and the north of England, is of French origin, but the French learned it from the Celts, for the entire Arthurian cycle is Celtic. Gawain was King Arthur’s nephew and his most famous retainer. Students of English literature know him from the poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Unless Gawain is a made up name (such an opinion exists), it may go back to the Welsh protoform gwalch “falcon, hawk.” The ultimate origin of the Romance, Germanic, and Welsh name of the falcon is debatable. The second half of Gawain’s name is even less clear; perhaps it is Mei “May” or the name of a mountain. If the original form was Gwalchgwyn, it can be understood as gwalch + gwyn “white hawk” (still another interpretation is “little hawk”). Gwalch “falcon” has not been attested in any Old Celtic language. I am sorry that my answer is so evasive, but it is better to be aware of the difficulty than to pretend that everything is clear.

In my previous post, I noted that some words (my example was buck) cross the borders of language families, which makes the question of their affinity especially hard. The question concerned words that sound approximately the same in Europe and in the Far East and mean the same. The Indo-European language family spreads from Norway to India. Whatever the family’s remote history, the languages belonging to it are related. The distance between India and China is not great, and nomads covered it easily. It is natural that the names of some products and artifacts were borrowed in both directions. But words also occur that are rarely loaned from language to language. For instance, all over the world the sound complex man has been recorded with the meaning “man, male, etc.” A few but not all convergences are due to chance. Some scholars believe in massive borrowings by Chinese from Indo-European and by Indo-European from Chinese. Others reconstruct ancient unity, that is, one family. For years historical linguists have been debating the extent of the kinship among the ancient languages of the world (and consequently, among their modern continuations) are related. An early contributor to the blog is waiting to hear what I will say about the Fenno-Dravidian hypothesis. I’ll say nothing about it unless I am asked! Nor am I planning to address the pre-Indo-European substrate in Germanic, the putative Basque words in Indo-European, and many other questions that should be tackled in scholarly papers rather than in a weekly post. However, a good deal will depend on the activity of the readers. Nobody will be left behind, so please keep those questions coming!

Recent Comments

  1. Seth

    Just as the lives of ordinary people are usually far more interesting than those of celebrities, I think the origins of ordinary words are far more interesting than those of slang words. Keep them coming!

  2. Gavin Wraith

    Thanks for “Gavin” stuff. At school my name was cheerfully latinized to ‘Gabinius’, but that is a red herring of quite another kidney.

  3. Charles Hodgson

    Professor Liberman
    The Oxford English Dictionary indicates that pharynx is related in pre-history to the roots of the verb “bore” in turn said to have come via OE from an Aryan word meaning to cut or pierce and to be related to an ancient Greek word for plow. How plow and the throat relate I can only guess. Possibly through cutting of throats or perhaps a sense of depth? I hopefully consulted your “Word Origins” but no joy. Liddell & Scott is beyond me (so far). Any ideas?

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