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Etymology gleanings for August 2017: “Getting on one’s wick” and other “nu-kelar” problems of etymology

Odds and ends (in response to questions and comments)

Dark. I am sorry for the unavoidable pun, but the origin of most adjectives for “dark” is obscure. This is what etymological dictionaries of German tell us about dunkel and finster. Even when such an adjective has a known source and solid cognates outside Germanic, for instance, dim, the picture does not become clearer, for a list of related forms, all of which mean the same, fails “to illuminate the gloom, and convert into a dazzling brilliance that obscurity in which the earlier history” of such words appears to be involved, to quote the opening of the Pickwick Papers. In any case, the Old English form of dark was deorc. Its rather close synonym was dierne “hidden.” Assuming that both words ended in suffixes (deor-c and dier-n-e), they might belong together, and perhaps dark also originally meant “hidden,” “concealed,” or “invisible.” This dierne seems to hide in the modern verb darn, that is, “to stop holes” (and make them invisible) and tarnish. The latter is of French origin, but the Romance word, I assume, goes back to German tarnen “to hide,” known to some from the compound Tarnkappe “coat of invisibility.” Such a coat was used by Siegfried, the hero of The Lay of the Nibelungen (Das Nibelungenlied), and it often occurs in later folklore.


I am always grateful for references to the sources I may not know, so thanks to John Cowan! Fortunately, I was aware of the hypothesis he referred to. And I agree that numerals tend to sound similar in many languages all over the world. Whether they indeed go back to the same proto-root is exactly what Nostratic linguistics tries to discover.

Spelling reform

Not long ago, Mr. Gogate sent letters on the Reform to many interested parties. I was one of them. First, he pointed out that in India millions of people speak English and that they might not or even would not agree to change the spelling of English words. Moreover, he pointed out, millions of websites will refuse to be respelled. Next he modified his view somewhat and cited a few words that people in India might perhaps not mind reforming. The third letter was the most combative. He said in it that the United States does not rule the world and cannot make the rest of English speakers change the spelling of the words they use. I hasten to pour oil on troubled waters. In about 150 years, the Reform has not achieved any results. In the unlikely event that the reformers will finally change the situation, they will have no power to coerce any country into accepting the new rules. Great Britain, the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and of course India will adopt or not adopt the spelling that will “find favor” with one of the countries. I see nothing less attractive than politicizing the cause. But if politics must become a factor, let me say that many, indeed very many, people will bless their stars if someone musters up enough courage to do away with the glaring inconsistencies of English spelling.

Theodore Roosevelt supporting simplified spelling.

Related forms and borrowings

I am returning to the relation of Engl. know to Greek gignóskein. If the modern view of language history is realistic, we should agree that the languages of the world form families. The largest language family is Indo-European. Both English (a language of the Germanic branch) and Greek (of course, not Germanic) belong to this family. Once again: if this picture is realistic, Greek and English are siblings. The nature of their parent has been the subject of speculation for centuries and need not bother us here. What matters is the fact that English and Greek are like two brothers or two sisters. Engl. know, from cnāwan, is akin to Greek (gi)gnóskein but not derived from it (they are siblings), while an English word like gnosis was borrowed from Greek wholesale, and that is why it has gn– at the beginning. A cognate, or congener, of Greek gnósis would have undergone the consonant shift and begun with kn-.

Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm were brothers. Neither could be derived from the other. The same holds for English and Greek.

The pronunciation of nuclear

This “issue” has been discussed ad nauseam. The variant nu-ke-lar has been adopted by millions, from the presidents of the United States to your next-door neighbor. In my opinion, the explanation given of this phenomenon is correct. There are many words like secular, particular, and muscular, and they influenced nuclear. Whether some prominent people mangle the word to sound folksy we will never know, but I doubt it. More important is the fact I keep rubbing in every time I deal with usage. In language, that is correct which is believed to be such by most speakers. Teachers, editors, and the cultured class may rage as much as they want. They are sure to lose the battle. Just as lay has ousted lie, so will nu-ke-lar eventually gain the day. Sorry for repeating my favorite aphorism (I love it because I coined it myself): it is most interesting to study the history of language but disgusting to be part of it.

Gleaning on my own field: to get on one’s wick

To get on one’s wick “to annoy, irritate” is slightly dated British slang. Urban Dictionary includes it, but I don’t know whether anyone uses the phrase in the New World. The origin of this idiom has been explained many times. Allegedly, wick means “penis” in slang because it rhymes with dick and prick. The other wick is an old word for “dwelling, hamlet, town,” as in Sedg(e)wick; –wich, as in Norwich, is its phonetic variant. For some reason, wick “penis” ruined the reputation only of Hampton Wick, now part of London, though Hampton is not the place famous for its Cockney population and humor. The baleful association resulted in Hampton also acquiring the same meaning.

Hampton Wick: a a model of respectability.

However, there is another way to approach the origin of the idiom. For years I have known not only the phrase it gets on my wick but also its German analog es geht mir auf den Wecker (literally, “it goes on my Wecker”). Wecker means “alarm clock,” something that wakes you up (wecken “to wake”). Obviously, in this form the idiom makes no sense. I assume that the near-identity of the English and the German phrases, with regard to both form and meaning, cannot be coincidental. In addition to Wecker, German has the noun Wecken (or simply Weck ~ Wecke), glossed as “loaf.” Pastries and loafs are often called for their form: compare Engl. roll. Weck must have designated a wedge-shaped loaf, for Weck is a cognate of Engl. wedge and Old Icelandic veggr. Here then comes my suggestion.

Perhaps Weck, which never had much currency outside some dialects, did indeed mean “penis.” Those curious for details are invited to look up penis wedge in Urban Dictionary, though the situation is different. It goes/ steps on my penis is not a very elegant but a sufficiently clear phrase for “annoy, irritate” (compare the modern genteel and disarming request don’t step on my tits). I believe that the German phrase was borrowed into English and that the English took German geht “goes” for get and changed Weck, which made no sense to them, to wick. The meaning and the reference to the endangered organ remained the same. From this phrase wick spread with the sense “penis.” All the rest is folk etymology and language game. Wick “penis” coincided with wick “town,” and Hampton Wick was chosen as the innocent victim of the homonymy. If I am right, rhyming slang has nothing to do with the story. After all, wick has always rhymed with dick and prick, so why did someone suddenly discover this fact? Most German speakers were also confused, because they did not understand what dialectal Weck meant and changed it to Wecker “alarm clock.” The result was incomprehensible gibberish, but who cares? Don’t English speakers pay through the nose (about which see the post for 13 October 2010) and do other odd things without stirring an eyebrow?

Recent Comments

  1. Constantinos Ragazas

    Dear Anatoly,

    Language families aside, can “sibling languages” borrow from each other? Of course they can! As you pointed out in your post with the Greek “gnosis” and the English “gnosis”.

    Why not “cnāwan” ?

    If a “cognate, or congener, of Greek gnósis would have undergone the consonant shift and begun with kn-“, why not this shift for “know” from “gnosis”?

    But I wont press the point. Since I am more interested on your views on the etymology of the Engl. “sure”.

    I am enjoying your posts greatly.


  2. Gavin Wraith

    An idiom I sometimes hear in England, when I have paid at a checkout in a supermarket, is “There you go”. This has the same rhythm, and I suspect the same function, as the Danish “Vaer saa god”, which is totally unrelated linguistically.

  3. Masha Bell

    Re spelling reform. Simplification of spelling systems makes learning to read and write easier. This is not only self-evident, but has also been repeatedly confirmed by several countries, from Korea to Germany.

    It is educationally most beneficial for the bottom third of the intelligence range. Therefore, only countries that are seriously interested in enabling ALL children to learn as much as possible are likely to consider reform.

    But if one English-speaking country decided to start spelling English more sensibly, others might well follow. Portuguese was first modernised only in Brazil. Once the benefits of this became obvious, Portugal decided to follow.

  4. peter maher

    variant nu-ke-lar ? Never heard. Don’t you mean “nukular”?

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