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Etymology gleanings for November 2015

Man in different languages

It is true that the etymology of homo confirms the biblical story of the creation of man, but I am not aware of any other word for “man” that is akin to the word for “earth.” Latin mas (long vowel, genitive maris; masculinus ends in two suffixes), whose traces we have in Engl. masculine and marital and whose reflex, via French, is Engl. male, referred to “male,” not to “man.” Its etymology is, as usual, unknown. Comparison with Sanskrit ()mans “man” seems to have been abandoned. Russian chelovek (stress on the last syllable) is a compound. Although its etymology is not quite certain, rather probably, chel– has the root of a word for “rise, grow,” while –vek is related to Latvian vaiks “child” and its Lithuanian cognate. The similar-sounding Latvian compound was borrowed from Slavic. And yes, the old English word for “animal” was deor, related to German Tier. Now deer means “stag,” and the change of meaning (from “animal” to “the most often hunted animal”) has been traced in minute detail.

Patty ~ Paddy

I certainly did not imply that the idiom that’s what Patty shot at “nothing” was coined in or limited to Minnesota. However, before a listener to my talk show informed me that this phrase had been her father’s favorite, I was not aware of its use in living speech, and so close to home. I had seen it in the literature on idioms but never heard from anyone. The discussion about the origin of Patty will never yield definitive results: perhaps indeed Patty, perhaps Paddy, or a case of so-called hypercorrection (“urbanization”), with Paddy changed to Patty. See my note on paddy wagon in the March gleanings for this year. Instruments show that in a word writer, when pronounced as rider, the vowel is not identical to the vowel of the genuine rider. This can be true, but hi-tech is not my forte (“fort”). As indicated in that post, people write title wave, deep-seeded prejudice, and futile relations for tidal, seated, and feudal. I assume that, like me, they don’t care for the evidence of instrumental phonetics and simply make no distinction between t and d between vowels. And this is all that matters for phonology.


Contrary or contrary? The line about Mary, Mary, quite contrary leaves no doubt that the adjective in it has stress on the second syllable. Besides this, we have contrarian, contrarious, and others. The usually helpful book Laut und Leben by Horn-Lehnert contains no section on these doublets, but I assume that contrary is a relic of the (Old) French pronunciation contraire. If so, we have a trivial case of an English word striving but not always attaining initial stress: compare capitalist ~ capitalist (the latter now probably obsolete), formidable ~ formidable, recondite ~ recondite, exquisite, ~ exquisite, and the like. In our case, there is a slight semantic difference between the two forms of contrary.

Mary, Mary, quite contrary. She is contrary even in pronunciation.
Mary, Mary, quite contrary. She is contrary even in pronunciation.

On calves, paths, and the German Consonant Shift

Indeed, from an etymological point of view nothing connects calf and path in any language. The reason initial pf- occurs only in borrowed German words (never mind Pfad) is not far to seek. Pf goes back to Germanic p, which, in its turn, goes back to Indo-European b. But for some reason, b, if it existed in Indo-European, occurred in a few sound symbolic and sound-imitating words and nowhere else. Therefore, Germanic had p only in loanwords, if we disregard such dubious cognates as Engl. pool and Russian boloto “swamp” (stress on the second syllable). But Latin had initial p in abundance; hence German Pfeife “pipe,” Pfund “pound,” Pfennig “penny,” and the rest, including Pfalz. All of them were taken over from Latin early enough to undergo the so-called Second Consonant Shift; p to pf is part of it.

Sam Walter Foss (1858-1911), the author of  the poem"Calf-Paths," among hundreds of others.
Sam Walter Foss (1858-1911), the author of the poem”Calf-Paths,” among hundreds of others.

A reality check

Last month I spent some time flogging the dead horse named actually, but actually is not the only filler that is expected to add weight to trivial statements. I also quoted an old man speaking admiringly about his grandson. Every sentence had at least (!) one occurrence of really. This is the way many people speak nowadays. Here is a typical beginning from a letter to a student newspaper:

“It’s only been a week, but I think I’m really starting to fall for this guy. He’s really got a lot of going for him; (a short catalog of his attractive features follows)…, he’s a real charmer. We’ve hung out a few times since meeting at a mutual friend’s party; it went really well. As awesome as a lot of his traits are, he’s really lacking in the hygiene department.”

The upshot is: “Wash and change your underwear regularly, for a bad smell is really off-putting, though nobody ever really likes hearing they smell bad.” Whence this epidemic? People specializing in sociolinguistics have written many pages about the use of like and you know (“he said it like ten times you know”), but I am not sure I have read anything about really. Are we so uncertain of every statement we make that instead of saying the earth is round we have to say the earth is actually (really) round?

Splitting all the way

My taunts directed at gratuitous splitting have, as they say in newspapers, backfired. Several correspondents defended the split infinitive (actually, I never attacked reasonable splitting) and reminded me that it had existed for centuries. H. W. Fowler knew it all long before we were born. But I never stop admiring the ingenuity of the splitters.

Consider the following sentence: “The University Senate’s Academic Freedom and Tenure Committee wants to then turn the idea into state legislation.” I understand: there is no good place for then here, though wants then to turn is not too bad, but isn’t to then turn ugly? I would like to now make you an offer? I was unhappy to yesterday hear the news? We’ll have to later return to this question? Similarly, I cannot stop admiring sentences like “Universities do a lot of things they used to not do.” This was said by a man occupying a very high position at the University of Minnesota where I teach. I am sure he did not speak so when he was young, but now that he is a Regent he cannot afford antiquated grammar. Why does a journalist write that Americans will have to once again commit their manpower, etc.? Why didn’t he say that Americans will once again have…? So I am asking: To be or to not be? To immediately launch attacks, to financially compensate prisoners…. Was the split infinitive invented for begetting such monsters?

I repeat after Walter Turner: “Do we now ever see unsplit infinitives?

Image credits: (1) Mature Fallow deer Stag with antlers at Safari Wilderness Preserve in Lakeland, Florida. Photo by Seth Eisenberg. CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons. (2) Mistress Mary, Quite Contrary. Illustration by William Wallace Denslow from the Project Gutenberg EBook of Denslow’s Mother Goose (1902). Public domain via Wikimedia Commons. (3) Sam Walter Foss, poet. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. Dr. Jeremy Benstein

    You write: “It is true that the etymology of homo confirms the biblical story of the creation of man, but I am not aware of any other word for “man” that is akin to the word for “earth.”’
    I understand that you are writing about Indo-European languages, but the very reference to the creation story should at least merit a footnote about Hebrew: adam – adama. No?

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