Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Monthly etymology gleanings for June 2012, part 2

By Anatoly Liberman

Spelling. I am grateful for the generous comments on my post in the heartbreak series “The Oddest English Spellings.” Several years ago, I had the pleasure of meeting Masha Bell at a congress in Coventry, and around that time I corresponded with Valerie Yule. A positive comment from Peter Demaere (Canada) reinforced my message. The situation is as odd as English spelling. Spelling reform had famous supporters from the start. Great linguists, including Walter W. Skeat and Otto Jespersen, and outstanding authors and public figures agreed that we should no longer spell the way we do. Unfortunately, after World War I humanity faced graver problems than the absurdity of English spelling and the discussion flagged. I left Coventry with the feeling that the public had again turned a sympathetic ear to our efforts, but, apparently, I was mistaken, for I am not aware of any progress made since that time. No one doubts that spelling melon and until with single letters, as opposed to mellow and till, is foolish, and so is distinguishing between scamp and skate, to give two random examples. Historical linguists explain that many rules are arbitrary; sometimes they are even the product of medieval and postmedieval ignorance.

All major European languages occasionally reform their spelling, gingerly or radically, as the case may be. Apart from the changes introduced into American spelling (-ize, traveling, defense, color, mold, catalog, and so forth), very little has happened in this area since the eighteenth century. One such change was even detrimental: the possessive pronoun its has lost its apostrophe. I’ve never taught in Great Britain, but American students, who otherwise demonstrate a healthy and ineradicable disregard for the apostrophe (by ignoring it or putting it in a wrong place), insist on the eighteenth-century norm and usually spell it’s for it is and for the pronoun. Specialists know how much time and money is spent (wasted) on teaching both native speakers and foreigners the written image of English words, but they failed to launch a campaign like the one that destroyed the prestige of smoking and somewhat diminished the horrors of drunken driving. More’s the pity (and long live the spellchecker).

Two postscripts to the preceding item.
(1) Shouldn’t the phrase split pea soup be hyphenated? Hyphenation is more moderate in American than in British spelling. However, the abolishment of the ubiquitous hyphen came with a cost, for it produced monsters like homeowner but left slave-owner intact (this is what the spellchecker — not spell-checker — in my computer says). According to the old rule, split-pea soup needed a hyphen, but our correspondent suggested that the hyphen is required because it would do justice to the origin of peas, a back formation from pease, understood as a plural form (compare a similar history of skate and such vulgarisms as a Chinee). I am not sure that spelling has to take into account etymological niceties. Pea is now a legitimate word despite its illegitimate origin. In my opinion, the choice between split pea soup and split-pea soup should not be determined by the origin of pea. But English spelling is so erratic that such hairsplitting (pea-splitting) differences need hardly bother us.
(2) Another correspondent who pointed out that “long o” occurs in words like goat rather than law, is advised to reread my post. There I explain why the school definition of “long a, o, e, i” cannot be applied to language history.

The etymological folklore of dude. I received two comments on the origin of this word. According to the story that used to circulate in Dr. Erik Carlson’s elementary school in Missouri about twenty years ago, the word was properly spelled dood and meant originally “the butt hair of an elephant.” By contrast, as I learned from a published comment on my post, in rural Victoria dude was known to mean “a camel’s penis.” Children’s folklore should be treated seriously, because, as a rule, it is invented by grownups, even though we can seldom trace its origins. The two meanings recorded a whole world apart may indicate that the word dude did, after all, exist in dialectal England, even though it is absent from Joseph Wright’s dictionary, but it may have sprung up from the same doo-doo I tried to make responsible for the appearance of dude on the ranches of California. Be that as it may, both meanings confirm the low origin of dude.

On another note, I may add that the etymology of dowd(y), a word attested in Middle English and at that time sounding like Modern Engl. dood, is also unknown. Skeat boldly connected dowd with dude but gave no explanation and was probably wrong. Dude, doodle, dud, dowd (in any of its senses), dowdy, and dawdle look like members of one happy family but may not belong together. They resemble children from an orphanage who live in the same building and wear identical uniform but are not related.

Shrimp scampi. The word indeed resembles such Middle English tautological compounds as love-amour, with one component native and the other foreign. I am afraid to repeat my old mistake of confusing shrimp and prawn (they do look and taste alike!), but the phrase or compound shrimp scampi suggests the idea of “shrimp-shrimp,” even if the correct translation is “shrimp-prawn.” I want to profit by the occasion and remind our readers that tautological compounds are numerous in Indo-European and that, to the best of my knowledge, a complete list of them has not been put together. The range is wide: from Engl. pathway to Lithuanian place names and Icelandic personal names like Hallsteinn “bo(u)lder-stone.”

Scrump “steal apples.” I once touched on the etymology of the adjective scrumptious. The word (which got me interested in shrimp and screw) would have been transparent if, instead of meaning “excellent,” it meant “pitiful” or something like it! Therefore, I could not come to a definite conclusion, but while investigating the problem, I learned that scrim– tends to have the variant scrum-. Thus, scrimp alternates with shrimp, shram, scrump, and shrump. Likewise, scrimmage coexists with scrummage. Those are all expressive words liable to capricious alternations. So I suspect that scrump is a variant of scrimp “pinch, scant, stint.” A scrimp is a miser. Stealing may be an extension of being a skinflint (that is, semantically speaking).

The Claims of Nostratic Linguistics. I am grateful to Mr. Cowan for pointing out the Finnish taboo phrase “a lean one” for the wolf, but I cannot accept his interpretation of Nostratic linguistics. We can deal only with the languages we know. The Nostraticists attempt to reconstruct the protolanguage of humanity, while using the material at their disposal. If scholars succeed in reconstructing such a language, it will be the language of Adam and Eve. This is the choice confronting all those who attempt to reach to the beginning of human speech (Alfredo Trombetti, Wilhelm Oehl, Alexander Jóhannesson, or Illich-Svitych, of whom only Oehl, regardless of whether he was right or wrong, came to terms with this paradox). Once the protolanguage has been reconstructed, we hardly have the right to deny it the status of the earliest common language of mankind, though the question about its origin and development will naturally remain.

Specimens of elegant English.
(1) I have been told in a comment that five foods to not eat is the best way to express this idea. I am happy to report on some further previously unrecorded peregrinations of not. “So once again, let me express my appreciation to not only the people listed above but to the many individuals that made significant contributions which….”
(2) For lovers of the generic plural: “On the other end, you have people out there with a camera phone and blog who think they are a journalist.” They are indeed a fool to not only do the wrong thing but to also pretend they are a professional.
(3) XX…., likely will face a close election whomever emerges as the DFL candidate for the Eighth District.
(4) (From Washington Post) “Administration aides issued a statement Tuesday saying Obama had misspoke.” Is the informal past participle of misspeak now misspoke? Not judgmental, just wondering: like Miss Rosa Dartle, I am asking merely for information.

Read 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 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.”

Subscribe to Anatoly Liberman’s weekly etymology posts via email or RSS.
Subscribe to the OUPblog via email or RSS.
View more about this book on the

Recent Comments

  1. Adrian Morgan

    I went to school in rural South Australia, and in the version I know, it was the entire phrase “cool dude” that was purported to mean “camel’s penis”, not just “dude” by itself.

    Also, whether it was an etymological claim, or a claim that the phonetics of the phrase coincidentally resembles that of the phrase “camel’s penis” in some unspecified language, was never clear. The context was invariably something like, “Are you a cool dude?” -> “Yes” -> “Ha! You’re a camel’s penis!”, which is not a context in which scientific precision is on anyone’s mind.

    Never worked on me, anyway. I wouldn’t claim to be a dude, because I don’t consider the term “dude” to be inclusive of geeks. The term belongs to a culture I was never a part of, and I would define it as a member of that culture. But that’s a whole other discussion.

  2. peter demaere

    Thanks Anatoly! I read with interest this post and the blog that you mentioned in your intro (The Oddest English Spellings, Part 20). In the latter, I discovered that the post-vocalic consonant could influence the phoneme that precedes it. Also, I would think that a lot of the confusion between similarly looking (or rhyming) words that do not sounds alike anymore (good, food, for instance) might be related to that pesky little “u”, “w”, and “v” (Roman/French too), all which can easily be misread, as I remember reading once (monks did not have a reliable led lighting or yearly eye-sight checks either, I suppose!) I think the same could be said about the “a” and “o” which in some font style have just one short stroke separating them, which might explain the “saw”, but also, I think, “flower” > more “flawer” that “flo … wer”, unless it has rained a lot on it! :) (Middle English flour flower, best of anything < Old French flor, flour, flur < Latin flōr- (stem of flōs ) < Modern French fleur) In any case, it would be nice if adults could put their little personal interest and ego to the side and focus in tidying up the one system onto which all else rests: the English spelling system. Is it easy to build a house without a strong foundation? Imagine the time wasted by the carpenter re-shaping the door to fit the misaligned door opening! Should we continue to give medals to spelling-bee champions? We have spell-checkers! I mean spellcheckers! Let's tame that 400 year old beast because learning to read isn't fun for many! http://reforming-english.blogspot.ca/

  3. John Cowan

    I repeat, the Nostratic hypothesis is not the Proto-World hypothesis: it is the claim that the Indo-European, Uralic, Altaic, Kartvelian, Afroasiatic, (Elamo-)Dravidian, and possibly Eskimo-Aleut language families have a reconstructible common origin. It has nothing to say about Austronesian, Tai-Kadai, Dene-Yeniseian, Pama-Nyungan, Niger-Congo, Sino-Tibetan, etc. etc. Methodologically, the Nostratic hypothesis employs the comparative method and so is part of historical linguistics, though only a minority of historical linguists accept it. Arguments for Proto-World are founded on Greenberg-style mass comparison, an entirely different matter.

    What is more, the common ancestor of all extant languages is not necessarily the same as the common ancestor of all languages living and dead. There may have been languages older than the common ancestor which have left no descendants.

  4. Valerie Yule

    The future of English is hopeful if the written language can be updated, like most other alfabetic languages. Otherwise, illiteracy will continue overseas as well as with all who use our lingua franca. Experiment, and challenge assumptions – it is how other sciences progress.

    2011, Yule, Valerie, ‘Recent developments which affect spelling. On the possibility of removing the unnecessary difficulties in English spelling, while leaving the basic appearance of English print intact.’ English Today, 107, vol 27, No 3. Sept 2011, pp 62-67. http://journals.cambridge.org/repo_A839oLF6

    And see http://blogs.msdn.com/naturallanguage/archive/2006/07/05/old-vs-new-spelling-in-french-a-new-speller-based-on-the-french-spelling-reform.aspx

    A half hour cartoon overview of reading and spelling, especially useful for learners who are stuck somewhere http://www.ozreadandspell.com.au/

  5. […] 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 and the […]

  6. […] Compare even such more dignified but “common” names as scrimmage and scrummage, mentioned in the June “gleanings,” part 2, and the names recorded for a wagon or cart: lorry, lurry, rolly, and rully, all meaning […]

  7. […] as to advocate the spelling phantastic. (For more than a century there has been no progress in the movement of spelling reformers, but certain things should be said again and again for the record, even if they fall on deaf ears; […]

Comments are closed.