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Etymology gleanings for January 2016

Homo ludens

Some of the most enjoyable comments and questions are those that combine scholarship and play. One of our correspondents pointed out that Engl. strawberry, if pronounced as a Slavic word, means (literally) “from grass take.” Indeed it does! In the Russian s travy beri, only one ending does not quite match Engl. s-traw-berry. What an impeccable Slavic etymology of this obscure word! Another correspondent decided that I did not know how to spell loose and lose. I posted a rejoinder and explained that the misspelling had occurred in the text I quoted. The writer then asked whether she could ever be forgiven for her rash judgment. To reinforce my eternal forgiveness, which is hereby granted, I can refer to the Russian proverb: “A sword does not cut off a repentant head” (Povinnuiu golovu mech ne sechet). But the picture at the top is a grim reminder to the unwary.

The line quoted by Stephen Goranson (see his comment on the previous post) is indeed puzzling — one cannot immediately decide whether read is the imperative or the past tense of the verb to read. Let us hope with Masha Bell that the forthcoming Spelling Congress will introduce some measures to rectify the greatest oddities of English spelling and help people to (w)rite and read with greater ease. Stephen Goranson also keeps trying to find the origin of the phrase on the fritz. He thinks that it was first applied to people rather than machines. I have no suggestions (otherwise, I would have put them in a different section), but I wonder: In the 1902 example he quotes—“Would Santa Claus be on the fritz/ If we never had snow?”—could fritz, occasionally spelled (and pronounced?) as friz, be a pun on freeze? Frost (freezing) and snow are close neighbors. I realize that at the moment regretting the absence of snow is a remark in poor taste.

Kudos to our friends who knew the terms for the rhetorical figure of saying something while pretending that the statement has not been made! Yes, it is praeteritio (Engl. praeterition) or apophasis, to which I can add paralipsis (several spellings of this word exist in English) and occultation, the most delightful of them all. Mind: it is not my intention here to boast of offering such a tricky question, nor am I trying to call attention to the fact that in this ever-interesting blog, as a letter writer has recently called it, one finds a wealth of information rarely seen elsewhere. No! I only want to express my deep satisfaction with the responses received.

Old business

Some questions tend to recur. One is from an editor who wonders what he should do with the pronoun they when applied to singular nouns. I have only an evasive answer. You can tell your authors that in the works you publish this agreement is not allowed. If you are not responsible for the product as it will appear, suggest to the authors that, in your opinion, this plural should better be avoided. Finally, if you have no say in the business, you may still make your view known and make a guarded remark. As I have said more than once, sentences like “when a student comes, I never make them wait” or “when a tenant is evicted, it is not always their fault” have almost become the norm, and when “everybody” says something, one should fight the trend only with the conviction that the battle is lost. All depends on your loyalty to the Germanic heroic ideal and understanding the depth of Scandinavian fatalism.

I have been asked whether in dealing with etymology I had to learn many languages. See my post of April 2, 2014 (“Etymology as a profession”). My response in a nutshell is: A polyglot can have no analytical talents, but the more languages an etymologist is familiar with, the better. In one of the letters the origin of the noun threshold was discussed. Is it true that “thresh” (straw) was at one time strewn on the wet slate floors of the wealthy, to prevent people from slipping in winter and that this practice gave rise to the word threshold? No, it is not true. See the post on threshold published about a year ago (February 11, 2015). The C-word. A correspondent wonders whether the idea of vagina dentata suggests that the C-word can be traced to the verb cut. Hardly so. See my post on this word for January 11, 2012.

New business

What is the origin of the ending s in the third person singular? Strangely, though this ending is so recent, no one knows the answer. Only –th appears in the text of the King James Bible (the beginning of the seventeenth century), and in Shakespeare only Falstaff’s boon companions use it. He comes, he gives (instead of he cometh, he giveth) flooded English and is now the only form possible (so much for the efforts of the conservatives so save language from deterioration). The new ending spread from the north, but it had no regular predecessor in the Old Northumbrian or the Old Mercian dialect. In the Scandinavian languages, –s has never been the ending of the third person singular either. It did sporadically turn up in Old and Middle English, but such more or less chance occurrences do not explain why s was generalized and ousted the time-honored –th.

A marathon: certainly not a stampede of wethers.
A marathon: certainly not a stampede of wethers.

Apropos wether (see the essay posted two weeks ago). How are Danish vædde “to bet,” Danish vædder “ram,” and væddeløb “race(s)” connected? Vædde “to bet” is at the base of væddeløb (literally, “bet run”); d in vædde is old; compare Gothic wadi “pledge.” German um die Wette laufen means the same, namely, “to run a race.” In the Danish noun for “ram” (a cognate of Engl. wether), d goes back to þ (= th in Engl. thin): Gothic had wiþrus; but in Danish old d and old þ merged. Thus, væddeløb has nothing to do with the running of wethers. And no, the OED does not say that Old Engl. weþer comes from Old High German widar; the two words are cognates, both going back to Proto-Germanic wiþra-.

Three etymologies

Ashkhabad (Ashgabad), Turkmenistan. I am not a specialist in either Turkic or Iranian linguistics and cannot take sides in the argument about the derivation of this place name. Only one thing is clear: for many centuries –abad has been understood as “town,” an Iranian word. Whether this is the right origin of the name or the product of early folk etymology can hardly be decided.

Always (formerly alway). It is true that from an etymological point of view this adverb designates space, but the transference from space to time is common; “the whole way” can easily be understood as “the whole time.”

Hybrid. The noun hybrid reached all the European languages from Latin. The Latin spelling hybrida is sometimes believed to have arisen under the influence of Greek hybris “arrogance, overweening pride,” known to English speakers as hubris (the verb of this root meant “to be violent, disrupt order, etc.”). Aristotle also mentioned hybris “some nocturnal bird of prey.” In any case, Latin hybrida had nothing to do with insolence, violent behavior, or birds, for it designated the offspring of a tame sow and a wild boar, a mongrel, and, by inference, a person of mixed race. Therefore, some people thought that the word was itself a blend of Greek hus “female pig, sow” and ibro-, assumed (abstracted) from the compound ibricalos “wild hog.” But this hypothesis probably explains only what the Romans might have thought of the word, that is, their folk etymology of the obscure noun. The Latin spelling hibrida can be more “correct.” If hibrida was later changed to hybrida, then hybris loses its relevance to our story. Celtic efrydd “crippled, maimed, lame” has also been cited as a possible cognate of hibrida; most likely, another wild shot. Finally, those who refuse to separate hybrid from hybris reconstruct the Indo-European root gwrei- “strength, force” for both words. One gets the uneasy impression that hibrida was a slang word used by Roman farmers for the cross between two animals and that it is not related to any of the roots offered by scholars. Our dictionaries state clearly and unambiguously: “Of unknown origin.”

This is a mule, a most useful, even if an infertile hybrid.
This is a mule, a most useful, even if an infertile hybrid.

Image credits: (1) The Beheading of St. John the Baptist by Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (1869). National Gallery, London, UK. Public domain via WikiArt. (2) Participants in the 35th annual Marine Corps Marathon. Photo by Cpl. Scott Schmidt, United States Marine Corps. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons. (3) Juancito, el mejor mulo de la Argentina. CC0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. Stephen Goranson

    Yes, I *read* (past and present) the verse “Would Santa Claus be on the fritz/ If we never had snow?” as an ironic question: would he be frozen (unable to move) by cause of the lack of frozen stuff, snow.
    In the early uses of “on the fritz” and “on the friz” that I have seen, no person named Fritz is involved.
    As to pronunciation, early poems rhyme the phrase in two different ways: with “is” and with “wits.”

  2. Kari McBride

    Third person “s” quite often appears instead of “th” in the works of Shakespeare. He toggled between the two forms depending on what he needed to fill out a line metrically. His free use of both is apparent in Portia’s famous speech in The Merchant of Venice 4.1 that begins “The quality of mercy is not strained.” Mercy “droppeth as the gentle rain” and “blesseth him that gives and him that takes.”

  3. Valteir Vaz

    Thanks professor Anatoly Liberman for this very clear explanation.
    The noun hybrid has a fascinating etymology.
    In the 20 century, the russian thinker Mikhail Bakhtin used the term in his theory of novel in a particular way. For him, there are two kinds of hybrids: intencional hybrid and organic hybrid. The two categories has semilaritis with botanic concepts of natual and artificial hybrids.

    Sincerely yours,
    Valteir Vaz – São Paulo State University Department of Russian Literature and culture.

  4. Valteir Benedito Vaz

    Valteir Vaz14TH FEBRUARY 2016
    Thanks professor Anatoly Liberman for this very clear explanation.
    The noun hybrid has a fascinating etymology.
    In the 20 century, the russian thinker Mikhail Bakhtin used the term in his theory of novel in a particular way. For him, there are two kinds of hybrids: intencional hybrid and organic hybrid. The two categories have semilaritis with botanic concepts of natual and artificial hybrids.

    Sincerely yours,
    Valteir Vaz – São Paulo State University Department of Russian Literature and culture.

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