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By Anatoly Liberman

I received a few questions in connection with the runic alphabet. Not everybody realizes that the origin of various scripts is as hard to trace as that of the most exotic words. According to the evidence at our disposal, people always borrow scripts; yet someone somewhere must have been the inventor! The Greeks owe their script to the Phoenicians, and the Romans got their inspiration from the Greeks. The runic futhark was hardly used before the beginning of the Common Era, though some scholars trace it to a remoter period. Be that as it may, no inscriptions antedating the end of the second century C.E. exist in Scandinavia. Therefore, the Roman alphabet, to say nothing of the Greek one, is older than the futhark.

The ABC sequence does not seem to have had much influence on the futhark, and the greatest puzzle is precisely why not. It is unclear why those who borrowed the idea of the alphabet preferred to change the order of the letters. Since the medieval Scandinavians did well without literacy, the introduction of the futhark affected their life in a minimal way. Memorial inscriptions (which almost nobody could read), a few scratched runes on weapons and bracteates (pendants), and strings of nonsense runes (evidently, for magical purposes) are about all that we have from the earliest days.

The culture of the prehistoric Indo-Europeans was oral (otherwise there would have been no need to reconstruct their language: we would have tried to decipher their writings), and the same holds for the ancient Celts. The first inscriptions in the ogham alphabet of the British and Irish (that is, of the autochthonous inhabitants of the British Isles) are dated to the 5th and 6th centuries of the Common Era. There, as well as in Scandinavia, the spread of literacy is attributable to the adoption of Christianity and the establishment of monasteries. The monks’ activities presupposed a regular use of reading and writing.

It is true that that without reference to Proto-Indo-European many of uncertainties of etymology would have disappeared (no one would have thought of them), but the same can be said about all reconstructed and invisible entities: positing them calls forth a host of partly insoluble questions. Ignorance is bliss, and, as we know from Oscar Wilde, medicine is making great progress: it constantly discovers new diseases.

Snuck. Jonathan Lighter, the editor of a dictionary of American slang on historical principles, remarks: “I’ve posted an 1881 U.S. example of snuck to the A[merican] D[ialect] S[ociety] website. This antedates OED by just six years. I wonder if shake/shook might not be the inspiration, but I haven’t discovered any ex[amples] of the spelling {*snook} to lend support to this idea. The frequency of snuck in American print after about 1895 (and its rarity before) suggests an innovation in the generation following mass German and Irish immigration in the 1849s-’50. It would be consistent with known history, albeit entirely conjectural, to suspect some immigrant second-language influence reflected in snuck.” Like Lighter, I have no enthusiasm for the existing conjectures on the origin of snuck, but his observation contains a typical paradox. We take old changes for granted but feel uneasy when something happens in our time. If snuck had emerged in the 17th century, we would have been unimpressed, but how could sneak alter its preterit about a hundred years ago? A product of popular culture, a fashion that originated in slums, in a music hall, or among university wits, a vernacular word that was latent for a long time like punk, nudge, and their ilk, a foreignism? Snuck is an illegitimate form; hence the trouble.

The distinction between can and may. “Was it in fact an invention of Dr. Johnson,” with may implying permission and can implying ability? I am not sure because I do not know whose idea it is that this distinction originated with Samuel Johnson. In his dictionary (1755; the entry can), it is said that can implies power, while may implies volition. The examples are few, and Johnson only adds that in poetry the two verbs are often confused. Neither the OED nor numerous books on British and American usage emphasize the distinction, which is odd, seeing how much is said at school about the difference between Can I do it and May I do it? and about the loss or nonexistence of this difference in American English. If I hear more about the role imputed to Samuel Johnson, I will perhaps be able to discover the source of the opinion cited in the letter, but I doubt that the 1755 dictionary played a major role in making British speakers differentiate between can and may.

A few separate words. Witch. Our correspondent thinks that this word is Slavic and refers to Viatiches and others, who, according to the chronicler Nestor “lived after the manner of wild beasts.” Viatich is an ethnic term. It has the root viat– and the suffix –ich (as in Ivan Ilyich, that is, Ivan, Ilya’s son); –es is the plural ending. The other similar words have the same structure. Consequently, they have nothing to do with witch. The change of –cc to –(t)ch is regular: compare wretch, from Old Engl. wrecce. Willy-nilly has developed from the phrase wil I nil I “I am willing, I am unwilling.” Nil is will with a negation prefixed to it. The phrase was first recorded in the 17th century. Ravel ~ unravel. This is an often-asked question. Ravel, which looks like a borrowing of Dutch ravelen “tangle, fray out,” emerged at the end of the 16th century with the meaning “entangle, become entangled.” Unravel is nearly contemporaneous with it, as far as our texts go, and meant “disentangle,” the opposite of ravel. But words often live up to their meanings. Fraying out presupposes disintegration. This is probably why ravel began to mean unravel. The most common use of ravel, especially of ravel out, seems to be figurative, a circumstance that helps avoid the confusion, but the entanglement of forms is obvious.

Etymology is mainly about fraying out threads, and I could not finish December with a better example than ravel and its synonym-antonym unravel. Fortunately, happy does not mean unhappy.


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. Dan

    I have a question about dictionaries. How has Merriam-Webster become the authoritative source for word meanings? What about American Heritage? In what ways is American Heritage inferior, if any?

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