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Etymology gleanings for September 2015

It so happened that I have been “gleaning” the whole month, but today I’ll probably exhaust the questions received during the last weeks.

Perpetuum mobile

From a letter: “I have been told Norwegians would say ‘forth and back’ rather that ‘back and forth’ since it was logical for them to envision going away, then coming back.” The Norwegian idiom is fram og tilbake, that is, “forward and back.” Logic has probably nothing to do with it. The human mind discovers the world, while language describes and classifies it. Since the classification of things is up to the observer, the results differ from “dialect” to “dialect.” In this case, the movement in two opposite directions has to be stressed, while which of them comes first does not seem to matter. Back and forth may sound more “logical” than to and fro or fram og tilbake, but this impression is an illusion. Compare a few more anthologized cases when the practice adopted by the speakers of a language strikes outsiders as superfluous or illogical.  Special words for watch and clock (and there also is sundial) are a luxury we could have dispensed with; it is probably enough to have one word for the instrument showing time, for don’t we watch the clock and are stuck with the word o’clock? The division of our extremities into leg/foot and arm/hand, as well as different names for finger and toe, is another subtlety, which is practical or burdensome, depending on one’s point of view (compare the desperation of dictionary makers when they have to define toe, which ends up as “a finger,” or more resourcefully, “digit on the foot.” Anthropological linguistics revels in such cases.

When pigs fly

This is one of many idioms expressing an impossible situation and meaning “never” (compare when hell freezes over). For some reason (and here’s the rub) pigs have been chosen as the least probable candidates for levitation, though cows or sheep, for example, are equally unlikely candidates for this process. By contrast, winged horses are ubiquitous in mythology. I have a few items on the phrase about pigs in my database but nothing on its origin. The variants pigs could fly, with or without the addition if they had wings, and the universally known when pigs grow wings have also been recorded. Pigs are in general common characters in the most unexpected idioms.

Touch wood


“Origin unknown.” Alas. The body of literature on touch wood is considerable. In my opinion, all of it misses the point, because it invariably deals with the nature of the superstition, while the question is about the phrase. Many “gestures” for warding off evil and averting bad luck, such as spitting three times (with the possible addition over the left shoulder) exist, and the “ritual” often has an accompanying text: t’fu-t’fu (Russian: this is what is said while spitting), toi-toi-toi (German, while knocking on wood), and the like. But linguists try to discover the origin of words and sayings, of course to the extent that those reflect the phenomena of the real world. There can be no doubt that contact with wood had an apotropaic effect. The trouble with the saying touch wood and its American variant knock on wood is its multilingual popularity: in French one says toucher du bois, in Spanish tocar (en la) madera, in German auf Holz schlagen, in Swedish ta i trä, and so forth. The phrase is obviously a migratory item, and we don’t know its center of dissemination. Also, in texts both touch wood and knock on wood surfaced only a little more than a century ago, even though touch wood is part of what is or once was said in playing tag and other chasing games (tiggy-touch-wood), a fact that proves the idiom’s relatively old age, for the vocabulary of children’s games tends to preserve many otherwise forgotten words and phrases.

God, bigot, and gadget

God. The title above sounds like cabbages and kings but owes nothing to O. Henry. I will only respond to some questions and comments. True, if the word god has something to do with the Germanic verb for pouring (Danish gyde, German gießen, and so forth), several possibilities of connecting them exist. But they need not be cognate (see the posts on god), though supporters of conflicting opinions about the origin of this word fight for their chosen derivations with the fervor worthy of a religious war. The Persian look-alike mentioned in one of the comments (I referred to it too) should certainly be disregarded, because it was coined too late for being a congener of god. As for Wulfila, who had to use a noun designating the Christian god and chose guþ, that is guth, he was hardly influenced by the word for “good,” because the vowels do not match (the adjective had long o, as in Engl. or). Compare Engl. bull and bawl. Hardly anyone would think of them as particularly close. Also, one has to explain the acceptance of the noun by the speakers of the other Germanic dialects.

Bigot. The word bigot has often been connected with the word for “mustache,” a point discussed in the post on that word, and, if our correspondent is interested, I can give her a reference to a long article on bigot (in German) with pictures of a luxuriant mustache. This etymology is probably wrong.

Gadget. Stephen Goranson found a slightly earlier date for this word than what is given in the OED. He has some reason to believe that the idea of connecting gadget with glass making is correct. I hope he will publish his findings in the comments to this blog.

Valerie Yule on Spelling Reform

‘The final goal, no matter what it is, is nothing; the movement is everything’. Such is the slogan of the revisionists, etymologists, and hamsters.

Valerie Yule, an active member of the Spelling Society, posted a comment with blood-curdling statistics. In a study of literacy among twenty “high income” countries, the United States ranked 12th (this, I might add, is better than the situation in mathematics; however, we are certainly high among the nations offering “Math Anxiety” courses). 50% of adults cannot read a book written at an eighth grade level (this is not too bad either; by way of compensation, they can read the texts they send one another every minute; this makes them engaged citizens and saves our society from the accusation of elitism). The more one reads those numbers, the more depressed one feels. The document sounds like the opening chapter of the Pickwick Papers: horses bolt, boats overturn, boilers burst, 45 million are functionally illiterate, illiteracy costs American taxpayers an estimated twenty billion dollars a year, three out of four people on welfare can’t read, and so it goes. Clearly, Spelling Reform will cure at least some of those ills. Valerie Yule suggests that we omit all surplus letters and change all misleading letters. I think there are two hitches here. First, ALL surplus letters are too numerous to eliminate in one swell swoop: consider wright, knead, full, beauty, thumb, as opposed to rite, need, the suffix –ful, duty, and drum. Second, the suggestion to introduce ì, è, and ò has, to my mind, no chance of being accepted by the Spelling Congress (scheduled to take place in 2016) or the public. If, among the prevailing chaos and despondency, there is one good thing about English orthography, it is the absence of diacritics in it.

Image Credit: (1) “When Pigs Fly?” by Mike Miller. CC BY SA 2.0 via Flickr. (2) “Little Girl” by Unsplash. Public Domain via Pixabay. (3) “Rocky’s Workout” by PINKÉ. CC BY NC 2.0 via Flickr.

Recent Comments

  1. Stephen Goranson

    The OED has for gadget (with a first citation from 1886): “Origin obscure….” Apparently, the original gadget, in French glassmaking vocabulary, was a spring clip attached to an iron rod, a pontil. The gadget, by holding the base of a glass, eliminated the pontil mark that resulted when it was detached. At “pontil”–itself of French origin–OED includes the following quote:
    1918 P. Marson Glass 83 The servitor has now done his part of the work, and the glass is handed to the workman. It is then cracked off, and the foot caught by a spring clip arrangement attached to a pontil, called a ‘gadget’.
    Gadget is used three times in an 1868 English publication:
    The tenth report of the Commissioners Appointed to inquire into the organization and rules of trades unions and other associations: together with minutes of evidence. ( Parliament; Great Britain. Commissioners Appointed to Inquire into the Organization and Rules of Trades Unions and Other Associations. 1868 London: H.M.S.O.)
    30 June 1868; page 37, col. 1, paragraph 18,778 (Mr. Harrison)
    ….This wine-glass which I have in my hand was made on the gadget, a small piece of machinery that does away with the necessity of cutting in the centre of the foot….
    30 June 1868; page 40, col. 2, par. 18,815 (Mr. Leicester)
    I may explain that the gadget being cold when this foot (pointing to the wine glass) is hot cracks the foot, and it requires great nicety in adjusting the temperature between the cold iron and the hot glass; and the men say, “Pay us for the cracked ones till we get used to it.” I am authorized to say that the men have never refused to work this gadget, and to introduce this improvement in England, when the employer will allow them for the cracked ones in cases where the cracking has been caused by the machine. The injustice is all the other way.
    For more context, see:

  2. Masha Bell

    I agree that there is little chance of the public accepting diacritics for improving the consistency of English spelling. Nor is there any need for them. There is plenty of scope for making English spelling more regular, and thereby learning to read and write much easier, by merely bringing rogue spellings into line with established patterns, as I have explained on my blog ImprovingEnglishSpelling.

    The main obstacle to making English spelling better is public indifference to the plight of those who find learning to read and write harder than most and ignorance about the costs their difficulties incur.

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