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Monthly Gleanings




By Anatoly Liberman

Spelling reform and genitals will keep the rubric “gleanings” afloat forever. In connection with my series of posts on the oddest English spellings (which will be continued), I received several questions about dyslexia and orthography. Since I am unacquainted with the neural aspects of dyslexia, I cannot have a professional opinion on this subject, but the main divide seems to be between alphabetic languages and those using hieroglyphs (such as Chinese) rather than between languages like Finnish, in which the word’s aural Gestalt and visual image correspond remarkably well, and languages like English, in which the spelling of numerous words is unpredictable (bury, build, bosom, choir, till ~ until, and so forth), for different parts of the brain control our mastery of letters versus symbols (in this case, pictures).

Now to the genitals. Thanks to the correspondent who provided a quotation of dildoes from John Donne’s “Elegy 2: The Anagram” (1599). Those lines confirm the fact that the word was well-known in Shakespeare’s days. While our British correspondent was watching “Bedknobs and Broomsticks,” an idea occurred to her that the opprobrious sense of knob had existed for centuries. My information on this subject is sparse. Knob “penis” was indeed known in the second half of the 17th century, but neither Shakespeare nor his younger contemporaries, whose language is often coarser than his, seem to have used it, even in puns, while reproducing the speech of their time. Nor do I find it in the old classical dictionaries of slang. Apparently, it reemerged after a long period of underworld existence only in the 20th century.

By way of compensation, I will add a note to my old post on the origin of Engl. brain. I suggested in it that brain is akin to bran and that the earliest meaning of the word was approximately “refuse,” not too different from “gray matter.” At that time I did not remember that 400 years ago the brain was supposed to produce semen, because both substances look rather similar. Hence the allusion to “brains between legs.” As regards Italian fiasco, I am sure that, contrary to a guess of our correspondent, far’ fico and far’ fiasco are unrelated. Some discussion of the Italian word (in connection with Engl. fig) can be found in my An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction; fig is mentioned in the entry on the F-word. To the best of my knowledge, far’ fiasco had no scurrilous overtones when it was coined. Fiasco (this is an answer to a different question) can, of course, have entered English directly from Italian, but if an Italian word (except for art terms and those pertaining to Italian realities) is also current in French and if the chronology does not militate against such a conclusion, it is safer to suggest that English took it over from French rather than Italian. I will return to fiasco in a different context.

In my etymological database, only one citation on poontang turned up. G. Legman wrote in the journal American Speech 25, 1950, p.234: “The Southern term poontang, for sexual intercourse ‘especially between Negro & white’ (Wentworth), is popularly and mistakenly believed to be a Negro word, perhaps of African origin. Actually, as pointed out by the well-known translator Keene Wallis, poontang is merely a heavily nasalized Creole pronunciation of the French word putain, whore, and undoubtedly spread through the South from French-speaking Louisiana. Wallis reports it as current in Missouri about ‘1915’.” This is followed by twelve quotations (but not from Wallis), three of them from Look Homeward, Angel (1929; Poon Tang). Few words are more detrimental to an etymology than undoubtedly and doubtlessly, but the derivation from putain is not bad, and the southern provenance of poontang seems to be correct.

A question was asked about the adverb yet. It concerns usage, but the development of yet also has a historical dimension. Our correspondent finds the sentence “Has Lucy come yet?” strange. It sounds perfectly idiomatic to me. In Modern English, yet has numerous meanings, and in two situations it alternates with “substitutes.” One is still: he is still here ~ he is not here yet. The other is already: he has already come ~ has he come yet? Apparently, the latter alternation is not universal; otherwise, there would have been no query. A few things about past usage may be of interest. Still is an adjective (“quiet, motionless”) and an adverb, as above. In Shakespeare’s language still meant “always” (“Thou still hast been the father of good news”). In some British dialects, yet occurs as still was in the 16th and 17th century. Consequently, it may be that in Wordsworth’s sonnet addressed to Milton: “So didst thou travel on life’s common way / In cheerful godliness, and yet thy heart / The lowliest duties on herself did lay,” yet is misunderstood by modern readers, for Wordsworth may have meant “and always (ever) thy heart.”

Extinction of Languages. The disappearance of every language, like the disappearance of every species, is an irreparable loss, and it is a good thing that in the 20th century many languages have been saved from extinction and in a few cases even revived (Hebrew is an anthologized example). But it is also a fact that languages, and not necessarily endangered ones, those with few speakers left, have been dying throughout history. Take Hittite, Hunnish, and Gothic. They were spoken by tens of thousands of people forming powerful tribal unions. What is left are a heap of clay tablets, a few biblical fragments, and the like, while from preliterate societies (to which the Huns belonged) almost nothing has remained. Vandals have a bad press, though at one time they were not worse than, say, the Goths. The Vandals are gone, and, but for a few names and words recorded by the Romans, we would have had no idea of their language. History is cruel; however, it is also unpredictable: it sometimes spares the weak and destroys the strong.

Etymologies. How are Engl. bold and Old Icelandic ballr related, considering that the Icelandic word meant “frightful, dangerous, fatal?” Adjectives often refer to a quality possessed by an individual and the effect this quality has on others. Here we deal with courage and its results: a stout-hearted person is “bold,” whereas his boldness is “dangerous” to others. Can Engl. evil be related to Latin evilescere “to become vile, worthless, despicable,” and, if such a possibility exists, can certain conclusions be drawn with relation to the writings of early English saints? Our correspondent is correct in isolating the root of vilis “vile” in the Latin verb (e– is a prefix). This structure excludes its affinity to evil, but any influence of this relatively rare Latin verb on the Old English adjective should also be ruled out, because the original form of evil was yfil (the modern pronunciation of the stressed vowel is a “Kentism”) and because its cognates, beginning with Gothic, already had the meaning it has today. A medieval scholar would have been delighted to catch at the similarity between evil and evilescere, but by the time umlaut changed u in ubil– (the reconstructed but secure protoform of evil) to y, let alone by the Middle English period (when Old Engl. long y yielded e), all the works cited in the letter had been written and become canon. Ubil-, though pronounced with -v-, did not sound like Latin evil- and would not have inspired even the most ingenious thinker of the Middle Ages. The literature on counting-out rhymes is vast. As always, I am grateful for every tip, but, while writing about eena-meena, I included among my references only those works that deal with the origin of the relevant words, and such works are not many

Pronunciation and grammar. (I won’t repeat the questions, for they can be guessed from the answers.) Unless the norm has changed in recent years, the first vowel in Coventry has the value of o in on. It is true that the o in womb is not identical with its counterpart in woman. But since I do not use phonetic symbols in this blog, I disregarded the vowels’ respective duration. Food and foot are distinguished in the same way (the first oo designates a longer sound). I doubt that anyone acquainted with Emily Bronte’s novel pronounces wuthering, as in Wuthering Heights, with the vowel of strut, though the name Wuthering does have such a vowel. It was good to hear that the OED allows shrank, my past tense of shrink, to exist. I am aware of the fact that in American English the common past form of shrink is shrunk but feel quite comfortable with my slightly idiosyncratic grammar. There is no way I can keep abreast of the times. Most people around me say shined where I say shone (my shone used to rhyme gone, and when I finally made it rhyme with lone, it was too late: shined replaced both). Likewise, I refuse to say plead-pled and stick to pleaded. Little restaurants in my area post the coy apology: “Excuse us: we are slightly old-fashioned.” I am afraid I should carry a board on my breast with a similar message.

Antedatings and contested etymologies. Thanks to Stephen Goranson for his information about the first occurrences of fiasco and snob. Snob remains a word that reached London around the 1770’s. The story connecting the introduction of fiasco with a bad performance by Biancolelli, the harlequin, has been repeated many times, and I knew it. I cannot disprove it, but long experience has taught me to treat such tales with great distrust. When it comes to etymology, they usually turn out to be wrong. One can imagine that far’ fiasco had existed before the actor’s poor performance and that he deliberately carried a bottle around his neck, a good precautionary measure for all of us, whether comedians or etymologists.

Anatoly_libermanAnatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them as well as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. 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. Justin T. Holl, Jr.

    I think in the legal field “pled” is more common than pleaded, though both are acceptable.

  2. D. Wilson

    Apparently I’m not the only one who has found “fare fico” and “fare fiasco” suspiciously similar.

    Here is another etymological possibility for “fiasco”; of course I cannot judge the quality of the scholarship or the credentials of the author, but I’m sure it’s by somebody familiar with the Italian of the mid 19th century, so maybe it should be taken seriously (if only as one possible speculation).

    An ‘onomatopoeic’ origin is suggested here, in which the usual meanings of both “fico” and “fiasco” are more or less irrelevant … that is, if I’m reading it right!

    G. Gherardini, _Supplimento a’ Vocabolarj Italiani_ (Milano, 1854): v. 3, p. 86:


  3. D. Wilson

    Sorry: my post was truncated. Here’s the quotation.

    //FARE FICO. _Dare in nulla_, o, come vulgarm. si dice in oggi, _Fare fiasco_. In alcuni casi potrebbesi anche dire, ma bassissimamente, _Fare una vescia_; e forse tra _Far fico_ e _Fare una vescia_ non c’è altro divario, se non che in questa seconda frase è nominata la cosa pe ‘l suo nome, e nella prima si vuol farne sentire il suono, pronunziando la prima sillaba di _fico_ in modo che quel _fi_ allungato e stiracchiato esprima come un vento o soffio. Lo stesso potrebbe dirsi dell’altra frase vulgare _Far fiasco_, dovendosi pronunziare divisamente _fi-a-sco_, e allungar la sillaba _fi_ come in _fico_. Nè ciò parrà strano o ridicolo, se si consideri che simili frasi s’inventanto dal vulgo, e che il vulgo si diletta di tali sozze allusioni. Molte altre frasi vulgari hanno parimente bisogno, per essere intese e far giuoco, o di gesti appropriati o d’una maniera particolare di pronunziarle.//

  4. D. Wilson

    A few remarks.

    The quotation says (according to my primitive understanding) that “fare fico” and “fare fiasco” are essentially synonymous, meaning “dare in nulla”, = “fail”. It says there is another equivalent, “fare una vescia” (i.e., lit., “make/do a fart”), and it speculates that “fico” and “fiasco” were pronounced “fiiiico” and “fiiiiasco” to make a ‘farting’ sound, so that both stood in for the concept “fart” and indicated failure.

    One may compare English “fizzle” [noun], which I think is essentially “fart” etymologically but which I think is nearly equivalent to “fiasco” in modern English.

    This “fare fico” appears to be entirely distinct from “fare la fica” (or “fare le fiche”) = “make the ‘fig’ gesture”. The above piece does not have any reference to “fare la fica”, and other similar references also fail to make any connection.

  5. mollymooly

    In Ireland “bold” usually means “naughty”, usually said of (and to) children. I suppose this is an extension of the commoner current sense rather than a throwback to the older one.

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