Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Etymology gleanings for November 2018

I used to post my “gleanings” on the last Wednesday of every month, but it is perhaps more practical to do it on the first Wednesday of the month following, for, given this schedule, I can also answer the most recent questions.

Plants and the home of the Indo-Europeans

I used gorse in the previous discussion, because gorse was the subject of my post. To be sure, there are many more plant names (trees, cereals, weeds—everything) that shed light on the problem. But this question cannot be discussed in passing. I’ll only say that, though the literature on the origin and expansion of the Indo-Europeans is enormous, the conclusions are far from definite. Linguists and archeologists sometimes talk at cross-purposes.  At least two reasonable hypotheses compete on the homeland of the Indo-Europeans and on what must have been their language. The very notion of Indo-European is less obvious than it may seem to non-specialists.

More on gorse

German garstig “nasty; forbiddingly unpleasant” seems to have a reliable etymology that does not lead to the idea of “prickly” and “bristling.” German Ginster “gorse” is a borrowing from Romance (the source is Latin). As often happens, the word’s so-called ultimate origin is unknown. I mentioned Edwin Fay’s idea of –sta, the root of plant names, to make my discussion complete. Fay may have developed his idea in one of the many articles he authored, all of which stand in my office, but the only way to find the relevant place (if it exists) would be to read several hundred pages. I am not sure that the needle I may or may not discover is worth the effort. Apropos of nothing: there is a rhyming English simile as coarse as gorse and a more limited one as coarse as Garasse (Cornwall), possibly with reference to the first.


The origin of this word remains undiscovered. Latvian briest, with its allusion to rising, may make one think that the Germanic word contains the root pointing to a product made with yeast, but briest has some ties only with Slavic (where all the words are obsolete or dead in the modern languages) and Celtic, and, according to the most authoritative sources, had n in the root, which makes briest unrelated to brauð-.

My Rumanian colleague Ion Carstoiu informs me that many languages associate the word for “bread” with roundness. This observation tallies with the fact, mentioned in one of the previous posts, that pancakes are the oldest cereal products in human history. Unfortunately, the etymology of Engl. broad (from brād) is also unknown. In any case, the vowels of brād and brauð– don’t match. In one of the comments, Old Engl. cicel (or cycel) was mentioned and glossed as “pancake.” I am not sure whether we know the word’s exact meaning. From an etymological point of view, it has a diminutive suffix added to the root of the verb cook; thus, simply “cookie.”

Russian khleb “bread” and khlebat’ “to slurp”: I am sure Jules Levin’s objection is correct. The vowels do not match. But the verb is so old and has so many cognates in Slavic that I thought that perhaps there was a way to obviate this difficulty. If my approach to “liquid (or not solid) bread” is untenable, pursing it would be a waste of time. This is how the cookie crumbles.

Similar but unrelated. Image credit: Stars in the sky by Juskteez Vu. Public Domain via Unsplash.

Miscellaneous queries

Can solar and solid be related? No, even though both are Romance words. Latin sōl “sun” has a long vowel, while o in Latin solidus, a word, related to salvus “safe,” is short. It seems that today’s gleanings are all about recalcitrant short and long vowels.

Time and being. The question was formulated with regard to German Zeit “time” and Sein “being.” Zeit is a cognate of Engl. tide, but time and tide, which proverbially wait for no one, are nouns formed from the same root with the help of different suffixes. Rather probably, the root referred to division. The root of sein “to be” perhaps referred to stability or staying in one place. If this reconstruction is correct, the two words are not related. But they are so different that, whatever the meaning of the ancient roots, from a linguistic point of view thy can hardly have anything in common.

Do shooting in shooting star and chute, as in parachute, share a common origin? No, even though the similarity is astounding. The phrase shooting star appeared in English books at the beginning of the 16th century and was associated with shoot (from Old Engl. scēotan), while chute, “steep slope down which stuff is shot (!),” from French chute, “fall,” does not predate the 19th century. As The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology notes, it is “often extended to senses which originated with SHOOT or are still commonly so spelt.”

Similar but unrelated. Image credit: Paragliding above the Chartreuse massif by Nicolas Tissot. Public Domain via Unsplash.

The English suffix –en, as in the adjective leaden. (If someone knew how I hate the word lead! For decades I have been imploring students, with very moderate success—in older books, they called such success slender—not to spell the past tense of the verb lead as lead.) This suffix has a venerable pedigree: not only did Gothic have its cognate, but we also find it, among other languages, in Latin (-inus) and Classical Greek. The Latin suffix is familiar to English speakers from words like divine, pristine, and others. The origin of suffixes is seldom known. We can only say that at one time such elements were probably meaningful words. In Standard Modern English, few adjectives still have –en: leaden, golden, earthen, and wooden are probably the only ones in everyday use. Wheaten is recognizable, and in silvern, –n is all that remains of the old morpheme. Lenten is understood as one of such words but does not belong here. Its oldest form was lenctgen, that is, lengten, most probably, with reference to the lengthening of day. The word had a suffix of a different origin.

Earth-en-ware. Image credit: Clay Pottery Ceramic by sebadelval. CC0 via Pixabay.

Why Thomas but Tom?

What’s yours? Oh, I know. It’s Thomas Sawyer. –That’s the name they lick me by. I’m Tom when I’m good. Image credit: Tom Sawyer – frontispiece by True Williams. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

The name Thomas came to English from the New Testament, where it was spelled with the Greek letter theta, pronounced as th. Yet in English the pronunciation seems to have always been with t, as in Tom. During the Renaissance, a regular th-for-t orgy began. In Thomas, Thames, asthma, and thyme, the pronunciation with t withstood the onslaught of Greek scholarship. Anthony fared worse: it is pronounced with t in British English but with th in American English. Alas, the sounding of author, throne, Dorothy, Catherine (as opposed to Kate!), Goth, and a few others has succumbed to their spelling.

Kibosh. I would like to make my point clear. If the verb kibosh “to finish,” with regard to Portland cement, ever existed, this fact has nothing to do with the word’s origin.

This is a proper item to FINISH the gleanings, but I have a Postscript:

The progress of spelling reform

The work on the reform has reached a stage at which the Spelling Congress encourages all those who have alternative spelling schemes to submit them.

All kinds of questions and suggestions are encouraged at spellconf.pss@gmail.com.

Mr. Gregory Name has his variant of Spelling Reform and invites everyone who is interested to visit his website.

I hope to see the day when the past tense of lead will be spelled led, and the past tense of read spelled red.

Featured image credit: Skytrails by Cecil Montour. Public Domain via Unsplash.

Recent Comments

  1. Vivian Ramalingam

    It is my custom to stand in front of the bakery counter in the supermarket and recite Portia’s Song: “Tell me, where is fancy bread? / Or in the heart or in the head?” Invariably, a (female) customer (of a certain vintage) will turn to me with a smile and say, “Thanks, I needed that!”

  2. Constantinos Ragazas

    Dear Anatoly,

    In an age now of “autocorrect” and digital “spell checkers”, why are we (you) so intend on changing the spelling of words?

    My main concern about “spelling reform” is it will hide the “root source” of words even further. Thus taking us further afield from the roots of our Being. [Hiedegger: “Language is the House of Being”].

    A word derived from its Greek or Latin or German equivalent will be spelled differently, reflecting its etymology. The advocates for spelling reform would rather mask that source in their own image.

    [BTW, you ignored my etymology of “grass” from Greek “grassidi”!]

    As an Oxford Etymologist, shouldn’t this concern you? That it doesn’t is puzzling and troubling.


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *