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Words and Things,
Or, Not Sparing the Rod

by Anatoly Liberman

Etymology has a place in the world because people want to know why a certain combination of sounds carries the meaning accepted by their community but, as a rule, have no clue to the answer. However, the degree of opacity differs from word to word. Compounds like newspaper and daredevil are more or less clear to everybody who knows what news, paper, dare, and devil mean. It is the shorter elements that are conventional signs to us. Why should new be the opposite of old? In French, nu means “naked”; in German, Nu is part of the phrase im Nu “in no time”; in Russian, nu is an almost untranslatable particle, and in Old English, nu (with a long vowel) meant “now.” Those not versed in language history like to invent fanciful explanations where none are needed. For years, readers of British popular journals debated over whether news was coined from the first letters of north, east, west, south. Of course, it was not: news is an artificial plural of new. Only the origin of new needs an explanation. (The initial sense of this adjective could have been “as it is now.”)

Sometimes the form of the word helps us decipher its meaning. If I call my acquaintance a dupee, everyone will probably guess that I refer to a person who has been duped. Nor do coldth and springer pose problems. If payee, warmth, and jumper are clear, so are my neologisms. Likewise, band suggests to a speaker of English that it is a cognate of bind. False clues are plentiful, to be sure. Band is indeed related to bind, but hand has nothing to do with hind in any of its meanings. But is wand related to wind? It may be. The Germanic cognates of wand mean “rod”; the earliest “wands” could have been used in wickerwork. It is also possible to connect wand with wend “to turn” (as in wend one’s way). And here I am coming to the point of my subject “words and things.”

Whether wand is related to wind or wend, we realize that this object got its name because it was pliant. This is not a trivial conclusion. German, a language that shares many roots with English, also has the noun Wand, but it means “a wall in a house” (a wall in an open space, like the once famous Berlin wall, is called Mauer). Where does winding come in here? The answer looks simple, but its simplicity is illusory. When the German word Wand was coined, walls resembled fences made from stakes intertwined with twigs and branches, that is, wattles. The ancestors of modern Germans learned the art of making solid walls from Romans, and Mauer is a borrowing of Latin murus. English wall is also from Latin. Curiously, Latin vallum “rampart” originally referred to the palisade, for vallus meant “stake.” It follows that Roman walls were not always made of stone either. Language, to the extent that it preserves traces of ancient meanings, sheds light on the material culture of the past. By looking at the sound complex wand we cannot guess what it means, but once we learn why in English, wand designates “rod” and in German, “wall,” we do not only begin to understand the connection between both of them and wind: we begin to feel like archeologists. Archeology and historical linguistics have always worked in close contact.

And now a last barrier. The oldest written document in Germanic is the Gothic Bible (the fourth century). The Gothic for “door” is haurds (pronounced approximately hords). This word is related to English hurdle (-le is a suffix, as in handle), and a literal, rather than a figurative, hurdle is, according to our best dictionary, a rectangular wattled framework. An old house must have been full of twigs and branches. However, it did not lack windows; window means “eye for the wind.” The noun wind has nothing to do with the verb wind. The former is an “echoic” word of unquestionable antiquity (as Dickens could have put it), based on some syllable like wee, imitating the sound of blowing. Its present day pronunciation with short i is a special story.

Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here each Wednesday. At the end of the each month he will answer readers’ questions, be sure to leave yours in the comments section.

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