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Bimonthly Gleanings (July – August 2008)




Below I’ll answer the questions received since the last Wednesday of May.

Calls to animals. Our correspondent writes: “Growing up on a farm in the 1940’s and ‘50’s, I remember that we called our milk cows from the pasture by calling: ‘Come boss, come boss’, lengthening the vowel the second time. When calling the pigs to the trough, we called ‘sooey, sooey’ or ‘sui, pick, pick’. I know that boss comes from the Latin bos and sooey from the Latin sus. What I’m wondering is how these words came to survive in a German-speaking colony immigrating in the 1840’s and ‘50’s with education rarely achieving the eighth grade and little English spoken the first hundred years in America. Having visited our ancestral village in Kruchten, I learned that it was one of the most economically deprived areas of Germany (due to the fluctuation of German and French rule), with the unlikelihood that there was much of a classical education.However, the area around Trier, Germany, was one of the largest Roman outposts in the Roman Empire.My question: Is there a possibility that our Minnesotan words could possibly have originated in the Latin of the Roman Empire?”

Calls to animals are numerous, and linguists from various countries have discussed them many times. Here are the English calls stored in my database (their occurrence means that someone has tried to explain their origin, for otherwise I would not have included them): boss, chatty ~ chotty, cheet ~ cheety-puss, chibs, co-jack, coobiddy, coppe, cush(a), ge-ho, gee(gee, –hup, –wo), gisy(sy), goosy, guiss(ie), koh, prutchy, purr, seck, sess, shoo, sooey ~ suee, surg, turalura, whoa, and whosh-wo. Everybody poses the same question: “How could a Latin word survive in our villages?” I will reproduce a lengthy passage from a popular article written by John Ciardi in 1975: “In New England, farmers shout ‘Ho, Boss’ when calling their cows. In Ancient Greek, ho boss means ‘the cow’. Is that duplication an accident? The Midwestern hog call is based on su-ee! I take that usage to be about 8,000 years old…. If a Missouri farmer can speak Indo-European to his hogs, I will insist that a New England farmer can speak Greek to his cows…. I have no clue to the survival of su-ee. I will, however, borrow a lovely locution from Eric Partridge and ‘trepidate’ that Ho, Boss! is a legacy from an early American college professor. The curriculum of the colonial college was based on Hebrew, Greek, and Latin—the languages of the biblical ministry. One of the standard perquisites of early professorship was the right to graze a cow on campus. Come milking time, then, the professor put aside his books, picked up his pail and stool, and went out to milk his perquisite, displaying the dignity of his office by calling his cow in Greek. His students would have heard, understood the game, and joined in it, taking ho boss home when school was out, and leaving it to Dad and the hired man as Ho, Boss! I have not… asserted this derivation; I have ‘trepidated’ it. I will insist intrepidly, however, that it does better than ‘origin unknown,’ and certainly better than a note reading ‘perhaps from dialect’—the dialect being left unspecified.’’ This is a piece of nonsense sillier than which I have seldom seen in my life. Partridge was an arduous collector of slang, but his etymologies were fanciful, a circumstance that did not prevent him from being admired very much indeed and bringing out two editions of an etymological dictionary of English. Ciardi had an even hazier notion of the subject. I may add in passing that the verdict “origin unknown” is much better than uneducated guesswork.

Someone from Wiltshire, England, asked in 1934 about bos, which is “pure Latin for a cow”: “Is it by any chance the Saxon word handed down from father to son, or has it been handed down to the cowman from the monks?” The opinion that “the Latin words in the English language and still in common use come to us direct from the times of the Roman dominion in Britain” is common. However, other explanations are also possible. Take sooei. Su– is the root of Engl. sow “female pig,” Engl. swine (originally an adjective meaning “of, pertaining to pigs”), and German Sau “sow.” The Old English for sow was su and sugu. Both forms align themselves with oink-oink, though in the languages of the world the words for the noise pigs make usually begin with khr-, gr-. It is common to call an animal pussy (to give a random example) and call it puss-puss. Likewise, sooey need not be Latin or Indo-European: it is probably a universal sound imitative complex designating both the pig and the pig’s grunt. Boss is less clear, except that bwoo, boo, and moo have been associated with bellowing nearly everywhere. There also is Engl. regional boose “cow stall” (a northern German form is similar), and it has been suggested that boss, boss means “(go to) stall.” This suggestion seems rather improbable to me.

Spelling and smut. I combine them, because, as I have once said, these two topics dominate my correspondence with the readers of the blog “The Oxford Etymologist.” A comment suggesting that phonetic spelling is impossible misses the mark, for I have never pleaded for any kind of transcription to replace the traditional spelling of Modern English. The first stage of my proposal does not go beyond abolishing the most pernicious variants and forms. Why, for example, should we have scathe and scanty but skate and skimpy? Who needs two d’s and two s’s in address? Is it necessary to spell gnaw with g- five or six centuries after it became mute, if nag, its doublet, has no g-? English words contain tons of redundant letters, and everybody will gain when they go away. We’ll discuss the rest if we ever get so far. I am glad Steve Bett supports my idea that we have to begin by respelling low frequency words. There is no hope that “the educated class” will adopt without a fight liv, giv, and hav for live, give, and have.

Why do we have the same letter o in bone, love, done, and gone? I have covered these words in my earlier posts on “The Oddest English Spelling” and will be brief here. All such spellings are medieval. Bone had “long a,” that is, the sound transcribed as ah in modern dictionaries in words like father and Utah. It changed to “open long o,” as in modern Engl. awe (in the Standard and in dialects in which there has been no merger of words like Shah and Shaw) and later to the diphthong we hear today. The spelling reflects the Middle English stage. Gone could be expected to rhyme with bone, for, like the latter, it traces to gan, with “long a,” and it did in some varieties of English, judging by the evidence of spelling, but in the dialect from which the Standard has its form “long o” was, apparently, shortened before it had a chance to become a diphthong. The causes of the shortening are unclear. The Old English for love was lufu. Later it changed to lufe. In Latin tradition, the letter u was indistinguishable from v, so that, when in Middle English f in lufe was replaced by v, the word acquired the shape lvve. French scribes substituted o for u before the letters that have a vertical stroke, and lvve became love, though the pronunciation, naturally, remained the same. Except in the north, u changed to the sound we have in Standard Engl. up (there are exceptions, however: cf. put and bull). Today love has the vowel of up, but the spelling has not reacted to that change. In addition to “open long o,” Middle English had “closed long o” inherited from Old English. This vowel changed to “long u” (the sound represented today by oo, in memory of its origin, as in doom, for instance). Done should have become doon, but “long u” was shortened in it and shared the fate of the vowel in love.

Now to smut. What is the origin of blowjob? The metaphor underlying the English word for “fellatio” does not seem to recur in other languages. The German expression (with blasen “blow” in it) looks like a translation from English. I cannot give a definitive answer to the question of our correspondent, but of the suggestions circulating about the etymology of blowjob, the one that traces it to below job is the least convincing (a typical example of folk etymology). I can think of two situations. The simplest would be to refer to the meaning of blow as in blow the nose and blow an egg (to empty its content by making a hole in the shell and blowing through it). The idea could be reinforced by the collocation blow off. Since an erect penis looks like a pipe and among the vulgar words for the male organ in that state we find hornpipe and skin flute, the allusion might be to the lips playing on such an instrument. Some corroboration of this hypothesis comes from Bulgarian, in which three vulgar names of fellatio are kaval, duduk and svirka. All of them are wind instruments, originally primitive pipes.

Scientific terms. Dysregulated versus deregulated. “I am writing to ask regarding the difference in meaning between the words dysregulated and deregulated. We tend to use them interchangeably, assuming that they mean the same. An example is as follows: ‘Protein kinase CK2 has been found to be dysregulated (in other identical statements: deregulated) in all the cancers that have been examined’. What would be the difference in the two words used in the above context?’’ The prefix dys- (of Greek origin, as its spellings reveals) denotes the reverse of easy, favorable, or fortunate (cf. dyslexia, dyspepsia, dysfunction, ad so forth), whereas de- has, among its several senses, that of undoing or reversing the action of the verb. It thus partly merges with dis-, of Latin origin. One can see that dys-, dis-, and de- may end up as elements of nearly synonymous words. In the context given by our correspondent, the decision should be made whether the focus is on the opposite of regulate (then deregulate) or on the detrimental consequences of the process (then dysregulate). The two verbs need not be used interchangeably, for the main virtue of a scientific term is not to have synonyms.

Particles versus particulates. “It has become common for some authors [writing on chemistry, physics, and measurement of gas-borne particles (aerosols)] to use the words particle(s) and particulate(s) synonymously. My dictionary indicates that particulate can indeed be used either as an adjective or a noun, suggesting that they can be synonyms. I feel that when the noun is called for, particle always reads better.” I have the same opinion. First, I should reinforce the statement I made above: synonyms are the bane of terminology. Yet they proliferate. One of the reasons is that some people try to appear smarter than they really are (a universal human foible). The longer the word, the more impressive it looks. The same holds for dys-, as opposed to de- and dis-. French (de-) is good, Latin (dis-) is better, Greek (dys-) is the best; pure snobbery. Many Latin past participles have ended up as nouns in English: cf. advocate, curate, and legate. But particulate is a monster of word formation. It seems to have been coined with the meaning “minute particle.” However, the original intention was soon forgotten, and particulate turned into an embellished synonym of particle. Our correspondent asks whether an editorial on this subject in a scholarly journal is worth writing. I think it is. The linguistic literature on terminology is vast, and the problem of synonyms among terms has often been addressed.

Demodicosis versus demodicidosis. “The literature is undecided [whether to call the infection of the human skin by the organism Demodex] demodicosis or demodicidosis. I favor the former as a profusion or widespread of Demodex. I see the latter as a corrupted (or possibly misspelled) neologism suggesting the widespread presence of the agent used to kill Demodex, i.e. demodecide or demodicide (likely the latter).” Once again I am on the side of our correspondent. Demodicosis makes perfect sense as the name of the infection, while the longer term, a derivative of demodicide, does not.

Artefact versus artifact. The word—in the form artefact—is Samuel Coleridge’s creation. When he introduced it, he even had a French accent mark over the letter e, but the word is Latin, not French, from arte, the ablative singular of ars “art” and fictum, the neuter past participle of facere “make, do.” In British English, the spelling artefact predominates, though the OED gives it in the form artifact. In American English, artifact holds sway. Our correspondent’s suggestion that the spelling artifact was influenced by artificial and artifice seems right. There is no difference in meaning between artefact and artifact.

A quibble and a “particulate.” Dwarfs ~ dwarves. I have been taken to task for my explanation of dwarfs versus dwarves. I still think that dwarfs is the usual form in Britain, with most American speakers favoring dwarves. My opponent says that the fashion for dwarves goes back to Tolkien, an Englishman, while Disney, an American, has seven dwarfs. However, the trend seems to be as I described it. I know that the Old English for dwarf was dweorg ~ dweorh, but I should have said more clearly why I referred to the Old English rule, according to which we have wolf ~ wolves. The consonant f alternated with v, when a vowel followed, and this pattern made itself felt in words that had no protoform with final f. Dwarf (spelled differently), with f from h, appeared in English in the 14th century, and so did shelf, but both acquired the plural ending in -ves. Wharf goes back to Old English, so that the plural wharves causes no surprise. Scarf came to English from Old French; its plural form vacillates between scarves and scarfs, the divide again being between American and British English. On wer(e)wolves. I mentioned werewolves in my essay on berserks last week. My spelling of werewolf is correct. Werewolves were people who believed that they could transform themselves into wolves. Wer- is probably related to Latin vir “man” (as in virile).

Many thanks to everybody for comments and questions!

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. Kiwi Carlisle

    I’m a Missourian as well. I’ve grown up with “Bossy” used as such a generic cow name that “Bossy” is practically a synonym for cow. My Dad, who grew up in Texas, even used to call cows “bossies”. Admittedly, his father was a classically-trained minister, which might skew the sample just a tad.

  2. John Cowan

    I will add that the plural of dwarf ‘human being of short stature’ is everywhere dwarfs. Additionally, though I realize that opponent may mean simply ‘a person who maintains a contrary position’ (OED 1b), your use of the word carks me, for we are on the same side, that of truth.

  3. Nathan Carlson

    As to dwarfs vs. dwarves: Tolkien wrote that he preferred the -ves ending for his little people exactly because of the OE influence. Wolf ~ wolves was right to him, thus dwarf ~ dwarves. The -fs ending so favored by Disney rankled Tolkien (had anyone ever asked him).

  4. JMD

    You note that “artifact” is “from arte, the ablative singular of ars ‘art’ and fictum, the neuter past participle of facere ‘make, do.'” However, “fictum” is not the past participle of facere – the principle parts of facere are “facio, facere, feci, factum.” “Fictum” is the neuter perfect passive participle of “fingo, fingere, finxi, fictum,” to shape, mould, arrange, devise. The participle in particular can mean feigned or false. See Cassell’s Latin Dictionary. As the meanings of the verbs are similar, I am not sure which one you meant, though I suspect you meant to say factum.

  5. D. Wilson

    I don’t believe “demodicidosis” contains any “-cid-” associated with “-cide” referring to killing. I believe “demodicidosis” = “demodicid” + “-osis”, i.e., disease related to a demodicid. Similarly “demodicosis” = “demodic-” (i.e., “demodex”) + “-osis”, i.e., disease related to a demodex. A demodicid may be considered to be a member of the family Demodicidae, while a demodex may be considered to be a member of the genus Demodex. Since Demodex is the only genus in the family Demodicidae, AFAIK, both terms seem equivalent, and I think both are reasonably well formed. Of course “demodicid” = “demodic-” (i.e., “demodex”) + “-id”.

    Should an alternative taxonomy show an additional (non-Demodex) genus within family Demodicidae, then one may (in principle) consider demodicidosis to be the more general term (also encompassing the additional genus).

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