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Monthly Gleanings (September 2008)

By Anatoly Liberman

Sweetmeat versus sweetbread. These words are indeed odd: sweetmeats are candies (so not meat), whereas sweetbread is the thymus gland of an animal used for food (so, obviously, not bread). There may be only one explanation of this oddity. In both cases meat and bread have retained their most ancient meanings—not such a rare case in the elements of compounds. In the Old Germanic languages, including Gothic, meat signified “food.” Meat and mete (out) “measure out, apportion” are related: meat referred to the food cut for the eater (or perhaps for sacrificial purposes). In addition to sweetmeat, we have rare or obsolete green meat “grass; vegetables,” mincemeat, a few other words cited by the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), and, of course, meat and drink (idioms, like compounds, are common repositories of old meanings). Bread may be akin to brew and broth, but, regardless of the best etymology, one thing is clear: our deli bread is not what daily bread was in the remote past. Like meat, bread designated all kinds of things prepared for consumption, not only the baked product familiar to us. The foodstuff made from dough, as we know it, was called hlaifaz; its Modern English reflex (continuation) is loaf (German Laib). Apparently, the vague feeling that meat and bread can be appended suffix-like to various words, such as sweet and green, for instance, outlived by many centuries the free use of both with the sense “food.”

The ancient speakers of the Germanic languages did not have a single word designating “animal meat.” The Goths called meat leik, that is, “body” (compare Engl. lichgate, lykewakewake, as in Finnegans Wake—and even like “similar,” originally “having the same form, shape or body”). Swedish koett, with related forms in all the Scandinavian languages, is almost hopelessly obscure (no etymology, only vague conjectures). The greatest devourer of soft tissues is the sarcophagus (Greek sarco-phagus), literally “flesh eater.” The ancestor of the West Germanic (English, German, Dutch) word for “meat” has been preserved in German and Dutch. Their English cognate is flesh, which has narrowed its meaning, but compare biblical fleshpots. This word is also known in the Scandinavian language; there it means “pork, bacon.” By way of conclusion, I cannot refrain from quoting Dickens. Mr. Barkis (the one who “was willing”) asked David Copperfield whether Peggoty, his nurse, had sweethearts. David did not know the word, decided that the question was about sweetmeats, and answered it accordingly.

The origin of the word bare. This adjective has cognates in all the Old Germanic languages except Gothic. The word referring to nudity was naked (which, incidentally, is related to Latin nudus, derived from what must have sounded as nogwudos), while bare pointed to the absence of clothes, covers, and so forth. One of the most common alternations in the history of Germanic is between s (from z) and r; compare raise and rear, was and were. This is why Slavic bos “barefoot” is a reliable congener of bare (Old Germanic bar-developed from bas-). The remote meaning of all such words is unclear: either “rubbed off” or (less likely) “shining.”

Scientific terms. Demodex and others. This is the comment Mr. Doug Wilson sent us after the appearance of the previous “gleanings”: “I think either demodicosis or demodicidosis is reasonably well formed. Demodic- corresponds to Demodex (genus name); demodicid- corresponds to Demodicidae (demodicids, family name), formed from demodic- + -id in the expected manner. There is no evidence of -cid or -cide (related to killing) involved in either word. Since Demodex is, apparently, the only genus in the family Demodicidae, the term would mean about the same.”

Green. Our correspondent wonders whether the time is ripe for someone to do a blog, a column, perhaps a book on the modern evolution of the meaning of green and its contemporary uses. So much has been written about ecology, green parties, and the like that the material on this subject (including what can be found in recent dictionaries) is abundant. The latest connotations of green have not yet ousted its neutral senses. Likewise, red is still a color name and not only a political term. But one day the change may occur. I have once written about how queer and gay can no longer be used in their original meanings (“merry” and “strange”), how cock yielded to rooster, etc. The same holds for pregnant “fraught with signification.” (Samuel Butler could still say in The Way of All Flesh: “Everything was pregnant with the most exquisite pleasure.”) As things stand today, a conservative politician may still enjoy a red tomato in the middle of a green lawn.

The origin of the family name Stack. According to our correspondent, the name is either Irish or German. Reliable dictionaries of the surnames occurring in Great Britain do not mention Stack, so that I have little trust in the books that derive Stack from a Scots word for “cliff” or treat is as a doublet of Stock, allegedly “stockade,” but give no references. However, the German family name Stach exists (in the United States it would, naturally, become Stack). Stach goes back to Stacco, an old proper name.

What are the reliable collections of familiar quotations? An excellent resource is the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations. The latest book edition of this collection appeared in 2004, and there is an electronic version (2005). Elizabeth Knowles, who edited this dictionary, also edited an entertaining little book What They Didn’t Say: A Book of Misquotations (Oxford University Press, 2006). A famous old author in this area is John Bartlett. His Familiar Quotations also exists in a modern edition.

My essays on spelling resulted in contacts with Mr. Joe Little, the editor of Spelling Progress Digest. “If u’re at all interested,” to quote his letter, you will find him here. When I attacked the problem of spelling reform, I had no idea how many people on both sides of the Atlantic are trying to make English spelling more rational.

As usual, thanks for questions, corrections, and comments. We seem to agree that it was easy to stop the enemy on the Jordan (the story of shibboleth) but that the numbers (in this case 42,000 killed Ephraimites) should be taken with a huge grain of salt. As regards the plot “Jephtha and His Daughter,” mentioned in the same post, and “Beauty and the Beast,” the similarity between them is visible only at the level of the folklore type “A man acquires some benefit for promising to give his benefactor the first person who will meet him at home. The person turns out to be his child.” Then variations begin: the man may have one daughter or three, one son, and so forth. The child may perish (be sacrificed) or go to meet a monster and be saved. Sometimes the man promises to send away the first “creature” who will meet him on his return home. The “creature” is usually the man’s son.

Artifact versus artifice. The forms of facere are indeed facio, feci, factum, facere, and the forms of fingere are fingo, finxi, fictum, and fingere, but the Latin etymon of artifice does not contain the root fic-: this fic- is a phonetic variant of fac-. All sources are unanimous on this point, but I will not go here into the history of Latin unstressed vowels.

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. GAC

    That is very interesting. I’ve always taken sweetmeat and sweetbread literally — or perhaps I’ve never actually seen or heard the actual compounds, since I have never heard of a candy called “sweetmeats”, nor have I ever heard of a “sweet bread” that wasn’t actually bread.

    (I am a native speaker.)

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