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Monthly etymology gleanings for May 2012, part 1

By Anatoly Liberman

Shrew again. Soon after I posted an essay on shrew, in which I dissociated that word from a verb meaning “cut,” a correspondent asked me how my etymology (from “devil”) could be reconciled with the obvious connection between Old Engl. scirfemus (related to sceorfan “cut”) and German Schermaus (related to scheren, the same meaning), the latter from Middle High German scheremus. (The relevant forms can be found in the OED.) The connection referred to in the letter cannot be denied, but I think that both the Old English and the Middle High German word owe their existence to folk etymology: the shrew was associated with venom and its name underwent change. An etymology resembles a jigsaw puzzle. In the final solution, all the elements must find their places, but “cut” is incompatible with “devil.” I preferred to sacrifice “cut”, which I could explain in some way, and start with “devil.” It is anybody’s guess whether my explanation is right, but at least it does not ignore half of the relevant material.

By way of compensation, I will reproduce a letter written by Skeat to The Athenaeum in 1881. Its full text was not reproduced in his dictionary, and few people may have read it.

“I observe in a late review of Mr. Britten’s ‘Old Country and Farming Words,’ that some notice is taken of a quotation which says that a shrew-mouse is rightly named because it gives shrewd bites. The etymology is wrong, of course, but not so silly as seems to be implied, for the connexion between these words is real. It would be easy to show by numerous quotations that shrewed was originally the past participle of Middle English shrewen, to curse and meant accursed; next, that shrewen is a weak verb derived from the adjective shrewe, malicious; and, lastly, that shrew-mouse is the malicious or harmful mouse…. A screw is likewise a vicious horse…. That the animal had a bad name is undoubted; whether he deserved it is another question.”

We now know that people maligned “him” for no reason, but for etymological purposes the connection is indeed real. I think Skeat’ reconstruction has more to recommend it than the one tentatively suggested in the OED.

Throp ~ thorp. The question concerned the relation between throp and thorp. Outside Old English, all the Germanic languages, including Gothic, vouch for thorp. In Old English, the word occurred rarely, but throp seems to have been the prevalent — perhaps even the only — form in common use. There is no certainty that throp developed from thorp by metathesis. The two might have been independent variants of the same root by ablaut. Recourse to etymology will not solve the problem. The literature on German Dorf “village”, etc. is huge, but opinions on the so-called primary form are divided. Engl. thorp, like the family name Thorpe, goes back to the Scandinavian form.

Range “stove.” One type of stove is called range because the main meaning of range is “line, rank, series of things.” To be called a range, a fireplace needed more than one oven. An explanation in the OED is short, so I will quote the following entry from The Century Dictionary (2nd ed.):

“A cooking-stove built into a fireplace, or sometimes portable but of a similar shape, having a row or rows of openings on the top for carrying on several operations at once. Fixed ranges usually have two ovens, either on each side of the fire-chamber or above it at the back, and in houses supplied with running water or hot-water reservoir or permanent boiler. The origin of the modern cooking range may be sought in the furnaces of masonry of the ancient Romans, arranged to receive cooking-utensils on the top. Throughout the middle ages only open-chimney fires were used, until in France, in the course of the fourteenth century, built furnaces with openings above for pots began to be added in great kitchens, for convenience in preparing the soups and sauces then in greater favor than before. The range in the modern sense, involving the application of heat conducted by and reflected from iron plates, was first advanced and practically improved by Count Rumford.”

The range is then of Romance origin, and so are the words, italicized in the quotation above. But fire, stove, and oven are Germanic. Count Rumford (Sir Benjamin Thomson, 1773-1814) of fireplace fame was an American-born physicist.

Incentivize. Unfortunately, I cannot add anything to the discussion of this verb that has not been said many times. The suffix –ize is productive, which means that more and more verbs like incentivize will be coined. I have no need for it because I find it ugly. (But I also find a good deal of modern literature, art, and music ugly.) The only thing I can do is not to use (“to not utilize”) it in my speech. I have the same reaction to a truck running a red light, that is, I step aside rather than trying to stop it.

Exact same. My attitude toward it is “exact same” as toward incentivize. This phrase has also been discussed many times by language panels, grammarians, and concerned citizens. Unlike some pundits (gurus, mavens: such is the jargon), I am sure that exact functions here as an adverb. Once I wrote a post on the “death of the adverb” (a hot subject): consider do it real quick, and so forth. There I quoted “She sings beautiful” from a student paper and wondered whether we still speak English or have collectively switched to German.

Similar examples can also be found in provincial English. Dickens sometimes overdoes this usage while reproducing the speech of his characters. If people said “Last year you gave me exactly the same shirt,” no one would object. But the world has a strong tendency of rubbing in even the paltriest ideas. Hence countless redundancies and overstatements, such as the use of very, very, where even one very is unnecessary. Although exactly lost its adverbial suffix (-ly) and the combination exact same sounds odd, the oddity wore off long ago. If you don’t like the phrase, avoid it and teach your children to do the same. Other than that, live and let live. A teacher’s position is trickier: should one swim against the current? If I were an instructor of English as a second language (my favorite imaginary case), I would advise my charges to say the same and do without exact or even exactly.

Hopefully. Walter Turner suggests that hopefully at the beginning of sentences is not an adverb but an “absolute construction,” like by the way, as far as it goes, or as to that. Other ly-words also occur sentence initially. Compare “naturally, he will come,” “fortunately, he is still here,” “possibly you are right,” “really, this is going too far.” They are still adverbs, even though used parenthetically.

However, there is a difference. In all of my sentences, the adverbs can be moved to their proper place (he will naturally come, he is fortunately still here, you are possibly right, this is really going too far) and only the emphasis will be lost. In “hopefully, the weather will change” hopefully cannot be transformed into “the weather will hopefully change.” So Mr. Turner may be right in singling out hopefully. The adverb hopefully seems to be dead. Who says now: “I waited hopefully for her letter” or “He looked hopefully at his wife”? The great fight for eliminating hopefully at the beginning of sentences and substituting I (we) hope for it is a waste of time. The trouble with this usage is not that hopefully is wrong but that it is a buzzword and as such should be avoided.

My question is different. How did this usage originate? Are we again in the German department, in which hoffentlich is perfectly all right? Is it a remnant of German, like are you coming with and take it with, which broke away from the (?) Midwest and inundated the entire country? I have no clue, but the fairly recent triumph of hopefully seems to be limited to American English.

Synergy. “‘Synergy’ and, even worse, ‘synergies!’ People in business throw these terms around all the time, but each time I’ve asked what exactly it means, nobody can tell me.” My experience has been similar. People in business and elsewhere are fond of “hard” words, and, to be sure, the more Latin and especially Greek elements such words contain, the more impressive they sound. Those who studied Classical languages and retained good manners in the process do not brag about their knowledge. But nowadays such people are few, so that the underrepresented ones flaunt synergy and empathy. Synergy means the creation of a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. The sense can be guessed from the prefix syn– (compare syn-cretic, syn-chronic, sym-phony), and, quite obviously, synergy has no plural.

To be continued next week.

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. John Cowan

    No doubt Naturally he will come can be transformed into He will naturally come, but this is not so of other uses of sentential naturally about which nobody dreams of complaining. Consider Naturally, he was happy, which cannot be interchanged with He was naturally happy without the risk of confusion with the meaning of He was happy by nature, for adverbs may modify either the verbs they follow or the adjectives they precede. What is more, Sadly, Paul’s car was stolen cannot be transformed into Paul’s car was sadly stolen or stolen sadly at all.

    I don’t think any appeal to German is needed to explain hopefully: it is a perfectly natural extension of the capacity of many existing adverbs (clearly, confidentially, evidently, obviously, unfortunately, etc.) to sentential use. If anything requires explanation, it is why so few adverbs do make this transition, and why certain people have made such a stink about this one in particular.

  2. John Cowan

    Note to editor: The caption seems to be missing a word: should “cold” be “cold day”?

  3. Terry Collmann

    “a screw is a vicious horse …”

    A screw, according to the OED is “an unsound, or broken-down horse, that requires both whip and spur to get him along”, rather than a vicious one.

  4. mollymooly

    Of Language Log’s many postings on “hopefully”, a recent one specifically addresses the history. I, and I suspect most speakers, can readily say “the weather will hopefully change”, although in writing I might be tempted to add commas (thus “the weather will, hopefully, change”) to indicate the sense (rather than the prosody).

    Althorp, where Princess Diana is buried, is traditionally pronounced as though spelt “Altrop”.

  5. Alice Northover

    @John Cowan

    Thanks for the note. That’s actually a quirk of the original title so I decided to keep it. Click on the image to see its NYPL record for more information about the photo.

    — Blog Editor Alice

  6. John Cowan

    Mollymooly: Thanks for the link. In particular, it shows many 21st-century examples of verb-modifying hopefully.

  7. […] responses to the comments and questions received since posting last week’s gleanings on June 30. Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them as well as An […]

  8. […] thanks to those who responded to the recent posts on adverbs, spelling, and cool dudes in Australia. I was also grateful for friendly remarks on the Pippi post […]

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