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Monthly etymology gleanings for October 2014, Part 1

It so happened that at the end of this past summer I was out of town and responded to the questions and comments that had accumulated in August and September in two posts. We have the adjectives biennial and biannual but no such Latinized luxury for the word month. Although I realized that in this case bimonthly would be misleading, I hoped that the context would disambiguate it. Let me assure our correspondents that my gleanings will keep appearing every last Wednesday until some unpredictable circumstance (for example, a sudden lack of queries: I can’t think of anything else) do us part. My bimonthly meant “gleanings for two months.”


Gaul, Walloon, Wallachian

Wallachian, Walloon, and Welsh share the same Germanic root, which means “foreign” (one can also see it in walnut, as well as in the family names Wallace, Welsh, and Walshe). The Anglo-Saxons called the Celts and the Romans foreigners. The element –wall in Cornwall is related to them. Gaulish is a Romanized form of the same adjective (compare ward and guard, Wilhelm and Guillaume). But one should not argue from etymological affinity to tribal or national identity. Calling some people foreigners does not say anything about their origin.

Hull gull

Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE) has an entry for the word, and descriptions of the game abound, but the origin of the name remains undiscovered. My browsing has not yielded anything worth reporting. What little has been said on the subject in books on games can be found on the Internet in five minutes. The idea that hull goes back to the Old Engl. verb for “hide” (hellan ~ helian, in Modern English, rare and dialectal hele; compare German hehlen, hüllen, and their cognate –ceal in Engl. conceal, from Latin, via French) is, in my opinion, fanciful. Hull gull is known among American Indians, but in the absence of its native name nothing follows from this fact. The hully gully dance seems to have been called after the game. Some people have looked for its source in Africa, yet no facts bear out its African origin. In my experience, the nucleus of such reduplications (hugger-mugger and the like) is more often the second element; the first is then added to rhyme with it. This is especially true of the words whose first element begins with an h. Should some brave word sleuth decide to search for the etymology of hull gull, it may pay off to begin with gull. Perhaps some of our correspondents have ideas on this subject. If so, kindly don’t hide them.

A hazel-grouse
A hazel-grouse

Color words


My gratitude is due those who informed me about the origin of brown shirts in Germany. I knew most of what was said in the comments but can now state with certainty that brown had no symbolic value in the choice of that uniform. As regards the name of the hazel grouse, it indeed has a root with wide Indo-European connections. The remark on braun und blau (see the quotation from Deutsches Wörterbuch adduced by Roland Schumann) should be considered, but in such binomials a descending scale is also possible: compare Engl. black and blue.


I am sure Michael Lamb is right. It did not occur to me to consult dictionaries. The OED explains that livid with anger means “pale with anger.” However, I still wonder whether anger, rather than fear, causes pallor. In those few cases in which I heard the phrase, the speakers always meant “suffused with red.” Apparently, I err in (good) company.

One as a pronoun

One is responsible for one’s mistakes. Is this a silly sentence? In at least one opinion, it is as silly as John is responsible for John’s mistakes. I am afraid I disagree. One, our correspondent points out, is not only an indefinite pronoun but also a noun, a circumstance ignored by grammarians. However, grammarians have always been aware of the nature of one. In the United States, grammar is seldom taught today (where some watered down elements of it remain, grammar has been replaced by the less offensive term structure; I cannot vouch for the rest of the English-speaking world), but those of us who did study this allegedly-devoid-of-fun subject at school have heard about the parts of speech (nouns, adjectives, verbs, and the rest). The division of the vocabulary into parts of speech is a minor catastrophe. For instance, adverbs often resemble a trashcan (what is not a noun or an adjective finds refuge there, and, to add to the confusion, nouns and adjectives in oblique cases tend to be “adverbialized”). Numerals fare even worse: we provide a list of them (one, two, three, etc.) and say: “This is your part of speech.” Is twice a numeral or an adverb? Twelve is a numeral, while dozen is a noun. Is threescore a numeral or a noun? Sixty is certainly a numeral. In the Old Germanic languages, the words for one, two, three, and four could be declined (as they still are in Icelandic) and belonged to the same classes as nouns; yet we call them numerals. All this is common knowledge. One is the worst offender, because, despite its meaning, in Old Germanic it had a plural form and sometimes meant “only.” Modern Engl. ones shows how natural that plural sounds, while once is a petrified genitive.

My next point concerns usage. John is responsible for John’s mistakes is unnecessary and even silly, because his, instead of John’s, would refer to the subject quite clearly. But one has no correlate, hence the trouble. One is responsible for his (her) mistakes is embarrassing, because one is neither a man nor a woman. Their is safe and politically correct, but one is singular, while their is plural. To be sure, those who say when a student comes, I never make them wait will find the correlation one/their unobjectionable, and let them enjoy their usage (“every man in his humor”). In addition to those variants, we can say either one is responsible for one’s mistakes (logical but perhaps inelegant) or rephrase the sentence (all of us are responsible for our mistakes). “John” is doing better: he pays the price for his folly, just as “Mary” rues her missteps. While speaking English, one occasionally hits the wall, and there is no help for it.

Come one, come all
Come one, come all

I wrote my response before Michael Lamb’s comment appeared. There was no need for me to change anything in my text, and “at this point of time,” as so deplorably many people say and write, I invite our correspondents to read our “polemic” and express their opinion: come one, come all.

Disagreements over strategy, or a maid of all work: over

Some prepositions succeed in ousting all their competitors. Henry W. Fowler, the author of the immortal book Modern English Usage, wrote with contempt about those who say as to, because they are too lazy to think of for, about, and their synonyms. I have a dim recollection that in one of my old posts I discussed over as an example of an evil invasive species. Recently, Walter Turner has sent me a list of such overdone phrases from the most respectable British and American newspapers. Some of them are offered below for the wise to be aware. “Egypt jails nine men over sex assaults”; “Moscow faces bank curbs over new public-sector projects” (= because of? in connection with?); “Journalists face jail over spy leaks”; “Cameron ambushes Labour over tax plans”; “Cameron criticized over plans to knight Tory reshuffle victims”; “X warns Y over boozy night out,” and many more. This virus, like all viruses, knows no borders. Take note and think it over.

I have something to say about the Indo-European names of fruits, the phrase in brown study, the origin of Viking, and about the ever-green subject of English spelling but will do so next Wednesday.

Image credits: (1) Hazel grouse. Naumann, Naturgeschichte der Vögel Mitteleuropas, Band VI, Tafel 8 – Gera, 1897 digitale Bearbeitung : Peter v. Sengbusch. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons. (2) Marx Super Circus Tent Side 2 Inside Detail 1. Photo by Ed Berg. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. Michael Lamb

    We do have the word ‘bimestrial’ actually, and though my comment on ‘bimonthly’ was not serious, the ambiguity of it always annoys me. It seems an extraordinary state of affairs, and ‘bimestrial’ is a solution which is consistent with the other Latinized luxuries and recommends itself for wider adoption. I’m afraid this all happens because ‘fortnightly’ is another quaint Briticism.

  2. Michael Lamb

    2 I always associated ‘livid with anger’ with the fairly common ‘white with anger/rage’, or with cold rage as opposed to hot rage etc. But the unadorned ‘livid’, as recognized by the OED, is so entrenched with no particular connotation other than intense anger that I do not cling to inerrancy, and I hope you do not exclude me from the good company of the errant!

  3. Stephen Goranson

    A brief look takes the game “hull gull” back at least to 1807 (earlier than the examples in D.A.R.E.)–in The Remarks of Jeremiah Jingle (printed for the author, Hagerstown MD?). Since several early descriptions refer to chestnuts and similar objects that have hulls, concealed in a hand, one option may be that it refers to a gull (one who may be fooled) guessing the number of hulls of the nuts (or similar objects) in the hand of the challenger–the rhyme being serendipitous.

  4. Michael Lamb

    3 You certainly didn’t need to change anything in your text, but I would be interested to know whether you think my example ‘to keep oneself to oneself’ is also perhaps inelegant. It seemed to me that any alternative along the lines of ‘keep oneself to himself’ is a reductio ad absurdum of the claim that one can’t use ‘one’ just like any other pronoun and not worry about it being as repetitious as other pronouns. And it seems even more of a reductio ad absurdum now that I have googled ‘keep oneself to himself’ and ‘keep oneself to themself” and found that my facetious examples of it are the only ones, and that there are three of ‘keep oneself to themselves’! They all sound like gibberish to me.

    You’re so right about hitting the wall in English. Isn’t it interesting that a language like Italian is so much less grammatically rigid? One rigidity which I don’t think prescriptivists will be able to hold out against much longer is in the use of relative pronouns. It makes so many things unsayable in English without elaborate rephrasing. They are all going the way of Italia ‘che’.

  5. Terry Collmann

    “Over” is used in headlines because it’s short – no other reason.

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