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Monthly Gleanings: April 2007

anatoly.jpgBy Anatoly Liberman

R-less English dialects again. The correspondent who last month inquired about the loss of r in British dialects, wanted to learn more about that process. First a few general remarks. The so-called resonants (l, r, m, and n) are often absorbed by preceding vowels or lost. This is how nasal vowels arose in French (oral vowels merged with n and m). The archaic spelling of Engl. walk, folk, and calm alerts us to the fact that l was at one time pronounced in all such words. In early Middle English, palesie “palsy” developed from Old French paralesie “paralysis,” and mossel for morcel “morsel” was attested at the same time. 14th-century examples of this type are numerous, but the change seems to have reached its peak by the 18th century, when (naturally) it was criticized by those who did not want to see English “corrupted.” As I have said more than once, it is instructive and pleasant to study the history of language, but disgusting to be part of it. Any large colony is a melting pot of dialects, and we can assume that among those who came to the New World some people rolled their r’s, others pronounced them weakly, and still others barely sounded them after vowels and in word final position. In the metropolis, the change went on: words like fort and fought became homonyms, and dawn began to rhyme with adorn. In American English, this pronunciation did not achieve the status of the norm, though it is rather widespread on the East Coast. As to the prestige of the r-less dialects (the question contained this point), phonetic variants are never admired for linguistic reasons (vowels and consonants are neither beautiful nor ugly: everything is in the mind of the observer). People usually imitate the speech of those whose position in society guarantees success, and to an American ear, all the irony notwithstanding, King’s/Queen’s English sounds as particularly “classy.”

Why do we have words for “widow” and “orphan” but not for someone whose child or other close relative has died? Can I suggest such a word? As long as a community is governed by law, it has legal guidelines for inheritance. This is why the words widow and orphan were needed. It was necessary to protect the rights of those who would have become destitute after the death of the breadwinner. The loss of a child, sister, or brother did not involve comparable problems. Both widow and orphan have wide connections in the Indo-European languages and in the beginning were devoid of emotional overtones. Originally, they meant “bereft.” I would not dare to create the neologism our correspondent is looking for. Perhaps survivor will do. It is better than subsister, a noun with the suffix -ee (like deprivee), or some pompous word made up of Latin and Greek roots.

Are houri and whore related? No, they are not. Houri, taken over into English from French, is ultimately an Arabic word meaning “gazelle-like in the eyes,” from hawira “to be black-eyed like the gazelle” (the transliteration is simplified). The meaning “voluptuous, seductive woman,” known from English and French, is secondary. By contrast, whore has retained its ancient meaning almost intact. The English word has cognates in all the Old Germanic languages (for example, Gothic hors meant “adulterer”). By a well-known rule, Germanic h corresponds to k in other Indo-European languages, so that we find Latin carus and Old Irish cara “friend” among the words akin to whore. In Germanic, the meaning “dear, loving” deteriorated and was associated with illicit sex and promiscuity. Thus, neither the sounds (Indo-European k versus Arabic h) nor the meanings of the two words match.

Is there a connection between kayak and its approximate Turkish synonym caique? Our correspondent provided a link to http://www.idiocentrism.com/kayak.htm and asked my opinion about the article by John J. Emerson, who argues that the Eskimo word goes back to the Turkish one. I find Emerson’s explanation convincing. The factual basis of his etymology is solid, and he is aware of the linguistic traps that the uninitiated tend to ignore. Since the article is available in the Internet, I see no need to retell it. Those interested in the history of flat-bottomed boats from East to West will find an interesting chapter on the subject in Emerson’s work. As an amusing addendum to his essay I can say that the Russian word kaiuk means not only the boat of the type discussed here (though the meaning of the Slavic word poses some difficulties) but also “quick (catastrophic) end.” Apparently, the Turkish boat was not a safe vessel.

A few separate words. Another correspondent wonders whether some words she heard from her grandfather exist or were his invention. Boychick “kid.” The guess in the letter that the word is of (Eastern, Ashkenazi) Yiddish origin is correct. It is made up of Engl. boy and a diminutive suffix borrowed from Slavic (compare Russian mal’chik “boy”; mal– “small”). Boychick is not rare in Jewish families. Bumbershoot “umbrella.” This is another relatively common word, first attested in texts in 1896. It looks like bumbrella, with its end changed to describe the “shooting” (opening) of the umbrella and initial b- perhaps added to make it sound slangy (consider bimbo, bamboozle, bum, bumble, and other less than dignified b-words). Dapadoodle “hat.” This colorful word has not turned up in any source I have consulted, but, considering the previous results, I am sure that it existed. Since doodle means “stack a pile; decorate” and also “round object,” it is an appropriate second part of a word for a hat. The vowel a in the middle (assuming that we are dealing with dapadoodle rather than dapperdoodle) often serves as a connecting element: compare cock-a-doodle-doo (and note another doodle). Dap ~ dab belongs to a group of sound symbolic verbs designating a light movement. You “dap” a “doodle” and look jaunty and dapper with a hat on. Putchky “baby girl.” Here again I have been unable to find an exact correspondence, but putchkity “grouchy,” pudjicky, and so on (many variants) occur widely. Perhaps the old man referred to disgruntled, pouting girls? Or could he have had pudge ~ podge “short, fat person” in mind? In any case, all the words are real, even though their origin is sometimes obscure.

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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  2. John Cowan

    It seems that boi became the current word in Americanized Yiddish quite rapidly, displacing the earlier ingl (< Jüngel, presumably). See Mencken.

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