Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Monthly Gleanings: March 2007

anatoly.jpgBy Anatoly Liberman

How should one read etymological dictionaries?
One of our readers found an entry dealing with the origin of the word nun confusing and asked the question given in the heading above. Everything depends on which reference works we turn to. In a regular “thick” dictionary, information on word origins is congested, but The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology, Weekley, and Skeat, for example, are not written in “telegraphese.” The fact that some “resource” is online (and this is the resource our correspondent used) does not guarantee its quality. However, even the best and the most detailed etymological dictionaries presuppose the user’s knowledge of the linguistic map of the modern and medieval world and the periodization in the history of languages (Old English, Middle English, Vulgar Latin, Gothic, and so forth), of terms like lengthening, shortening, and umlaut, and many other things that specialists take for granted and the lay reader has no notion of, especially nowadays, when grammar is taught sporadically and badly and Latin (to say nothing of Greek) is the joy of the vituperated elite (hasn’t elitist become a term of abuse?). In any case, nonna is the feminine of Latin nonnus “monk.” From ecclesiastical Latin it made its way into Old English. The original meaning of nonnus and nonna was “old man” and “old woman,” both possibly baby words that later narrowed their sphere of application.

Avoiding verbal clutter. As far as I understand, the question is about “words” like ugh. Public speaking is not my area, and I have not read, let alone written, anything on this subject, but I have worked with a few people suffering from “verbal clutter.” It seems that the only remedy is severe self-control: every time you want to use a “filler,” stop and swallow. Pauses are irritating, but with time they will disappear. Good luck.

A question from a non-native speaker of English: Does English have any “virtues” that distinguish it from other languages? As a means of communication every language is perfect. In our childhood we manage to learn the most unpronounceable sounds and the most complicated grammatical forms, and if a speaking community needs a word for a new concept, it will coin or borrow it. Since progress (understood as amelioration) is a concept hardly ever applicable to language, special virtues of English, Turkish, Swahili, or Japanese do not exist, but one can point out a few conspicuous features of English. English has lost most of its morphology (cf. I, we, you, they write and the conjugation of the verb in the Romance languages; note also the formation of English plural: except for children, oxen, and words like dictum and automaton, -s/-es is its universal ending. However, the simplicity of English morphology is more than made up for by the length of constructions like would have been done (three auxiliaries) and the capricious rules of word order. Another remarkable feature of Modern English is the richness of its vocabulary, especially of its Romance component. And finally, I would mention the tyranny of slang (whether it is a “virtue” or a “vice” is a matter of opinion). Ever-changing and opaque to outsiders, it varies from place to place. Foreigners should use it sparingly (slang and accent do not go together), but no one can survive in the English speaking world without knowing slang.

The origin of three animal idioms. Wild horses shall not drag it from me. As always, unless a proverbial saying is a familiar quotation attributable to a definite book (the Bible, for instance) or author, its origin is impossible to ascertain. The nucleus of this idiom was first attested in 1380. Here is an example dated 1523: “He was so true, that to be drawen [= drawn] with wylde horses, he wolde never consent to any shame.” Curiosity killed a (the) cat. This idiom is fairly recent, for it does not turn up in any medieval or early Modern English text. Allegedly, it is a variant of care killed the cat, which surfaced first in Much Ado about Nothing (1599), that is, also late. According to The Oxford English Dictionary (OED), care was deadly despite the cat’s proverbial nine lives (hence the saying). All the books I have consulted repeat this explanation, which does not strike me as particularly convincing. I have often heard the second part of the saying: “…but satisfaction brought it back.” In response to my post on the origin of the idiom it rains cats and dogs, a reader wrote that she had heard the explanation from her school teacher that cats and even small dogs would climb up into thatched roofs to sleep, and, when heavy rains would come, they would not be able to hold on to the wet thatch and would fall to the ground. The reader comments: “Seems at least as unlikely as some of your candidates!” (I mentioned a number of fanciful conjectures.) Indeed! Folk etymology is like gossip: a regular perpetuum mobile. The idea of actual cats and dogs falling to the ground and suggesting the idiom!

The origin of three words. Backbiting. This word occurred in a sermon as early as the end of the 12th century; yet it may not be native. Backbiting is isolated in Modern English (the verb backbite and the noun backbiter have been attested, but does anyone use them today?), whereas in the Scandinavian languages both the verb and the noun are common, and so are a few synonyms of backbite/backbiting with the structure back + talk (speak). It is therefore probable that we are dealing with a borrowing from Scandinavian (Middle Swedish?). The meaning of the metaphor needs no comment: backbiting is similar to stabbing someone in the back. Ceramist and ceramicist. According to the OED, the first of those words was attested in 1855, whereas the only citation of ceramicist goes back to 1930. How are the two words related? Did ceramist have an intermediate stage? The two words seem to be independent coinages. As a rule, when the name of a doer (nomen agentis) has to be derived from the name of a profession ending in -ic(s), the suffix -ian is used: cf. logician, pediatrician, mathematician, and so forth. Occasionally, –ist competes with -ian: cf. physicist versus physician. Someone who needed a corresponding noun derived from ceramics could have tried ceramician (obviously, this coinage had no appeal), ceramicist, or a noun with a suffix added directly to the stem, whence ceramist. No intermediate stages have to be reconstructed. Tightwad. A student has been assigned to research the structure and history of this word and sent us several questions. To my mind, she should do the work herself: dictionaries, databases, and books on word formation are plentiful.

British and American vowels. What accounts for the difference in the pronunciation of words like bath in British and American English? Only a general answer can be given here. There is no doubt that the split occurred after the colonization of the New World. Shakespeare’s pronunciation was in some respects closer to the pronunciation of a modern American that to that of a modern speaker of the Stratford dialect. I have read a story about an English professor at Cambridge University reciting a sonnet by Shakespeare the way it must have sounded at the end of the 16th century. In the group there was an American student, who said: “This is exactly the way bus drivers speak in Ohio.” Colonial languages are usually more conservative than the language of the metropolitan left behind (the same holds for some customs). American and Canadian English, Canadian and Louisiana French, and Pennsylvania Dutch (Dutch here means “deutsch,” that is, German) are typical examples. The question then is why in British English words like bath, after, and ask are pronounced with the vowel of Prague and father and not with the vowel of bat, fan, and ass. The causes of most sound changes are understood imperfectly, but the older the change, the easier it is to offer bold hypotheses. The value of the vowels in bath and the rest changed “the day before yesterday,” as far as the history of English is concerned, and this makes the problem doubly puzzling. Several explanations of the bath/trap split have been put forward, but I cannot go into them without being bogged down in a multitude of technical details. Also, the work would not be worth the trouble, for none of the explanations known to me succeeded in solving the riddle.

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.”

Recent Comments

  1. Calvin Warby

    On our yearly horseback trips when I was a boy, the narrow trails necessitated that the horses travel single file. The horses were all unfamiliar with each other. Invariably, each horse that was following another horse up the trail would repeatedly try to bite the horse in front of it on the backside. I’ve often wondered if horses biting when following one another may have anything to do with the word, “backbiting”.

Comments are closed.