In December and January, the ground, as we know from the poem about two quarrelling little kittens, was covered with frost and snow, so that there has not been too much for me to glean, but a few crumbs were worth picking up. However, first I wish to thank those who have been sending questions, correcting and enlightening me, and wishing me another happy year of dealing with language history.
The wheat, the tares, and tare weight
Several people assured me that they had never heard the biblical word tare and know only chaff. Yet the word exists, even if it is partly forgotten. Some of our readers believe that tare is the same word, whether it refers to weight or botany. This is not so. Tare (in botany) is short for tare vetch. Our earliest philologists made unsuccessful guesses while looking for some verb meaning “to strangle, tear, destroy” as the etymon of tare. The English noun has a secure cognate in Dutch, as once pointed out by Johannes Franck, the author of the first modern etymological dictionary of Dutch. The word is tarwe.
Among many other things, Walter W. Skeat wrote numerous notes on English etymology. Here is part of his explanation of tare: “The use of tares in our bibles is perhaps due to Wyclif (sic), who translated the Lat. zizania by ‘taris’; Matt. XIII. 25…. [Franck] suggests, rightly, that [tare] is the equivalent of the Du[tch] tarwe, fem[inine], wheat; M[iddle] Du[tch] terwe. It seems that there were two Teutonic [= Germanic] words for wheat, viz. wheat and tare. Of these, wheat was adopted in all the Germanic languages, whilst tare was confined to English and Dutch. In Dutch, tarwe and weit are both explained as ‘wheat,’ and the use of the two words seems to be a luxury. In English, it is tolerably clear that they were differentiated, wheat being reserved to express the true corn [grain], and tare that which grew up along with it in the same field. At a later time, the compound tare-vetch was formed to signify ‘wheat-vetch,’ or vetch found in the wheat-field.” The rest of the explanation is also interesting, but it is too long to reproduce here in full (Notes on English Etymology, 1901, p. 291). Dictionaries cite Baltic, Latin, and Sanskrit cognates of tare.
Tare “weight in the wrapping, receptacle, or conveyance containing goods” goes back to French tare “weight in goods, deficiency.” Spanish and Italian tara are adaptations of Medieval Latin tara, from an Arabic word meaning “what is thrown away.” Russian tara “packaging materials” is from German, which borrowed it from Italian.
The suffix -en
The word olden, now an archaism in the phrases in olden times and in olden days, is hard to explain. Dictionaries inform us that olden is old + –en, a trivial and perhaps even misleading piece of information, for the reference is to the suffix added to nouns (as in wooden, oaken, and the like) but not to other adjectives. Even though olden goes back to Middle English, it has no analogs in the modern language. The timid suggestion that –en may be a relic of the adjectival declension (compare German in den alten Tagen “in old days,” dative plural) carries little conviction. Perhaps Ernest Weekley was right. In his English etymological dictionary, he observed that the noun old also exists, even if preserved only in the phrase of old. Can it not, indeed, be that –en in olden was added to the noun old?
In even “evening,” –en is not a living suffix, though even is obviously related to eve. In the related languages, we find similar forms (compare German Ab-en-d). It has been suggested that the form even is an old past participle, but this reconstruction is flimsy. The adjective even, with cognates in the other Germanic languages, including Gothic, contains only the root of the word, and its distant origin has not been discovered.
I have not looked for the origin of Modern Greek grassidi “grass,” but this word did not occur in the Classical period. “In olden times,” the Greek for “grass” was póa; its rather general synonym (“verdure”) was khlōe, known to us from the name Chloe. So I suspect that grassidi is a late borrowing from some Germanic language. Engl. grass, with cognates everywhere in Germanic, has the same root as grow and green. The root has no known connections with any word in Classical Greek.
By contrast, sparrow requires no guessing. This word has been investigated very well, among other reasons because it occurs in Gothic (sparwa; Mark X: 29 and 31; there, two cheap sparrows are mentioned). It was not a compound and did not mean “seed-picker” but rather “hopper” (though this is not cetin). As a general rule, in researching the origin of a word, one should deal with the oldest form attested in the language, rather than with its modern reflex. It is not Modern but Classical Greek that we need for reconstructing the past of a word in Indo-European.
It is certainly easy to trace robin to rubinus. It is also easy to trace asparagus to sparrow grass. The question is whether the result is not a product of folk etymology. Everything would have been obvious if rob– ~ rab– did not mean so many things. It should also be borne in mind that, with regard to etymology, dictionaries tend to copy the information from one another. Except for the OED, no one has the time and resources to investigate the origin of every English word, and it is often taken for granted that, if a certain opinion has been repeated many times, it is correct. Incidentally, a correspondent wrote me and asked whether I was serious in suggesting that different epochs have their favorite ways of word formation. Yes, quite serious. For instance, the twentieth century abbreviated like a house on fire (hence doc, prof, lab, bus, ad, gym, dorm, etc.). After the 1917 revolution, countless compounds resembling Engl. op-ed appeared in Russian. One (kolkhoz) has even made it to other languages. By contrast, we “blend” everything. I have recently seen the word slowbalization, a typical modern product. Fashion is an equally strong force in clothes and word formation.
The origin of the superstition connected with rabbits is obscure. People pronounce rabbit, rabbit, rabbit for good luck and say “Good morning, rabbits” on the first day of the month. I have a tiny database on this phenomenon, which partly overlaps with the references in Wikipedia, so I have little to say here. Yet I suspect that rabbit is an alteration of some other, probably foreign, word or phrase in an ancient charm or incantation, something like aroint thee witch in Macbeth. It first became rab it and then rabbit. Obviously, in order to work, a charm should be incomprehensible. By way of compensation, I can state with authority that Welsh rabbit is not and has never been rarebit.
The progress of Spelling Reform
The Society’s work is going on well. To those who are sorry to lose the history of English as the result of our efforts I can repeat that first, dozens of modern spellings distort the history of English words; second, that a well-thought out reform will treat each word with extreme care, and third, that Modern English spelling is not a refresher course on the history of Indo-European, so that, if phthisis, God forbid, loses its ph– or committee loses two or three letters, no one will become less educated, but everybody will sigh a sigh of relief. Get off your high horse ~ equus ~ hippos and look through the papers of our undergraduates: after fifteen or so years of “education,” they cannot distinguish between there and their, its and it’s and spell should of done.
I have an uneasy feeling that not too long ago I received an email with three interesting questions, but I cannot find it. With my sincere apologies to that correspondent, may I ask him to resend me that letter? I promise to answer the questions posthaste.
Featured image credit: Aves en la mañana la luz del sol. CC0 Public Domain via Public Domain Pictures.