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Etymology gleanings for December 2017

At the end of December, it is natural to look back at the year almost spent. Modern etymology is a slow-moving coach, and great events seldom happen in it. As far as I know, no new etymological dictionaries have appeared in 2017, but one new book has. It deals with the word kibosh, and I celebrated its appearance in the November “Gleanings.” I also want to tell our readers that after fifty-four years the great and magnificent Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE) has closed shop in the direct sense or the word. It has been said that in the history of the English language three names stand out: the Bible (I think the King James Version is meant), Shakespeare, and the OED. Perhaps so. Views on American English have changed radically over the years. Not too long ago, it was understood as the language of hicks, unworthy of scholarly attention. But the prestige of a language depends on the prestige of its speakers, and together with the importance of the United States the importance and glamour of American English grew. Also, in the course of the last 150 years, the status of so-called Americanisms has been understood (most words labeled so turned out to be British provincialisms brought to the New World), while the media made many words coined on American soil known everywhere.

Dictionary of American Regional English is a treasure trove of local words and pronunciations. Many entries also contain hints of etymology. Numerous maps enhance its value. Thousands of volunteers traveled all over the country recording the answers of the natives. Countless books, journals, and newspapers were read in search of regional words. DARE’s model was to a certain extent Joseph Wright’s English Dialect Dictionary, another work of permanent value. The five volumes of DARE read like thrillers. For more than half a century, several agencies and an army of individual sponsors have made the work of this great national monument possible. Now DARE has run out of funding. There is money for a picture that costs half a billion and for rewarding the winners of bizarre lawsuits, but not for the work that will stand as a permanent monument to the language of the richest country of the world. Read DARE, read about DARE, admire it, and tell your friends about it. The history of DARE is being written. The history of Joseph Wright’s dictionary was written by his wife. Not every dictionary has a wife, but enthusiastic scholars have not yet died out.

Odds and ends

First an Americanism. Nowadays, I seldom receive regular mail (holiday greetings can be discounted), but several days ago a postcard came to my university address from a faraway city. The correspondent, a specialist in Japan, asked me what I thought about the Japanese etymology of the word hobo. Fortunately, I can direct him to my old post of 12 November 2008. In it he will find a great number of fanciful suggestions about the etymology of hobo but no solution. The Japanese hypothesis is also there.

A hobo: an Americanism. Image credit: Two hobos walking along railroad tracks, after being put off a train. One carries a bindle via The Library of Congress. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Now the aftermath. Once I mentioned the fact that math in aftermath means “mowing.” A correspondent took my comment for a bad joke and even expressed satisfaction that The Oxford Etymologist sometimes stumbles. No, The Oxford Etymologist never stumbles: when he errs, he falls flat (full length) on his face. I have a pen friend, who writes me only when I say something wrong. I fear his emails, because he is always right. But as regards aftermath, I have nothing to apologize for. Aftermath is the second crop of grass. The word has been known from books since the early 1500s, and a century later it acquired its familiar figurative sense. The Old English for math was mæþ (with a long vowel). It shares its root with the verb mow “to cut grass” (Old Engl. māwan), and its suffix is the same as in warmth, breadth, width, and length.

A bad joke…. Some time ago, I wrote a three-part cycle on the history of the word bad: 24 June, 8 July, and 15 July 2015. This past November, a correspondent asked me what I think about the mysterious male name Badda, which, according to Ekwall’s 1947reliable but not infallible etymological dictionary of English place names, can be detected in Badbury, Baddeley, and several others in many parts of England. Who was this Badda? Ekwall says: “A legendary hero, who was associated with ancient camps.” He gives no references. The question from our correspondent runs as follows: “Might he have been some bogeyman whose name was invoked to keep children away from the fire? Or someone more sinister? An old god, perhaps…. Was he a hermaphrodite or a god of battles or oppression or sleeping (bædd, a bed)?” The Old English form of bed was bed(d), and I wrote about it in the post for 10 June 2015. This spoor is cold. Hermaphrodites, I believe, are also out of the saga (for the reasons discussed in the post). A great legendary hero with the name Badda hardly existed. Such a figure might have been mentioned in Beowulf or by Venerable Bede. A demon seems a more realistic candidate: in Eurasia, there are many monosyllabic demonic names beginning with b. and words like bad, dab, and their likes are easy to coin. But why should anybody give such a name to many places, unless all of them were burial mounds? Perhaps some demon filled people with fear, and Badda was only an apotropaic name, used to avert the influence of the evil creature, but with time the name acquired the sense known to us. All this is guessing, popular at yuletide but devoid of value. Though who knows? Perhaps there is a grain of truth in this guesswork.

Was this the Old English Badda? Image credit: The wolf blows down the straw house in a 1904 adaptation of the fairy tale Three Little Pigs by L. Leslie Brooke. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Between the languages

Why can there be no direct connection between Greek kópos “labor” and Engl. job? We have no evidence that such a late English word was borrowed from Greek, and, if it were borrowed, it would have sounded kop, not job. The origin of kópos, though not obscure, is not quite clear. Related words mean “cut down; dig.” So it seems that kop– is indeed an onomatopoeia like job “to peck.” No Greek etymological dictionary suggests the connection with the Greek word for “oar.” Greek etymology has been studied so long and so thoroughly that, if that connection looked promising, somebody would have probably tried to explore it. Another example I have discussed many times is Engl. know, from cnāwan. Old Engl. long a (ā) always goes back to the diphthong ai. Greek had (gi)gnóskein. The forms—cnaiw and gnos—obviously represent different grades of ablaut and, as in the previous case, can only be related (and not quite directly). A loanword would have been identical or almost identical to its source. My newspaper tells me that “a citizen should vote only if they have a reasonable understanding of the issues and candidates.” In the same spirit I would suggest that an etymologist should posit borrowing only if they have a close correspondence between the source and the end product.

Do they have a reasonable understanding of the issues and candidates? Image credit: Voting in election to the State Duma by Marina Krasotkina. CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication via Wikimedia Commons.

Nonsense etymology for the holiday season

Is it true that in the proverb “He won’t set the Thames on fire,” temse “sieve,” rather than the name of the river Thames was meant? This question was discussed for decades. No, no one tried to kindle, inflame, or burn down a sieve.

The Oxford Etymologist thanks its readers and correspondents for their attention and interest and for the twelfth time wishes them a Happy New Year. 2017 was rather odd. Let us hope that 2018 will be more even.

An epitaph to 2006-2017, to finish Blog 624:

There was once an unwearying gleaner,/ Whose fatigue made him meaner and leaner./ Flame and fame were not meant for his temse:/ Not a spark from the asterisked stems./ Love a reaper, steer clear of a gleaner.

Featured image credit: The Great Fire of London by Philip James de Loutherbourg. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Recent Comments

  1. Stephen Goranson

    Speaking of American English (in the post’s opening) and speaking in Limerick verse (in the post closing)–did the English verse form get its Irish name in America? Maybe, maybe not. If interested in that possibility, see “Limerick Poems and Civil Wars” at

  2. Constantinos Ragazas

    And a Happy New Year to you too, Anatoly! Enjoyed all your “gleanings”!

    Even if you never “stumble”! Since that calls for corrective action. Which you may choose or not to make.

    The Greek word “kopi” for “oar” is also used for the “job of rowing”. And the Greek word “kopos” means “exhaustive labor”.

    So it all comes together to what “job” means in English.

    As for “p” not transformed to “b” and “k” to “j”, stranger things can happen! Some even in your own “etymology gleanings”!



  3. Stephen Goranson

    Though the origin of the homeless Hobo may be unsettled, the earliest reported use is from Nov. 30, 1885, St. Paul Daily Globe (Minn.), Page 8, col. 1.
    The Hobo, the “Workers,” the Crook and Tramp at home–Their Slang and Their Habits–Something About Their Most Salient Characteristics–How They Act and Talk….
    THE “HOBO”
    The genus tramp, i.e., the “bum” or “Hobo” is usually made up of a conglomeration of human outcasts….
    ….An overcoat is a “Ben.” Hobo is a call to attract attention, the same as Hello in the average citizen’s vernacular. It is pronounced with the long sound of the vowel, o, in both syllables, and is sometimes uttered with the aspirate
    omitted, as “Obo,” and is the shibboleth of the fraternity of bums and crooks.
    It is now commonly applied by them as a generic term to designate the order.
    Hence “Hobo,” when used in a substantative [sic] sense, means tramp or crook, as the case may be. For instance, when one says “That man is a Hobo,” he means tramp or crook….
    [for more context:]

  4. Johann Blagojevich

    Thank you for your columns. I have enjoyed them as much in 2017 as I have in previous years and in previous years I have enjoyed them very much. I look forward to more in 2018. A Happy New Year to you and all our readers.

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