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Monthly Gleanings: October 2008, Part Two

By Anatoly Liberman

The Origin of Words, Phrases, and Pronunciation

Hello. In connection with the post of October 1, I received two questions about the word hello. The first concerned the repertory of h-interjections in the languages of the world. In 1924 Ernst Schwentner brought out a booklet titled The Primary Interjections in the Indo-European Languages (the work is in German). Those appear to be nearly universal. Sanskrit already had hi, he, ho (pronounce them, as though they were German or Italian words). Ha, hau, heu, ho, hoi, and hui occurred in Latin. German interjections are of the same type. Consequently, Engl. hey, hi, hoa,(a)hoy, and the rest belong with that group.

“Non-primary” interjections like hello (two syllables, with l between them), although, as noted in the original post, recorded in Old English, Old High German, and Old French, are much rarer. In French they were cries used by hunters. Gunnar Tilander, a great expert in the language of the hunt and chase (he was a Swede but wrote his works in French) investigated that vocabulary, all those yoicks and hoicks, in great detail. The French origin of Engl. hallo and its analogues can hardly be doubted. And this is where the second question (“How early was initial h lost in French?”) comes in. In Latin, h– was stable (despite a few counterexamples), but in the new Romance languages it began to disappear long before the period we call Middle English. The Norman barons may hardly have pronounced it regularly, if at all. This circumstance complicates the picture. Perhaps h– was added to the interjections in English: compare yoicks and hoicks, both recorded only in the 18th century. For the same reason, the etymology of the German counterpart of hello remains problematic.

Dreamboat. No examples predating 1944 have been found, and I have not been able to find any quotable information on the word’s origin. As early as 1945, dreamboat was used as the name of a perfectly designed automobile or aircraft. It follows that the meaning “an ideal sex partner” need not have been the original one. Dictionary of American Regional English has dreamboat “a pedal-operated pleasure boat on a small lake or pond.” Such slang phrases as boat ride “a pleasant, leisurely task; an easy task” may have reinforced the figurative meaning of dreamboat, but this is all guesswork.

Assassin. This Arabic word migrated to Medieval Latin and French and from there to English in the 17th century. Its historical meaning was “Moslem fanatics engaged to murder Christians.” The Arabic form is plural, but –in, a typical suffix of the plural, was not recognized by the Europeans; hence the meaning “a murderer.” While in the Romance speaking world, the Arabic word lost initial –h (the Semitic languages have several guttural sounds, rendered by h with the help of various diacritics in transliteration). If the word had come to us in the form hassassin, or even better hashshashin, it would be clear that assassin meant “hashish eaters.” In preparation for the murder, the would-be killers intoxicated themselves with hashish. I am sorry that the origin of assassin is known so much better than the origin of dreamboat.

Scheveningen as shibboleth (see the post for September 17). Our correspondent’s comment on this Dutch place name is right. From an anthropological point of view, the northern Germans often resemble the Dutch, but even Low (that is, northern) German is quite different from Dutch, though both languages are represented by numerous dialects. In German, the letters sch designate a sound close to the one we hear in Engl. shave, whereas Dutch sch renders s-ch (s followed by a sound as in Scots loch, but more guttural, which is hard for unschooled foreigners to pronounce). When asked to say Scheveningen, German soldiers, naturally, produced sch instead of s-ch and betrayed themselves, Old Testament style.

Vacation. Are English vacation and Latin vacca “cow” related? No, they are not. The root of vacation (the same as in vacate, vacant, vacuum, and vacuous) can be seen in Latin vacare “to be empty.” Latin vacca is a so-called expressive variant of what must originally have been vaca (the expressiveness comes from the lengthened consonant in the middle). Several plausible conjectures on its origin have been offered, but, whatever the best solution may be, the similarity between the sound shape of vacca and vacare is due to chance.

Guilt. Not too long ago, I wrote a miniseries (two posts for this blog) on the origin of the words shame and guilt. The post on guilt appeared on September 10, 2008.

Fuddy-duddy and hobo. Our correspondent suggests that fuddy-duddy originated as college slang. This is improbable. What little I know about the subject I said in the “monthly gleanings” for May 2007. Homeward bound as the source of hobo has been suggested many times. The ho-bo hypothesis need not be dismissed out of hand, but its probability is low. If I manage to find something of interest about this word, I’ll devote a post to it, but I doubt that my files contain any material previously undiscovered.

That’s all she wrote. People constantly ask questions about the origin of this phrase. I don’t know whether those who volunteer their opinion in the Internet have all arrived at the same etymology (this would be a minor miracle) or whether their common source is a short note by Morris Finder of Fenger High School, Chicago, published in the periodical American Speech 32, 1957, pp. 238-39: “My explanation—admittedly a conjecture—is that the expression originated during the Second World War, and referred to the idea of finality implicit in the ‘Dear John’ letter in which a woman informed her admirer in the armed service of her marriage and engagement to another.” Without a good deal of supporting evidence this conjecture carries no conviction (has anyone heard a serviceman use this phrase in response to the sad letter? was it used widely during the war?). In The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, I find William Hazlitt’s (1778-1830) pronouncement on Edmund Burke: “The only specimen of Burke is, all that he wrote.” Apparently, some variant of the phrase antedates World War II by at least a century and a half. Later he may have given way to she (or perhaps the jocular phrase has always existed in both variants). Hazlitt was hardly the originator of the familiar quotation. In any case, the Dear John hypothesis should temporarily be shelved for want of evidence. But I wonder: Wasn’t there a song or a popular broadcast during the war with reference to such a letter? If the answer is yes, that’s all she wrote may have become popular and created the impression that that is where it turned up for the first time.

The pronunciation of –ing. I’ll reproduce the question in full. “Please tell us something about the pronunciation of –ing suffix in English. In 2004 I saw an ‘original pronunciation’ production of Romeo and Juliet at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London that applied David Crystal’s research, and all the actors dropped their g’s in words ending in –ing. Likewise, I remember that in the BBC’s 1970s dramatization of Dorothy L. Sayers’ Peter Wimsey novels starring Ian Carmichael, he dropped his g’s as part of his posh between-the-wars accent. And this political season I’ve heard Hilary Clinton, Barack Obama, John McCain, and Sarah Palin dropping their g’s even when not speaking to blue-collar voters. Could it be that it’s now fashionable to pronounce a formerly silent g, the same way that we may now hear the t in often and the l in palm?”

The present day suffix –ing continues two suffixes: one was –ing (alternating with –ung), the other was –end. The second of them changed to –ing as part of the phonetic development that has a counterpart in northern German. We are no longer aware of the difference that obtained in Old English. Judging by the pronunciation of –ing and –ung in other modern Germanic languages, both sounded as in-g ~ un-g or even ink ~ unk, that is, with g ~ k fully released (as in the English words ink, sink, think). In English, today’s norm requires the release of g in the comparative degree of adjectives (longer, stronger) but not in nouns like singer. Final –ng in participles and gerunds has never been stable, and for many centuries people pronounced sing as we do today but dropped –g in coming, running, and the like. Singin’ remained distinct from sinnin’, while, for example, speaking did not differ from speak in, when stressed on speak (cf. –You speak in a way that frightens me. –I am not speakin’ to you at all!). The norm solidified in the 19th century and, outside school, became more or less obligatory only for those who willingly conformed to it. In Britain’s aristocratic circles, dropping one’s g’s has been fashionable for a long time (it is the same type of chic that induces our young contemporaries to wear jeans torn at the knees). This accounts for Ian Carmichael’s pronunciation.

David Crystal did not discover the history of –ng. It can be found in all serious books on the history of English (Luick’s and Wyld’s, for instance, to mention the most famous ones among them). I do not know whether Crystal advised the actors to use Shakespeare’s pronunciation or simply consulted them, but there is no doubt that people dropped their g’s at the time when Romeo and Juliet was written. The extent to which we should adhere to Shakespeare’s norm in our rendition of his plays is another matter. I don’t think that being historical in this situation is a virtue, because in the 16th and 17th centuries comin’ and goin’ sounded natural, whereas today they produce an odd impression and distract our attention from what is happening onstage. Over-archaicizing old literature, whether in translation or at the theater, can hardly be recommended.

Finally, the speech of our politicians. Sarah Palin probably drops her g’s naturally, though, of course, there is no certainty. The others, I suspect, do it to sound folksy. It matters little whom they are addressing, for their orations become immediately known everywhere. The main thing for someone who wants to be elected is not to look better educated than the rest of “us.” One can afford being smart, shrewd, and at times moderately witty but not “high class” (if the jeans are expensive, let conspicuous holes serve as a redeeming quality). Thus, there is nothing in common between dropping one’s g’s and the pronunciation often and palm. At all times there have been people who had a mortal fear of under-sounding every letter in a word. Since in English very little is pronounced as it is spelled, this habit is especially dangerous when English speakers fall into this trap.

As always, many thanks for your questions and comments!

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. Lisa

    Regarding “That’s all she wrote”:

    Hazlitt writes: “there is no single speech which can convey a satisfactory idea of his [Burke’s] powers of mind: to do him justice, it would be necessary to quote all his works; the only specimen of Burke is, all that he wrote. With respect to most others speakers, a
    specimen is generally enough, or more than enough.”

    In order words, we need “all that he wrote” to have an adequate representation of Burke’s character. The idiom, here, has no
    connotation of finality — has nothing in common with the meaning of “That’s all she wrote.” The expression “antedates World War II by a
    century and a half” is not likely.

  2. Michael Steinman

    About “dreamboat”: does a song title / lyric count as a citation? “When My Dreamboat Comes Home,” (Friend-Franklin) was recorded in 1935 by Bing Crosby and was a substantial hit for the next twenty years. Whether songwriters invented idioms or were alert to the newest ones is a perhaps unanswerable question, but this 1935 one seems solid, especially as the lyrics describe “dreamboat” as the lover whose return is eagerly anticipated. I found your site in my own websearch — on my way to post an instrumental jazz video of the song on my blog, unashamedly listed here. Cheers, Michael Steinman (JAZZ LIVES)

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