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Monthly etymology gleanings for February 2013

By Anatoly Liberman

My usual thanks to those who have commented on the posts, written me letters privately or through OUP, and corrected the rare but irritating typos. I especially appreciate comments that deal with the languages remote from my sphere of interest: Arabic, Farsi, Romany, and so forth. But, even while dealing with the languages that are close to my area of expertise (for example, Sanskrit and Frisian), quite naturally, I feel less comfortable in them than in English, German, or Icelandic (my “turf”). I remember my astonishment when as a student I read an introduction to Meillet’s booklet on Germanic in which he, among other things, said that he had added some small things to the previous edition and corrected the mistakes. Meillet, a living god, the greatest specialist in the history of Indo-European, corrected his mistakes! More than fifty years later that surprise has not worn off. Of course, I understand, quod licet Iovi…, but still….

Some things I say sound wrong, but I say them intentionally, not to complicate matters. Having spent decades on grammatical morphology, Propp’s morphology of the folk tale (and thanks to him on Goethe’s morphology), I, as could be suspected, know that morph– is a Greek root. But the modern English verb morph (which I dislike) did not come to us from Greek. Even morpheme and its cognates reached English from French, and there their source was usually Latin. So, when I called morph a Latinism, I did not commit a terrible error. The same is true of gh- in the Sanskrit verb I cited in connection with guest/host. Brugmann, the author of the etymology to which I referred, for an obvious reason did not mark palatalization and I reproduced his form because I did not want to modernize him. However, as noted, all suggestions, friendly and critical, are welcome, even though like most people I prefer to be praised rather than hauled over the coals.

The present perfect.
The comment of our correspondent reflects the classic rule: this tense allows the speaker to include a past action in the present moment, but the important thing is not the formulation but the various uses of the tense in related languages. The perfect is not a Germanic invention, but the analytic form that needs an auxiliary verb and a participle is a Germanic-Romance innovation. American speakers do not “include” the past in the present when they say he just left, while British speakers do (he has just left). With today, usage varies. I saw her today seems to be acceptable even in British English, though today, by definition, is not yet over. In teaching foreigners, it is important to mention “national” distinctions. Fortunately or unfortunately, unified usage for the countries in which English is spoken does not exist, though in cultivated written form the distinctions are much less noticeable.

Whose advocate is this laughing devil?

Advocate versus advocate for.
I (have) received a letter in which the writer refuses to accept for after advocate. “I now hear and read it… even on public radio and in print. Will the commonality of such misusage contribute to its becoming acceptable? (I fear this may already have occurred.) Advocate for is, of course, redundant; it also implies the possibility that one would advocate against something, which is clearly impossible.” Indeed, no preposition is needed after the verb advocate, but, as usual, the situation is less obvious than it seems. Language is tremendously redundant at all levels. Redundancy allows it to break through the “noise.” For instance, we understand whispered speech, but what is a vowel or a voiced consonant with the voice turned off? Apparently, the residual information suffices for the message to be processed by the listener. English has lost nearly all endings, but in the languages that have cases and gender distinctions in nouns, adjectives, and sometimes verbs, agreement defines usage. A plural noun will need a plural adjective before or after it (and so forth). This rule is not necessary (compare Engl. good book ~ good books), but it safeguards the sense group from being misunderstood. At the lexical level, language also tries to be redundant. To advocate higher salaries is fine; to advocate for them is “wrong” but may sound more like fight for. Or perhaps the preposition came from the noun: compare a strong advocate for higher salaries.

Over the years, I have collected a small glossary of redundant prepositions and adverbs. In British English, one brushes up one’s French; Americans brush up on their French. The same happens to give up. The idiom give up the ghost preserves the original usage, but Americans tend to give up on things. Many of them have given up smoking but are unwilling to give up on life’s little pleasures. I am perpetually puzzled by the collocation continue on. How else can one continue? Infection can penetrate the lungs but can probably also penetrate into the lungs. I think everybody will prefer penetrate into the thicket but penetrate the problem. And a final remark. “Even on public radio and in print.” Why should journalists be more refined than the rest of the world? That might make them sound and look elitist, the worst sin one can think of. And I would like to repeat what I have said so many times. If “everybody” says something, the usage becomes correct. Swimming against the current is noble, but don’t expect the stream to turn back because of your efforts.

In the same spirit was the wrathful letter condemning the phrase combine together. Indeed, together is redundant. But if we look around, we will notice that many things are said to be joined together. The society of which I happen to be a member states that it is a group of people assembled together (with an explanation of what the purpose of the assembly is). I have several examples of gather together. Are they all wrong?

Can it be related to the Germanic verb for “run” (German rennen, Swedish ränna, etc.)? The meaning of aroint thee would then be run! The line from Macbeth with the word aroint has been the object of numerous conjectures. Years ago, an eminent editor of Shakespeare suggested that Old Engl. rinnan was the etymons of aroint; consequently, our correspondent’s suggestion is not new. To my mind, it has little appeal. All the forms cognate with run have a short vowel, while modern dialectal rynt seems to go back to a diphthong. From the same post I received a question about the Latin phrase dii te averruncent . Dii: pl. of deus “god” (here, “pagan god, devil”), averrunco “deflect, divert” (here, 3rd p. pl. present, subj.); hence “may the devils take you from here.”

The word has a long vowel, but what would have happened if it were a borrowing of a noun with a short vowel in the lending language? I think it would then have retained the short vowel, at least at the epoch that did not require lengthening in this position (assuming that it would not have fallen prey to folk etymology).

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: Laughing demon by Katsushika Hokusai, 1831. Public domain via Wikipaintings.

Recent Comments

  1. Annie Morgan

    If we should have incarnations, which I doubt, I will become an etymologist and grammarian. There is so very much I don’t know, so it makes me a bit diffident about wondering in print.

    About ‘Viking’. If the original noun had a short vowel, would we not have, in English, spelt it ‘Vikking’? The second ‘k’ would probably disappear, though, just like the second ‘p’ in ‘kidnapping’, and ‘worshipping’ in US texts. ‘Kidnaped’ always conjures up a mental picture of a small goat being lifted by the back of its neck. And when did we ever ‘worshipe’.

    Your weekly essay is a constant joy.

  2. Nikita

    I am sorry for the whole “morph” thing, my sense of humor is clearly too dry. Your blog is very interesting.

  3. Debbie Allen

    When we Americans give up “on” things, we do not so much cease doing them as we despair of some aspect of those things. I will not give up coffee, but I have given up on finding a good local cafe.

Comments are closed.