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Monthly Gleanings, Part 2: October 2011

By Anatoly Liberman


Last week I answered only the questions that needed relatively detailed answers.  Today’s “issue” will be devoted to shorter queries.

Riparian. Some letters we receive are so brief that I am not sure whether my explanations satisfy the writers.  For example, a recent query contained only one word, namely RIPARIAN.  It will be remembered that the protagonist of one of H. K. Andersen’s tales, a merchant’s son who played ducks and drakes with his inheritance (in the direct sense of the word: he loved to toss golden coins into water, to watch the rings), one day, when his prospects had become truly grim, received a gift from an old friend, a coffer to which the shortest note possible was pinned: “Pack up.”   This was easy, for the only thing the man still possessed was his old dressing gown.  He put it on, got into the coffer, and the coffer flew up into the air.  What happened to the merchant’s son after he landed in Turkey is irrelevant to my story, but I wish to ask our correspondents to give more details when they ask questions.  However, since the email had the subject ETYMOLOGY REQUEST, I assume that I am expected to discuss the origin of the word riparian.  This adjective usually means “pertaining to or situated on the banks of a river,” for it goes back to Latin ripuarius, from ripa “bank.”   The medical term riparian “pertaining to a ripa of the brain; marginal, as a part of the brain” (it is used in anatomy) is an extension of the same sense.  I may add that ripa is not related to Engl. rib and that river, a Romance cognate of ripa, is not related to rivulet.

Tell, its senses, tally, and the noun till.  Both senses of the verb tell—“count” and “narrate”—were already present in Old English.  Since tell was derived from a noun and this noun (Old Engl. talu, cognate with Old High German zala and Old Icelandic tala “tale”) also meant “reckoning” and “talk,” it is hard to disentangle the meanings, but, most probably, the semantic kernel was “ordered, or numerical, sequence,” from which “things told in order, a connected narrative” developed.  Therefore, from a historical point of view, “number” (as in German Zahl) seems to have preceded “speech” (as in Dutch taal).  In English, the sense “count” has been almost ousted by “narrate, recount” (compare count and recount!)  But the biblical usage, retained in he telleth the number of the stars and so forth, the phrases tell one’s beads, all told, and untold riches (wealth), as well as in the noun teller, remind us of tell “count.”  Talk has the root tal-, followed by the suffix -k, but tally traces to a Latin etymon (talea “cutting, rod, stick”; tailor, from French, literally “cutter,” as is still seen in Italian tagliatore, is its cognate).  Keeping count by notches on a stick was a universal procedure in the past.  Since Latin t does not correspond to Germanic t (either Germanic th- or non-Germanic d- is needed), tally cannot be a cognate of talea, but it is not absolutely improbable that the Latin word was very early borrowed into Germanic (in such cases one expects identities rather than correspondences).  The origin of talu ~ tala remains, to a certain extent, unknown.  Although its Latin provenance is possible, tale may be a native Germanic word related to Latin dolo (dolare) “to chop,” and, if so, we return to the idea of notches.  Be that as it may, in the history of tale and tell, the idea of counting must have preceded the idea of narrating.  A teller tells money and stands at the till; yet till is not related to tell.  Although its origin is obscure, no path leads from till to tell.

German Gau “region” and its putative English cognate.  Dr. Keith Briggs has read my old blog on the origin of yeoman and sent me his paper “Early English Region-Names with the Suffix -ia.”  Since the time I posted that blog, my article on yeoman has appeared in the McConchie Festschrift, and, if required, I will gladly reciprocate the gift and send the paper to the address given in the email.  The reason the two of us partly studied the same material is the disputable etymology of yeoman.  It has been suggested that the word means something like “region man” (Gaumann, as it were), which is wrong on all counts.  An English cognate of Gau has not been found.  Attempts to detect it in the place name Ely also failed.  Dr. Briggs’s paper explores numerous forms that were tangential to my interests.  As for yeoman, it probably first meant “an ‘additional’ man.”

Deceive ~ deception, receive ~ reception, interceive ~ interception? Why doesn’t the verb given above in bold exist?  Receive and reception were borrowed as individual “items” from Old French.  The same holds for deceive and deception, as well as for deceit and receipt (note the irritating difference in spelling!).  Recipe also came to English independently of receive and receptionIntercept goes back to the past participle of Latin intercipire “seize; steal.”  Later the noun interception was coined, so that the verb suggested by the proportion receive/deceive ~ reception/deception ~?/interception never existed.  If someone invents it and other people agree to use it, it will appear in English, but it will be a brand-new word.

Does skedaddle have a Greek etymon? The Greek idea has occurred to many.  No, this Americanism can be traced to a British regional verb meaning “to spill, scatter.”  It would be odd if a verb current among the soldiers during the Civil War had a learned, bookish source.  In case our correspondent is seriously interested in the history of skedaddle, it can be found in my etymological dictionary; the entry lists numerous hypotheses on the word’s origin and traces its progress in 19th-century American English.

Repertory and find.  Are they connected?  Yes, in a way.  Repertory, from late Latin repertorium (dictionaries of Classical Latin do not list it) first meant “index; storehouse” (among other things).  Its root reperire means “find.”

Fizzgig. The word does not seem to pose any problems: fizz refers to something inconstant, and gig makes us think of quick movement.  Perhaps an association with giggle was in play when the word emerged.

Dead as a doornail.  I am sorry to report that the origin of this idiom has been explored high and low and roundabout, that the results are uninspiring, and that everybody says the same.  If our correspondent searches for the phrase in the Internet, he will find what little is known about the phrase and the two current explanations of why the doornail is dead and why it is the doornail that shows no signs of life, rather than herring, mutton, and quite a few others that occur in the idiom dead as—.


Newspapers produce crops throughout the year.  I read them avidly, just as I gladly go to conferences, because linguists are never bored.  If a talk is vapid, they can follow the accent, and if a publication is inane, they can enjoy the felicities of style.

David Brooks of NYT meets an impressionable woman. He writes: “Let’s imagine that someone from 1970 miraculously traveled forward in time and space.  You could show her one of the iPhones that Steve Jobs helped create, and she’d be thunderstruck.”  I am sure she would.  “There are more ways than one to turn a girl’s head” (G.B. Shaw).

The man whom wrote this report’s competency is in doubt. “A federal judge gave prison officials four more months to try to restore the competency of the accused gunman ***, whom a psychologist said has shown remorse for killing six people and wounded 13….”

Let I quote a letter to the editor. “If President Obama had the courage, he… would be saying, in effect, ‘Mr. Cain, you aren’t crazy, and you have some good ideas.  Let’s you and I frame the discussion, and try to leave politics out of it.”  (This ludicrous usage has several variants.  For example, one often runs into sentences like “He greeted my wife and I.”)

Was the parents snatched too? “Investigators have no suspects and few solid leads despite an intensive search for ***, whose parents—*** and***—say was snatched from her crib Monday night or early Tuesday in ***.”

No doubt, this well-plowed field will never leave us without a good harvest.  All the best till next Wednesday.

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. Marc Leavitt

    Just a reminder: I’d still like to read your view on “wer” and when, where and why it dropped out of the lexicon. Perhaps next month?


    Marc Leavitt
    [email protected]

  2. John Cowan

    And yet surely ripa (or its Proto-Romance descendant) underwent semantic shift from ‘bank’ to ‘river’ under the influence of rivus? Come to that, what is the etymology of ripa itself beyond Latin?

    Your fourth dead-ear example is very much alive. “Was” agrees in number with the antecedent of “whose”, namely the child’s name. I’d add an explicit resumptive pronoun “she”, but it is not grammatically necessary.

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