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Etymology gleanings for April 2018

Part 1: A Turning Point in the History of Spelling Reform?

On 30 May 2018 the long-awaited International Spelling Congress will have its first online meeting. The Congress is intended to produce a consensus on an acceptable alternative to our current unpredictable spelling system. The goal is an alternative which maximizes improved access to literacy but at the same time avoids unnecessary change.

The Congress will be open to all English speakers who favour/favor or are benevolently neutral towards English spelling reform. It will be conducted largely by way of webinar, although there will be one, or possibly two, physical meetings. The first session on 30 May 2018 will comprise talks on spelling and spelling reform, plus an open session, which will discuss among other matters guidance to the authors of alternative schemes. After the first session, the guidance will be finalised/ finalized and an Expert Commission appointed. Authors will then submit their schemes and the Commission will produce a short list. Following a reconvened session, participants will vote on a final choice. The scheme chosen will then be promoted to run alongside current spelling in the hope that it will eventually gain general acceptance in the English Speaking World and become the new norm. The Congress is being organised/ organized by the English Spelling Society with the encouragement and assistance of the American Literacy Council.

He is trying to master English spelling. We are so sorry. Image credit: “Homework Boy Child Student Learning Book Kid” by paperelements. CC0 via Pixabay.

Such is the official notice. Spellers and misspellers of the world unite! I would like to add a few April Theses to that notice. They reflect my thoughts on the matter. 1. We need a reform that will gain acceptance even in those quarters in which it has few or no supporters. To achieve this goal, it should be persuasive and “user-friendly.” Even the most conservative people will probably not mind seeing skathe for scathe (sc– seems to be unnecessary everywhere), but will fight the invasive surgery of the hav, giv type for have and give. 2. Quite possibly, the abolition of the most useless double letters in Romance words like commune (especially if we remind people that Italian does without them) and Germanic words like till (conjunction) will also meet with minimal resistance. Indeed, isn’t committee a bit too long? 3. Ideally, we may live without the letter q. Quotas will lose none of their value if they happen to be known as kwotas. The same can be said about the letter x and of y in words like stymie. To be sure, names are untouchable, at least for the time being; Xerxes will probably have to remain Xerxes. 4. The rules of current American spelling (honor, organize, etc.) should be looked into without nationalistic prejudice. After all, they have existed for a long time, and the earth still goes round the sun. 5. I believe that the reform should pass through several stages: one step after another. 6. The Congress will be a success if it does not degenerate into multiple theoretical discussions (that is, a market brawl), though at least two talks—one on the objections to the Reform and the other on the success of such a reform elsewhere—might be useful. 7. The fewer generalities, the better. Perhaps the best thing will be to submit the most urgent list of words to be reformed right away. 8. Our success hinges on the support of influential politicians, famous contributors to opinion columns, and top people in education. We need the public on our side. I see the greatest danger in speaking to one another and inside fighting. 9. Beware of the radicals in our midst who will want all or none. Note the statement above on avoiding unnecessary change.  10. Don’t hope for producing an ideal version of English spelling. It probably does not exist, and English is not Finnish.

In April 1917, Lenin wrote a series of instructions to his party about the strategy for seizing power. The document is known as April Theses. April theses never fail. Image credit: The April Theses by Vladimir Lenin, courtesy of Goodreads.

Part 2: Separate words

Liver and kidneys.

For liver see some interesting comments after the recent post titled: “Are you of my kidney?” It is true that ner(e), the Middle English word for “kidney,” looks like Latin rēn, read from right to left. But how could they be related, especially because ner is rather far removed from the reconstructed protoform?  Likewise, the connection between Greek phrēn “brain” and Latin rēn, however curious, can be made out only if we get rid of the initial two consonants. If someone can show us the way for performing this deed, I’ll be the first to rejoice.  I have been informed by a reader that the Hebrew Bible mentions kidneys 31 times; once the word means “wheat.” The English translations are inconsistent. My conclusion: it is always better to read everything in the original.

Gums and brain.

I won’t dare discuss the Baltic forms, but perhaps the following side remarks won’t strike our correspondent as quite irrelevant.  The Slavic form for “brain” is mozg’’. Its distant origin is not entirely clear, but the widely divergent senses of the sound complex mozg, recorded in dialects, are curious. The word can mean “the rim of the wheel,” “wedge used for joining two objects,” “kernel,” and even “blood.” Mozg is obviously related to Engl. marrow, and marrow is the substance contained in bones, “brain of the bone,” as it were. The association with bones resulted in the rise of the sense “wedge” and the names of other hard objects. Now, gums are connected with teeth, and teeth are also hard. Engl. gum used to mean “(mouth) cavity,” so that its present-day meaning is late. By contrast, German Zahnfleisch “tooth meat” is quite transparent. Russian desna “gum” (stress on the second syllable) may be related to dent-. “Brain” ~ “marrow”—“bone”—“hard thing”—“tooth”—“gum”….  So the words for “brain” and “gum” may perhaps be sometimes connected in people’s linguistic intuition.

The word article

The word surfaced in English in the thirteenth century and meant “point of contract, item.” It reached English from Latin via Old French. From ‘”item” the development went to “moment,” “piece of business, and “commodity.” The grammatical sense of article goes back to Greek árthron “joint.” The verb articulate used to mean “utter with distinctness.” This meaning is easily recognized in the adjective articulate.

The name Doane

The question concerned the spelling Doane, which is a well-known variant of Donne. This variant and a few others (Doune, among them) may owe their existence to the capricious spelling of early Modern English scribes. I could not find any details, but for centuries it was fashionable to “beatify” names by adding extra letters and making them look less “trivial”: hence Wilde, Wyld, Smyth, Smythe, and the like.

The most famous of all Donnes. Image credit: John Donne, late 17th century copy of a 1616 work by Isaac Oliver. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Maze and amaze

See the post for November 6, 2013. I received a most interesting letter from a correspondent in Somerset, UK. There is no point retelling it, but do look up Glastonbury Tor and Golowan Festival!

Street in Gothic and elsewhere

The mysterious Gothic word plapjo “street,” occurring once in the text of the Bible, certainly looks like Greek plateîa. Therefore, several attempts exist to explain it as a garbled form of the Greek noun or a scribal error. Perhaps plapjo indeed goes back to plateîa. The main question is why Wulfila avoided gatwo, which he used in another place for “street.” I would like to repeat that before towns acquired their modern appearance, people did not need a word for “street,” and when the concept developed, all kinds of metaphors could be used. The Russian for “street” goes back to the idea of some sort of receptacle, possibly a narrow tube (ulitsa “street” ~ uley “beehive”; stress on the first syllable in both).

A classic plapjo? Image credit: “People Talking People Standing Communication Talk”by zstupar. CC0 via Pixabay.

Engl. street is derived from Latin strata “straight.” The root of Greek stratós “army” emerges recognizable from such English words as strategy and stratagem. Engl. stratum is also related (cf. stratify). The ancient root must have meant “to lay out, spread, extend.” Engl. strew and straw are akin to stratum. The relationship between straight and strategy is not quite direct: one word is a borrowing, through oral communication, from Latin, while the other came centuries later from Greek books.

In connection with gatwo, I mentioned Engl. gate (two senses) and gait, and even Engl. gaiter. Gaiter came to English from French and turned up in texts only in the eighteenth century. The origin of the French word is almost impenetrable. In 15th-century French, it had the form guestre.

I live in a state in which this year winter lingered much too long. But in April I have received, in addition to questions and inquiries, unusually many words of encouragement, which warmed the cockles of my heart. Thank you!

Featured image: An amazing place with an unforgettable maze. Featured image credit: Glastonbury Tor from north east showing terraces by Rodw. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Recent Comments

  1. Constantinos Ragazas


    The most significant change to be made to English spelling is to make English writing more ‘phonic’. Like Greek generally is.

    I can say more on “street” and “plateîa” (wide street /square) and “árthron” (also ‘article/paper’) and “phrēn” and “nephra” ( “kidney” –likely connected to phrēn) and many others you discuss. But I wont for now. Clearly you will ignor and more on.


  2. Cecilia

    April as in April theses by Lenin..? I’m striving to find the irony and humor. I’d rather choose April as in April in this day and age.

  3. Masha Bell

    I think your last point re spelling reform is the most important. There is no need to make English spelling perfect. The main aim should be to make learning to read and write substantially easier, with as little change as possible. Especially learning to read. The fact that roughly 1 in 6 pupils in all Anglophone countries continue to leave school functionally illiterate strikes me as the most shocking.

    Two big causes for this are the loose use of o (only, once, other, woman, women, womb) and ea (mean, meant, great, react, create). Reducing the number of words with such learner-unfriendly spellings would be a good start.

  4. Constantinos Ragazas

    “I would like to repeat that before towns acquired their modern appearance, people did not need a word for “street” … ”

    The word “street” pre-existed the “modern appearance” of towns. It goes back to the Latin/Greek “strata” (still in use). Which describes the roads armies (Greek “stratos”) would take on long marchies from town to town.

    Which “strata” would eventually become the central “streets” in towns with a “modern appearance”. And by interpolation to all other “streets”.

    As for English “marrow”. It derives from Greek “miallow” (marrow). With the customery and frequent interchange of “r/l” sounds.

    I am all for “encouragement”! Another English word with Greek roots (“kouragio”, from “kouros”).


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