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Monthly Gleanings: September 2011

By Anatoly Liberman


Ingle and inkling

Ingle is usually derived from Celtic.  The Scots form is the same as the English one, while Irish Gaelic has aingeal.  The Celtic word is a borrowing of Latin ignis “fire” (cf. Engl. ignite, ignition).  Therefore, some etymologists derive Engl. ingle directly from the Latin diminutive igniculus; ingle nook gives this derivation some support.  Be that as it may, no path leads from ingle to inkling.

Coleslaw, its origin

Coleslaw came to us from Dutch via American English.  Dutch kool means “cabbage” (cf. German Kohl, known to most as the family name of Helmut Kohl, the Chancellor of Germany, 1982-1998), while Dutch sla is the common colloquial form of salade “salad.”  Thus, the etymon is koolsla.  It is unclear why the second element of coleslaw rhymes with haw, paw, raw, rather than with spa.  Words like spa are rare in Modern English; outside baa-baa, blah-blah-blah, bah and their ilk they are exotic borrowings (ah sounds more natural in the unstressed syllables of names like Sarah, Hannah, and so forth, including Monty Python’s Peckinpah).  The change from ah to aw may have been the result of the word’s domestication.  Or do we owe the shape of the vowel to the Midwesterners, in whose speech Shaw is indistinguishable from Shah?

Salad days, its origin

The link from coleslaw to salad needs no justification.  Since the phrase has not been found before Cleopatra, or rather Shakespeare, used it (“My salad days, / When I was green, cold in blood”; Anthony and Cleopatra, 1606), it has been ascribed to him.  Green evokes the idea of spring, youth, and inexperience.  Compare greenhorn (though a young bull’s horns are really green, just as young creatures are really wet behind the ears, or so I understand).  We know who coined the phrase, but we cannot answer the question why Shakespeare used salad, rather than lettuce, in it.  Possibly, he meant not only the color of salad, which, in English at any rate, is the name of a dish, not of a vegetable.  From contemporary literature one can cite the title of Joseph Cronin’s novel The Green Years; however, green has multiple connotations in it. Salad days is a so-called familiar quotation and thus should be avoided, along with all such hackneyed phrases that add a fake air of gentility to one’s speech but in reality betray the speaker’s lazy mind.

Sanction “punishment” and “encouragement”

How can two opposite meanings coexist in one word?  Nowadays we mainly hear and see the first sense of sanction(s), but to sanction something still means “to authorize, ratify it.”  The ambiguity already existed in French, from which English borrowed the noun.   There, sanction denoted an authoritative approval of a law and penalty prescribed in an enactment.  French inherited the double meaning from Latin.  The root of the word is sanct- “saint, holy.” In Rome, sanctio referred to an act of establishing something as inviolable under a penalty.  The law was wise and included a mechanism for enforcing it.

Silent b in climb and related matters

I don’t think the loss of b in pronunciation depends on the use of -ing after climb, as Mr. Cowan suggests (if I understand his comment correctly).  Climbing cannot have been more frequent than the finite forms of climb, while lamb, thumb, comb, and others were surely used more often that lambing, thumbing, and combing.  In –mb, with its two voiced labial consonants in succession, b is shed not only in English.  Parallel to this phenomenon is the insertion of parasitic p after m, as in empty, sumpter “packhorse,” and words like Humpty-Dumpty and umpteen.  Another correspondent cited the obsolete verb limn “draw, paint, portray,” pronounced like limbLimn sides with damn, condemn, solemn, and others.  Final n did not fare too well even in kiln: in some people’s speech kiln is indistinguishable from kill.

An extreme case of the who / whom confusion

We are accustomed to sentences like: “Everything depends on whom will be elected.”  Instead of allowing the pronoun to serve as the subject of the subordinate clause, it is made to depend on the preposition preceding it.  The confusion of who and whom is at least as old as the hills of America.  By this time many people use whom in all situations.  Yet the following sample (from a letter to the editor) stands out: “‘Equal rights’ is a radical concept.  It means that no matter whom you are or what your gender identity, sexual preferences or religious faith may be, you can participate fully in public life.”  As I know from experience, letters to newspapers are edited for content, but perhaps it is not considered proper to edit them for style.  Conversely, the editor may have seen nothing wrong in “no matter whom you are.”

The subjunctive in British English

I am grateful to Mr. Michael Lamb, who, although he watches with amusement my struggle with linguistic windmills, agreed to comment on the use of if we would have been in power.  It appears that careful speakers across the ocean react to such forms without enthusiasm but without active resentment.  The origin of this subjunctive in present day English cannot be established with certainty.  In popular speech, the form may have led an underground existence for a long time.  Such explosions are always “sudden.”  As a parallel, I may refer to an example from Skeat, who grew up in London, and, according to whom, one barely ever heard kite for Kate in the years of his youth, while in 1899 (the date of the note) one could hardly hear anything else.  His observation is, of course, also valid for our time.  If one has to change trains at eight o’clock, one invariably hears long i in all three words.  This is the ultimate triumph of Cockney phonetics.  If we would have been in power may be a phenomenon of the same type (toyp).  Assuming this to be the case, British English has met its Shakespearean past and American pronunciation (which is more or less the same thing).  With regard to both sounds and forms, Shakespeare may have felt more comfortable in Ohio than in today’s Stratford-on-Avon.  Whether he would have enjoyed life in Ohio is not for us to decide.  One can write sonnets anywhere.

The origin of ship (an answer to a comment)

Here are my reasons for questioning the native origin of ship.   1) We do not know what vessels were called ship when the word came into being.  As evidenced by Old Norse, some cognates of Latin navis existed in Germanic, but they receded into the mythological sphere or at least became archaic.  I assume that ship could not have been coined too early, and I doubt that it designated a primitive dugout.  After all, for dugouts we probably have the word boat (to which the next post will be devoted).  Nor am I convinced that old ships (those that speakers called ships) were covered by skins, as Jost Trier suggested.  He did not refer to any linguistic or archeological data.  Some Mediterranean ships were covered with wickerwork, but none of the Germanic ships known to us bears the slightest resemblance to such vessels.  And if the vessels called ships were meant for navigating seas, they were anything but canoes, kayaks, or pirogues.  2) All the obviously related verbs (Old Icelandic skipa and skipta, to name the two most important ones) mean “organize, arrange,” and the like.  Cautious authors add probably, before glossing them as “cut, carve.”  The only related verbs with the meaning “carve, cut” occur in Latvian and Lithuanian.  One could have expected some such forms closer to home.  The age of the Baltic senses is, naturally, unknown.  The history of make shows how careful one should be in dealing with words of this semantic sphere.  3) I don’t see why those who allegedly coined skip- should have used a different grade of ablaut attested in the related verb (forgetting for the moment about the difference in meaning).  This type of derivation is possible, but it is not the one we would predict.  Compare the origin of spoon.  The earliest spoons were made of wood, and the word for “wooden chip, splinter” is in full view, having the same grade of ablaut as spoon (the meaning developed by a well-known process: from “material” to “a thing made of or from it).”  4) Given the obscurity of the Germanic maritime vocabulary, a paradoxical situation has arisen.  It is more natural to posit borrowing (not necessarily from the mysterious substrate) than a native origin, and those who opt for a Germanic etymology of ship are expected to produce truly convincing arguments to the opposite side.  Two Baltic verbs cannot tip the scale.  5) The latest etymological dictionary of Dutch, to which our correspondent refers, is not the most inspiring reference book I have used in my work.

Where did Germanic-speakers come from?

Unlike Mr. Cowan, scholars are not certain how to answer this question.  The ethnogenesis of hardly any old nation has been ascertained to everybody’s satisfaction.  This is not the place to discuss such a complicated question, but I would like to cite a characteristic example.  The Goths preserved the memory of migrating from Scandinavia (history finds them on the shores of the Black Sea).  A few linguistic features seem to confirm that legend, though this evidence is less impressive than philologists contended a century ago.  Place names also seem to point in the direction of Scandinavia, but archeologists failed to find traces of massive migrations from the north at the time suggested by the Gothic historian Jordanes.  As a result, the riddle remains unsolved.  The prehistory of all Germanic speakers is, obviously, more complicated than that of a single tribe.

Decadent food

“I hear cooking shows use the word decadent to describe their delicious food, but decadent comes from decay.  Ick!”  Ick indeed.  Fortunately, we do not have to remember the origin of the words we use.  The term decadence was coined by the opponents of new art (it was new in the second half of the 19th century), with its cult of artificial beauty, and later adopted gleefully by the “decadents” themselves.  Ever since that time decadent has been used as a synonym for “sumptuous; luxuriously self-indulgent; meeting the highest aesthetic criteria.”  The New Oxford American Dictionary gives a curious example (at decadence).  “‘French’ connotes richness and decadence, and that’s the idea of this ice-cream.”  In the mind of many, French stands for “depravity,” for which reason they enviously adore it.  Anyway, be grateful that those shows do not call their dishes tantalizing, which would mean that you will see but never be able to touch them (another popular epithet in advertising the wonders of the American cuisine).

Enjoy a truly decadent ice cream, a mountain of cholesterol and beauty (this is what decadence really means).

Anatoly 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 him care of [email protected]; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”

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Recent Comments

  1. Roland Schuhmann

    (the writing-window is a bit small, so I may have lost the overview when writing; and writing in German would of course be a bit easier for me, so I apologize for clumsy or harsh-sounding expressions – the latter are of course not meant so)

    The question is of course quite simple but methodologically important: When there is an inner-indo-european etymological possiblity for a word in an indo-european languange what arguments are there really to say that the word was borrowed from an unknown language we really don’t know anything of.

    In the case of ship: How can we be sure that this language (waht language are we speaking about?) had a word for ship at all, aside from the question – why did the Germanic speaking people(s) borrow a word for it when 1. they had an inherited word (this can only later have become archaic), 2. it is not difficult at all to form words meaning ship of what kind of type from the inherited word-material (as they did, cp. oe. lid or even the verb goth. farjan and so on) – the case would lie different when in the Germanic languages there wouldn’t a word for it because they didn’t know the object at all.

    For the semantics and the time of the word-formation I would be much more cautious and simply say: we just don’t kno. The statement “I assume that ship could not have been coined too early, and I doubt that it designated a primitive dugout” is in my opinion quite difficult to prove. In the Germanic languages there are of course more cases where the explanation of the semanctics must start from the indo-european meaning of a root because, because the semantics of the word differs from that of other words belonging to the same root.

    At least semantically there is just no problem: it parallels the semantics of the wordgroup of ‘boat’. That already ‘boat’ (looking forward to it) is semantically a ‘dugout’ that doesn’t of course rule out the possibility that there is a second boat-word with the meaning ‘dugout’.

    For the ablautgrade I don’t see the point in the moment (could be because I’m a bit tired): the verb in the Germanic languages (*skipje/a-, *skipôje/a, *skiftije/a-) shows a zero-grade just like the noun. Even if not – the ablauting system must in the Germanic languages have existed much longer as is generally accepted (cp. now the book of Mottausch [if his accent-theory is accepted or not is for this point not important] – also scholars like Schaffner or Hardarsson are in agreement with this]) – so the word could have been formed fairly late (or very early if one likes – because we don’t know).

    Point 4 seems in my eyes a bit circular. Of course, when one starts from the obscurity of the Germanic maritime vocabulary, this is true. But at least I’m not willing to start a priori from this assumption. When two Baltic verbs cannot “tip the scale” I wonder what one should do in cases like nhg. Käfer, oe. ceafur, where inner-germanic correspondences stand semantically aside and balto-slavic verbs are adduced, or ne. stone, where there is no inner-germanic connection at all – and still there is general agreement that the baltic and slavic correspondences are good enough in these cases to assume an indo-european etymology.

    The new Dutch dictionary is indeed not very inspiring, but, when a group of etymologists particularly fond of assuming substrate words in Germanic, in this case don’t even mention this possibility, it seems worth at least thinking about this indo-european etymology for ship.

  2. John Cowan

    What, two derogatory references to me in a single post? I’m honored.

    Needless to say, I made no such fantastic claim as that -ing removed the final consonant in climb, comb. Rather, I said that while a derivational suffix might protect a derived word from loss of a final consonant, as -or protects contemnor (one who is in contempt, usually of court) from the loss of final n seen in contemn, an inflectional suffix such as -ing does not.

    Indeed, derivational suffixes of broad application, such as the -er that makes deverbal nouns, usually do not protect either. Hence climber has no more b than climbing does. There are, as always, exceptions: the (inflectional or derivational, pick your theory) -er and -est that make comparatives and superlatives do protect longer/longest, younger/youngest, stronger/strongest from the usual transformation of final -ng, but not the marginal wronger/wrongest.

    Finally, I certainly do not claim to be a scholar, but I have not heard that in the language of scholars presenting two pieces of evidence amounts to a claim of certainty.

  3. Michael Lamb

    “The Scots form is the same as the English one, while Irish Gaelic has aingeal.” is presumably supposed to mean “The Scots variety of English has the same form as the English variety of English (unsurprisingly enough), while Irish (and Scots) Gaelic has aingeal.” But it looks alarmingly as if it means Irish Gaelic is the only one to have aingeal. and Scots Gaelic stunningly has ingle!

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