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Monthly Gleanings: April 2010

By Anatoly Liberman

I notice that my posts on usage, including spelling, invite livelier comments than those on word origins, and most questions I receive also concern usage. This is natural, and, as always, I am grateful for questions, suggestions, and criticism. Today I will take care of about half of my backlog but will try to get rid of the other half in May.

Wh- spelling
. How can we reform spelling if some people are unable to hear such an obvious difference as allegedly exists between ware and where? This would be a fateful question if we had to adapt the Roman alphabet to the needs of a totally different phonetic system, as happened when Anglo-Saxon England, with its illiterate population, was converted to Christianity (nowadays, some cautious anthropologists say “preliterate,” as though literacy were like puberty: a natural state coming at a certain age). But we are already literate and hope to renovate an old building, not to demolish it or erect a new one. For any version of spelling reform to be accepted, it should, I believe, be moderate and progress in several steps over a rather long period. (A theme for creative writing: “The Portrait of a Spelling Reformer as a Cunctator.”) For example, abolish the letter h that no one pronounces in wh-, unless swayed by the word’s written image (that is, in whist, wherry, and so forth) but preserve it in while, what, and their likes. In similar fashion, get rid of sc– (sk– is enough), because the difference between skate and scathe is arbitrary and even silly. In such cases it may be wise to run with the hare and hunt with the hounds.

Born versus borne. This is another (unbearable) vagary of English spelling. No one doubts that from an etymological point of view born is the same word as borne. The OED (bear, verb, 44) gives exhaustive information on borne. In the earlier part of the 17th century, borne was the prevalent spelling of the past participle, but by approximately 1660 born became the norm, joining torn and worn. A century later, final e was reinstated, so that now we have the privilege of distinguishing in writing between airborne and air-born.

W in answer. The explanation of such oddities is nearly always the same: traditional spelling. The Old English for answer (noun) was andswaru, and the verb was andswarian. The prefix and– in those words means “opposite, against,” and the root is the same as in Modern Engl. swear. Later w was lost in all words if it followed a consonant. Therefore, the plant name grundeswylige became groundsel, and boatswain turned into boson ~ bosun ~ bos’n. Today’s spelling reflects their pronunciation. But in place names ending in –wick, the old spelling prevailed (hence Warwick, pronounced Warrick), and the same, unfortunately, happened in answer. Old Frisian had onser centuries ago, but we won’t let the past go away.

Are Aryan and Iran related? Indeed, they are. The proper meaning of Aryan, compromised for all times by the Nazis, is “Indo-European” (it was a common term in older books on linguistics) or sometimes “Indo-Iranian” and has nothing to do with the “Nordic race.” The word goes back to Sanskrit aryas “noble,” applied earlier as a national name. Iran has the same root.

Are hall and salon related? No, they are not. Salon (from French) has a Germanic root, as evidenced, among others, by German Saal and Icelandic salur “hall.” Saal and its Germanic cognates (several Old English words are among them) seem to have designated the inner part of a non-partitioned living place. Its cognates outside Germanic are doubtful, but all of them begin with s-. Hall, like Saal, is an old Germanic word. In Old English it designated a roofed place, and the idea of being covered was central to it. Hell (another “covered place”) is related to hall. Germanic h- corresponds to non-Germanic (for instance, Latin) k. Thus, a cognate of hall is Latin celare “to hide” (pronounced kelare). Engl. conceal and cellar with the sound value s- in them are from French. Germanic h does not correspond to Latin s. So it follows that despite the closeness in meaning and form the words having the root of German Saal are not related to those with the Germanic root hall.

How are till and until related? Both words are old, and both are northern, but until surfaced only in the 13th century. Un– in until is a remnant of an old prefix that meant the same as till, namely “to,” so that the combination is tautological (“to-to”). The sad thing is that till is spelled with two l’s, like till “cultivate the earth” and till “drawer.”

The spelling of sciondescendant.” The spelling is not a problem here, for the English noun has been taken over from French wholesale, spelling and all. It is the origin of scion that is obscure (hardly Germanic, as has been suggested). Nor is there any justification, except the analogy of words like science, for initial sc– in French.

The Norwegian/Icelandic saga name Leif in America. Like our correspondent, I also first thought that the pronunciation of Leif as Leaf may be due to spelling (hence the reference to a “crude idea” in my previous “gleanings”) but gave up this hypothesis. Except for receive (conceive, deceive, perceive), leisure (unless it rhymes with pleasure), and either/neither in the pronunciation of many but not all, ei in words of any origin has the value of a in acorn cf. eight, beige, deign, feign, feint, geisha, heinous, neigh, neighbor, rein, reign, seine “a large fishing net” (also spelled sean), veil, vein, and weight). Then there is heifer pronounced heffer. Neif “one born in serfdom” (a historical term) is, according to dictionaries, pronounced neef (I have seen but never heard it) and teil “linden tree” rhymes with eel, but both are too little known to influence any word, let alone, a proper name; height rhymes with white. The group eir (as in heir, weir, and weird) and disyllabic combinations, as in deify, can be disregarded. So we are left with the –ceive verbs and either ~ neither. I see no reason why Leif should have aligned itself with them rather than with eight, neigh, and neighbor. Besides, we may assume that in the New World Leif was a name used mainly by Norwegians. They would have been the last people to change the native pronunciation of this name on the analogy of receive and either. Yet the fact remains that American Leif is Leaf. Perhaps someone has a more persuasive explanation. Is the name known in Britain, and if so, how is it pronounced by saga readers?

Acrosst, its origin. The widespread form acrosst for across owes its existence to analogy. At one time the adverb whilst (from the now archaic whiles) arose; its final –t is parasitic. As time went on, –st was taken for a suffix, and amidst, amongst, and against sprang up, all with parasitic -st. Acrosst is not a bit worse than against or amidst but had the ill luck to be rejected by Standard English (for no weighty reason). Although the norm is capricious, in some circumstances it is advisable to obey its dictate.


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. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Rebecca. Rebecca said: Anatoly answers questions: http://bit.ly/9kXoe4 […]

  2. Michael

    Latin celare “to hide” (pronounced kelare). Does this mean that you know how “Cicero” was pronounced?

  3. Michael

    Is there any evidence for балаган and balcony being related?

  4. […] warsh? It will be easily seen that the title of today’s post was inspired by this question. In my recent discussion of wh-spelling, I referred to the weakening of Engl. h, s, f, and th, a process that has been going […]

  5. Alex Humez

    Wot? Drop the “h” that nobody (well, most nobody) pronounces? The next thing you know, it will be the “w” in “who,” “whole,” and “ho.”

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