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Monthly etymological gleanings for March 2013

By Anatoly Liberman

This has been a good month for the “gleanings”: I have received many questions and many kind words through the blog and privately. My usual thanks to those who read and react.

Idioms: dictionaries.
Our Polish correspondent wants to know where he can find a dictionary giving the origin of English idioms. I can list several such reference books but should first “issue a warning.” The origin of an idiom is often harder to ascertain than the origin of a word. Idioms tend to appear from thin air, and all we know about many of them is the date of their first attestation in print. To exacerbate matters, as journalists like to say, those who compile etymological dictionaries of idioms refrain from saying where they found their information (from whom they copied it), but without references one should take their pronouncements with a whole saltcellar at one’s side. Many compilations are called Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (after Ebenezer C. Brewer). If published by reputable presses, they are worth consulting. Familiar quotations, which often become idioms, have been investigated very well, and dictionaries of them are helpful.

Try Linda and Roger Flavell, Dictionary of Idioms (several editions and reprints). Charles Funk was the prolific author of superficial books on “curious word origins” (words and idioms are given there pell-mell). Something can be found in Webb B. Garrison, Why Say It (another moderately reliable source). I occasionally open Dictionary of Word Originsby Jordan Almond; Why Do We Say… by Nigel Rees; To Coin a Phrase by Edwin Radford and Alan Smith; and the 1937 book Everyday English Phrases by J.S. Whitebread. In the past, the volumes of Notes and Queries (most of them are now available online) contained discussion of astounding local idioms (in addition to the more common ones). People offered their suggestions, and I am sorry that no one has put together and tabulated this precious material. The idioms (“phrases”) in N&Q can be easily retrieved through the indexes. But to repeat: Don’t take anything you will find anywhere for the ultimate truth.

Idioms: salad days.
The question about this idiom has been asked and answered countless times. It is known that my salad days first appeared in print in Shakespeare’s Anthony and Cleopatra (1606) and meant “the time of one’s youthful inexperience” (rather than “the peak of my career,” as in Modern American English). Salad apparently referred to one’s green years (cf. The Green Years, a novel by Archibald J. Cronin). But it is not known whether Shakespeare coined this bold metaphor or whether it was current in his time (the second alternative is less likely).

In distinction from those who commented on my recent discussion of the exclamation shucks!, I don’t believe that it has anything to do with the F-word (even though the taboo origin seems “obvious” to one of our correspondents). When taboo forms come up, the first consonant is usually preserved (compare Gosh for God, Land for Lord, bally for bloody, and so forth), so that focks, ficks, or something similar might be expected. The plural also speaks against the taboo derivation. In f— it or f— you, there is no s. From a morphological point of view, shucks! belongs with jiggers! (and it even resembles it: just devoice the consonants and you will get shickers!). Finally, shucks expresses embarrassment or disappointment, not anger or frustration.

Sound symbolism: wr-.
Does only English use the group wr– for designating twisting of all kinds? I will confine myself to a nonbinding general statement. Onomatopoeia seems to be near universal. All over the world, groups like gr-, kr-, br– make people think of various noises (grinding, raucous cries, breaking, rupture, and the like), but sound symbolism is language-specific, especially when it comes to consonants. (Vowels are more obviously “symbolic”: the tit for tat situation, with short i denoting a small object and short a a big one, has been observed in numerous unrelated languages.) Some associations probably arise by chance, that is, thanks to statistics. For example, so many English words for smooth surfaces and gliding and glowing begin with gl– that gl– acquired a life of its own, and neither gloom nor gloaming can ruin the connection. Also, we often detect symbolism in retrospect. For instance, we know what collywobbles means, and it begins to seem that the sound shape of collywobbles suits the word’s meaning in the best way possible.

On the same note: cur.
Cur is possibly sound imitative (kr-kr). In English, the word may be of Scandinavian descent, as evidenced by the Scandinavian verbs kurra and kurre for screeching, cooing, etc. Chirp, screech, and scream are close to kurr-.

Twerp and twill.
I was very pleased to learn from Stephen Goranson that twerp was already current in 1917. This confirms my suspicion that the word does not go back to a proper name. And yes, of course, tw– in twill is related to tw- in two. I paired twill with tweed because they so well go together. But thief does not belong with them. The word is of unknown origin, and I may devote a special post to it.

“Vikings” and “herring” (as opposed to cabbages and kings).
(1) If víking was pronounced with a short vowel, wouldn’t the word have been spelled with –kk-? Probably not, especially in Old Norwegian and Old Icelandic, in which kk seems to have been preaspirated, that is, to have had the value of hk(k). For example, in Modern Icelandic, rekja “unravel” (or its homonym rekja “humidity, moisture; rain; dew”) has a long vowel, while rekkja “bed” has a short one (and preaspirated k), but in Old Icelandic both had short e and were distinguished only by consonant length. It should also be remembered that medieval spelling is inconsistent. Thus, in Old Icelandic, an accent mark over a vowel designated length, but one cannot always rely on the form attested in manuscripts. The evidence of modern languages sometimes carries more weight for reconstructing the pronunciation of the past.
(2) The Scandinavian word for “herring.” Both sil and sild exist, and, assuming that they are related (a safe assumption),-d must be a suffix, but its exact meaning remains unclear.

“Dance” in the Romance languages.
Spanish has both danzar and bailar. Likewise, Italian has danzare and ballare. Old French had baller (extant in Modern French as baller “make merry; dance,” now obsolete alongside danser). As always, when close synonyms coexist, they divide their spheres of influence and try to gain the entire available territory.

Wollt ihr den totalen Krieg?
This is the famous catchphrase by Goebbels (1943; “Do you want a “total,” that is, “an all-out, all-embracing, all-pervading” war, “war and nothing else”?). Our Danish correspondent wonders why there is no infinitive (haben “have”) in the phrase and quotes sentences in Modern Danish in which ville is also used “absolutely,” without an infinitive, and means “want, prefer”or something similar. This usage seems natural to me. In German, wollen is quite possible without an infinitive. I am not sure whether phrases like du hast es gewollt “you wanted it” arose under French influence (compare the now proverbial French tu l’as voulu, George Dandin), but something like ob man will oder nicht “whether one wants it or not” (with an exact analog in Danish) must be a hundred percent native. In older texts, “be,” “have,” and “go” were regularly omitted after modal verbs. Old Icelandic is especially typical in this respect.

An etymologist reborn

Give up versus give up on.
I fully agree with Debbie Allen’s distinction between the two. Indeed, we give up things when we relinquish them for good, while giving up on something more often hints at inevitable sacrifices. That is why it is impossible to give up on the ghost: one either has this commodity or not.

(1) Brianne Hughes likes my blog and says that she would be glad to give me a hug if we met but fears that it would be improper. Oh, quite proper! I often hear that callous men objectify women, and shudder, but I, not being a woman, would love being objectified. Also, I heard our neighbor once complain that her teenage son was too much in demand. “Girls exploit him!” she whimpered. Since I knew very well how the young man was used by the opposite sex, it occurred to me that some forms of exploitation might be welcome. One of the basic principles of dialectics is that truth is always concrete.
(2) Anne Morgan does not have much trust in incarnation but hopes that, if she is ever reborn, she will be an etymologist. I too have a confused notion of (re)incarnation, except that I fear reemerging as a woodpecker, for in this case I will continue my present occupation, which is pecking away at hard wood in search of edible grubs.

Spring has come (congratulations!), and the seventh year of this blog began with it.

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: Ivory-billed Woodpecker, Campephilus principalis , chromolithograph, 1888. Birds of North America by Jacob H. Studer, John Graham Bell, Frank Chapman, Theodore Jasper, (artist). Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. Annie Morgan

    I get so frustrated with ‘worshiping’ and ‘kidnaping’ in US books – I do not worshipe, nor kidnape. Hence, I’d have expected there to have been two ‘k’s in the English language rendering of ‘viking’ to make it sound like a short i. But I know not to expect consistency, and didn’t know how ‘viking’ was pronounced in the first place anyway!

    May you have seven more years of giving us etymological surprises and pleasures!

  2. John Cowan

    I don’t think it had anything to do with the F-word either, but rather with the S-word. I agree of course that the beginning of a taboo word that is usually preserved, other examples being darn for damn (with possible influence from tarnal for Eternal), heck for hell, jeepers for Jesus. But I have certainly heard and even used shucks! to express mild annoyance, not just embarrassment.

    When you say that synonyms “divide their spheres of influence and try to gain the entire available territory”, do you mean that in a geographical sense or a semantic one? It seems to me that both processes take place but with different pairs of synonyms. And then there are those that are just both used, like gorse and furze, or more modernly Jakob-Creutzfeld disease (a variety of spongiform encephalopathy related to mad cow disease) and Creutzfeld-Jakob disease.

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  4. Gavin Wraith

    I was surprised to read that the final -d in “sild” must be a suffix. There are lots of final “d”s in Danish that to an English ear are not pronounced; but to a Danish ear they definitely are – as a stop. Thus (man, mand), (hun, hund), (sin, sind) etc. These pairs are so distinct in meaning that I cannot believe a mere suffix to be at work. Surely “sil” must be “sild” with its final stop lost. On the other hand I take the point that in other IE languages the final stop of the “hound” word is often missing, but maybe that is an artefact of ancient writing systems. Anyway, I would love to know where all those final “d”s in Danish came from.

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