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Monthly Gleanings: November, 2006

By Anatoly Liberman

The first question in November was about the verb giggle. Can it carry romantic connotations? Our correspondent suggests that giggle sometimes means “to send out rays.” I can find no support for that statement. Dickens writes in Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club (as quoted in The Century Dictionary): “The cook and Mary retired into the back kitchen to titter for ten minutes, then returning all giggles and blushes, they sat down to dinner.” So much for romantic love.

Giggle and titter have similar origins: they are “reduplicating” verbs (both syllables begin with the same consonant, which is typical of verbs meaning “shake, quaver”: cf. German beben). Since short i often occurs in words designating small things, giggle is “small” in comparison to its onomatopoeic twin gaggle. Giggle sounds so much like the corresponding Dutch verb that it may be a borrowing into English. In any case, contrary to the assertions of some authorities, it hardly has anything to do with verbs of yawning and gaping. The sentence about “walking, giggling with their sparks,” occurring in the OED, is easy to misunderstand, because spark “suitor, lover,” a word widely used in the 18th and most of the 19th century, is now all but forgotten. Bellegarde says in his Reflexions upon Ridicule, or, What it is that Makes a Man ridiculous… (a long-winded treatise on improper behavior): “Could it be believ’d, unless we saw it with our Eyes, that Women eminent for their Quality and their Birth, plum’d themselves upon their Gallantries and establish’d their Merit upon the Number and Reputation of their Lovers? So far are they from making a secret of these kind of Affairs, that they talk of them with the same Freedom as if they were things indifferent; we see them in the Mall and in the Park, walking, giggling with their Sparks; they resort together to the Plays and Gaming-Houses, and are never apart.” Apparently, a hundred years before Dickens “women of quality and birth” were not more discreet in the presence of their beaus than Mary was in the company of the amorous cook.

From giggling to the ambiguity of the suffix -ette. In Old English, the suffix -et formed nouns from adjectives, but thicket seems to be the only common word of this type that has come down to us, so that we may safely treat stressed -ette in Modern English as a borrowing from French. This suffix denoted small objects (kitchenette is a classic example); launderettes must originally have also been thought of as cozy. It is true that “small” and “feminine” have been connected in people’s minds since the beginning of creation, but the use of -ette to denote women does not predate the 20th century. Suffragette appeared in 1906 and was followed by such evanescent coinages as undergraduatte, yeomanette “woman doing clerical work for the Navy,” sailorette, and other equally risible coinages (I wrote risible, to avoid the -ly—lu- clash in equally ludicrous, and not to repeat ridiculous from the previous paragraph). Frisket “thin framework of iron hinged to the top of the tympan of a hand press” is from French (frisquette).

Now a few remarks on separate words. Blog is from web log. Hebrew bima (in transliteration) does mean “lectern from which the Torah is read,” but the Greek word bema “step, footprint; leadership; judge’s seat; platform for an orator or for a speaker at court” (beta, eta with a circumflex sign, mu, alpha) will sound somewhat like Hebrew bima only if the eta is pronounced as though it were e in Engl. be. Thus the two words are not homonyms, and there is no coincidence. I share one of our correspondent’s doubt about the oft-repeated origin of Engl. humongous from huge and monstrous. Blending would have produced a different result. But referring humongous to homunculus does not solve the problem. Even if homunculus did not mean “manikin,” we would face the problem that always arises in tracing one word to another. How did the putative etymon (source) make its way into speech at a certain moment in history? What were the paths of dissemination? If this question cannot be answered, any new hypothesis will be as unconvincing as its predecessors. Another correspondent wonders why her father called her liver-lipped when she was small and jutted her lip to express dismay and puzzlement, considering that the term “has its origin in black culture.” Wherever the word originated, it has been recorded only as an ethnic slur, to describe dark-skinned people with protruding lips. In the white family in which the girl’s father used liver-lipped about his pouting daughter, the epithet must have been his individual, more or less jocular usage.

A ten-year old has brought home the word frigging and defends himself against his father’s reprimand by saying that frigging is the same as freaking. How good is the defense? Not bad, all things considered. Numerous F-words, including the ignoble one, mean (as far as their etymology is concerned) “move back and forth.” Some of them for example, flip and flop) have intrusive l. Intrusive r occurs too. Old Engl. frician meant “to dance,” so, in a way, also “move back and forth.” Since Modern Engl. freak, originally “sudden change of fortune,” surfaced in texts only in the 16th century, the connection between it and frician is hard to establish. The other meanings of freak were attested even later; yet they may be part of the larger f-group. Frig has probably always meant “masturbate”; and its reference to movements back and forth need no proof. Frigging was used as a gentler variant of f—ing and remained unprintable until our enlightened age liberated us from both prejudice and sensibility. But it is still a coarse word, and freaking, which sounds like frigging and is therefore felt to be its synonym (especially now that freak out is so common), has become its convenient substitute. The student newspaper at my university has recently wished one of its despondent readers to have freaking good fun. The ten-year old has only the haziest notion of the subject in hand and can be forgiven. How acceptable is the verb verse (from versus, I presume) “play against”? It is probably an invention of some sports journalist. To my conservative taste, it is an ugly verb, though perhaps less ugly than morph “to change.” But English is a language of monosyllables (come, go, sit, lie, doc, prof, Dick, Rick, and the rest), so that verse, a homonym of the already existing noun verse, has a good chance of survival.

And finally: How reliable are etymologies in the ED, especially when it comes to French? All etymologies in the OED are excellent, even when they are wrong, because they are based on an exhaustive knowledge of the material and sober judgment, which presupposed disdain for idle speculation. Murray’s and Bradley’s comments are especially good. But etymology is a science of reconstruction, and its conclusions are seldom “final.” We know much more about the history of French and Anglo-French than the editors of the OED did; hence the need for numerous revisions.

There were so many questions this month some of them will be answered next month

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. Send your etymology question to blog.us@oup.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”

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