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Monthly Gleanings: February 2007

By Anatoly Liberman

General. 1) To what extent are you making use of extensive online historical text collections (or of the discoveries made by others who have recourse to them) in studying the etymology of words first attested in recent centuries? Since my immediate project (English vocabulary characterized by dictionaries as being of unknown origin) reflects the contours of its material but vaguely, I try to stay away from obscure regional words and exotic slang. The databases tell me many interesting things about the nuances of usage and occasionally suggest antedatings, but I have not yet come across a word whose etymology had to be modified in light of those findings.

2) How does one become an etymologist? What schools in the US teach etymology? These questions turn up with some regularity. Etymology is part of language history. To become an etymologist, one should study the development of as many languages as possible. This includes historical phonetics, historical grammar, and historical lexicology. No school anywhere teaches etymology as a special discipline, but it is an inalienable part of courses like “The History of English/German/Latin,” etc. My book Word Origins… is not a manual of etymology, but someone who reads it will get an idea of the scope of an etymologist’s work. 3) How could the historical sources of the Bible have referred to homosexuality if the very terms homosexuality and heterosexuality were coined only in Psychopathia Sexualis by Krafft-Ebing (1892)? The Bible, naturally, does not use the words homo– and heterosexuality. Even the verb describing the “very grievous sin” of the Sodomites is unrevealing. The behavior of the mob is especially puzzling: “Bring them out unto us, that we may know them.” Exegesis and the semantics of know apart, the phenomenon was in the public eye from time immemorial, and words for it existed everywhere. For example, in the Germanic languages, the adjective arg referred to a passive male homosexual and was a mortal insult. One did not need Krafft-Ebing’s terms to speak about obvious things, just as we do not need a word for or theory of respiration, to be aware of breathing.

History, anthropology, and semantics. 1) Is Prussian related to Prussia, as Russian to Russia? Russian is an adjective derived from the ethnic name Rus. The Pruzzi, Prus(s)i, etc. (those are Latinized spellings), who inhabited Pruscia (Pruschia, Prussia), were a Baltic tribe, conquered by the Knights of the Teutonic Order in the 12th century. The extinct Prussian language, closely related to Lithuanian, has partly come down to us. We associate Prussia with West Prussia (Brandenburg), East Prussia, Bismarck, and the rise of Prussia as the nucleus of German power and often forget that the name of the province is not German. Similarly, Rus is not a Slavic name. 2) Why are some darker-skinned people called white, and why are they referred to as Caucasian? This terminology goes back to the classification of races offered by Johann Friedrich Blumenthal (1775-1840). He believed that the white race originated in the Caucasus. Hence all the inconsistencies we are “heirs to.” 3) I know that orange is a borrowed word, and it seems to have been borrowed relatively late. I wonder whether the reason that we describe some human hair as red, when it’s orange, is that English used to have no word to describe the color orange. The dates given in the OED are against this hypothesis. According to what is known today, the name of the fruit first turned up in English texts in 1387, and the earliest attestation of orange as a color term goes back to 1542. Thus, by now there has been enough time to modify the usage. But unexpectedly, the OED has no pre-1538 citations of red, applied to hair. The confusing modern usage is typical. The same color word often covers different tints and hues, and, conversely, the language may lack a much needed word. Light blue and dark blue are an example of such a lack. Indigo is fine, but the word strikes many as too technical. Gold is regularly called red in European epic poetry; it is not immediately clear why. Old English brun means “brown” and “shining,” and one wonders whether homonymy is at stake. As long as we think of “red” as only the color of blood, red beard sounds incongruous, but if we broaden the definition of red, everything will be fine. After all, words mean what the speaking community agrees they should mean. Numerous epithets like tawny, ginger, carroty, and carrots (the last two describing a red-haired person appeared at the end of the 17th century) show that language will always find a way out of an ambiguity.

Luther’s German. Luther said: “Gott tut nichts als schlecht und seine Lehre ist kindisch.” Have both italicized words changed their meaning? The answer is yes. To a modern speaker of German this sentence means: “God does nothing except what is bad, and His teaching is childish.” This has nothing to do with what Luther meant. Sometimes one and the same word splits into two. For example, Engl. strap and strop are phonetic variants of the same verb. Shade and shadow are continuations of the nominative and an oblique case of the same noun. A similar story can be told about German schlecht and schlicht. Both are cognates of Engl. slight. Schlecht originally referred to things that were smooth, level, straight, without turns or twists; it served as the opposite of krumm “crooked.” (Semi-obliterated traces of schlecht “straight” are preserved in the Biblical idiom schlecht und recht “in a way, after a fashion” and in the adverbs schlechthin/ schlechtweg/ schlecterdings “absolutely.”) Schlecht, endowed with this meaning, gave way to its northern German doublet schlicht, but Luther used schlecht with the old sense “simple, plain.” Later, schlecht, understood as “unadorned, unsophisticated,” fell even lower and came to mean “bad” (compare the many meanings of Engl. plain: plain truth, plain girl, etc.). Kindisch and kindlich fought for a long time, while dividing the semantic space between “childish” and “childlike.” Kindisch “childlike” occurred as late as the 18th century. Thus Luther was saying that God’s behavior is devoid of underhand dealings (it is plain), and the truth of His teaching is either so obvious that it is accessible even to a child or as pure as the words of a child. English-speakers have analogous troubles understanding Shakespeare, and even some 19th-century words no longer mean what we think they do.

Jewish names. Why does a name like Moses have s, whereas Joshua, for example, has sh? The question (which I did not quote in full) contained what I think is an approach to the correct answer. Jewish names did not always reach Europe by oral tradition, and many discrepancies are due to the vagaries of transliteration (the letters shin and sin are not regularly distinguished in Hebrew books) and the nature of the source. If a name passed through Greek, which has no sh-sound, it ended up with an s, as happened to Jesus. If, however, speakers wanted to reproduce the Biblical pronunciation of the name, they retained sh; hence Joshua. The same process accounts for s in Moses and sh in Moshe ~ Moishe.

Words of obscure origin. 1) Cahoots. It was first used in the singular; no citations prior to 1829 (in cahoot with) are given in the OED. The word is attributed to Southern and Western United States and has apparently always had a slangy character. Since the original meaning may have been “company, partnership,” both traditional derivations—from French cahute “cabin” and cohorte “cohort”—make sense, but the connection is hard to establish. Then there was French cahot “difficulty, obstacle,” the alleged etymon (source) of American Engl. cahoo “pitch hole” (attested in 1874: “the highways… full of pitchholes [sic] or ‘cahoos’.” Consequently, be in cahoots with someone may have meant “in the difficulties of business, in the same boat with someone.” Cotgrave, a 17th-century lexicographer, lists French cahute and cahuette, the second of them meaning the same as luette “little bundles of peeces of Ivorie cast loose vpon a table; the play is to take vp one without shaking the rest, or else the taker loseth” (the spelling as in the original). The sentence he knocked the thing out of cahoots, that is, into disorder (cited in 1903 in Notes and Queries by an instructor at the State University), fits Cotgrave’s definition to a T but does not elucidate the origin of the French noun. We may be dealing with a word from the late medieval French argot, and such words are difficult to etymologize. To make matters worse, cahoot need not at all be a borrowing from French! In the eighties of the 19th century, a man notorious for his bustling self-importance was called a cohooter, possibly a “hooter,” with the reinforcing prefix co– (also spelled as ka-, as in caboodle, and ker-). Yet a direct connection between cohooter and cahoot is not likely. In Cornwall, hoot “company, business” has been recorded, and Francis A. Wood, whom I have once mentioned in a laudatory context, explained cahoots as ca– plus that hoot, but the British regional word is known too little, while in American English (and cahoots seems to be an “Americanism”) no dictionary lists hoot in this meaning. Of the conjectures mentioned above, the one tracing cahoot to an underworld term seems to be the most reasonable, even though it does not lead to the solution of the riddle. 2) Gazebo. The word, first attested in 1752, makes one think of Engl. gaze, for a gazebo is “a high building from which a distant prospect might be obtained,” to quote a 19th-century definition. This association gave rise to several uninspiring exercises in folk etymology: from gaze arbor, gaze about, gaze-bo (as in Bo-peep), and so forth, including even a German phrase. Most dictionaries trace gazebo to a pseudo-Latin form: Engl. gaze with the Latin ending of the future in the verbs of the second conjugation (like videbo “I will see”). The Latin futures placebo and lavabo, turned into English nouns, might suggest the blend gazebo. But the OED makes an important point. When gazebo surfaced in English, it was used to describe a Chinese tower (but not a pagoda) for a garden, a second-story lantern or cupola for a “Gothic grotto,” a belvedere, and other structures, particularly in Mediterranean countries. This circumstance suggested to the editors of the OED that gazebo might be “a corruption of some Oriental word.” Arabic qasbah “citadel” was later offered as that Oriental word. The origin of gazebo remains undiscovered, but, most likely, the OED is right. Once the foreign word reached English soil, it was misinterpreted as having the root gaze. 3) Georgia cracker. Next to nothing is known about the circumstances in which this phrase arose. Florida cracker and Kentucky cracker have also been attested. The allusion might be to cracker “boaster” (all over the world, southerners have a reputation for bragging) or to corn cracker (“hog and hominy are their food”). The phrase was clearly coined as a slur. 4) Schnook. This word (properly, shnuk) is from Yiddish, and its history was traced convincingly in the periodical Baltistica for 1988. Yiddish borrowed Lithuanian snukis “muzzle, snout,” with a common substitution of s(c)hn– for sn-,” but Yiddish-speakers applied it contemptuously to human beings and often used it in swearing. The current meaning in English is less offensive (“dupe, simpleton” or, for the benefit of those who collect such words, “gull, cully”). Snukis resembles Engl. snout, but the consonants given in boldface are different, so that their affinity is less clear than it seems.

Transparent words. 1) Turtleneck. The allusion (as suggested in the question) is to the way a turtle extends its head from the shell. These sweaters were also called polo necks and roll necks. The earliest citation given in dictionaries dates to the 1897 Sears & Roebuck catalog. The name of the person who invented the term is, as usual, lost. 2) Wherewithal. The word has been known since the end of the 16th century. Withal meant “as well, with it ~ with them, along with the rest.” Note the modern spelling with one l at the end. 3) Panache. It is another 16th-century word, this time borrowed from French, ultimately from Italian. The development from “plume of feathers as head dress” to “display, pretension” is easy to understand, but the figurative meaning did not turn up in texts before the end of the 19 century. 4) Rock’n’roll. Apparently, this word (first recorded in 1934, but made popular in the fifties) means what it suggests, though the initial allusion may have been to (wild) sex. In retrospect, many phrases are said to have had sexual overtones. One should not be in a hurry to take such explanations on trust. 5) Apoplectic. This is a learned borrowing from Greek. The prefix (apo-) often means “completely,” and the root is related to a verb meaning “strike.” 6) Cleave. The verb cleave seems to combine two opposite meanings: “adhere to” and “split.” The reason is that it goes back to two different verbs: Old Engl. cleofian ~ clifian (with a short vowel in the root) and cleofan (with a long vowel). In the course of time, their forms merged, but even today we should speak of two homonyms, rather than of two meanings of the same word. 7) Egg. In its present form, this word was borrowed from Scandinavian; hence –gg at the end, as opposed to German Ei “egg,” for instance (the Old English form was close to Ei). It is related to Latin ovum “egg” and avis “bird.” Apparently, the word for “egg” was used to coin the word for “bird,” a rare case when the relation of the chicken and the egg is clear. 8) Knee, knife, and their ilk. Once k– was pronounced in them. Although it has been mute for centuries, it is retained in conservative English spelling. The same is true of gn– in gnash and gnaw. For details see my post on “some unpronounceable words.” 9) Converse. Not a back formation from the noun conversation (as is, for example, televise from television), but a regular reflex (continuation) of Old French converser, from Latin conversari. The meaning has changed dramatically from “live” (in Latin) to “pass one’s life” (in Old French) and further to “exchange words.”

(I have incorporated into these “gleanings” some of the questions asked at my talk show on Minnesota Public radio in January.)

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 [email protected]; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”

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