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Monthly Gleanings, Part I: (August 2009)

By Anatoly Liberman

Squaw. My post on squaw produced some ripples. Three lawyers from Michigan gave me the lashing of their tongue(s). (I am sorry for the parentheses, but I always feel uncomfortable when I have to say something like: “Three people put their foot in their mouth.” Should it be feet and mouths?) Their rejoinder has been caught by other blogs, and several people commented on the exchange. The three wise men of Michigan called me incredibly superficial, downright ethnocentric, and arrogant. Oh, it hurts, it really does. The only comfort is that the overall cosmic balance has been preserved, for they, by contrast, must be incredibly profound, upright, cosmopolitan, and modest. However, since in court we need facts rather than abuse or praise, let us look at the evidence.

Legal experts should avoid ambiguous formulations; yet the title of the rejoinder is the very model of ambiguity. It is “Oxford Etymologist on the Word ‘Squaw’—Indigenous Etymologist Needed!” What is meant by indigenous etymologist? An etymologist of Native Indian descent? I hope not. My opponents, I am sure, are too broad-minded to believe that only representatives of a certain nationality are able to discuss the history of their language, because the implication would be that, for instance, a historical linguist of Native American descent cannot have an opinion about the origin of an English, Spanish, or Japanese word. This conclusion would be not only downright ethnocentric but even racist. And we know (at least specialists know) that excellent etymological dictionaries of the Romance languages have been written by Germans, that one of the stars of Iranian philology was a Norwegian, and that Finnish and Russian explorers have contributed to the efflorescence of Paleo-Siberian linguistics, to give a few random examples. So I assume that what we supposedly need is a specialist in the indigenous languages of America. We certainly do, and we have many such. Their verdict on squaw is unanimous: this word never meant “vulva” (or worse), the languages being compared to prove the alleged sense do not match, and no speaker of those languages ascribes an obscene meaning to squaw. Thus the title should be dismissed as a regrettable blunder or carefully planned demagoguery. The argument begins with the statement: “We’d like to see an indigenous etymology of this word.” I have no idea what “an indigenous etymology” means. Etymologies, unlike people, do very well without ethnicity.

Then comes the following gem: “It is our understanding that the vast majority of words in… the language of many Michigan Indians and an Algonkian [sic] language [sic] are verbs. What this means is perhaps the Massachusetts word from which ‘squaw’ derives is actually a verb. So-called nouns in many Indian languages are actually verbs, so that the word that non-Indians say means ‘woman’ very possibly means something else along the lines ‘person who does something’. And likely that ‘something’ will let us know if the word is intended as a respectful word or not. We don’t see from the sources available online (e.g. here) a serious attempt to provide a proper etymology of the word.” What a sample of forensic eloquence! Here are the defenders of Indian pride who have not mastered the difference between nouns and verbs, lack even a superficial knowledge of the structure of the languages they purport to discuss, cannot say a sentence without using actually twice (in oral communication they probably punctuate every pause with you know), have trouble producing a coherent sentence in their native language, study etymology from the Internet, and in their ignorance of how words for “woman” are formed not only in the Algonquian languages but all over the world assume that squaw “very possibly means something along the lines of ‘person who does something’.” With such friends who will need enemies!

This rubbish about nouns and verbs is followed by an attempt to obfuscate the readers by avoiding the issue—not a good ploy in legal proceedings. I am said to have borrowed “all of [my] rhetoric from William Bright’s article on the subject.” This is factually incorrect, for I used the entire (rather extensive) evidence at my disposal. Besides, in this publication Bright is extremely low-keyed and obviously unwilling to tread on anyone’s corns (in his other articles he is much less restrained); consequently, I could not borrow any rhetoric from him. This, however, is an aside. The important thing is that, yes, some English speakers did and perhaps do supply the noun (it is indeed not a verb) squaw with negative overtones. But Harjo (Oprah’s guest in 1992) insisted that squaw was an opprobrious term in the Indian languages. She was dead wrong, and it is her erroneous statement that made etymologists look into the problem. The ludicrous thing is that the native speakers of the Indian languages believed Harjo and decided that squaw had to be banished for historical (etymological) reasons. Hence the wave of changing place names.

I should repeat the conclusion of my original post. Words mean what people believe they mean. A mistake in one century becomes the norm in another. Today squaw is unpronounceable because Harjo made it such. My aim was not to reverse the trend (I have no power to do so and can only register my disgust) but to enlighten the public on the cause of the change. To recapitulate: squaw is not an offensive word in the languages in which it is native; etymological analysis shows that its root did not refer to female genitals; some English-speakers used squaw to denigrate Indian women (though such usage has never been prevalent); the campaign unleashed by Harjo’ remarks should never have happened. Other than that, let her rip.

The pronunciation of Sheeny. Two correspondents sent me their comments on the origin of Sheeny. Among other things, a question arose about the word’s pronunciation. The best-known form of the Yiddish cognate of German schön is shayn (shane). But this is the form known from East European Yiddish (preserved in New York). According to Nathan Süsskind, whose publications were my main source, Sheeny arose in 19th-century London and was applied by so-called enlightened Jews to the speakers of a dialect now recognized as Western Yiddish. “In this dialect German e and oe had become ee as in English eel….” The digraph oe in the quotation above designates ö. I leave it to the specialists to decide whether the statements about the phonetics of Western Yiddish and the place where the jeering nickname surfaced are true. If they are not, Süsskind’s etymology needs modification. From a comment on the sense development: “…the connection is not by way of irony. …metonymy would be a good place to look for the semantic development.”

Fox versus vixen. Vixen is related to fox. Why then does it begin with a v? The story is complicated, so that I will say only what is absolutely necessary, but I will explain the facts as I understand them. Consonants are divided into two major groups: stops (for instance, p, t, and k; their pronunciation requires an occlusion, that is, a complete obstruction of the organs of speech) and fricatives, or spirants (such as f and th; their articulation presupposes a narrowing somewhere in the vocal tract). It so happens that when a great change affects stops, fricatives usually follow suit. Early in the history of the Germanic languages, p, t, and k acquired aspiration and were thus weakened in comparison with “pure” p, t, and k (a consonant articulated without an occlusion takes less energy). When that happened, fricatives also began to weaken. Consider the fate of h: it developed from a fricative like ch in Scots loch and then tended to disappear in most positions. Another way for a consonant to weaken is to become voiced, because a voiceless sound requires less energy to produce than a voiced one. That is why throughout the history of the Germanic languages we observe fricatives becoming weak, that is, voiced. The stone that was set rolling about two millennia ago still keeps going downhill. Phonetic change is like a river, but its path is devious, and we are not always able to account for its twists. Like a river, it prefers to move unimpeded, but it may break through great obstacles. The voicing (weakening) of fricatives is a never-ceasing process in Germanic. At the beginning of the New Era, if not earlier, they were voiced after an unstressed syllable. Later, f and s turned into v and z in English words like over and graze. Similar processes occurred in English and the Scandinavian languages. Only a few centuries ago, s and th were voiced in Engl. is, they, and so forth. In German, every initial s became z. The German cognate of Engl. so is also spelled so, but pronounced with z-, and spellings like Vater “father” make one think that at one time the initial fricative in such words was voiced (today v in Vater and its likes is voiceless). In Dutch, native initial f and s became v and z with great regularity. This wave also swept through the southern and southwestern dialects of Middle English from which we have a few modern forms (for example, vixen, vat, and vane). No z-forms have made it to the Standard, but they are extant in the areas where they appeared in Middle English. Edgar, when he meets King Lear during the storm, tries to conceal his identity and voices initial s and v (he says Zir “Sir” and so forth). Extensive literature exists on the voicing of Germanic fricatives, including the process that occurred in the southern and southwestern dialects of English, which was a link in a long chain of events.

I received many questions in July and August and will answer the rest of them next Wednesday.

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. Anonymous

    I think the commentators on squaw have this much right: that it was derogatory long before the 1990s. However, based on written evidence alone it’s hard to tell the difference between a derogatory term and a neutral term applied to a despised group.

    You are, of course, sound on the etymology, and I have duly defended you at that page, with the qualification above.

  2. J P Maher

    Re “three people put their foot in their mouth.” This is the curse of languages having grammatical number (singular, plural, dual etc.) – The Chinese can laugh at us. The metaphorical phrases “tongue-in cheek” and “foot in mouth” are distributive (one per person). Each of us has two (facial) cheeks, but one tongue per person, excluding the congenital conditions of polycephaly, diprosopus etc. I figuratively put my foot in my mouth, yet I have one mouth and two feet. The paired organ is mentioned in the singular. If firemen lose their lives in a blaze, a comparable problem crops up. This is less a problem of grammar than of written language, i.e. style, so my prescription is stylistic. Avoid the syntax “their lives, their feet, mouths, tongues, cheeks”. Since the phrases are in effect crypto-adverbs of manner, we can keep the pithy saying by writing the preposition “with” in front of the phrases “tongue in cheek, foot in mouth” etc. The three people in question argued with foot in mouth. Another stylistic turn would be to suppress the number markers and pronouns: “all three put foot in mouth”.

  3. […] nature of the problem. Some general ideas on the subject can also be found in my earlier post on Sheeny. (Dictionaries usually print such words with low-case letters, but I prefer to capitalize them. […]

  4. John Cowan

    I’m not sure why I show up as “Anonymous” above; anyhow, Anonymous in this case is distinctly nonymous, to wit, John Cowan.

  5. Martin Laplante

    Since Prof. Maher has just brought this up again, I think that the type of indigenous etymologist required is one that specializes in French in North America. After all the term is also used in French and it would be interesting to find out whether it came to English via French or vice-versa. Harjo is clearly implying that it was the French explorers who adopted the term believing it to be derogatory, and who named geographical features.

    The question of toponymy is verifiable, I don’t know whether anyone has checked who named those features. But on the first question, etymologists of the English language can relax, the meaning of the English term is not at issue.

    Given the history of New France, it strikes me as unlikely that they would have a better mastery of Mohawk than of Algonquian languages. This applies to both the original introduction of the word into the French language and its subsequent use of the word by French-speaking explorers perhaps some generations later. The question is worthy of research.

    The later use of squaw in place names by English speaking settlers may in fact be derogatory. North America has no lack of place names that are bawdy and disrespectful of women of all ethnicities, including quite a few referring to various body parts of native women. I recommend Mark Monmonnier’s book “From Squaw Tit to Whorehouse Meadow” for an overview of offensive toponyms.

  6. […] nature of the problem. Some general ideas on the subject can also be found in my earlier post on Sheeny. (Dictionaries usually print such words with low-case letters, but I prefer to capitalize them. […]

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