Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Monthly Gleanings,
May 2006

by Anatoly Liberman

Alex, a fifth-grader and so far the youngest reader of this blog,
wants to know how to start investigating one’s family name. This question
interests many people who study their genealogy. (Pay attention to the spelling:
in American English, genealogy rhymes with geology, biology, and philology,
but its root is Latin genea “race,” to which -logy “study,
science” has been added. Genealogy is not the only name of a science
whose second element is –alogy: compare mineralogy.) First of
all, don’t employ the services of those who, for what they call a nominal fee,
will inform you that you are a descendant of Julius Caesar, Charlemagne,
William the Conqueror, or Benjamin Franklin. Most likely, you are not.
Second, be wary of irresponsible websites: you don’t have to believe everything
you see in the Internet.

Family names appeared late in Europe. In early times,
people were known by their and their parents’ given names (most often those of their
fathers). Someone who was called John and whose father was Rob would be John Robson
(or Hobson), while his son would be Tom, Dick, or Harry Johnson. As long as
that system worked, a woman could naturally not be called Johnson,
whether after her father or husband; the word for “daughter” was used. Most
people had “monikers”, and those (sometimes shockingly offensive) also tended
to pass from father to son and become permanent (consider German Herr Narr
“Mr. Fool”). Thousands of last names go back to place names (such are all those
ending in -by and -ton) and professions (Smith, Brewer,
and the like; a cooper is a person who makes barrels and other
objects of staves and hoops). Still others are pretty words (Lovelace
and its ilk). The origin of American family names is especially hard to trace
because people came to the New World from many countries. Quite often they wanted
to sound as English as possible (Scmidt would become Smith, and
so on), or the names would be misspelled by immigration officers. It will help
if you have an idea from what part of the globe your ancestors arrived in the United States. I hope you will find yourself in either Dictionary of American Family
Patrick Hanks, editor. Oxford University Press, 2003 (three
volumes) or Encyclopedia of American Family Names by H. Amanda
Robb and Andrew Chesler. Harper Collins, 1995, or both.

The next question pertains to mythology: Can valkyrie
and vampire be related? No, the similarity is accidental. Valkyrie
is a Scandinavian word meaning “corpse chooser” (valkyries invited killed
warriors to join the host in Valhalla, the celestial abode of the god Odin;
they fought by day, feasted at night, and waited for the final battle with the
forces of evil). Vampire is a borrowing in English from either French
or German, both of which took it over from Hungarian, but the word originated
in Slavic, where it has the forms upir, upyr’, upior, and so on (however,
in Bulgarian it begins with v-). The original meaning of vampire
is unknown (the guesswork given in the special literature is not worth
summarizing here), but one can see that the word has changed its shape
considerably while traveling from country to country. Whatever its etymology, vampire
is apparently not a compound, so that neither val- nor -kyrie in valkyrie
can be compared with vam(p)- and -ire in vampire. Medieval
Icelanders had no tales of vampires, and the modern Icelandic word for that
monster is an English counterpart of bloodsucker. But they described in
vivid colors the draugr, a terrible revenant, an inhabitant of the
well-populated land of the so-called undead. The same method was recommended
for disposing of a draugr and of a vampire: both had to be killed (a draugr for
a second time!), and a pole had to be thrust through the lifeless body. A pile
of stones on the grave would put an end to the creature’s existence once and
for all.

And now from the bloodsucker vampire to the sweet and
innocent bellybutton. The question is about its age and provenance.
Short baby words like mama and papa are near universal because
they imitate the babbling of infants (the early speech development of all
children passes through identical stages). Some adults like to use baby talk;
others avoid simpering in communication with their children. Yet tummy
for stomach has made it into dictionaries. There can be no doubt about
the origin of ka-ka, poop, and a good many similar bathroom words.
English lacks a native synonym for “navel.” Since no one will use umbilicus
while addressing a child, bellybutton emerged. In tracing the origin of
such words, we are at the mercy of texts, but it is exactly the likes of poop
and bellybutton that authors use late and sporadically. According to
the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), bellybutton was first
attested in a glossary of American slang in 1877. However, it waited 57 years
before it turned up in a book of fiction (Kipling, 1934; the next citation is
from Priestley, 1946). Although both writers were Englishmen, Kipling married
the sister of his American friend and lived in Vermont for several years (until
1894). He may have overheard the word from his wife’s conversations with their
daughter. Apparently, by 1946 bellybutton was understood in Britain. Tentatively, we may say that, wherever it originated, it gained currency in the United States in the last decades of the 19th century and later crossed the

There was a query about the meaning of -ture in words
like nature and architecture. The reader was right in guessing
the function of this element. Only one correction is needed. The real suffix
was –ure. It was usually added to past participles, and since those
ended in -t, the result appeared to be -ture, which therefore
acquired the sense inherent in –ure. Speakers understood architect-ure,
etc. as architec-ture. A few nouns like exposure, pressure,
and figure (figure has the root of the present!) show that t
is not inseparable from the Romance suffix. Words with –ure ~ -ture
“denote action or process or the result of this, (hence) office or rank,
collective body or organization.” The quotation is from The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology. Like its “parent” the OED, it lists
not only words but also prefixes and suffixes and discusses their history.

Why do we have nonsensical but not sensical? Everyone
who has tried to reconstruct the history of language knows that, however
difficult it may be to explain why something has happened, it is much more
difficult to explain why something failed to happen. Inefficient is
fine, but inofficial has been tried and abandoned. Warmth satisfies
us, whereas coldth, which is not a bit worse, sounds like a poor attempt
to make people laugh. The OED gives two citations of sensical
(one dated 1797, the other 1837). For some reason, this perfectly acceptable
adjective has lost to sensible. Language is amenable to chance and
choice. Couched in less lofty terms, this statement means that regularity
determines the fate of sounds, forms, and words only up to a point. But then
all history is such.

According to Vladimir Nabokov, the hardest thing for a
writer to learn is the art of making transitions from one theme to another so
smoothly that the reader would not notice the seams. Today I have had no
trouble in this respect. The previous question was about nonsensical.
The next one is about silly. (It is as though the letters were made to
order.) I began with answering a school student and will finish by giving
advice to a student attending college. Thus I will be able to eliminate the
seams and provide a frame to the post. The college student is planning to
write a paper of 3000 words on the semantic development of some noun,
adjective, or verb and asks whether silly is a good choice. As I know
from my experience of writing entries for an etymological dictionary, such
length is enough for a semantic description of the most complicated word. Silly
is a good choice, but it involves a study of a minor phonetic change and
interaction with a doublet (silly ~ seely), so that it would be better
to leave it for another occasion. To fill several pages with a meaningful
analysis, I would concentrate on the development of a group of synonyms. For
example, take mad, crazy, daft, lunatic, gaga, and cuckoo
(or only some of them), look them up in good dictionaries, such as the OED,
The Century Dictionary (the multivolume version), The Oxford
Dictionary of
English Etymology, Weekley, and Skeat (the 4th
edition), and trace their history. You will come up with an instructive picture
of how people coin words denoting derangement. Or choose another group of
synonyms (such as rob, steal, filch, pilfer, purloin or look, stare,
gaze, gape, gawk, ogle
) and do similar work. I hope my suggestion will be

Our readers sometimes apologize for asking “nonprofessional”
questions. All queries about the growth of language are welcome on this blog,
and it is obvious that a linguist has access to the information rarely
accessible to nonspecialists. As I said in my first post three months ago, if
I do not know the answer, I usually know where to look it up.

Reader questions sent during the first months of
the summer will be answered in “Monthly Gleanings (June/July 2006)” on July 26.

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.

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