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Etymology gleanings for July 2016


As I have observed in the past, the best way for me to make sure that I have an audience is to say something deemed prejudicial or wrong. Then one or more readers will break their silence, and I’ll get the recognition I deserve (that is, my comeuppance). My thanks to those who notice my errors and typos! But occasionally I can partly vindicate myself. For instance, there was a comment from a Dutch speaker about the odd glosses with which I supplied Dutch klamp and klomp. He is of course right. I should have made it clear that I borrowed my material from English etymological dictionaries, even though I, naturally, compared the information in them with what I found in the great dictionary of Middle Dutch. Since what follows cannot interest those who don’t know Dutch, I’ll leave the glosses from the great Middle Dutch dictionary without translation.  CLAMPE (CLAMP, CLEMPE): 1) haak, kram, klamp; 2) hoop, schelf, stapel, (hoi)rook; CLOMPE (CLOMP): klomp, klont, kluit, blok.

I am also grateful for the comments on by hook or by crook. I did look up both words in the Middle English Dictionary, but my post, as usual when I deal with idioms, was devoted only to the conjectures in popular journals. I did not offer my etymology, though I sided with one explanation. It is true that a hook and a crook were supposedly the tools used by the Devil, but, if we begin our investigation at the level of customs and material culture rather than religion, perhaps we’ll agree that the Devil acquired this image because hooks and crooks were in common use. In all superstitions, the Devil is an anthropomorphic creature.

A smaller issue. Yes, the phrase silver lining was coined by Milton, but the proverb (every cloud has a silver lining) is more recent.

Roots and mushrooms

I have received a letter asking me to elucidate my position on kl– as a possible “root.”  I have touched upon the subject of roots more than once and devoted part of a chapter in my book on word origins to it. Therefore, my explanation will be brief. In etymological studies, the root is an ambiguous concept. On the one hand, it is understood as the common part of the words that are obviously related, for instance, pay is the root of payment and payee. Find is the root of finder. Someone who has been found is a foundling. We should probably agree that –ling (as in hireling, gosling, chitterlings, and so forth) has been added (somewhat unexpectedly) to the past participle of the verb find and isolate the root find ~ found. Even borrowed words may reveal their common part: consider err, error, erroneous, and erratic.

But it is often implied that the root generated words. Some very short complex like al– is said to have given birth to multiple nouns and verbs. We are told that at least five different al-s existed. Supposedly, they meant “beyond,” “to wander,” “to nourish,” “to grind,” and “all.” Sometimes a two- or three-letter root is further dissected, with the last letter acquiring the function of a pseudo-suffix. However, the residues never existed as separate words, unlike pay and err: they have been reconstructed only to show unity where unity seems to be apparent at first sight. That is why we are in trouble when dealing with kl-words. Are clod and clot related? They are only if we agree that the generating complex kl– once existed and produced clod, clot, cloud, clutter, and the rest. But did it?

Setting up the “roots” kl1– in clod and kl2– in, for example, clock would be an easy but useless procedure, though something along these lines could have been done if both were old, preferably very old nouns (the root kel-~ kol-, with kl– as its zero grade). Defenseless ancient formations offer less resistance to linguists than modern ones. I have once written how easy it would have been to explain the Proto-Indo-European noun nerd: n– is a negation, er– is the root of earth, German Erde, etc. (and compare Greek éraze), while –d is a suffix: a nerd would then emerge as someone who is not of this earth. This is a perfect etymology, except that nerd is, unfortunately, not Proto-Indo-European, though five or six thousand years ago nerds were probably as common as they are today. It is impossible to show that Engl. clobber is related to club (I wanted to say “to prove,” but John Cowan taxed me with confusing the functions of philologists and natural scientists, and I decided to play safe).

Clobbering with a club is natural, but that does not mean that clobber and club are related.
Clobbering with a club is natural, but that does not mean that clobber and club are related.

Therefore, I will say that kl– arose (accidentally?) in some words pertaining to stickiness, that it perhaps stimulated the rise of other formations, acquired a symbolic meaning, and encouraged speakers to coin more words of the same type. I may refer to my post of June 22, where mushrooms on a stump are said to resemble a family of kl-words. Is this the way all ancient words arose? Perhaps, but we don’t know.


Stephen Goranson continues his investigation of the word jitney. The earliest examples he has found so far go back to 1899 and 1898.  In his view, those antedatings, “as well as the 1915 memory of jetnée, may show the origin in Black Louisiana French, from jeton.” The sources he mentions confirm my pessimistic view of anyone’s ability to compile an even relatively full bibliography of word origins. He refers to Literary Digest (1915) and Western Historical Quarterly (1986). I looked through LD for my bibliography, but did not go so far back. Nor have I used WHQ, though my team screened dozens of journals with the words Historical and Archeological in the title. In the preface to my bibliography of English etymology, I asked colleagues to send me their publications on the history of words or at least their titles. Since 2010, when my book appeared, I have not heard from anyone. Incidentally, I polled many people between the ages of twenty and fifty: none of them could recognize the word jitney.

he history of jitney. Alas, the word seems to be forgotten.
The history of jitney. Alas, the word seems to be forgotten.

God and clod

This is the beginning of a letter from Walter Turner: “Your article on clod brought to mind something I once copied out of a book, typed on a card and stuck up onto the wall of my lab. I have now found it in the Internet, and I see the word God in it, as well. This grieving father certainly didn’t mean anything derogatory by the term. Tributary to the memory, alas of a loved and lovely son John Cholmeley Clarke who died at Swakeleys July 15th 1825 Aged 20 Years Thourt gone, but whither? To Heaven, to whom? To God Oh hush! A Father’s wish! For shame! Sleep on dear clod….” Those who want to read one of the most memorable dirges for a lost son will find it in the poem by Egill Skallagrímsson (Egil’s Saga). Search for Sonatorrek.

Egill lost two sons. After the drowning of his youngest son Böðvarr, he no longer wanted to live. Tricked out of an attempt of kill himself, he composed a great poem on his sorrow.
Egill lost two sons. After the drowning of his youngest son Böðvarr, he no longer wanted to live. Tricked out of an attempt of kill himself, he composed a great poem on his sorrow.

Image credits: (1) “Giambologna- Hercules beating Centaur Nesso-Loggia dei Lanzi” by Yair Haklai, CC BY-SA 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons (2) “Sheet music cover – THE JITNEY BUS (1915)” by Chicago : Will Rossiter, publisher, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons (3) “Egil Skallagrimsson 17c manuscript” by Unknown, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Featured image: Lamp by PublicDomainPictures, Public Domain via Pixabay.

Recent Comments

  1. Kari McBride

    If you poll 20-50-year-olds in New York, you’ll find plenty who are familiar with jitney from the Hampton Jitney, a bus service with routes between NYC and Long Island (including the Hamptons, its original destination). That’s not to say your respondents would be any help with the etymology.

  2. L. Abr

    Jitney still used as in Hampton Jitney (which Google)

  3. Carol M Dupre

    for what it’s worth, the jitney was all over the Atlantic City NJ region, probably a company called Jitney. An excellent means of transportation. Thanks for your article. Very interesting.

  4. John Cowan

    Jitney survives in the name of the Hampton Jitney, a private bus company that provides service between the Hamptons at the eastern end of Long Island and New York City. It is quite well known hereabouts.

  5. A. Sasportas

    These two articles may be of interest:

    Gold, David L. 2009b. “American English jitney ‘five-cent coin; sum of five cents’ Has No Apparent Jewish or Russian Connection and May Come from (Black?) Louisiana French jetnée (On the Increasing Difficulty of Harvesting All the Grain).” In Gold 2009a:163-192.

    Gold, David L. 2009a. Studies in Etymology and Etiology (With Emphasis on Germanic, Jewish, Romance, and Slavic Languages). Selected and edited, with a foreword, by Félix Rodríguez González and Antonio Lillo Buades. Alicante. Publicaciones de la Universidad de Alicante.

    Gold, David L. 2018-2020. “Pursuing the origin of the American English informalism gitney ~ jitney: On the alleged Louisiana French word *jetnée and the fallacy of omne ignotum pro magnifico in etymological research.” Leuvense Bijdragen: Leuven Contributions in Linguistics and Philology. Vol. 102. Pp. 383-417.

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