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Monthly Gleanings: November 2011

By Anatoly Liberman

Spelling and its implications

It was good to hear from Masha Bell, an ally in the losing battle for reformed spelling.  Her remarks can be found at the end of the previous post (it was about su– in sure and sugar), and here I’ll comment briefly only on her questions.  Is there a connection between erratic, partly unpredictable English spelling and 1) the number of etymologists and 2) the spread of dyslexia in the English speaking world?  I have often heard the second question and can repeat my usual answer.  Dyslexia does not seem to depend on the complexity of spelling in cultures in which a match between the sound and the letter is the basis of reading and writing, while researchers studying dyslexia in China and Japan, where hieroglyphs are used, are not unanimous in their conclusions.  As to the proliferation of etymologists, it certainly does not depend on the vagaries of spelling.  Even when there is a perfect match between a word’s phonetic shape and its written image, as in Finnish and Estonian, the origin of words remains a puzzle to speakers.  The number of etymologists reflects the nation’s interest in the history of its language and the priorities of linguistics as a science (for example, in the nineteenth century, etymology was “the cutting edge” of linguistics, whereas today it is a subject exciting only historical linguists and, fortunately, the public).  In English, man, put, and of give an accurate idea of how they sounded long ago, but their etymology is still hidden from our contemporaries, partly even from professional etymologists.

River and its kin.  Middle English rivere goes back to the Old French word that meant both “river” and “river bank.”  It is usually traced to the unattested Vulgar Latin feminine form riparia, from Latin riparius “of, pertaining to a bank” (Latin ripa “bank”).  Indo-European dictionaries, which revel in roots and extensions, reconstruct the root rei- “scratch, tear, cut” with the extension –p.   Reip- (the etymon of ripa) ended up meaning “that which is cut out by a river.”  The English verb rive (from Scandinavian) may be a cognate.

Sate versus satiated.  Both are bookish; sate even more so than satiate.  The origin of sate is not quite clear, but it can be a shortened form of satiate (this is not the prevailing opinion).  Today sate is rarely used except in its participial form (sated).  There is hardly any difference in the meaning of the two verbs.

Greek khrónos versus kairós.  Our correspondent asks whether Greek khrónos was regularly opposed to kairós as “natural time” to “mechanical time.”  The word khrónos, well-known to English speakers from chronic, chronology, and chronometer, meant “time as such” (so indeed “natural time”), while kairós referred to due time, proper moment, and the like (so not quite “mechanical time”).  Its main meaning was “measure.”

Davenport.  Why is its etymology often called unknown?  A davenport, it will be remembered, is a small cabinet, with a hinged flap made to open and serve as a writing desk.  The word is usually believed to be the name of the original maker, but obscurity envelops the life of this gentleman; hence lexicographic despair.  Mr. Davenport is perhaps more real than many other imaginary inventors of objects around us (beware of Tom Blanket and his cohorts), but not much more so.

Do we know what biweekly means?  No, unfortunately, we don’t.  Among the bi-words, referring to time, only biannual and biennial are unambiguous, because they are pronounced and spelled differently.  In other cases we depend on extralinguistic information.  Thus, no one doubts what bisexual and biped mean.  But biweekly payments may mean fortnightly payments (fortnight is not a word current in American English) or payments made twice a week (a rather unlikely situatioin).  If you are hired with a promise of bimonthly checks (cheques), “feel free” to ask for details.

In hospital versus in the hospital.  This is the most often cited example of differences between American and British usage.  In North America, people stay in the hospital.  In Britain, in hospital needs no article.  But all over the English speaking world people go to bed, to school and to college, though, to prove how unpredictable the norm is, they go to the university.  It is enough to say go to the bed, to realize the difference between to the bed and to bed.  Likewise, we sit at table or at the table, go to camp or to the camp, and so forth, depending on the measure of abstraction implied.

Ecology versus ecosystem.  Many people use these words as interchangeable synonyms (for examples, this is bad for the ecology), but the two nouns are supposed to mean different things. Ecology, as follows from its suffix, is a branch of biology studying ecosystems.  We don’t say:” This action is bad for the zoology of the Jungle.”  But every case is special.

The pronunciation of assume and related matters.  Of course, I know that Americans say asoom, for I hear the word almost every day.  My point was that the variants ashoom, shoot (the latter for suit), and the like did not stay even in the speech of those who occasionally pronounce kiss you as kish you.  Nor did I imply that everybody pronounces what you as watch you, but many people do.

Amusing typos.

In my previous post, I quoted the following: “…the child, whose parents say was snatched….”  There was a comment that this is acceptable grammar.  I am afraid the comment missed the point.  The sentence was made incomprehensible by the omission of the comma after say!  It should have been: “…the child, whose parents say, (!) was snatched….”   I have recently run into another enjoyable typo: “…if the duties are too high, they lesson the consumption…”  With regard to spelling, if not to etymology, we surely live in Wonderland.  The “lessoning” of the consumption reminded me that also a few days ago I had read about the consumption of the marriage, but it would be unfair to taunt the author, who happens to be a foreigner, though the editor of the conference papers (a native speaker) could have read what she was publishing.  But this is perhaps too much to expect.

Many thanks to Dr. Schumann for an interesting example of antiquarian Germanic zeal.  Next time the gleanings will appear shortly before the New Year.  It would be good if our correspondents, while sending us questions related to etymology, spelling, and usage, could think of some “seasonal” queries.

“And how many hours a day did you do lessons?” said Alice….  “Ten hours the first day,” said the Mock Turtle; “nine the next and so on.”  “What a curious plan!” exclaimed Alice.  “That is the reason they are called lessons,” the Gryphon remarked, “because they lessen from day to day.”  This was quite a new idea to Alice.

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. Kevin

    In Eastern Canada, anyway, it’s common for a student to say they “go to university,” article-free. “Go to the university” would sound odd, unless it was clear from the context that there could only be one university in question.

  2. Fabio Bart

    In Scotland also, people go to universtity without the article. (Eyebrows would be raised were a person to take an article to the university!)

  3. John Cowan

    Another amusing and common typo is pubic for public, as in your first paragraph. Google claims almost 50,000 hits for pubic affairs.

    Yet more fine examples of anarthrous noun phrases: Johnny Cash was in jail seven times, whereas Elvis was merely in the jail while performing “Jailhouse Rock”. (Cash was never in prison, though he performed in several of them.)

    The suffix -ology is often extended from the subject of study to the object of study, as in the standard use of psychology to mean ‘psychological outlook’, OED3 sense 2c (which is OED2 sense 2a). The first OED3 quotation is from 1834. Ecology in the sense of the object of study appears figuratively in an Auden poem (“the Catholic ecology”) from 1941, and literally in 1967.

  4. Anelie

    I must chime in to say that Australian students routinely go “to uni”, sans article, too.

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