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Etymology gleanings for September 2013

By Anatoly Liberman

I begin almost every set of gleanings with abject apologies. To err is human. So it is not the mistakes I have made in the past and will make in the future that irritate me but the avoidable and therefore unforgivable slips. I open Samuel Johnson’s dictionary almost every day, and in my university course on the history of German I read extracts from Simplicissimus with students. So do I know when those books were published? Yet I gave incorrect dates for both. It is no secret that, once we write something wrong, the eye often fails to register the nonsense. French mois instead of moi was thoroughly embarrassing, but, to be sure, mois is a bona fide French word, so I let it be (it’s like writing there for their and feeling happy about it). I have once noted that I never send off my posts in a hurry. First I think of a good subject and then read everything I can on it. My schedule is followed with machine-like regularity: on Friday I write and read the post, on Saturday I reread it, on Sunday I reread it again from the screen from the printout. On Monday my editor receives it. Thus, there is plenty of time for changing things. Nothing helps! The stupidest mistakes sometimes remain. (If, inspired by my previous post, someone is interested in the derivation of stupid, here it is: from French, from Latin; Latin stupere meant “to be stunned or benumbed,” that is, “stupefied.”) It only remains for me to thank our eagle-eyed readers.

More on simpleton.
In the previous post I wrote that other derivations of simpleton are not worth mentioning. A correspondent asked me to comment on those useless derivations. Many dictionaries, including Johnson (1755), Johnson-Todd, Eduard Mueller/Müller, and Hensleigh Wedgwood, either do not list simpleton or give no etymology. Still others, like most of the old editions of Webster (beginning at least with 1864), cite the Italian word simplicione with the irritating suggestion to “compare” (cf.) it with its English look-alike or French simplet. Webster’s International2 calls simpleton a humorous formation, “as if a surname in –ton; cf. singleton,” which in turn is called a humorous formation on single, after the surname Singleton. Webster3 provides a variation on its predecessor: simple + ton, as in skimmington, which is “from gerund of skim + –ton as in surnames such as Washington, from the practice of representing the woman as beating her husband with a skimming ladle.” All this is  rather useless.

Sometimes the origin of the word is given as unknown or we find the familiar explanations from the OED and Skeat. So indeed, there is nothing to report. Mr. Cowan’s suggestion that Simpleton was once a town of fools, like Gotham, is most ingenious, but, unfortunately, nothing is known about such a town. Sodom and Gomorrah, and even Kitezh, are much more real, but I admit that a town of fools, like a ship of fools, would be a wonderful place to visit. Danish tradition has such a town (Ebeltoft in Mols), and the Molboer make good money by selling its memorabilia to tourists. I think the most famous ancient town proverbial for its stupidity was Abdera (see Abderite in English dictionaries), even though it could boast of Democritus, its native son.

abdera thrace greece
Wit Works Woe. The ruins of Abdera.

The comments on the antedating and a detailed response on Cap Sizun, including the folk etymology surrounding the place name, were most useful. Yet Mr. Pascal Tréguer, now our active correspondent, who began his comment with the statement that capsize does not go back to Cap Sizun, has not substantiated his claim. It would be interesting to hear more from him.

Kibosh definitely for the last time.
The pre-Dickens quotations unearthed by Stephen Goranson are of great value because, among other things, they deal with flogging. Apparently, in the 1830s and later those who used kibosh understood it is an object with which to beat an opponent. This is natural: after all, we “put” the kibosh on things. Couldn’t reference to kibosh in just that context be a well-thought out pun, provided that the meaning of kibosh “whip” was widely known? What also bothers me is the exotic nature of all the proposed etymons and the necessity to give preference to one etymology as final. I am not quite ready to do so, but I admit that my caution may be a hindrance to the solution.

Here Stephen Goranson is probably right again: I cannot prove that this word was coined in Oregon or California, though many people pointed to the West as the center of its dispersion. My reaction to the geography was almost instinctive: no one used hobo more often and more consistently than Jack London.

The Scandinavian god Bragi: Is his name connected with Engl. brag?
Next week I will devote a special post to brag. Here I’ll confine myself to a few remarks on Bragi. Two circumstances complicate our search. First, we don’t know how old the name is and whether we should search for its cognates in the deepest layers of the Indo-European vocabulary. Second, many mortals had and still have the personal name Bragi. According to tradition, Bragi was not only a god of poetry but also one of the first skalds. (The skalds constituted a special “class” of poets different from those who composed mythological and heroic lays known from the Edda, even though the same people could probably excel in both genres.) Names ending in -i are more homey than the others, which does not mean they are more recent. In any case, among the gods, only Loki’s name belongs to the same declension. Thor’s servant Thjalfi, according to the myth told by Snorri (here is another -i name), began his career as a farmer’s son. The origin of the English verb has not been settled once and for all either. A meeting of two words of partly unresolved etymology does not augur well.

One of our correspondents has compared Latin and Greek words beginning with AMN and denoting “lamb,” “river,” “bowl catching the sacrifice of the lamb,” “sac of the mother’s womb,” “fluid of the womb,” and “forgetting.” He says: “The thing I see in this by historical context is related to our concept of baptism and involution and evolution. This is tied to Ancient Rome, Israel, the Greeks, and on the list goes.” From the short letter I received the connection does not strike me as particularly promising, because the words are incompatible: Greek amnós seems to be related to Latin agnus, the word for “river” (amnis) probably has the root ap-, in amnesia the root is men ~ mne “mind,” and so forth. But our correspondent has written a book on the subject. Perhaps if I saw it, I would be able to say something more definite on the subject.

Sanction “approve” and “punish.”
Why do such antithetical meanings coexist in this word? Sanction has always referred to law (that is, encouragement to do something) and a penalty for breaking it, though the first sense is of course primary (sanctify is a cognate of saint, from Latin sanctus). In the twentieth century, sanction “punitive measure” became so common that when today we read about sanctions, we think only about actions undertaken to enforce international rules. However, the verb in its positive meaning has survived. The coexistence of two opposite meanings in a word is called enantiosemy, and the examples are rather numerous.

The origin of coleslaw.
This word is from Dutch. The Dutch compound is made up of two parts: one means “cabbage” (compare Engl. cole and German Kohl, the same meaning; both from Latin), the other means “salad.” Dutch sla is a conversational form of salad. The whole amounts to “cabbage salad.”

Mrs. Morgan’s dilemma.
Double letters are tricky. For instance, the British forms of travel are travelled and travelling, while in the US l is doubled only if it follows a stressed vowel (controlled, controlling). Thus, reveled but rebelled. The rule that doubling is required after a short vowel makes sense but may produce monsters like Goya’s sleep of reason. For example, I detest the plural busses, though I agree that abuses and buses should perhaps be spelled (spelt) differently. By the way, does anyone know what legislative bodies control spelling in the English speaking world? If some of us decided to do something about the reform (rather than talking about it), where should we write?

Finally, thanks to Nikita for providing the Russian original of Putin’s comment on Snowden and a promise to deal with the word qualm in a special post. I have more questions but will stop here and deal with them in October, because I usually try not to go beyond two computer pages, and I am already in the middle of the third.

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.” Subscribe to Anatoly Liberman’s weekly etymology posts via email or RSS.

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Image credit: Archeological Site of Abdera Xanthi Thrace Greece. 14 September 2011. Photo by Ggia. Creative Commons License via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. Craig

    In Minneapolis there are signs on the highways directing precisely where “Prohibited Vehicles” are allowed. Is this an enantiosemic use of prohibited or is it merely an ironic usage meant to elicit pleasure in the driver of a prohibited vehicle feeling instead unprohibited?

  2. John Cowan

    “to be sure, mois is a bone fides French word”

    But “bone fides” is not a bona fide English phrase, alas! We see here a fine application of the Muphry/Skeat/Hartman/McKean Law of Prescriptivist Retaliation, which says that an announcement of an error is quite likely to contain another error. Primo Levi was of opinion that no manuscript should be sent out until it has sat in a drawer for at least six weeks, giving the writer plenty of time to forget what was said how, and approach the text with fresh eyes.

    The advantage of a town of fools over a ship of fools is that the town won’t sink in a storm. (Though indeed the fools might do their best work in a storm, as Lear’s fool did.)

    There are, of course, no such legislative bodies in the Anglosphere. (Indeed, neither the U.S. nor the U.K. even specify English as an official language, though about fifty other countries do.) Rather, English orthography is determined by a analogue to Newton-Raphson iteration, which is a method of solving equations by guessing the answer, computing the amount of error in the guess, and repeating until the error is reduced to a negligible value. Lexicographers report in their dictionaries the spellings that publishers (taking that term broadly) are in fact using, but the spellings used by publishers are generally those given in earlier editions of those same dictionaries. In almost all cases, this process quickly irons out variation in spelling. We have multiple national orthographies because until recently lexicographers did not report spellings used in other countries consistently or coherently.

  3. Annie Morgan

    I didn’t know there was a rule in the US about doubling consonants after a stressed vowel, so that’s an interesting item for me. I will try to stop being irritated when I see only one ‘l’ in ‘travelers’, but can’t promise not to have fits about ‘kidnaping’ and ‘worshiping’.

    I do like the way you respond to various commenters – it’s fun for us, and very nice of you.

  4. Pascal Tréguer

    Last month, I did not mean to begin my “comment with the statement that capsize does not go back to Cap Sizun.”

    English is not my mother tongue (I’m French, from Brittany) and I must apologise, as what I said wasn’t clear.

    I was reacting to Mr Dominic King’s suggestion, and was saying that I don’t see how the Breton name Cap Sizun could derive FROM English capsizing (and I have not the slightest idea as to the origin of English capsize).

    Both English Cornwall and its Breton counterpart la Cornouaille are Celtic areas.

    It is therefore implausible that, long ago, sailors “returning to English Cornwall” [I’m quoting Mr Dominic King] – i.e. Cornish sailors – gave an English name to a Celtic place.

    And why would others than its inhabitants have named the place?

    Additionally, in the name Cap Sizun, Siz- is pronounced as the English seize, and not as the English size.

    Sizun is a Breton toponym which is not found only in the name Cap Sizun.

    In particular, a “commune” in le Finistère is named Sizun.

    And the Breton name of l’île de Sein (an island off the coast of Finistère) is Enez Sun – the second element being a contraction of Sizun.

    It seems that the Breton toponym Sizun means jagged, ragged.

    In the case of Cap Sizun and Enez Sun, the word refers to the coastline, and, in the case of the commune named Sizun, to the ridges of the nearby mountains, les Monts d’Arrée.


    Dictionnaire de la langue bretonne, by Dom Louis Le Pelletier (1752)

    Bulletin de la Société Archéologique du Finistère – Tome IX (1889)


  5. […] promised, I am returning to the English verb brag and the Old Scandinavian god Bragi (see the previous post). If compared with boast, brag would seem to be more suggestive of bluster and hot air. Yet both […]

  6. […] be constructive, and I cannot wish for a better reward. This is what happened when Stephen Goranson expressed his strong disagreement with my treatment of kibosh. At one time, I fought the idea of the early origin of the plural in […]

  7. […] Capsize again. Our correspondent (he will remain anonymous because he has given only his first name) wonders whether, considering the popularity of Dutch nautical terms, capuzar could have come to Spain by way of Dutch, which has kapseizen. Is it Dutch into English or English into Dutch? Nothing is known about the history of this verb, which suddenly became popular in the eighteenth century, but Dutch etymologists are certain that its source is English, though in English it may be of Romance origin. […]

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