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Monthly etymology gleanings for April 2015

Last month was a disaster: I confused the Wednesdays and then wrote 2014 for 2015. A student of the Middle Ages, I often forget in which millennium I live, so plus or minus one year does not really matter. We say: “The migration happened six or seven thousand years ago.” This is the degree of precision to which I am accustomed. And do many of us care whether something happened in 1614 or 1615? Shakespeare died in 1616; the rest does not matter. Anyway, the error was immediately noticed, mildly derided, corrected, and atoned for. Leaving “crime and punishment” behind, I should mention the fact that every now and then people discover the earlier posts in this blog and ask questions about things written years ago. This is gratifying; apparently, not all galaxies disappear in the supervoid.

Who died in 1616?
Who died in 1616?

Some queries inspired by the past notwithstanding, in the course of the last four weeks strawberries, brass tacks, and paddy wagon have attracted most attention. I have nothing to add to what I wrote on strawberries, and I agree that the idea of brass tacks remains unclear. Stephen Goranson quoted “coming down to the brass.” To be sure, brass has always been understood as something particularly solid and loud. Consider the brass and the top brass in the military, among others. It is the tacks that puzzle everybody, including John Larsson. By contrast, Goranson’s examples of paddy wheelbarrow change the focus on paddy wagon. Obviously, the collocation had a prehistory missed by previous researchers; however, paddy still seems to refer to the Irish.

Irregular verbs

Quite a few of my letters come from school and college students who ask questions about the changes in the history of English, long since explained in manuals and textbooks. I answer them privately because I don’t think the readership of this blog can be interested in such matters, but occasionally I devote some space to them in the “gleanings.” So here is my answer to a correspondent from Indonesia. He wonders why the past of go is went and the past of leave is left. I am well aware of the fact that outside the English-speaking world verbs are not divided into strong (like write—wrote—written) and weak (like robrobbed—robbed or reap—reaped—reaped) but into regular and irregular. Thus, do—did—done, put—put—put, say—said—said, lose—lost—lost, along with go—went—gone, and all the strong verbs (those whose principal parts show vowel alternations, as in write, bind, come, etc.) are dumped together for pedagogical purposes. This system makes perfect sense to a learner, but, when we begin to ask how certain forms happened to arise, the classification of verbs into regular and irregular breaks down.

The go—went problem has already been discussed in this blog. (See the post for 9 January 2013, “How come the past of ‘go’ is ‘went’?”). The Old English for leave was læfan (with long æ)—læfde (past tense, singular)—gelæfed (past participle). In Middle English, the long vowel yielded long e (that is, a vowel like long German or Italian e, not the vowel understood by long e in Modern English), which underwent shortening before two consonants, while final d was devoiced after f. The result was left. In the infinitive, the development proceeded undisturbed; hence leave. If the shortening and devoicing had not occurred, leave would have remained “regular” and rhymed with heave—heaved—heaved, whose history is far from simple, but it will not delay us here.

Coming or going home? Accusative or dative?
Coming or going home? Accusative or dative?

“Go home” and its Russian counterpart

The question was about the origin of home in go home and of domoi in Russian idti domoi (the same meaning). Our correspondent’s etymology is correct. Home in go home is an old accusative, later interpreted as an adverb. Russian domoi is an old dative of dom “home,” domovi, with the loss of v. Domovi and very similar forms of this dative are extant in some Slavic languages.

Nonexistent foreign etymons

I have received two related questions. (1) Have I considered Hebrew as a solution to the etymology of aloof? and (2) Could there have been a Greek root of amaze? The answer is “no” to both questions. Hebrew alluf “chief judge” comes nowhere near Engl. aloof, and the history of the Germanic word has no place for any Semitic etymon. Greek suggests itself in thinking of amaze, because mazes and labyrinths are associated in our memory with Ancient Greece. Yet the word is not Greek.

Change of meaning and usage

A correspondent drew my attention to the semantic shift in the word illicit: “In the 1800’s, the word illicit often referred to trading or love affairs, but today the word is usually related to drug use.” This is a common case. Words tend to narrow (or broaden!) their sphere of application. Half a century ago, translations of medieval romances still spoke about gay knights (that is, the knights wearing beautiful clothes and ready for adventure). Everybody knows what happened to this phrase after the word gay stopped being a synonym of vivacious and merry. Not too long ago, it was possible to say a queer look, a queer turn of speech, and so forth. I am sure today most people would use strange or odd in this context. I still remember the time when one could complain of an obnoxious person who molests his neighbors. At present, no one prohibits this usage, but the statement would be misunderstood. Did the gentleman in small-clothes next door “molest” Mrs. Nickleby, or was he a very great nuisance?

From two other letters: “Please discuss the current trend whereby disconcerting is being replaced with concerning, also taken back instead of the current taken aback,” and “People don’t know how to use the word nonplussed correctly. Most folks use it to mean ‘unaffected’ when it means ‘perplexed’.” I would like to pass on those remarks to our readers. I have no evidence of the replacement of concerning with disconcerting because I have never encountered this monster. With regard to aback, I can only guess that some speakers take it for a back and get rid of the “article.” The situation with nonplussed probably has an easier explanation. People constantly use words of whose meaning they have only a vague idea. Naturally, they misuse them.

An angry comment had it that woman doctor is demeaning, while female doctor is fine. I don’t quite see the point. When we are interested in finding out what is wrong with us, rather than in the sex/gender of a physician, we ask for an appointment with “a doctor.” No more information is required or needed. Other than that, both female doctor and woman doctor add the same detail important only for statistics.

Adverbially speaking

Diane Ezer ran into my old post on adverbs and shared her observations on this vexed subject. She noted that strangely enough sounds fine to her, while funnily enough seems to be mostly British. In British newspapers, she constantly sees adverbs like gobsmackingly and howlingly, which an American would hardly use. (I wonder whether my favorite phrase screamingly funny sounds too British where I live. My spellchecker highlighted the first two –ing adverbs but let screamingly “unmolested.”) Like me, she finds he sings beautiful unacceptable, but I wonder whether just this phrase has not become some sort of idiom. I first found it in a paper by an undergraduate and was shocked, but not too long ago I heard it on the radio: “Didn’t she sing this song beautiful?” The letter mentions and rejects Mark Twain’s recommendation to avoid adverbs. I think Mark Twain fought what I, following the example of good editors, call adverbialitis (the “queer” term is my own coinage). “She actually came late,” “She definitely denied this assertion,” “The performance was clearly (obviously) second-rate,” “He is simply ignorant of the main facts,” and so forth. In writing, such words are useless fillers, disguising the lack of arguments by emphasis.

The ugly head of the unsplit infinitive

Split infinitives and spilled milk are no longer worth crying about. The judicious path in most endeavors is to stay slightly behind the fashion. May those who want to always be on the cutting edge and to not look too prim and proper enjoy the edge’s sharpness. Splitters of the world unite!

“Good,” “god,” and “good-bye”

A freshman (unfortunately, I have no clue to the person’s whereabouts, for nearly everyone is now from either gmail.com or yahoo.com, a terra incognita indeed) knows that god and good are unrelated but wonders why good-bye is said to be an alteration of God buy’ye. At one time, as my database shows, the etymology of good-bye was the object of a heated controversy. But it seems that in the original phrase good was substituted for God under the influence of good day, good night, and the like. “Etymology,” the student writes, “is my passion.” Given this premise, our correspondence, I hope, will never dry up.

Image credits: (1) The Sanders portrait of William Shakespeare. Current owner, Lloyd Sullivan. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons. (2) Frog on potty. © microdon via iStock.

Recent Comments

  1. John Cowan

    I suspect that the special use of concerning which troubles your correspondent means ‘is a matter of concern’ (or simply ‘troubling’) rather than ‘disconcerting’. Whatever disconcerts us often becomes a matter of concern, to be sure. See Language Log.

    As forwoman doctor, I can only say that it grates on my ears as much, and for the same reasons, as Jew doctor, whereas female doctor and Jewish doctor are unexceptionable. We more often need to use these phrases in the plural or the indefinite, as when speaking of the number of female doctors in Kankakee in 1960,or the vitz about a psychiatrist being a Jewish doctor who’s afraid of blood.

    In addition, I have heard woman doctor with the accent on the first word in the sense of ‘gynecologist’, though I have not found examples in print or online. Female doctor is not subject to this misinterpretation, except perhaps among people old-fashioned enough to call women females. Mark Twain made this very complaint of Sir Walter Scott, indeed.

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