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Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Monthly etymological gleanings for May 2013

By Anatoly Liberman

Language controlled by ruling powers?
Very much depends on whether the country has a language academy that decides what is correct and what is wrong. Even in the absence of such an organization, a committee consisting of respected scholars and politicians sometimes lays down the law. Spelling is a classic case of “ruling the language.” Once a certain norm is established, deviations in printed sources become impossible. Exceptions are rare. For instance, at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century, some American journals allowed their contributors to use “simplified” variants (liket for liked, and so forth). Other than that, languages like English, Spanish, French, and German (to mention a few) have what is called the Standard. Editors and teachers enforce it, but in oral communication people are free to go their own way, which they do. Consider the universal use of ain’t, and the war on it by the “establishment.” Sometimes the rules imposed on speakers enjoy universal support. Modern Icelandic is a case in point. Icelanders believe that they should avoid borrowings and welcome native substitutes. By contrast, no one likes English spelling (see Masha Bell’s comment on her mail). Yet the illogical rules will be upheld until some “power”changes them.

Support for small languages.
Should we welcome attempts to support languages like Welsh? I think we should. Given a reasonable number of people who speak a small language and are willing to cultivate it, allowing it to die would be silly and sinful. Here everything depends on institutional support. Schools need teachers proficient in the endangered language, books and newspapers have to be published, and scholarship in those languages will require funding. Seeing how much money the world wastes, steals, embezzles, and misuses, we should hardly count every penny when it comes to saving cultural heritage.

Capitalizing the first person pronoun in English.
John Cowan has referred to a detailed discussion of this question, but, as follows from it, the causes of capitalizing I in English still remain partly unknown. In my blog post, I cited the most common explanation, and it does not seem to have been refuted. One thing is clear (and I mentioned it): English speakers did not use a capital letter for this pronoun in order to aggrandize themselves.

The letter y.
Yes, spelling applie for apply makes sense, but y is in general a superfluous letter. Sometimes we even run into homographs: compare supply, the adverb of supple (supply), and the verb supply. Among other things, I have been asked about the name of this letter and will deal with it in a special post. Some related questions are also worth discussing. But let me first get rid of multifarious devils (bogey was the hero of the previous post). Bogeyman “snotman” is a jocular extension of bogeyman “evil spirit.” All of us were children once and learned the word in its “nursery” meaning. Now we have grown up and can afford studying etymological devilry.

Engl. rye ~ German Roggen, Engl. lye ~ German Lauge.
Our correspondent is right: in Old Engl. ryge “rye,” the letter g designated what would be y in Modern English. The history of lye is less straightforward. Its Old English form was leag (with long ea). Leag was pronounced approximately leah. It shed final h, and the old diphthong ea yielded a long monophthong, which eventually became Modern Engl. i, now designated by the letter y. Thus, lye bears less resemblance to its etymon than does rye.

Rising intonation.
The rise in sentence final position in Australian English has often been discussed. It is far from clear whether the “infection” came to British English from there. Cockney may have had this intonation for centuries, and the colony was used for deporting the criminals, most of whom spoke the dialect of the London underworld. The possible Cockney base of Australian phonetics has also been the object of numerous publications, but no consensus on this matter exists.

Handsome is as handsome does.
Annie Morgan would like to know when this proverb acquired a pejorative meaning. I wonder how many speakers detect negative connotations in it. At worst (or so I think), the saying contains a mild warning: this person is handsome, but good looks do not necessarily presuppose good behavior, so be on your guard. Personal beauty and virtue may not go together. Novels about charming rakes and seductive but perfidious women have beaten this moral in us once for all (naturally, novels took their cue from life).

Dickens’s cashy face.
Yes, of course, cashy might, in some oblique way, refer to Dickens’s wealth. It is the uniqueness of the phrase that puzzles me. I have not been able to find another case of cashy face in the corpus. Therefore, whatever the journalist meant, the question remains why he used such a strange collocation. And how was it understood by the readers of the newspaper?

The history of the word enormity.
The adjective enormous, an obvious borrowing from Romance, surfaced in late Middle English with the sense reflecting its etymology (from e-, that is, ex-, and norm-) and meant “abnormal; wicked, evil, heinous.” Later its meaning was narrowed (a common case in historical semantics) to “abnormal with regard to size,” but even today enormous is not simply huge but unimaginably (“awesomely”?) big. The noun enormity followed the same route.

Spanish mono “pretty, cute.”
This is indeed a sense that owes its origin to mono “monkey.” Incidentally, in both Spanish and Portuguese mona can signify being drunk, and this sense also goes back to the monkey’s tricks. Monkeys do not touch alcohol but are often made responsible for people’s idiocy. Similarly, in German we find the idiom sich einen Affen kaufen, literally, “to buy oneself a monkey” = “to be drunk.”

German Bengel ~ Danish bengel ~ Swedish bängel, etc. “rogue, scoundrel.”
The origin of these words is more complicated than it seems. Their often proclaimed connection with a sound imitative verb meaning “strike” (compare Engl. bang) needn’t be taken for granted. Those interested in details will find a useful discussion in Olav Ahlbäck’s article “Bängel” (Nysvenska studier 59, 1979, 179-188; in Swedish). An interesting English word is bang-, as in bangtail and bangs. Its connection with bang! and to bang (and bengel) has not been clarified to everybody’s satisfaction.

Engl. thief ~ Lithuanian vagis.
These words are not related, and nothing connects them except their meaning. The putative Baltic cognates of thief are certain verbs, mentioned in the previous posts.

“This is all there is to my tale.”
I finished a recent post with this sentence and added: “As Chesterton may have said and perhaps even did.” Stephen Goranson informs me that Chesterton never said so. Alas! I conjured up Chesterton’s ghost because Pater Brown stories sometimes end with the humble conclusion to the effect that the solution turned out to be easy.

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 on the OUPblog 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: Caricature of Chesterton, by James Montgomery Flagg, 1914. The Well-Knowns. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. Stephen Goranson

    I agree. “Cashy face” is a rare collocation; at least, I did not find another use of it. That’s why I think we are left only with the immediate context of this one article to decipher it. Or, at least, I guessed that is more likely than a word only distantly attested and, unless I missed something, not especially revealing or apt when invited into this context. Perhaps, just a quirky writer.
    And may I say–without doubt–your blog is one of my favorites!

  2. Annie Morgan

    re ‘handsome is…..’. I know what it means in modern times. My mother used it as a warning, not that it did much good. I think it’s always been mildly pejorative because it usually refers to a particular individual. I still am wondering where and when its use arose.

  3. Stephen Goranson

    Annie, Wolfgang Mieder and Anna T. Litovkina include this 16th-century?) proverb in Twisted Wisdom: Modern Anti-Proverbs 1999)pages 92-93, with some bibliography.

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