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Monthly Gleanings, Part Two: (August 2009)

By Anatoly Liberman

Language Name. An author needs the name of a language for his fantasy story and wonders whether it should inevitably end in –ese, –ish, or –ian. Not at all! Any word coined for the nonce will do. Compare Esperanto, Ido, Volapük, as well as the names of such engineering languages as Loglan and Lojban.

Etymological Dictionaries. The question was about the worth of the forthcoming etymological dictionaries being published by Brill, specifically of Classical Greek and of Latin/Italic. I have not seen the dictionaries, but I know the works of their authors. Both are excellent scholars. Frisk’s dictionary of Classical Greek (in German) is fully reliable, and so is the dictionary by Chantraine (in French). Walde-Hofmann’s etymological dictionary of Latin (in German) is a treasure. Since most etymologies are controversial, new publications on the origin of words appear in a steady stream. Therefore, etymological dictionaries should be updated every ten or fifteen years (a utopian project). Since I have not had access to the works mentioned in the query, I cannot speak about details, but the purpose of the Leiden series is to emphasize the Indo-European beginnings of the languages under investigation, an aspect that interested neither Hofmann nor Frisk, though Walde traced all the words he discussed to their Indo-European roots. So I expect Beekes and De Vaan to devote considerable space to Indo-European reconstruction and the Proto-Indo-European forms, including the laryngeals; the latter feature is absent from the earlier dictionaries.

Separate Words
Rune. Our correspondent wondered what my views on the origin of this word are, and I’ll answer this question in the spirit in which it was asked; that is, I’ll say what I think about the matter. My views on rune, though not revolutionary, are not quite trivial either. Runes received some currency in Scandinavia at the beginning of the 2nd century CE. As time went on, more and more inscriptions (on stone, metal, wood, and bark) appeared. No one knows who brought this alphabet to the North (the center of dissemination seems to have been Denmark), why it has such an unusual order of elements (it begins with f), and what the source of the runic alphabet was (Latin? Greek? Italic?). Those questions have been debated for a very long time, but the solutions, if they ever happen to be found, need not affect the etymological part of the problem.

In the preliterate society of medieval Scandinavia, the use of the runes was limited, and the novelty seemed so strange, perhaps even so awe inspiring, that it was often used for magical purposes. In other cultures, writing and magic are also known to have been connected. The word for “rune” is old (Common Germanic), and its initial meaning has nothing to do with writing or speaking. Consequently, all theories that detect the origin of rune in some verb of painting, cutting, scratching, carving, or “giving voice” are probably wrong. The runes were used for magic, but this does not mean that they were introduced for sorcerers to play with. That is why recourse to magic should be abandoned in explaining where rune came from. The early speakers of the Germanic languages glossed Latin mysterium as run– (the hyphen stands for some ending or its absence). The meaning of mysterium was “revealing the hidden truth” (exegesis) rather than “mystery,” as we understand this word. Apart form “mysterium,” run– and its collective variant garuni (Gothic)/geryne (Old English), that is, all the runes taken together, meant “counsel; council; secret”; thus, “a body of advisers; the advice given by this body”, and, apparently, “a decision taken by such a body, but not yet known to the rest of the community; something to be revealed later.” In Old Icelandic, the singular did not occur at all: only the plural “letters; the runic alphabet” has been attested.

I believe that the collective meaning “council; advising, investigating body” was primary; hence the idea of an ordered sequence. When the inventor of the runic alphabet sought a word for it, he chose the plural form (at that time it was runar). The singular meaning “an individual letter” was abstracted from the plural much later. The (Old) Icelandic noun raun “test; experiment; experience,” related to rune, tallies well with “council.” On the other hand, the German verb raunen “to whisper,” which has been cited as evidence of the “magical” etymology of rune, is not Common Germanic (it seems to have been brought to England from Germany in the tenth century), and this circumstance diminishes its value in the etymological argument. Its meaning must have been “to reveal secret information.” If so, it forms part of the series discussed above. Finnish runo “song” and Latvian runa “speech” are probably not related to the Germanic word, while Old Irish run “secret” is, most likely, its cognate, but the history of all three is obscure.

Barley, barn, and beer. The comment on a tie between beer and barley needs clarification. Barn goes back to bere “barley” and ern “house,” so “a place for storing barley” (it is a simplified, disguised compound, like bridal, from Old Engl. bryd “bride” and ealu “ale”). Barley was an adjective meaning “like barley” and later understood as a noun, contrary to bridal, a noun understood as an adjective. Those conclusions are certain, but the origin of beer remains unknown. Despite the support of some distinguished scholars, the derivation of beer from Latin bibere “drink” strikes me as a piece of medieval folk etymology. The seductive parallel of Slavic piti “to drink” ~ pivo “beer” proves the possibility of calling beer “beverage, something drunk” and nothing else. The Slavic word formation is transparent, whereas bibere could not have yielded the Germanic form. Beer and barely are associated in a natural way. Yet if there is a linguistic connection in our case, it is between beer and Old Icelandic bygg “barleycorn” rather than Old Engl. bere. Ambar (with variants), the Slavic word for “barn,” is, according to all the sources I consulted, a borrowing from some Eastern, not necessarily Indo-European, language. The similarity between ambar and barn is fortuitous.

Sam Hill. In my June set of gleanings, I expressed doubts about Hill being an alteration of hell. It has been pointed out to me that e and i often interchange their places in dialects. This was not news to me. Examples of the e ~ i confusion are cited in all surveys of English dialects and in the main books on the history of English. Especially common is the change of e to i before n (that is why we pronounce Inglish for English; compare also the widespread form ingine “engine”) and l. Anecdotes about people teaching themselves not to say melk and pellow (milk, pillow) are numerous. But I am not aware of the reverse process. In historical grammars I did not find a single example of i for e before l, and the only instance of i becoming e before a resonant seems to be lemon for Old French limon. Those who say melk and pellow for milk and pillow never say ilk and fillow for elk and fellow. Thus, only spell from spill, not spill from spell, makes sense. Consequently, my skeptical attitude toward Hill from hell remains.

Kiver, a fish name. The existing “folk etymologies” look plausible. My source is the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE), the main reference work to which one should turn while looking for the fortunes of thousands of American words. DARE cites many examples of kiver. However, before reproducing some of them, two false tracks I pursued may be mentioned. Kiver “a vessel” (see it in the OED) has nothing to do with the fish name. The Low (= northern) German variant of Kiefer “jaw” is spelled and, I assume, pronounced Kiever, but the fish in question is small and does not have prominent jaws; nor does such a fish name exist in German. Kiver is a common variant of cover, and this is where popular explanations come in. From a 1903 citation: “…this little kiver (so-called because he looks like a lid of a stew-kettle)…” From a 1945 citation: “…short for cunt-kiver, these fishes being deemed of about the right size and shape to serve in that role” (there is a variant kiver-cunt). The compounds with the c-word are not particularly elegant, but such names are common in ornithology and ichthyology: compare the bird name windfucker, an obsolete name of the kestrel. The entry kiver in DARE refers to the word’s synonym coverclip, which is also known in the abbreviated form cover (“…the relationship of these terms to ‘cunt-kiver’ for the sunfishes is obvious”). Thus, kiver seems to be short for kivercunt, with kiver being a regional phonetic variant of cover.

Two Americanisms. I have combined them because I have nothing to say about either. Absquatulate. It is believed to be a coinage feigning Latin derivation (compare abscond) and playing on squat or squattle “to decamp.” By way of compensation, I can explain the origin of skedaddle (if anyone is interested), about which there is a long entry in my dictionary. Widget. Conjectures do not go beyond comparing it with gadget. Our inability to deal with such facetious formations may seem irritating to many, but those who are versed in recent slang will not be surprised: racy, picturesque words appear every day, and we can seldom discover their origins.

Benchmark. In the middle of the 19th century, benchmark was occasionally spelled as two words and seems to have been stressed on both elements. It originated as a surveyor’s term, designating a line cut for future reference. The figurative meaning (“a point of reference”) is an extension of that term. From scratch. Scratch Hullabaloo has been widely used with the sense “a line that marks where to begin a game.” . See my post of November 22, 2006 (a detailed discussion). Deadpan. It is true that pan “face” appeared almost at the same time as “deadpan.” The reason I included deadpan among the compounds in need of explanation is the stylistic disparity between them. Pan “face” is slang and does not seem to be used too much, whereas deadpan expression and the like are informal rather than slangy phrases and occur quite often. Squirrel-mouthed. I have no authority for this word. But I assume that that it was applied to a person notorious for inane, angry chattering. Squirrelly is never a complimentary epithet.

Let me reassure our correspondent who wrote that a newspaper would never invent a title like “Something Is Brewing” for an article about the reopening of a restaurant. I borrowed this title from a local newspaper. Whatever the weaknesses of my blog may be, my material is trustworthy, even though I usually avoid references.

I left without comment some other remarks, mostly those that do not call for clarification or objections. Many thanks for antedatings, disagreements, criticism, and encouragement. One of our correspondents had trouble reaching me. My email address has changed, but if you write to the OUP blog, you will get it. I answer questions, regardless of whether they are sent to the blog or directly to me. My blog appears every Wednesday, with the last Wednesday of every month being reserved for questions. When there are too many of them, the “gleanings” extend to the first week of the next month.

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. John Cowan

    Yes, please tell us about skedaddle!

    I see no reason to doubt the story that the OED2 quotations tell us about deadpan: that it began in the 1920s as a technical term in vaudeville based on a slang word but not itself slang, spread to literature by the 1930s, and was in routine use by the TLS by 1949. A quick ascent, but not an unprecedented one.

    I still think Sam Hill is taboo deformation, which need not follow the rules of ordinary sound change. Consider nerts, a taboo deformation for nuts, clearly developed in a rhotic accent area. STRUT to NURSE is not as far as I know represented elsewhere in English: r’s tend to get lost, not created ex nihilo.

  2. stevo

    At the end of the paragraph “Language Name” it says “Lojlan”, but it should probably be “Lojban”, the name of the biggest and best known descendent of Loglan.

  3. Walter Turner

    Thank you for last week’s discussion of vixen and company. And for this week’s discussion.
    But it’s not enough. I’m sure I’m not the only one of your readers who is patting his foot in anticipation of the other volumes of your dictionary.

  4. J P Maher

    “Those who say melk and pellow for milk and pillow never say ilk and fillow for elk and fellow.” Non sequitur.

    And fillah is attested:
    Full text of “When ghost meets ghost”
    I believe if I did it once when I was a young fillah I did it fifty times.” “Did what?” ” Well — breathed free on hearing that a girl wasn’t engaged.”

    This may be eye-dialect for fellah, as feller can also be..

  5. J P Maher

    More on ilk, milk, pillow etc.
    Those who say MELK, PELLOW and ELLINOIS nonetheless write MILK, PILLOW, Illinois…

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