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Spring gleaning (Spring 2019)

Dream “a vision in sleep” is such a word that a semantic bridge can be built between it and almost anything. That is why for a reasonable hypothesis about the etymology of dream, we need a convincing phonetic match. Otherwise, we’ll be at the mercy of medieval scholars. None of the Greek words beginning with fulfils the requirement.

In connection with dream, I also received a question about Latin trauma. Indeed, trauma corresponds to Germanic draum– almost letter by letter, but the correspondence of the initial consonants should have been reverse: non-Germanic versus Germanic (as in Latin duo~ Engl. two)! So the game is lost before it is begun, and indeed, Greek traûma and Latin trauma have an origin different from that of dream.

The oldest of the goddesses of fate was Klotho, the primordial spinner. Image credit: “Moirae, or the Fates” by Sarah Amelia Scull. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Engl. cloth and Greek klōth- “spin”

These words cannot be related because both begin with k, and the Greek word, if it were a cognate of the English one, would have had initial g. I discussed the origin of cloth in the post for August 10, 2016. A very probable cognate of cloth is the Greek root gloi– “sticky.” An extremely old borrowing of this Germanic noun from Greek is out of the question. Also, the oldest cloth was not spun. The Greek word is familiar to those who know myths from the name Klōthó (the last vowel is long), Spinner, the oldest of the three goddesses of fate (Moirai).

Engl. old and Greek aldáino “let grow, rear”

These words do share the same root, which also occurs in Latin alo (compare Engl. alimentary and alimony). The idea of old is “nourished; grown.” Some complications occur only because of the type of word formation, but the comparison is valid (as our correspondent discovered without my help; I can only confirm the validity of his conclusion). The adjective old was once the past participle of a verb meaning “to nourish.”

The etymology of the verb embarrass

I am not a Romance scholar and can only repeat what specialists say on this subject. There is no doubt that the English verb is from French. All the best dictionaries I have consulted state that French borrowed the word from Spanish, which, in turn, borrowed it from Italian, the idea being that the ultimate source is imbarrare “to embar” (“enclose within bars”); hence the figurative sense. But recently, dictionaries, including Meriam Webster online, have begun giving the etymon as Portuguese baraça “noose.” I could not find out who the author of this view is and will be grateful for an explanation.

The latest way to embarrass. Image credit: “Image from page 59 of ‘Biggle horse book : a concise and practical treatise on the horse'” (1895)” by Jacob Biggle, Fairman Rogers Collection. No known copyright restrictions via Flickr.

Hebrew shekel

The etymology of shekel is not in question: the word refers to a unit of weight. This word had related forms in Aramaic and Arabic and spread to Greek (síklos~ síglos), from which it made its way to late Latin (siklus) and finally to Old French sicle and from it to Middle English (this word stayed in English until the 18thcentury). But the question was whether Hindi sikka is related. Once again, I should repeat that, not being a specialist, I cannot give a dependable answer, but from what I have seen sikka is neither a borrowing nor an adaptation of shekel.

Our correspondent informed me that he runs an etymology group, and I am pleased to give the address of an ally: http://www.facebook.com/groups/padabeeja.

An ancient shekel. Its name went a long way. Image credit: “Judaea Half Sheke” by Classical Numismatic Group, Inc. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Slang: an etymology

I received a friendly letter from the editor of Online Etymology Dictionary, who has read my hypothesis of the word slang (I am not sure whether he knows the spirited post of September 28, 2016 or a very detailed article in my etymological dictionary) and, in principle, agreed with it. I will first reproduce the explanation in my dictionary and then address his doubts. Both slang “a long narrow piece of land” and slanger “to wander, loaf” have been recorded. The development must have been from “the land, the territory over which people wander” to “those who travel about this territory (first and foremost, hawkers),” further to “the manner of hawkers’ speech,” and to “low class jargon, argot.” The question was about the connection between the territory and the speech used in it. As often happens in semantic reconstruction, the only “proof” is analogy; that is, the existence of a similar case, and in the dictionary I cite such a case: a transition of meaning from “territory” to “language.”

The hypotheses about the etymology of slangare numerous, and I discussed all of them. The reconstruction I support was offered at the end of the nineteenth century, but it was published in a provincial British journal (Cheshire Sheaf) and not noticed. I found a mention of it in a relatively recent article. Few etymologies are final. Yet the progress of senses offered above seems to be convincing. If a better conjecture happens to be found, I’ll be the first to rejoice.

Chippy “prostitute”

I have answered a letter about chippy privately, but it may be of some use to everybody. The word has nothing to do with Chippewa. Words for “prostitute” are sometimes hard to trace to their roots, but most nouns and adjectives sounding as chippy seem to have something to do with chip, even though the connection is often obscure.

Sl-words and the rake’s progress

When I say that many sl– words seem to have symbolic origins, with sl– referring to slime, sleaze and the like, I certainly don’t mean that all such words belong together. Slam, slave, slot, slow, slang, and dozens of others have nothing to do with sound symbolism. The role of sl– was discussed in connection with slut and slattern. A correspondent asked me whether there are masculine analogs of those two words. Words disparaging women’s promiscuity, garrulity, and untidiness are countless, while words pillaring men usually refer to their drunkenness and debauchery. However, rake, libertine, and profligate are there for everybody to see.

Another comment was that sn– words also look as though they stick together. This is certainly true, though snort, sneeze, sniff, sneer, snivel, snigger, snore, snooze, snip, snuff, and one or two more perhaps suggest sound imitation rather than sound symbolism. But then there are snob and snood of undiscovered origin.

Two pence pronounced as tuppence

In Middle English, long vowels were sometimes shortened even in dissyllables. (The shortening in trisyllables is known much better: compare holy and south versus holiday and southern.) This explains the difference in the pronunciation between nand nothingknow and knowledge.  A similar case is two pence versus tuppence. Sometimes the quality of the vowel remained the same, and only the length was affected. Foreigners have to learn that the first vowel of sausage is short despite the deceptive spelling. Native speakers acquire the correct pronunciation before they learn to read.

Split personality, or the future of English

From a letter to a student newspaper: “My partner and I have been together for three years. Throughout this time, I’ve seen them switch majors around six times. They bounced from department to department. . . . However, they told me a few months ago that they’ve decided on something for sure. I was excited at first (who doesn’t want their partner to actually understand what they’re going to do” (and so on for about fifteen more lines). We are thrilled. Are you?

Featured image credit: Embarrassed and miserable. “Tiger behind chainlink fence” by David Ramirez. CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Recent Comments

  1. Stephen Goranson

    There is some relevant discussion of a Portuguese origin in Joan Corominas and José Pacual, “embarazar”, Diccionario crítico etimológico castellano e hispánico, (Gredos, 1980) Vol. II, pages 555-558.

  2. Constantinos Ragazas


    “…for a reasonable hypothesis about the etymology of dream, we need a convincing phonetic match.”

    More convincing “phonetic match” between “dream” and Greek “drama” than most other “phonetic matches” you have advocated?

    Certainly all the consonents are there. And in the right place. As are the vowels. But for the “e”, from the “a”. Since the “written word” comes later, its the “spoken word” that is relevant here.

    But more importantly for me, the two words represent a “vision (world) beyond the real”.

    You write, “An extremely old borrowing of this Germanic noun from Greek is out of the question.”

    Why out of the question? Your fall-back position when there is no other argument to fall back on!

    But this mistaken view has been invalidated by numerous recent aDNA studies which show early Neolothic European farmers came from the Aegean. Here are some quotes from one of these studies published in Nature just two days ago:


    “Genome-wide ancient DNA studies indicate predominantly Aegean ancestry for continental [European] Neolithic farmers”

    And also,

    “…British Neolithic people were mostly descended from Aegean farmers who followed the Mediterranean route of dispersal.”

    As for English “cloth” from Greek “clotho”, you write

    “…the oldest cloth was not spun.”

    But the yarn that made the cloth was! The Greek for “yarn” is “closti”.

    What does the Hebrew shekel “really mean”? The Greek (síklos~ síglos) comes from the Greek word for “weighing scale” (ziga).


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