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Etymology gleanings for November 2016

I keep receiving this question with some regularity (once a year or so), and, since I have answered it several times, I’ll confine myself to a few very general remarks. Etymology is a branch of historical linguistics dealing with the origin of words. It looks at the sound shape and meaning of words and at the cultural milieu in which words were coined. Quite often a word has related forms in several languages, and all of them have to be compared. The most time-consuming part of an etymologist’s education consists in learning which sound correspondences look helpful and which should be discarded. But even in this area one should not be dogmatic, because words are not soldiers marching forward in serried ranks and tend to escape the prescribed formations. Comparative semantics is based on vaguer rules, but they too have to be explored. By contrast, isolated words are hard because they are isolated!

Words are not like soldiers in serried ranks.

The usefulness of the historical milieu needs no proof. If you study the origin of the word bed, you should learn as much as possible about the type of beds people slept in, and, if your subject is the etymology of god, the more you know about comparative religion, the better.  Ideally, etymologists should have years of research behind them before they can risk bringing forward even the most tentative hypotheses. Some old ideas were not bad, but, in principle, guesswork yielded to reasonable constructions only at the beginning of the nineteenth century. In the course of the last two hundred years mountains of books and articles have been written about the derivation of words in various languages. There is no use in coming up with a conjecture without at least some knowledge of what the predecessors had to say. Etymology is incredibly interesting and rewarding, but it exacts a high price from its practitioners. It should be added that etymology interests many people, but in today’s academia being able to explain the origin of words is not a marketable skill. Good luck!

Fog and fox

I devoted two posts to the word fog (November 9 and November 16) and some time earlier two posts to the word fox (March 16 and March 23) but did not exhaust either subject and would like to add something to what was said there. Long ago, I read a book by Ludwig Laistner Nebelsagen, that is, “Stories of the Mist” (1879) and found it extremely interesting. Outside the anthroposophic circle of Rudolf Steiner’s devotees, not many people turn to Laistner’s writings today, but Rita Caprini did. In 1983, she published an article with the terse title “Fox, fog” (Quaderni di semantica 4, 59-68; the article is in Italian). As I understand, Laistner’s book was one of her main inspirations, but, not unexpectedly, she was also fully aware of the recent literature on the subject.

In the myths of many peoples, the fox causes the mist (it cooks or brews the mist, and so forth). Caprini emphasized the idea that Engl. fog “coarse grass, aftermath” is often reddish, while the phonetic proximity between fox and fog needs no proof. Her conclusions are guarded, but perhaps one may offer a more definite etymology. In the second post on fox, I mentioned the hypothesis that the word is of imitative origin. Let it be reminded that –s in fox (fok-s) is the ending of the masculine gender; the word’s old root is approximately foh-. Allegedly, this foh– represents the “gesture” we make while giving a whiff (blowing) and trying to get rid of an unpleasant smell. See also Johan Palme’s comment after my post.

That the fox is an ill-smelling animal has always been known. Russian pukh “down, light fluff” can be related to fox, as many etymologists believe; both words have the root designating “light stuff easily tossed by the wind.” In my story of fog, I wrote that fog “mist” and fog “coarse grass” are related (another old idea) and that both go back to the sound-imitative root designating blowing (hence the movement of the air, wind, with further development from “wind” to “wet wind” and “wetness” in general; initially, fog “grass” was associated with wet places). If this reconstruction is correct, the closeness of fox to fog no longer causes surprise. However, the foundation of the myth remains partly obscure, because Engl. fog is isolated, while the superstition is widespread. “Food for thought,” as they say. To provide the series with a good finishing touch, next week I’ll discuss the origin of the word mist.

Another comment on fog came from my Romanian correspondent Ion Carstoiu. He sent me his etymology written twenty-five years ago. The first part of his note deals with the common tie between words for “sky” and “cloud.” There is no need to cite all his examples. Latin nebula “mist, fog” and Russian nebo “sky” tell the story quite well (compare the obsolete Engl. welkin “sky” and German Wolke “cloud,” to add a pair Carstoiu did not cite). It is his second step that looks perilous to me. He compares Old Iranian bag, which he glosses as “sky,” compares it with Russian bog “god,” and suggests that bog is related to Engl. fog. The idea of b becoming f before a stressed vowel has a weak foundation (there are no analogs in English), and the suggestion that bog at one time meant “sky” needs more proof (see the end of my post for 19 August 2015: the etymology of god). Another obstacle to his reconstruction is the isolated character of Engl. fog.

Who can deny the connection between the cloud and the sky?

The spelling of proceed versus recede

Why do we spell excEED, procEED, and succEED but accEDE and recEDE (among others)? The reason is the chaotic spelling English inherited from its past epochs. This chaos could have been “ordered” by a reasonable spelling reform, but such a reform is evidently not forthcoming. All the words mentioned above are of French origin and are related to cede. The radical vowel in them goes back to closed long e, and the vacillation between ede and eed is arbitrary, often dating to the sixteenth or the seventeenth century. Thus, there is no rational explanation. One has to learn the spelling of such words mechanically, as one learns hieroglyphics. Too bad!

A postscript to curse

See the posts for October 19 and November 2. There is the phrase not worth a curse. Several attempts exist to explain it. According to some people, curse is here a variant of kerse “a small sour wild cherry” or cress “an insignificant weed” (due to metathesis); compare not worth a fig, the pip of a fig, a straw, and the like. One can also say not worth a tinker’s damn. Damn here may go back to the name of a small Indian coin confused with Engl. damn. Once that phrase arose, curse was allegedly substituted for damn, regardless of whether tinkers swear more than anyone else. “Origin (still) unknown….”

Which one is not worth a curse?

Finally, my thanks to Stephen Goranson and John Cowan for their latest remarks on Betty Martin!

Image credits: (1) Sgt. Lauren Twigg Muster Photos by Arizona National Guard. Public Domain via Flickr. (2) Tree Natur by Bessi. CC0 Public Domain via Pixabay. (3) Cherries by PublicDomainPictures. CC0 Public Domain via Pixabay. Cress Herbs by Pezibear. CC0 Public Domain via Pixabay.

Recent Comments

  1. Ron Akehurst

    Greetings Anatoly and congratulations on the upcoming lecture to Med Stud. An etymology proposed for a Tinker’s Dam(n) I read in an English newspaper in the late 50’s was that the dam is a small piece of dough or rolled up bread crumbs used by a tinker as a base for applying solder (English pronunciation includes the l ) to a hole in a saucepan. A tinker is an itinerant pot mender. The story concluded, as best I can remember “A more worthless object is hard to imagine.”

  2. Masha Bell

    What repeatedly astounded me during my study of the history of English spelling were the many obviously deliberate changes to it which have made it more chaotic and more difficult to learn (see History on my EnglishSpellingProblems blog), like Chaucer’s spellings of the long /ee/, short /e/ and /er/ sounds, such as ‘leve, sleve, beleve, seson, sege’, ‘brest, fether, thred’ and ‘lern, erly, vertue’. I wish that experts like u made people more aware of the many deliberate messings up of English spelling consistency.
    Chaucer’s spellings, as available to us now, are not completely consistent either. But instead of making his system more regular, as has repeatedly happened with most other alphabetic writing systems, it was made less consistent. Worst of all was Samuel Johnson’s wrecking of the English system for spelling long and short vowels, as in ‘ropy poppy’ with exceptions like ‘proper copy’ and ‘oppose’.

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