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Etymology gleanings for September 2017

Cognates and borrowing once again

It has been known for a long time that the only difference between borrowing and genetic relation is one of chronology.  Engl. town once meant “enclosure,” as German Zaun still does. Russian tyn also means “fence.” There is a consensus that the Russian word is a borrowing from Germanic because t in Germanic corresponds to d outside this language group (by the so-called First Consonant Shift). The native Russian word would have been dyn. Let us go one step farther. We also have Old Irish dūn “fort” (another enclosed area). Germanic dūn (the form that must have existed before its d changed to t) was probably borrowed from Celtic before the Shift. Yet there is no certainty, since a cognate would have sounded the same (no shift separates Celtic from Slavic).

A correspondent asks why English cnāwan “to know” could not be borrowed from a Greek word having the root of gnósis and undergo the shift in Germanic. Of course it could.  But in the process of reconstruction, borrowing, like any other event, should be supported by evidence. We have no prehistoric Germanic words taken over from Classical Greek. Such an abstract notion as “knowledge” would have been borrowed only by “thinkers.” However, the earliest loanwords invariably pertain to the sphere of material objects. Every time we suggest borrowing we have to trace the route of the word from one community to another and explain what caused the interaction of two cultures. In this case, nothing testifies to the existence of Greek-Germanic contacts. It follows that cnāwan is related to, rather than being a borrowing of, the Greek word and is part of the Indo-European stock.

Knowledge can be transferred and borrowed, but the English word knowledge is native.

Fake: etymology

See the post for 23 August 2017. It has been pointed out to me that the origin of fake is no mystery because we have fake “…the arts of coiling ropes and the hair dresser are kinds of skillful arrangement. In music that’s improvisation. From these contexts the word is extended to contexts where the implication is that the faker intends deception.” I am fully aware of the fact that as early as 1627 the noun fake turned up with the sense “a loop of a coil (as of ship’s rope or a fire hose) coiled free for running.” The path from that sense to “deception” is not clear to me: there is nothing fake in that coil. Also, “our” fake emerged two centuries later. In my opinion, it is a homonym of fake “coil.” In any case, the origin of fake “coil” should also be explained. If my idea that most f-k verbs in Germanic (including our F-word) refer to moving up and down or back and forth, fake “coil” receives a natural explanation. Fake “pilfer” also refers to the sleight of hands. The details are lost, but the general outline is not beyond reconstruction. Conversely, all attempts to derive fake and the F-word directly from Latin should be discarded. I should especially warn everybody against such words and phrases as “certainly, undoubtedly, I have no doubt,” and their likes. In etymology, we are on slippery ground, and caution (doubt) is recommended.

Nothing is fake about this coil except for its name.

Sound imitation: tantrum and thunder

If my suggestion that tantrum is an onomatopoeic word (see the post for 6 September 2017) is worth anything, tantara, tarantara, etc. are next of kin. Engl. thunder, is naturally, related to Latin tonāre, which too may be sound-imitating. The same holds for drum. It is not entirely clear whether the word came from French. Trumpet, a Romance word, is drum’s next door neighbor.

This is a tam-tam, an etymological relative of drum, and possibly of tantrum.

Spelling Reform

I fully agree with Masha Bell that, if one country institutes the Reform, other countries may follow suit. This did not happen when the US introduced a few sensible changes, for every other country remained true to its conservative norm. But the example Masha Bell cites (Portugal learning from Brazil) inspires confidence. The Swiss reformed the spelling of some words long ago, and now Germany partly adopted the Swiss model. Let us hope that the reformers in the English-speaking world will stop talking about organizational matters and finally organize something.

Intonation

It is true that Engl. there you go (in any sense) and Danish vær så god “please” are intoned alike. This “music” probably characterizes many three-word phrases (not at all, if you please, and the like). The British and the Danish “parting formulas” also share the element of formal politeness. This factor may contribute to the way they are pronounced.

Old Business

I have received questions about the origin of the words bug and sure. Both have been discussed in this blog. For bug see the post for 3 June 2015, and for sure and sugar see the post for 16 November 2011.

The way we write

♦A bit of a cold shower, or the last frontier of brainlessness. Here is the definition of douche in Urban Dictionary: “A word to describe an individual who has shown themself to be very brainless in one way or another.”  A rum customer indeed. ♦From a student newspaper: “It’s easy to sleep on what feel like lost relationships, but it’s perfect time to take actions.” The writer was seduced by the plural relationships (hence what feel; actions for action also sounds strange, or weird, as students usually say), but many English speakers experience at least some inconvenience when asked whether they prefer our only guide was the stars, my only joy was books or our only guide were the stars, my only joy were books. Grammar books recommend the singular (in German, the plural would be the norm in such cases). Be that as it may, but what feel is questionable grammar, to say the least.

Twinkle, twinkle, little stars (and be our guide).

On both sides of the Atlantic. The magazine sent to the alumni of Cambridge University is always full of interesting articles, but it can also be mined for grammar. Although the following excerpt is from a statement by an American professor, it does not seem to have inconvenienced the British editor (Easter, 2017, p. 35): “Globalisation—for example, rising imports from Chana—bring a lot of benefits.…” The speaker (or writer) thought of the plural imports, though the subject is globalization (spelled the British way). The sentence partly follows my favorite model (not cognate with but borrowed from a student’s paper): “The mood of the stories are gloomy.” The next statement will probably find favor with most: “Or when there’s only one wage-earner, and they lose their job….” Very gender-neutral and proper. However, when one wage-earner lose their job, I feel slightly confused. By contrast, I was delighted to read on p. 3: “While it [a certain composition] shares with the fugue the principal of ‘contrapuntal imitation’….” If they can spell so at Cambridge, don’t we need at least some version of spelling reform? What about introducing the word principl or even prinsipl for both situations? Finland is celebrating the hundredth anniversary of its independence. That is the land in which spelling is a dream! But then the Finnish language has fifteen cases, while English has none. Nothing in the world is perfect.

A land of saunas ans sisu? Yes, of course, but also the land of perfect spelling and fifteen cases.

Recent Comments

  1. John Cowan

    In an English copulative sentence, the verb generally agrees in number with the noun phrase (taken to be the subject) which precedes it. This is limited by the BrE flexibility that allows singular nouns with collective reference to have either singular or plural agreement: “England has been victorious since 1066, but England [the football or cricket team] are rarely victorious.”

    As for the use of “what” as a fused relative, it is independent of number: it can mean “a thing that” or “things that”, though the former seems to occur more often. In the King James Bible (2 Cor 1:13), we find “We write none other things unto you than what you read or acknowledge”; Matthew Arnold writes in 1868 “The Revolution made a clean sweep of all old endowments; what exist date from a time since the Revolution.”

    So “what feel like failed relationships”, meaning “things that feel like failed relationships” (or more precisely “relationships that feel like failures”) is fine grammatically.

  2. John Cowan

    In addition, Standard Finnish is not pronounced as written by any native speaker: it is intensely conservative, and the pronounced written form is confined to TV announcers, public speakers, and foreigners. Finland, like Norway and Croatia, is a “write standard, speak dialect” country (complicated in Norway by having two written standards).

  3. Constantinos Ragazas

    “A correspondent asks why English cnāwan “to know” could not be borrowed from a Greek word having the root of gnósis and undergo the shift in Germanic. Of course it could.  But in the process of reconstruction, borrowing, like any other event, should be supported by evidence. We have no prehistoric Germanic words taken over from Classical Greek. Such an abstract notion as “knowledge” would have been borrowed only by “thinkers.” However, the earliest loanwords invariably pertain to the sphere of material objects. Every time we suggest borrowing we have to trace the route of the word from one community to another and explain what caused the interaction of two cultures. In this case, nothing testifies to the existence of Greek-Germanic contacts. It follows that cnāwan is related to, rather than being a borrowing of, the Greek word and is part of the Indo-European stock.”

    Dear Anatoly,

    How do we know “cnawan” is a prehistoric word and not a borrowing of the Greek “gnosis” at a later time?

    “… the earliest loanwords invariably pertain to the sphere of material objects”.

    Isn’t “to know” an abstraction? So by your own argument the word “cnawan” would have been invented at a later time. Or have been borrowed from the Greek at a later time.

    Constantinos

  4. Constantinos Ragazas

    Dear Anatoly,

    Any connection of the English “sure” to the Greek “sigura”, also meaning “sure”?

    Constantinos

  5. Steve Bett

    “Let us hope that the reformers in the English-speaking world will stop talking about organizational matters and finally organize something.”

    SB: It has been quite a while since spelling reformers actually talked about organizing and planning a reform. The Spelling Society in 1908 had an example of what reformed English might look like. It was called New Spelling. They got as far as publishing a dictionary but, they never attempted to implement the reform.

    In 1960, the spelling society decided they shouldn’t recommend any specific reform. The IESC is an attempt to find a notation or replacement script that the society can recommend. Do you think that this should count as “finally organizing something?”

  6. Rudy Troike

    I quite agree with John Cowan’s evaluation of the “what feel like failed relationships” sentence. There is no plural form of “what”, so it is ambiguous in reference, meaning either “that thing which” or “those things which”.

    But no cases in English? What about I/me/my, you/your, he/him/his, etc.? These are relics of the original full marked case system, but they show that the system still exists, as these marked forms reveal the underlying case when substituted for an NP:

    The girl saw the boy. —> She saw him.
    The boy saw the girl. —> He saw her.

    Further, the genitive case is still marked on NPs (unlike many languages), sometimes called the “Saxon genitive” in contrast to the “Romance genitive”, marked with a preposition (“de” in Spanish, “of” in English:

    The boy’s book –> His book
    The book’s cover –> Its cover
    The cover of the book

  7. Rudy Troike

    In considering words that have appeared without clear precedent in English, especially in the period 1500-1800,, etymologists should also look to African (and even Austronesian) languages, as London was a great shipping center, and there are documented colonies of people from Africa and the West Indies in London and Liverpool.

  8. Johann Blagojevich

    I agree with John Cowan: “what feel like failed relationships”, meaning “things that feel like failed relationships” (or more precisely “relationships that feel like failures”) is fine grammatically.

    I would add that the quotations from the KJV and M. Arnold would be phrased differently in modern idiomatic English with ‘what’ replaced, for instance, by ‘those’ and ‘those that’ respectively. (Of course the KJV would also need updating in its use of ‘none’ and ‘unto’ to conform to contemporary usage.)

  9. daniel prohaska

    Where did Germany follow a Swiss spelling reform model?

    This is completely “new” information to me. Can someone fill me in? Thanks.

    Dan

  10. Constantinos Ragazas

    Dear Anatoly,

    Read your post on “sure” and “sugar” (Nov 16, 2011). Have you considered the Greek origin of both of these words? It will explain why the “sh” sound for the initial “s”.

    Likely the word “sure” comes from the Greek “sigura” which also means “sure”. When the sounds get muffled going from Greek to French or English, the “sigu-” combine to form the “shu-” sound in “sure”.

    The word “sugar” also likely comes from the Greek “zahari” meaning “sugar”. Here the “sh-” sound more directly derives from “zah-“. While the word itself is likely a composite from the Greek “zoe” (life) + “hara” (joy) = “zahari” (life’s joy).

    Note: Sugar production was known to ancient Persians in 510 BC. While the first Persian invasion of ancient Greece by Darius occurred in 490BC.

    [In 510 BC the Emperor Darius of what was then Persia invaded India where he found “the reed which gives honey without bees”.]
    http://www.sucrose.com/lhist.html

    Constantinos

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