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Etymology gleanings for August 2016

A few comments on cloth, in connection with the post “Sartor Resartus”

There was a desperate attempt to find a valid Greek cognate for cloth, but such a word did not turn up. One way out of the difficulty was to discover a Greek noun or verb beginning with sk– and refer its s to what is known as s-mobile (“movable s”). Movable s is all over the place. For instance, the English cognate of German kratzen is scratch (the same meaning). Similarly, for a long time people wondered what the origin of the word slang is, and one of the suggestions was that slang contains the root of language, with movable s attached. Some scholars denied the existence of this enigmatic s, and indeed, its function and origin have never been ascertained to everybody’s satisfaction. Yet it apparently exists, together with many other irritating things in our life.

Is pea jacket related to the Greek word baítē? No, it is not. Our correspondent wrote that a quick search referred him to Finnish. I would be grateful for the reference, because I don’t have it in my database. Everybody seems to be in agreement that pea jacket (or peajacket) is a borrowing of Dutch pijjakker, in which both elements (pij and jakker ~ jekker) mean approximately the same, namely “a kind of coat.” So pea jacket is a tautological compound (see the post of February 11, 2009, akimbo, on such words). Those who can read Dutch and are interested in the origin of several obscure Dutch names of articles of clothing will benefit from consulting the published dissertation of Alphonsus M. F. J. Moerdijk on this subject (Nijmegen, 1979; I’ll give its title if someone happens to ask me about it). Pp. 111-116 are about the history of the word cloth.

I am grateful to Stephen Goranson, who posted a passage from a 1930 obituary of Axel Erdmann, the author of a thorough work on the history and origin of the word cloth. I did not know that obituary and could not even discover Erdmann’s full name (the title page has only A.). It is said in the note that Erdmann’s results are now universally acknowledged. Perhaps so, but dictionaries keep saying: “Cloth: Origin unknown.” The wheels of etymological lexicography grind slowly.

This a a pea jacket, or a pea coat. Its name has nothing to do with peas, and pie, which at one time preceded pea in it, has nothing to do with magpie any other pie.
This a a pea jacket, or a pea coat. Its name has nothing to do with peas, and pie, which at one time preceded pea in it, has nothing to do with magpie any other pie.


Many thanks to those who pointed out that on the East Coast the word jitney is still very much alive. I was aware of that fact, but I wonder whether New Yorkers and their neighbors remember what the word jitney once meant. As to its origin, no one is expected to know the etymology of words, either obsolete or those in common use.

Word use: car and train

J. Peter Maher sent me the following: “In the 1880 and earlier 1900s the usual manner of referring to what we now call ‘a train’ was ‘the cars’, elliptical for ‘a train of cars’… I first came across ‘we took the cars to NY’ in 1956-7 when I was teaching at Chenango Forks NY. Central School Theater Club put on an old play The Ticket of Leave Man. … Chicagoans today often say ‘train’ even for a single car (carriage GB).”

Some words loved to death

“Top nuclear experts from Iran and the United states huddled in Vienna on disputes that….” They did so long ago, but I notice that where we, humble individuals, meet and talk, presidents and “top experts” invariably huddle. Why do only big wigs nestle so closely when they congregate? Do those conspirators exchange whispers, so that no one can hear what they are saying? I have also noticed that ratchet up has ousted the verbs increase and accelerate. Pain, agony, speed, tensions—all have fallen victim to ratcheting up. I assume that one day, somebody described two or more functionaries as huddled, with their pulse ratcheting up, and then the entire journalist corps began to say so. No hearing aids will help those who suffer from language deafness.

One does not have to be a top expert to be able to huddle.
One does not have to be a top expert to be able to huddle.


Grammatical agreement

The man quoted in a newspaper said: “There’s more things going on at once than just an intervention thing” and a few minutes later: “There’s limitations on what you can and can’t do.” This usage is rather common, and one can find similar examples in the older periods of the Germanic languages, but usually people try to put a singular noun first (“here’s your hat and gloves,” not “here’s your gloves and hat”). So what is the verdict on there’s more things and there’s limitations? The spellchecker underlined the first case but ignored the second. However, when it comes to grammar, the spellchecker is a clumsy and unfeeling brute, and its recommendations should be followed with caution.

My next example is trivial and falls under the category I call “The mood of the tales are gloomy” (a sentence from a student’s paper). “Analysts have said the speed with which the untested Kim [written three years ago] is collecting titles after the death of his father…show that he is vulnerable…” This usage is ineradicable. As another student of mine once put it: “This may be wrong, but it flows better.” It sure does. Once again the spellchecker revolted only at the first example (the one about the mood).

Split infinitive

Nowadays, sentences like I want to briefly talk with you are the norm. But to my dying day I will cling to the conviction that titles like “Ford to soon offer police cars with armor-piercing bullet protection” are ugly and that we cannot get rid of them too soon. Of course we won’t. It is always preferable to not be.


I was rather amused to watch an unconscious case of variation in an article from The New York Times: “Four days after a decisive vote to leave the European Union, Britain was consumed on Monday with questions of when and how the country’s departure from the block will happen,” and a bit later: “… both the governing Conservative Party and the opposition Labour Party were consumed by internal warfare….” Of course, none of the three authors who wrote the article noticed the variation because by and with are interchangeable after consume, but isn’t it better to say that the forest was consumed by fire and the man responsible for the conflagration was consumed with regret? Or is my distinction mere pedantry?

Consumed by fire Consumed by passion
Consumed by fire                                                                                             Consumed by passion

Images: (1) “DesignerOutletSalzburg_BigLuxe_M_Versace Jeans bei LuxuryMall_Pea Coat dunkelgrün” by McArthurGlen Designer Outlets, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr. (2) Meerkats by Karen Arnold, Public Domain via Pixabay. (3) Featured image: “New Brighton Crystal Ball Sunrise” by Martyn Cook, Public Domain via Pixabay.

Recent Comments

  1. John Cowan

    Huddle is a technical term in American football for a planning meeting conducted on the playing field. The players huddle, in the usual sense, in order not to be overheard by their opponents. The political use is surely a direct extension of the football use.

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