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(Bi)Monthly Etymology Gleanings for July-August 2012

By Anatoly Liberman

Farting and participles (not to be confused with cabbages and kings). Summer is supposed to be a dead season, but I cannot complain: many people have kindly offered their comments and sent questions. Of the topics discussed in July and August, flatulence turned out to be the greatest hit. I have nothing to add to the comments on fart. Apparently, next to the election campaign, the problem of comparable interest was breaking wind in Indo-European. The uneasy relations between German farzen and furzen have been clarified to everybody’s satisfaction, and interesting parallels from Greek and Slavic adduced. Rasmus Rask and Jacob Grimm might have been embarrassed if they had discovered how fart and its cognates are being used to illustrate their law.

The longevity of fart is typical of words describing physiological functions. The grossest names for the genitals can also often boast of great antiquity, which means that at one time they were just names, but ill luck made them “unpronounceable.” This seems to have happened in the history of the English C-word, and at one time even the F-word was less offensive than it is today. That English learners are shocked or amused by the German noun Fahrt “travel” is also well-known. Such anecdotal encounters across languages occur all the time. For example, many an unwary American in Italy wanted to buy a cold beverage and grabbed a glass with the word caldo on the label (caldo means “hot”). All this goes a long way toward showing that learning foreign languages is a profitable occupation and that innocence doesn’t always pay off abroad.

Learning one’s own language can also be recommended. A recent article in the Los Angeles Times discussed the deleterious effects of texting on youngsters’ spelling. It was pointed out that if they text all day long, they forget how “to properly write English.” Surprise, surprise! Accept and except, its and it’s, and even frayed and afraid. I submit that before the texting/sexting epoch they didn’t know how to spell those words either. Everybody must have heard that grammar and math are not “fun.” (On my campus, there are or were in the not too distant past math anxiety courses. Students, also known as kids, were taught how “to not be ‘afrayed’ of algebra and trigonometry.”) A student from Thailand once walked into my office and asked me whether I could hire her as an assistant for my etymological dictionary. She said that she was taking six courses per semester but would like to work twenty hours a week. I didn’t conceal my amazement and asked her what courses they were. I forget the entire list, but the last course she mentioned was trigonometry. She responded to my disbelief by laughing: “This is American trigonometry!” That it should come to this! By the way, the selfsame kids are no longer able to read English classics: too long, too dull, and no one knows those terrible long words. They are foreigners in their native land. OMG!

Hemingway (or H. Bogart?) joins the debate on the present perfect.

I been, I seen, I done. I cannot help reproducing a charming conversation quoted by Ms. Annie Morgan. The following exchange was overheard in Toronto in the thirties: –You done it! I didn’t done it!—You did done it. I seed you done it.

Language certainly evolves and keeps historical linguists busy. In that post, I also said that one can use the present perfect while translating into Swedish a sentence like Dickens died in 1870 and explained in what circumstances this would be possible. Two native speakers of Swedish doubted the truth of my statement. I may recommend the following articles to them:

  • Rolf Pipping, “Om innebörden av perfektum i nusvenskan.” Bidrag till nordisk filologi tillägnade Emil Olson den 9 Juni 1936. Lund: Gleerup, etc., 1936, 143-54.
  • Åke Thulstrup, “Pretritalt perfekt. Till belysning av gränsområdet mellan perfekt och imperfekt in svenskan.” Nysvenska studier 28, 1948, 70-101
  • Einar Haugen, “The Perfect Tense in English and Scandinavian: A Problem of Contrastive Linguistics.” Canadian Journal of Linguistics 17, 1972, 132-39
  • A chapter in my book Word Heath, Wortheide, Orðheiði. Rome: Il Calamo, 313-55 (“The Present Perfect in Old and Modern Icelandic”).

In this blog, I almost never give references, but how else can I defend myself from native speakers except by pitting them against other native speakers? By the way, I was happy to witness a disagreement between two Swedes on the vital subject of fisa and fjärta in Swedish (both mean “fart”). Some of those who read the post on “I been…” misunderstood its purport and stated that in English one never says Dickens has died in 1870. Of course. This was the whole point.

Halibut. Yes, indeed, butt is a fish name; cf. also turbot. It is not improbable that buttock is related to it. Many Germanic and Romance words (cf. button) have the root but, which refers vaguely to things fat, protruding, and so on. Hali- does go back to holy. Apparently, the halibut was good food for holidays.

Smashing. Is it possible that this adjective derives from a phrase in Gaelic? In my opinion, the probability is zero. One can seldom prove that a derivation from a foreign source is impossible, but since, as regards meaning, smashing is equal to smash + the suffix –ing, I wouldn’t go any further for the true origin.

On the Fritz. I keep repeating the same sad dictum: the origin of idioms, especially of slang, is harder to trace than the origin of individual words. Recorded examples of on the Fritz go back to the beginning of the twentieth century. The idiom is, most likely, an Americanism. One can sometimes read that there are several theories of this idiom’s etymology. Those are not theories but wild guesses of no interest whatsoever. If I may add my “theory” to the heap of nonsense already said about this phrase, which, as everybody knows, means “in bad repair,” I would suggest that Fritz here has nothing to do with the proper name. Perhaps there was a word frits (homophonous with Fritz) allied to the verb fritter and meaning “disjointed fragments.” Being on the frits would refer to being broken, but, since frits, unlike fritters, has not been attested, this “theory” is not worth a broken farthing on the market day.

The etymology of hare. Nothing in Dutch or any other modern Germanic language suggests the connection of hare with a color name, but Old Engl. hasu and its cognates did mean “gray.” Perhaps Engl. haze “thick mist” is related to it, and Dutch haar, synonymous with Engl. haze, cited in the letter, is akin to it. In the history of hare, r and s alternate, as evidenced by Engl. hare and Old Icelandic heri versus Dutch haas and German Hase. By the way, the Dutch form with r also exists. Those of our readers who have studied the history of any Germanic language will recognize the workings of Verner’s Law.

Natural and organic once more. Some people say that only products like gas and coal (as opposed to wine) can be called natural. This is a reasonable idea, but the fact remains that some wines have been called natural for a long time. The OED (natural 7a) says:

“Of a substance or article: not manufactured or processed, not obtained by artificial processing, made only from natural products. Also: manufactured using only simple or minimal processes; made so as to imitate or blend with the naturally occurring article.”

A 1991 example runs as follows: “We have recently seen the introduction in the UK of so-called natural paints which are marketed as being based on naturally occurring materials.” The definition highlights the vagueness of the concept natural in today’s life. Note the difference between “not obtained by artificial processing” and “made so as to imitate… the naturally occurring article.” Note also the use of so-called in the example cited. As far as I can understand, natural has become a buzzword competing with the overused, over-advertised, and over-admired organic. (The time seems to be ripe also for replacing sustainable with a flashier adjective.) My recent walk in a huge co-op revealed (alongside of 100% natural hardwood coal, which makes sense), super natural (two words) uncured turkey hot dogs (super natural, though a pun on supernatural, is a joke like super-virgin oil), and natural sour dough bread. Does natural sourdough grow on trees? And I wonder how “natural” hot dogs can be. Our correspondent is interested in the legitimacy of the term natural wine. I think that if sour dough can be natural, so can wine. He refers to the French Wikipedia article, where he found the first occurrence of natural wine. Natural sour dough, super natural hot dogs, and a bottle of natural wine will make a memorable meal.

Errare humanum est. Finally, I would like to assure our correspondents that I always read their comments and use the links they give me with gratitude and genuine interest (one of our friends doubted my enthusiasm). I should also add that mistakes and typos break my heart (temporarily), but here too my gratitude is stronger than my grief, for mistakes can be corrected, while attention is cheap at any price. By the way, comments on pictures are appreciated too, and I was delighted to read that at least one correspondent noticed the double entendre in the ajar post: not only is the woman with a pitcher a “jar woman” but also the window is ajar.

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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Image credit: To Have and Have Not (1944 film) poster. Warner Bros. Pictures. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. Stephen Goranson

    I agree that “on the Fritz” is most likely an Americanism. If I may venture further with one hypothesis, despite warnings of nonsense of no interest, the earliest (available) attestations are from 1901 in New York. Though we now use the phrase of malfunctioning machines, early on it apparently applied to persons. E.g. here is the specter of Santa Clause being out of work in 1902: “Would Santa Claus be on the ‘fritz’ / If we never had snow?” In 1901 in Puck magazine (from New York) a “shirtwaist girl” had an expensive party “that put ’em all on the Fritz,” lacking money. (Note the capital F.) Other early accounts involve, e.g., out of work New York actors. There was, upon that time and place, a saloon owner and politician in Manhattan, namesake of the Fritz Lindinger Club, who was known, when campaigning, to give out free drinks and food. Maybe, possibly, it might could be that those in need of a handout were “on the Fritz.” For a picture of Fritz and mention of his campaign Club:


  2. Fabio (Vinos Ambiz)

    Natural and organic once more. Thanks for addressing this issue, which is of particular interest to me, as I’m a “natural” wine producer! As you say, I’m interested in the ‘legitimacy’ of the term ‘natural wine’ because I’m involved in an on-going, very wine-geeky, on-line debate about this term.

    I’m now convinced that the term is as ‘legitimate’ as you can get, as far as the meanings of words in English are concerned – due to its long history of usage (from 1907), its mention in respected dictionaries, and above all its universal current usage in the wine-world sub-culture!

    Interestingly, I just looked up ‘natural gas’ in Wikipedia and I can see at a glance that the amount of processing that said gas is subjected to (between its natural state in the reservoir and when it’s in its final state ready for use) is much much more intense that that “natural wine” is subjected to!!! Though the term ‘natural wine’ raises many more hackles and controversies than the term ‘natural gas’!

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