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Monthly etymology gleanings for June 2015

The word frigate

Several years ago, I wrote a post on the origin of the word frigate. The reason I embarked on that venture was explained in the post: I had run into what seemed to me a promising conjecture by Vittorio Pisani. As far as I could judge, his note had attracted no attention, and I felt it my duty to rectify the injustice. Last week I received a letter from Mr. Nikolai Tkachenko, a professional sailor and an enthusiastic student of marine vocabulary. His derivation of frigate seemed unconvincing to me, and I made no secret of my objections. However, he stands by his etymology and asked me to publish it, though I told him that I would add my thoughts on the subject. This is Mr. Tkachenko’s letter, which I have slightly edited for style and grammar:

“The noun fragata must be a past participle whose ultimate etymon was, obviously, fraga ‘strawberry’. A glance at the bird frigate, as it appears in Wikipedia, will show that this bird has a bright red throat pouch which bears a strong resemblance to the strawberry. The bird has been known to the speakers of Romance languages for at least two millennia and received its name thanks to the similarity between the pouch and the berry. Thus, fragata can be understood to mean ‘equipped with a strawberry’. These birds are characterized by high speed and maneuvering ability in flight; they are fearless in attack and tireless in the course of long air trips. When a thousand years ago light and fast warships were constructed for protecting merchant ships, the capture of pirate and enemy vessels, reconnaissance, and communication, they flew over the waves like the birds fragatas and were named fragata on account of the similarity between the vessel’s sailing qualities and the bird’s qualities in flight.”

My problems with this hypothesis are as follows.

Here is the bird with a strawberry-looking throat pouch
Here is the bird with a strawberry-looking throat pouch
  1. I don’t quite understand from which verb the alleged participle was formed.
  2. The word frigate, as applied to the ship, was first recorded in 1350; the homonymous name of the bird seems to have come into existence much later. Columbus (1492) referred to the bird as rabiforçado (Modern Spanish rabihorcado), that is, “fork(ed)-tail” rather than “strawberry throat.” The French did indeed call the bird la frégate, and the association was probably caused by the factors Mr. Tkachenko indicated (speed and ferocity), but we have no record of this name antedating 1667, so that, apparently, the bird was named after the ship, not the other way around.
  3. As far as we can judge, the name of the ship was coined in Italy, and there it began with fre– not fra-. It seems that the only viable etymology of frigate should be sought in Italy.
  4. As a matter of principle, I believe that any new suggestion on etymology should begin by showing that the previous attempts to explain the word’s origin failed, and I object to the use of adverbs like obviously in controversial matters.

The jarring word ajar

This was the title of my other old post, and our correspondent wonders whether Engl. ajar may have anything to do with Turkish açar, glossed by her as “open.” The Turkish words for “open” are açmak and açik (compare “empty”), while açar means “key.” Consequently, ajar an açar have as little in common as English bad and Persian bad. Moral: in dealing with etymology, beware of lookalikes. One cannot do without them, but they need a strict security check.

Foxglove and an old mistake

In 2010, I offered a post about etymologists’ war with flower names and close to the end of my story wrote England instead of Scotland, which made nonsense of the sentence. Some time later I received an ironic letter calling my attention to the mistake. I responded, all ashes and sackcloth, but failed to do the most natural thing: I did not ask my editor to correct the mistake (not a problem in a computer text!). Quite recently, somebody else has pointed to the same error. Now the right place name has been substituted for the wrong one. To this correspondent: Thank you for reading the blog, saying good words about that post, and not being too harsh on me.

On beds and graves

Here is one more letter: “Just read with interest your exploration of the word bed. The correlation with the meaning ‘grave’ suddenly gives a clearer sense (to my mind) to the expression make your bed and lie in it, although it’s hard to imagine that the phrase could go back so far… Thanks for the engaging read!” Surely, the idiom was never meant in this macabre sense. “–Will you walk out of the air, my lord? –Into my grave. –Indeed, that is out of the air.” We also know the joke about a passenger on board a ship asking the captain where his father died (–At sea.) –And your grandfather? (–At sea.) –Aren’t you afraid of being a sailor? –And where did your father die? (–In his bed.) –And your grandfather? (–Also in his bed.) –Aren’t you afraid to go to bed every night? In sum, as you make your bed, so you must lie on (in) it.

Nouns and adjectives

I have seemingly written (though I don’t remember where I did it) that wizard is a noun, not an adjective. But what about wizard prang, said about a really spectacular crash? One should distinguish between the terms adjective and attribute. For example, both floor and plank are nouns, but in the phrase floor plank, floor functions as an attribute, while in plank floor this role is played by plank. Compare flower garden and garden flower. Countless groups made up of two nouns can be reversed in the same way. Nouns will remain nouns (this is their morphology), but their syntactic functions may change. Despite the poverty of English morphology, one can occasionally make distinctions. Compare hero worship, hero’s worship, and heroic worship; girl voice and girlish voice; wool dress and woolen dress; and so forth. In the English-speaking world, people are taught that nouns in groups like hero worship become adjectives. This is misleading. Reference to attribute dispels all trouble. Incidentally, the same holds for verb and predicate.

Grindel, a natural threshold or latch
Grindel, a natural threshold or latch

Grendel and latches

This is another throwback into the past. While discussing the etymology of the word threshold, I wrote that of all the etymologies of the name Grendel I preferred the one that explained it as “latch.” Our correspondent drew my attention to Grindelwald, Switzerland, a village well-known to skiers and hikers. Indeed, there are quite a few place names of this type, and the word Grindel exists too. Most probably, the idea in giving the place this name was to emphasize that the village was the threshold beyond which the mountains begin.

The suffix -el

Question: “If -el is a suffix in barrel, what about tunnel and vessel?” The same! Tunnel was borrowed into Middle English from French; some of its former meanings are no longer current. The etymon is Old French tonel “a small cask, vat, tun.” From a historical point of view, a tunnel is a small cask, a casket, as it were. Vessel is also a loan from Romance, “a small vase.” The late Latin word was vascellum.

Splitters win

Every time I object to a construction like to be or to not be someone takes me to task. I am a meek person, not a bully, and can be easily cowed. Congratulations to my opponents! One of the three definitions of throttle in Merriam-Webster online is ‘to not allow (something) to grow or develop’. Acceptance in Springfield, MA is like being received at Lady Windermere’s. To not agree with them would be blasphemy. I intend to no longer live in what good writers call self-absorbed discontent. Let her rip, let them split.

Image credit: (1) Fregata. CC0 via Pixabay. (2) Grindel, Switzerland. CC0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. Jevgēnijs Kaktiņš

    Charmed by a foxglove (there are some shoes, trousers, spurs in Latvian plantnames, not gloves found so far but there ar a lot of fingers such as dzegužpirkstīte – fingers of a cuckoo or simply uzpirkstīte – a thimble). I could suggest this wonderful anthology of plants with goat and sheep names (in Latvian) http://www.videsvestis.lv/content.asp?ID=61&what=46

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