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Darkness At Noon And At All Other Times




By Anatoly Liberman

People always try to learn the origin of things, but the world and even most human institutions arose so long ago that our reconstruction can seldom be secure. Language is also old, and we know next to nothing about the circumstances in which it arose. The age of words differs greatly: some were coined millennia ago, others are recent. Etymologists try to discover how all of them came into being. Sometimes they succeed. More often they hide behind cautious hypotheses. But it seems that in at least one case everything is clear. Whatever the origin of do, joy, tire, and ship, the derivation of doer, joyful, tiresome, and shipment requires no elaborate comment: add an appropriate suffix to the root and get the desired form. Granted, occasional pitfalls are to be expected. For example, we no longer realize that buxom goes back to buhsum, that is, bowsome (a buxom person was originally ready to bend, obedient, (com)pliant, not plump and comely, as widows are in Victorian novels). Likewise, lissom(e) ‘lithe and agile’ must have developed from lithsom ‘lithesome’. In such matters, absolute transparency is rare.

Oddly, even when confronted with the simplest addition of the do + er type, we sometimes encounter puzzles. The rule seems to be “take a verb, add -er, and obtain the name of the doer.” But the root of widower is a noun, not a verb! And the same holds for miller. A drover is a cattle driver, but the root here is the noun drove, not the verb drive. The ancestor of the suffix –er (from Latin -arius) was not tied to verbs, as is seen, for example, in antiquary, revolutionary, and military, which are closer to their Latin past than is miller, but in Modern English an association between -er and verbs is strong. Long ago I began to collect recent words made up of nouns and -er. Their existence is a riddle to me. Who coined them and why? My collection is tiny but precious and will from now on be on permanent loan to this blog. The prize exhibit is boner, whose root is bone (noun). The vulgar meaning of boner “erect penis” belongs with horny and hard-on. Its implication needs no further comment, but what language genius launched it? More obscure is boner “blunder.” I wonder whether anyone will dare use it today for fear of arousing peals of obscene laughter, but the word exists, and dictionaries often cite only this innocuous meaning rather than both. Partridge noted that in Winchester College slang, boner means (or meant) “a sharp blow on the spine” and traced boner “blunder” to this usage—a most unlikely etymology (the Winchester boner must be akin to the vulgarism, for it refers to something hard). Weekley wondered whether boner “blunder” has anything to do with bonehead. Another wild guess, I am afraid. Most dictionaries state, in their inimitably trivial way, that boner is bone + er. How true! I also view with some dismay howler “ridiculous mistake,” another word for “blunder.” A howler should howl (and, to be sure, howler can mean “one who howls”), not make people howl with glee. Weekley mentions the phrase crying shame; the similarity between it and (?) “howling pronouncement” is not evident. Only poser can be explained well. It goes back to opposer, an old name for “examiner; interrogator”; the path was from “a person who asks difficult questions” to “a difficult question asked by such a person.”

I have always disliked the word standee, for the suffix -ee must designate recipients of something, as happens in addressee, employee, payee, and grantee. A standee, however, is not someone who is stood in a vehicle but a standing passenger. (It is also an ugly word, to my mind.) But standee is not totally isolated in English. A devotee is a person devoted to a cause, and a refugee is someone seeking refuge. The suffix –o, as in weirdo, enjoys some popularity in conversational English, and words with it are easy to understand. But the origin of blotto “unconscious from drinking” is indeed a poser. Dictionaries, which never leave us in the lurch, inform their users that blotto is blot + o. This is a good thing to know, but blot “spot; blemish” does not suggest drunkenness. Has someone who got blotto been blotted out, obliterated while imbibing too greedily? I am not sure. By way of compensation, I can say that a tipsy person “tips,” that is, tilts and is prone to overturning (the verb is dialectal or archaic in this meaning).

Perhaps the most impenetrable darkness envelops words with erratic vowel alternations. Vowels alternate in the so-called strong verbs of Modern English: write—wrote—written, give—gave, shake—shook, and so forth. By the same rule, the noun drove, mentioned above, is related to the verb drive. But I have no explanation for two words. Why do we have spokesman, rather than speaksman or speakman? This is particularly irritating because Middle English spekeman has been attested. A spokesman, it appears, should be the designation for someone who puts spokes into somebody’s wheels. By contrast, bespoke, as in bespoke suit, should not bother us. The past participles of many strong verbs end in -en (consider ridden, given, taken, and so forth). Once all of them had -en. In Middle English, this ending was often lost, to be restituted later, but tread still has the competing past participles trod and trodden, and broke (as in go broke) means “broken.” Bespeak is an archaic verb. In Middle English, its past participle was bespoken or bespoke. Bespoken has won out, except in the petrified phrases bespoke trade (hardly remembered today) and bespoke suit (mainly British but understood on both sides of the Atlantic), in which bespoke means “commissioned; made to order.”

In Old English, the word wealhstod “interpreter, translator” existed. Wealh- has continued into the present as Welsh; centuries ago, it meant “foreign” (whence walnuts “nuts imported from abroad”). But what is stod (the vowel in it was long)? The form coincides with the past tense of Old English standan “to stand” (Modern English stood). If a wealhstod was a kind of standby, a “standee” employed to assist guests from other countries, why was he not called wealhstanda or something like it? Is this word a freak like spokesman, or is stod in wealhstod not even allied to stand? A chance homonym? My final example is Shrovetide. Tide once meant “time” (compare Dutch tijd and German Zeit). In the saying time and tide wait for no one, the two nouns were once nearly interchangeable synonyms. Consequently, Shrovetide means “Shrovetime,” just as Eastertide means “Easter time.” The principal parts of shrive are shrive—shrove—shriven, like drive—drove—driven. Why then do we not have Shrivetide? Our best etymological dictionary calls the form abnormal. This I know myself. Spokesman is called irregular. Fair enough.

Darkness envelops us on all sides amidst the etymological night, but even when we hope to enjoy the brightest noon, eclipses are common, and this is why etymology is such an engrossing area of study. Where everything is clear, there is nothing for a searching mind to do.

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. Martin Henderson

    “A standee, however, is not someone who is stood in a vehicle but a standing passenger. (It is also an ugly word, to my mind.)”

    Its ugliness might be due in part to the grafting of a French suffix onto a Germanic root.

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