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Monthly Gleanings: July 2010

by Anatoly Liberman

Almost exactly two years ago, on July 30, 2008, I posted an essay on the origin of the nickname Hoosier.  In it I expressed my cautious support of R. Hooser, who derived the “moniker” for an inhabitant of Indiana from a family name. I was cautious not because I found fault with his reasoning but because it is dangerous for an outsider to express his opinion on a special subject; American onomastics (a branch of linguistics devoted to the study of names) is not my area.  The bibliographers who had done outstanding work in listing the documents pertaining to Hoosier seem to have missed the article in Eurasian Studies Yearbook, 1999, 224-231. However, none of them reacted to my defense of the Hauser/Hoosier hypothesis either.  Perhaps they missed that post: it is impossible to follow everything that appears in the Internet.  Only Mr. J. Vanhoosier wrote a few words about the history of his family.  His comment dates to February 2009.    Mr. Randall Hooser (in Yearbook, his full name was not given) noticed my post in June 2010 and responded in some detail.  Comments that are added so late have no chance of attracting my attention, because this weekly blog has existed for more than four years, but Mr. Hooser contacted me and sent me numerous supporting materials.  His interpretation of historical evidence does not seem to be controversial, and I will deal only with the etymology of the nickname.

Mr. Hooser is not a linguist, and this is why he made too much of the fact that the High German au corresponds to long u (transliterated as Engl. oo) in Alsace, the homeland of the Hausers/Hoos(i)ers.  But this correspondence needs no proof.  In Middle High German, long i and u (transliterated by Engl. ee and oo) underwent diphthongization, which spread from Austrian Bavarian dialects in the 12th century and later became one of the most important features of the Standard.  The “margins” of the German speaking world were unaffected by the change, so that the north (Low German) and the south (Alsace and Switzerland) still have monophthongs where they had them in the past.  What has not been accounted for is the variant Hoosier as opposed to Hooser.  In my 2008 post, I referred to such enigmatic American pronunciations as Frasier for Fraser and groshery for grocery, but analogs have no explanatory value.  However, according to Mr. Hooser, linguists from Kentucky informed him that in the Appalachian area this type of phonetic change is regular, so that Moser becomes Mosier, and so forth.  The cause of the change remains undiscovered.  Although in this context the cause is irrelevant, I may note that in many areas of the Germanic speaking world one hears sh-like s, notably in Icelandic and Dutch, but not only there.  Sh for s and zh (the latter as in Engl. pleasure, as you, and genre) for z characterized the earliest pronunciation of German.  The Proto-Indo-European s was, in all likelihood, also a lisping sound.  Perhaps the area from which the Hoosers migrated to America has just such a sibilant.

The original derogatory meaning of Hoosier is certain.  Yet the word’s adoption by Indiana should cause no surprise; compare Suckers and Pukes for the inhabitants of Illinois and Missouri.  At one time, both kings and commoners had the most offensive nicknames and tolerated them.  One may recall Charles the Bald, Harald Bluetooth, and the rest.  Those are among the gentlest soubriquets that have come down to us from history.  Some Scandinavian nicknames cannot be mentioned in mixed company even today, and yet they occurred in the sagas.  As regards Hoosier, see Mr. Hooser’s second comment to my post.  All the other etymologies of Hoosier look hopeless.  The idea that the sought-for etymon is an obscure Cumberland word for “big man,” though it has been repeated in many dictionaries, holds out no promise (the word is almost unknown even in Cumberland, and why Cumberland of all places?).  It would be most interesting to hear the opinion of the specialists from the Indiana Historical Society.

I have had an interesting correspondence with Mr. Yoram Meroz about the origin and pronunciation of the word tattoo “marks on the skin.”  Why does English have oo, if the original Tahitian word was pronounced with a diphthong?  As far as I can judge (and here I am again entirely out of my depth), those who say that the word is Tahitian rather than Marquesan and that no Polynesian language had u or oo in it, are right (such is also Yoram Meroz’s opinion).  Since the literature on etymology is so hard to find, I’ll quote Douglas Gray (“Captain Cook and the English Vocabulary” in Five Hundred Years of Words and Sounds: A Festschrift for Eric Dobson. E.G. Stanley and Douglas Gray, eds. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 1983, 49-62): “The word—at first in Cook’s form tattow, which probably represents the Tahitian diphthong, and then as tattoo (a spelling, which is found by the end of the eighteenth century—was as quickly accepted in the larger linguistic community, but, like kangaroo, it has always remained very specialized” (p. 54).  In 1983, Gray had no access to Google Books and our search machines, but the more recent finds shed no light on the change of the native diphthong to a monophthong.  My guess was that in English, tattoo “marks on the skin” acquired its pronunciation under the influence of tattoo “drumbeat,” especially because the marks were associated with “striking” points on the body.  In French we probably have to reckon with a spelling pronunciation.  In the latest letter to me, Yoram Meroz suggested the same evolution of the English vowel in Tahitian tattoo.

In the previous Gleanings, I mentioned the fact that Stephen Goranson had been able to antedate the OED’s citations of kibosh.  However, even with a slightly earlier example we are still in the thirties of the 19th century.  Our correspondence concerned the etymology of the word.  I paid special attention to the sense “Portland cement” and suggested that perhaps kibosh had arisen as a foreign architectural term (to put the kibosh on “to give polish, finish off”) and from there spread to London slang.  In this I was influenced by the circumstance that kibosh used to refer to something done properly, with special attention to form, and I still think that no etymology of kibosh will carry conviction unless it succeeds in explaining when “Portland cement” entered the picture. Other than that, I have no idea where the word came from.  Stephen Goranson writes: “The 1901 Notes and Queries claim that Portland cement was commonly used for finishing off artwork etc. lacks any supporting evidence….  In fact a book on the history of Portland cement…tells that, though invented in 1824, Portland cement was little known until the 1850s—too late for kibosh in 1834….”  The note by Harry Hems in Notes and Queries (Series 9, vol. VII, p. 277) runs as follows: “Kybosh is a widely known trade word.  I have heard it used, practically every day, for the forty years—not in one locality only, but in all parts of England.  ‘Where’s the kybosh?’  ‘You had better kybosh it a bit,’ is a query and recommendation that may be constantly overheard where architectural sculptors are at work.  Kybosh is Portland cement; to kybosh is to throw, with blowpipe and with brush, this dark dust into the deep recesses of carved stonework, so that the latter’s shadows may become intensified, and thus augment the general good effect of the ornamentation…There is no other trade term for kybosh.  It is ‘kybosh’ pure and simple.”  This chronology agrees with Goranson’s: Hems refers to the sixties (“for the last forty years,” said in April 1901), indeed too late for the earliest citations of the word known to us, assuming that before 1860 kybosh was not current in the language of architects.  If so, it was the architects and sculptors who adopted the slangy phrase in their language, and not the other way around.  Although I find this leap strange, I have no facts to buttress my hypothesis.  Etymological cookies crumble easily.  However, Goranson’s derivation of kibosh is hardly definitive.  He believes that the story began with corbage ~ korbage ~ kurbash ~ corbash ~ kybosh “whip made out of hippopotamus hide.”  Raising the kibosh on one would be the alleged source of putting the kibosh on this person.  The connection seems rather thin to me and the source a bit too exotic.  But, like everybody else, I am inclined to think that kibosh is a foreign word (though, as argued in my post, neither Yiddish nor Hebrew).

Mr. Bruce Balden suggests that English spelling is consistent when it comes to Latin and Greek words, while it is the Germanic core vocabulary (about 1000 words) that gives us grief.  He adds that since words like mother are learned early by both native speakers and foreigners, people often stop noticing the oddity of their spelling.  This generalization may be partly true, except that the Germanic core vocabulary contains more than 1000 words.  However, the spelling of many words borrowed from French should, in my opinion, be Anglicized and simplified.  British Engl. colour and cheque have lost none of their value after they became color and check in America.  Chagrin and commerce would probably also survive as shagrin and comerse (komers?), while address, with its two d’s and two s’s, is downright silly.  And what a blessing it would be to forget about believe and receive alongside Germanic leaf and sieve!

Why do so many people pronounce this word as Ar-tic?  I think the reason should be looked for in phonetics.  The final phase of a consonant like p and k (the explosion, or the release) is often suppressed by the initial phase of the following t.  Foreign students of British English are taught to pronounce act and apt without releasing the air in c (that is, k) and p.  In American English, this rule usually does not obtain, and one can hear all three phases of k and p, but sometimes the “British” rule seems to retaliate, and, apparently, this happens in Arctic, in which c (k) passes into t in such a way that it is nearly inaudible.  Perhaps some of our readers have a better explanation and will supply more data about the pronunciation of this word in different parts of the English speaking world.  Holy and its dead synonym. Proto-Germanic had two adjectives: wihaz “consecrated” and hailagaz, probably “sacred, inviolable.”  Reflexes of wihaz continued into most Germanic languages and together with reflexes of hailagaz are in some form extant today: compare German heilig “holy” and the first element of Weihnachten “Christmas” (literally, “holy night”; an ossified dative plural).  The main exception is fourth-century Gothic, in which hailag– does not occur (something made Wulfila, the translator of the Gothic Bible, avoid it).  The question I received is: “Where is the reflex of wihaz in English and how would it have sounded if it had been preserved?”  For some reason, this adjective did not turn up even in Old English, though it has been recorded with final h and final g (wih- ~ weoh– and wig-) as the first element of compounds.  We have no way of accounting for the absence of the independent adjective wih ~ weoh, but its absence is hardly fortuitous.  If wih had existed and stayed in the language, it would, most likely, have been spelled wye and become a homophone of why (without an h).

Our correspondent asks the familiar question: “Why do dictionaries say different things about the origin of this word, which dictionary should be trusted, and where did cabaret come from?”  The answer to the first part of the question poses no problems: “The origin of cabaret is unknown, but numerous hypotheses have been advanced about it, and editors choose the one they like most or remain silent.  Trust the dictionary that lists and sifts all the viable options.”  The best one for English is by Walter W. Skeat, but alas, he did not include cabaret, for he had nothing to say about it.  Wise, but disappointing.  In the languages in which cabaret is known, it is from French.  In French texts, it appeared in the 14th century (apparently, from Walloon) and in English three centuries later.  Like some other words for “pub; bistro” it may be a borrowing, but the Romance origin (from a Latin etymon) is also possible.  In the Middle Ages, cabaret did not make it to Italian, Spanish, or Portuguese, and nowadays it owes its popularity to the type of entertainment that goes back to the twenties of the past century.  Etymologists have tried to connect cabaret with the root of cave (another French word, ultimately from Latin cavus “hollow”; this would imply that the original cabaret was a cellar) or chamber (French chambre, from Latin camera “vault”).  While looking through dictionaries, one finds, among others, such etymons of cabaret as Classical Greek kape “eatery” (if such a low word can be used to gloss a Greek one; stress on the last long vowel), French dialectal cabaret “eaves,” canabaret (unattested, but compare Italian canova “antechamber; alehouse”) and cabaneret “hut,” French cavereau “cellar,” Arabic khamarat “a place of refreshment,” and even caput arietis “ram’s head,” for this was a common sign of taverns (an amusing and improbable suggestion but not quite fanciful: compare the proverb good wine needs no bush, for the picture of a bush often appeared as a sign of drinking establishments, and such measures of liquid as hogshead, with analogs elsewhere).  The most often used etymological dictionary of French suggests that the Old French borrowed Middle Dutch cabret or cambret, which in turn is a borrowing of Old Picard (the dialect spoken in Picardy) camberet “small room,” from camber “room,” from Latin camera (see above); -et is a diminutive suffix.  Several of our thick dictionaries copied this etymology (with or without hedging), which does not mean that it is correct.  At this stage we have several plausible conjectures rather than the ultimate truth.

The river Yeo.
Our correspondent read my old post on yeoman and wonders whether yeoman and Yeo are in any way connected.  There is no connection.  It has been suggested that Yeo means “yew,” whether from Old English or Welsh.  Several rivers in England are called Yeo; the one in Somerset is the best-known.  Whether the banks of all of them are or were at one time overgrown with yew remains to be seen.  The suggestion that this name is an alteration of Old Engl. ea “river” should be treated with a grain of salt, because a river is hardly ever called simply “river” (the Germanic etymon of ea meant “water,” but not in Old English).  Nor do I know why some sources state that Yeo means “forked (river)”, with reference to Celtic.  Some resemblance between Yeo and the word for “fork” (in Celtic and dialectal English) exists (its cognate is German Gabel “fork”), but this etymology is also guesswork.  Yeo is usually pronounced like yeo- in yeoman.  Many people have thought that yeoman once meant “yewman.”  It never did.

Read the next Gleanings on September 29.

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. Kim

    You might be interested in this excerpt from the article “What Is A Hoosier?” published in the Indiana Historical Society’s Traces magazine.


    I’d be happy to send you the entire piece if you’d like. You can e-mail me at [email protected].

    Kim Easton
    Communications Manager, Indiana Historical Society

  2. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Lady Tattooine and Lady Tattooine, Lauren. Lauren said: The wait is over, here're the Monthly Gleanings http://ow.ly/2hIOc […]

  3. Stephen Goranson

    The kibosh, based on some of the earliest uses, plausibly appears to refer to an instrument for striking blows, an instrument held in the hand. The kurbash is an instrument for striking blows, too. The non-rhotic Cockney usage could account for the lost r. Three, and possibly four (pending an interlibrary loan), publications link the kibosh and the animal skin stick or whip. The case may seem “thin” when not fully presented. To state it is not “definitive” does not state what it is. We agree in seeking the source in a foreign word, but differ on ruling out those you consider too “exotic.” The kurbash was certainly known in many English publications. We agree that the Portland cement association is a later development. Thanks.

  4. Randall Hooser

    Prof Liberman,
    I know you are a busy man trying to discover legitimate new truths and meanings about the origins of the words in the English language. Regrettably Ms Easton of IHS posted a reference regarding “What is a Hoosier?” as excerpted from “The Meanings of Hoosier – 175 Years and Counting.” This article was prepared by Steve Haller, senior director, IHS Collections, which appeared in the fall 2008 issue of Traces. My view is that it is as incomplete as most other references in academic Indiana’s pursuit of Hoosier folklore. Long live Indiana’s favorite parlor game.

    In fact my website started the year count of the unresolved “What is a Hoosier?” mystery back in the late 90’s at 168 and now of course we are approaching 178 years of Indiana’s academic failure. Alas if only columnist’s Dave Berry’s words a few years ago had inspired Indiana’s academic class when he used the “S – word” (stupid) in reference to their state moniker and their failure to find its original meaning.


    As long as academic Indiana balks, “Whose Your Daddy” lives. Academic Purdue / “non IU others” are excluded of course from this task.

    Mr. Haller also apparently ignored your post of July 2008 when he failed to include the Hauser / Hooser family theory as published in April 1999 by IU’s own Dr. Gyula Decsy. One has to wonder what research Mr. Haller, the senior director of IHS collections managed to accomplish in the fall of 2008, when he failed to reference an academic journal from Indiana University almost a decade before. I guess because they were a linguistics academic journal and a linguistic blog, so they were not deemed appropriate. The Hoosier Historians alone want to botch this effort (original “Hoosier” definition please — my reference of choice would be the Dictionary of Early American Words and Phrases by Random House). They are succeeding beyond their wildest dreams.

    I would like to think Ms Easton has read Mr. Hallers work before she recommended it above, since he clearly did not deal with your posts of July 2008 and 2010. So my question is why did she recommend it? After 178 years of IHS’s academic malfeasance on this topic any “Five and Dime” in Indiana has a pamphlet on the tongue and cheek entries for “What is a Hoosier?”. Mr. Haller simply repeated them in 2008.

    One can’t quite understand why Eli Lily spends so much on this organization for historical research. Ponderous

  5. […] have been explored for that purpose. I have twice discussed the word in this blog: on 19 May and on 28 July 2010. My modest aim was to call attention to the existing conjectures and sort them out. I also thought […]

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