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Mid-June etymology gleanings

From the life of words

John Cowan pointed out that queer “quaint, odd” can be and is still used today despite its latest (predominant) sense. Yes, I know. Quite intentionally, I sometimes use the phrase queer smile. It usually arouses a few embarrassed grins. My students assume that a man in the winter of his days is so un-cool that he does not know what this adjective now means. I have never tried queer smell and will probably not risk it, but I once wrote a post on qualm (13 August 2014), whose German cognate means “dense smoke”—a queer pair, when you come to think of it. Peter Maher sent me an ad about a store, announcing twenty things to do in Intercourse, all of them quite innocent and unexciting. He also reminds us of the famous word homely, “unattractive” in North America, but “cozy” on the other side of the Atlantic. By contrast, homey, I think, has positive connotations everywhere. All kinds of impulses can come from home. Thus, Icelandic heimskur (-sk is a suffix, and –ur is a masculine ending) means “foolish,” for a benighted stay-at-home has not seen the world, and the result could be predicted. In German, heimisch is “native, indigenous, local; familiar,” while heimlich (the same root with a different suffix) means “secret” (kept at home and hidden from others, as it were).

A queer smile.

The comment on liberal was most interesting. I am so used to the American meaning of liberal “left-leaning” that I forgot (assuming that I ever knew it) vastly different, even opposite senses. Ever since the French revolution, left has meant “radical,” but lo and behold! even this usage is not universal. I am of course aware of the baffling differences between the meanings of the “same” word in Swedish and Danish, Russian and Polish/Czech, etc. As for jewelry, yes, there is a diphthong in it, but a rather unsteady one, and its second element is not too prominent in rapid speech.

In connection with this diphthong I would like to tell a story. About ten years ago, at the very beginning of the existence of this blog, I was asked who introduced the term schwa into Indo-European linguistics. Schwa (in transcription, the letter e upside down), it will be remembered, is the vowel we hear in the words about, lament, and even sofa.  In the r-less dialects of English, worker has it. I hoped I could find the answer in ten minutes and, naturally, began with Jacob Grimm, for he coined terms like umlaut, ablaut, and a few others. However, schwa did not show up in Grimm. Then I tried Karl Brugmann and Ferdinand de Saussure, who too could have been the originators of the term, and again found nothing. At last I turned to Eduard Sievers, the author of the ground-breaking book The Foundations of Sound Physiology (1876), in later editions called The Foundations of Phonetics (in German: Grundzüge der Lautphysiologie and Grundzüge der Phonetik). Yes, it was he who first used the name of a Hebrew sound for “the neutral” vowel of Indo-European! Some time ago, for the needs of this blog, I looked up schwa in Wikipedia. The term, it is said there, was introduced by Jacob Grimm. The cautious editor supplied this statement with the note citation needed. Yes, indeed. Wikipedia is a most reliable source, and I am sure that the person who wrote the article on schwa went my way but left off when the spoor turned cold. He made a natural mistake: the sought for linguist could have been Jacob Grimm, but it was not!

This is the transcription sign of schwa; and this is Eduard Sievers, the great scholar who introduced schwa into Indo-European studies.

Hunting metaphors

There must be dozens of them, for hunting and poaching played an outstanding role in the life of the English. Hunting was the main pursuit of the European aristocracy and could not but find a strong reflection in the languages of the Middle Ages. One such idiom I did use in the text of my post on the phrase at bay, 17 May 2017 (hunt with the hounds and run with the hare—a miracle of natural alliteration), and, considering the fact that there is a book or at least an article on everything in the world, I am sure that such idioms have been collected. Here I can only cite those that have occurred to me on the spur of the moment: bark up the wrong tree, wild goose chase, and perhaps witch hunt, and head hunt. To make up for the paucity of examples, I’ll quote the end of one of the most beautiful lyrics written in English: “Home is the sailor, home from the sea/ And a hunter home from the hill.” Those are the last lines of Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Requiem.”

And the hunter home from the hill.

The verb bay and sound imitation in etymology

The definition of bay is “to bark with prolonged tones.” Thus, bay is a close synonym of howl. It may well be of imitative origin, a relative of bow-wow and woof-woof. Onomatopoeic words are numerous. The effect sometimes depends on vowels and sometimes on consonants. A classic example of a “laryngeal” word is the verb laugh. Its etymon is hlahjan, with h and in Scots loch. We have here a formation of the same type as cluck, click, clack, and even clock. Laugh designated a guttural noise that had nothing to do with merriment. The literature on onomatopoeia and its role in the formation of the human language and in etymology is enormous.

The verb bay is especially common in this situation.

English spelling is in good shape

Mr. Madhukar Gogate informs me that it is unpractical to change English spelling and that in India, a country in which millions of people use the English language, no one will support the reform. As far as I can judge, the rest of the world has the same opinion. Well, if the world stands pat, we’ll keep wasting money and brain cells on learning our hieroglyphs. Every group of people deserves the spelling it has. At one time, a representative spelling congress was being planned, but for quite some time I have not heard any mention of it. Dictionary makers, etymologists, and spelling reformers must live long.

Singular or plural?

Some time ago, I quoted an example like the one below, and the reactions to it were mixed. In my opinion, this usage need not be banned but should hardly be recommended. It is reminiscent of the well-known agreement of the verb with the closest noun of the type the mood of the tales are gloomy. “While I am proud to call myself a progressive and a Democrat, this kind of political correctness is one of the things that evoke among the average person a negative reaction toward progressives….” The subject is one, not things. Also, I am a bit puzzled by the use of among referring to the average person.

Finally, my thanks are due to Stephen Goranson for informing me about The Athenian Mercury and The Athenian Oracle. I had no notion they existed. As could be expected, the University of Minnesota owns both, and I will read them. Some amusing etymologies may turn up there. Incidentally, on the Internet, I have seen a long discussion about whether one should say thanks are or thanks is due. The plural seems more natural. This is as sure as eggs is eggs.

Image credits: (1) “Wry Smile” by Phil Warren, CC BY 2.0 via Flickr. (2) “Schwa” by Lfdder, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons. (3) “Eduard Sievers” by Unknown, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons. (4) “Robert Louis Stevenson at the age of 27.” by Unknown, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons. (5 and featured) “Dog wolf yelp moon” by Pezibear, Public Domain via Pixabay.

Recent Comments

  1. John Cowan

    Even native speakers who object strongly to mood of the tales are will insist onone of the things that evoke, because evoke is not in the same clause as one. Instead, it is linked to things: there are many things evoking a negative reaction, of which one is referred to here. The main verb is correctly is, equating this kind of political correctness with one of the things.

    In this particular case, mood of the tales are doesn’t bother me too much, because it is all one whether the tales or gloomy or their mood is, gloom being inherently a matter of mood. But the intestine of humans are long is totally unacceptable.

  2. Anne

    The schwa. Is this the missing letter that makes Polish names look terrifying?

    As one who reads more as opposed to listening to spoken commentary I still have no idea how “Zbigniew Brzezinski” is pronounced.

    I would afraid to even try.

  3. Johann Blagojevich

    John Cowan is correct. The relative clause qualifies ‘things’. The verb should be plural. The sentence is parallel to “John is one of the many people who are right on this point.”

  4. nikita

    A problem with “one of the things that evoke” is that you cannot build a proper parse tree for it (which, in some sense, indicates that you cannot ascribe a precise meaning to it), because “things” is now in two “clauses”.

  5. Johann Blagojevich

    Nikita, I don’t understand what you mean. I thought the whole point of relative pronouns is that they allow there to be two clauses with the same noun/noun phrase having a place both. E,g,, “what” in “I have read what you wrote.” What is the problem there? (It seems there are languages without relative clauses, but apparently they make it more difficult to express complicated ideas concisely. )

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