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Etymology gleanings for December 2015


I often refer to the English etymological dictionary by Hensleigh Wedgwood, and one of our correspondents became seriously interested in this work. He wonders why the third edition is not available online. I don’t know, but I doubt that it is protected by copyright. It is even harder for me to answer the question about the changes between the second and the third edition. Most unfortunately, few lexicographers of old said anything about the revisions they made from year to year. Whenever I write an etymology, I have to open all the editions of Webster, Wedgwood, Kluge, and others, for who knows: what if the treatment of the word I need has changed? This is a long and often frustrating process. Sometimes my efforts yield worthwhile results; other times they are wasted. With regard to Wedgwood, my general impression is that the main alterations are between his First and Second, and even those are few. His dictionary is admired by those who trace multiple words to sound symbolism and sound imitation. The role of those factors in word formation is great, but beware of his shortcuts! He is indifferent to regular sound correspondences, strings look-alikes from Basque and Finnish to English in cavalier fashion, and is not interested in how a word changed in any given language. Even if Latin plumbum is in some general way akin to Engl. plop and if blunt has something to do with such words (see my post on it), we still have to find out how blunt acquired its present form, when it appeared in English, and whether it is native of borrowed. To know Wedgwood’s opinion is always interesting and sometimes useful. However, even if he is a good servant, he is a dangerous master.

Different editions of an etymological dictionary are sometimes hard to distinguish.
Different editions of an etymological dictionary are sometimes hard to distinguish.

Linguistic Mythology

I received the following question: “A […] friend of mine told me that the sound ts is very ancient and is the source of many words that now have only t. Is this right?” I am the constant recipient of similar queries and always wonder about their sources. Who could propose that old ts changed to t in many words and even offer this statement as a kind of universal law? No, the idea of our correspondent’s friend is wrong. On the contrary, ts, as in German Katze “cat,” is a composite sound. In the classification of consonants, it is called an affricate. Some other affricates are ch, as in English chick; (d)ge, as in Engl. bridge, jam, and gentle; and pf, as in German pfui (an interjection). They are the product of late development: t to ts; t and k to ch; p to pf, and so forth. Affricates are occasionally simplified and again become p, t, and k, but this is the end, rather than the beginning of a long way.

Etymology also suffers from the grapevine. A popular but fanciful opinion becomes part of common knowledge. Anyone curious about the origin of our slightly overused F-word must have encountered several ingenious hypotheses that have nothing to do with its real history. Another such mishandled word is tip “gratuity.” My omnivorous database absorbs not only scholarly articles on the history of English words but everything that comes to my mill, for a bibliography is like a telephone book: anyone with a telephone has to be entered into it, regardless of the person’s virtues or lack thereof. Among the publications on the economic value of tipping or, conversely, about its drawbacks, I ran into two articles published in New York: one in Everybody’s Magazine 16, 1907, 209-213, the other in The Survey 47, 1921-22, 533-38. Both began with the authoritative statements that tip is an acronym of To Insure Promptness. No doubt, boxes with such an inscription did stand in restaurants, but T.I.P. was a witty decipherment of tip and has nothing to do with the word’s origin. Of course, “everybody knows” where tip came from? No, no one really does. I once wrote a post on the etymology of tip.

Mind our tip: the word tip has nothing to do with insuring promptness. Anyway, tip it is now called gratuity or even more euphemistically service.
Mind our tip: the word tip has nothing to do with insuring promptness. Anyway, tip it is now called gratuity or even more euphemistically service.

From My Trashcan

Interesting cases of multiplying by division

From the Department of Public Safety website (quoted in the Star/Tribune, Minneapolis, 15 November 2015): “In very cold weather a person’s body can loose (sic) heat faster than they can produce it.” Very true: in cold weather, one body is bad, two bodies are worse. The writer was of course misled by the recollection of somebody and person, and a person, one would think, is always they. But, as most people learned in their childhood, don’t generalize! Cass Sunstein, Bloomberg View, says: “If a person were to say ‘the U.S. government should be overthrown’ or ‘the more acts of terrorism, the better’ or that ‘all Muslims should join ISIL’, she could not be punished unless those statements were likely to produce imminent lawless action.” Cass is a unisex name, so I don’t know whether Cass Sunstein is a man or a woman, but I am so happy that s/he could not find a single male person ready to issue such terrible statements even for the sake of the First Amendment. I feel relatively more comfortable in the presence of Mr. L. W.: he finds it hard to believe that “‘an informed voter’ would put their trust in a candidate who is only viewed as trustworthy by just over 30 percent of a sample group.” I certainly wouldn’t.

There is a website called Academia.edu. It allows people to download scholarly papers and do other useful things. Recently I have read that Mr. X downloaded their paper (title given). Poor Mr. X, a man suffering from multiple personality disorder or with himself at war! People have been stultified by political correctness to such a degree that I once read (and quoted in a very old post) the sentence: “If John calls, tell them I am not at home.”

From the BBC article (10 November 2015) “Fit Legs Equally Fit Brain Study Suggests,” sent me by Peter Maher: “Generally, the twin who had more leg power at the start of the study sustained their cognition better and fewer brain changes associated with ageing after 10 years.” Here the plot thickens considerably: twins can be male or female, or one can be male, the other female (or vice versa), and even identical twins can be, if I remember correctly, of different sexes. Are pluralized twins whose sex is unknown to the writer called quadruplets, or is there a disease called singularophobia?

All the New’s That’s Good to Print?

From the New York Times: “Russia, Turkey risk spit over plane. Russia prepares to sever its economic ties as both nation’s leaders stoke confrontation.”

I have received a few interesting questions but will answer them in January, because I wanted to finish 2015 on a light note. We, your obedient servant The Oxford Etymologist, thank those who read the blog in 2015, commented on it, and sent questions. May 2016, though a leap year, bring all of us a modicum of peace and relative quiet.

Image credits: (1) Toggle wall calendar. (c) mars58 via iStock. (2) Watching the ducks. (c) XKarDoc via iStock. (3) Glass bank for tips. (c) vinnstock via iStock.

Recent Comments

  1. Diana Cooper

    Love Anatoly Liberman’s etymology blogs but I am disappointed to see one so obviously educated & precise in his knowledge of the English language perpetuate that now shamefully ubiquitous use of the word ‘loose’ when ‘lose’ is the correct spelling in that context. Obviously, each of these words has a completely different meaning AND are pronounced differently.

  2. Anatoly Liberman

    It is the website that misspells the word, and I even wrote (sic) after it!

  3. Diana Cooper

    My profound apologies Anatoly. I hope I am forgiven?

Comments are closed.