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Etymology gleanings for May 2019: Part 2

Spelling bee and the shame of the sun: some thoughts on animated spellcheckers

Once again, I have stumbled upon an upbeat report of the latest spelling bee, and shout in disgust: “J’accuse!” I accuse the establishment of promoting a harmful sport. Millions of Americans graduate from high school without having heard what the subjunctive mood or an impersonal sentence means. They have never been told that some languages have cases (the genitive, the dative, and so on). We implore college students to avoid the apostrophe in the possessive pronoun its, and they ask what possessive pronoun means. Those are our sons and daughters who refuse to read English and American classics because their own vocabularies are reduced to a few thousand most common words and because long books, unlike cartoons, are “boring.”

Against this background, some children waste their lives learning the spelling of Bewusstseinlage (it is a German noun meaning approximately “the state of consciousness”). For some reason, Bewusstseinlage has made it into English dictionaries, along with the more respectable German compounds Schadenfreude, Zeitgeist, and Weltschmerz. And rejoice: some spellers know this monster, without, of course, knowing German. (German has a lot of grammar, and grammar, we have been told, is not “fun.”) Last year, a young ambitious teenager “was dinged out” by marasmus: she did not remember which letter follows the first m. To be sure, if she knows everything else, this is indeed a tragedy. “I knew the word. I knew the word. I had heard it before, I knew the definition of it, but I forgot that schwa in that second,” she said with the eloquence of despair. But this year, eight children (seven of them 13, one 14-years-old) spelled all the words correctly. Weep and wonder: Wundtian, coelogyne, yertchuk, huiscoyol, bremsstrahlung, and ferraiolone.

The only bees we should treasure. Image credit: “Honey Bee Hive” by chrisad85. Pixabay License via Pixabay.

The Shame of the Sun is an essay written by Martin Eden, the hero of Jack London’s best novel, which none of those honey-seekers have read. See a picture of the eclipse in the header.

On char and chore

We remember char– only from charwoman; yet chores is a familiar word. The suggestions of our correspondent (in a letter) are perfectly correct. Old Engl. cirran meant “to turn away”; the cognate noun sounded as cerr ~ cyrr. German kehren “to turn” is, most probably, related. Although The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology states that the variation char ~ chore is unexplained, there is no mystery here. I am borrowing my examples from the excellent book Laut und Leben (literally, “Sound and Life”) by Horn-Lehnert. Similar examples occur elsewhere, but those sources are less “popular.” In the not too remote past, long a (as in Modern Engl. spa) tended to become long o (as in Modern Engl. or) in the pronunciation of the lower classes: bawth “bath,” awfter “after,” and the like. The southern American long a, pronounced as aw, (sometimes followed by schwa) and ridiculed as drawl, is of that origin, and of course the pronunciation Chicawgo, though “non-standard” and not southern, is well-known. The spellings Chorles, Mork, yord, and yorn for Charles, Mark, yard, and yarn were recorded at the beginning of the seventeenth century. Char- ~ chor- also belong here.

Returning to the sn- ~ sl- morass: snuff, snub, snob; snide, snitty, and their likes

A mobile creature with s-mobile in the name. Image credit: Western Diamondback by skeeze. Pixabay License via Pixabay.

I have received several letters about sn– and sl– words (see the posts for March 13 and March 20, 2019). In one of those posts, sniff, snuff, snout, etc. and their possible connection with nose were discussed. The trouble is that initial s- often appears before other consonants in words that are certainly related. The anthologized examples are Engl. steer “a castrated (or young) bull” versus Latin taurus “bull” and Engl. snake versus Sanskrit nāga (the same meaning), but such words are numerous. The origin of this enigmatic, fugitive s, known as s-mobile (movable s), remains a puzzle; see a book on it by Mark Southern. That is why, when we deal with sniff, snuff, and the rest, we cannot be sure whether any connection exists between them and nose; neb, nib, nibble, and German Schnabel “beak” also spring to mind.

From sniff, nib, and their likes, we may return to snout ~ snoot ~ snotty. About a century ago, Samuel Kroesch, my “quondam” colleague at the University of Minnesota, discussed some such words in detail and discerned the development from “blow one’s nose” to “deceive” (a common trend in many languages), with the original sense being “to cut, “ that is, “to snub.” According to this reconstruction, a snotty person must have been a deceiver. (In my post, I cited the Old Germanic look-alikes meaning “smart, wise”; were mainly those people considered wise who could outsmart or demean others?) This returns us to the perennial question about the origin of snob (see the post of May 14, 2008). I can see two possible approaches here. Either snob arose as a sn-word with a derogatory meaning and was later applied to cobblers, who, like tailors, for centuries, were ridiculed and denigrated. Or a snob was a snubber in the direct sense of the word; that is, a cutter of shoe soles.

Snotty, snitty snobs have always existed, but the word surfaced in print only in the 1780s and was made popular by Thackeray. Image credit: “Book of Snobs XVIII page 69” by W. M. Thackeray himself, for the first edition of The Book of Snobs. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

My ideas about the origin of snitty “ill-tempered; sly” (another question from a correspondent) are equally vague. I looked up snitty and the adjective snide in several dictionaries and found that their origin is unknown. Nor does my etymological database contain a single reference to them. Snitty turned up in a printed book only in 1978 (the earliest citation in the OED); snide surfaced in the 1850s. At first sight, their proximity to Dutch snijden and German schneiden “to cut” seems obvious, but is it real? And how did they arise in English? They could hardly be borrowed directly from Low German so late. Conversely, if a snitty person is a twin of a snotty one, do we witness a case of arbitrary vowel alternation, so common in slang (this alternation is sometimes called false ablaut)?

Snide is equally opaque. Although this adjective may be applied to a mean, sarcastic person, in today’s English, only remarks and comments are usually called snide. And here I may suggest a connection that does not seem to have been noticed. German has the adjective schnöde “contemptible; mean”; its Dutch congener is snood. Somewhere, and not too long ago, there must have been groups of people who used such words with their direct meanings: “cut close to the surface, shorn; shaved.” Those were probably itinerant workers, handymen traveling from place to place and from land to land with their implements (axes, adzes, hatchets, planes) and developing some sort of technical lingua franca. Their professional words were mutually understandable across dialect and language borders, but the vowels and consonants varied in a rather capricious way. Occasionally some elements of their vocabulary became known to the outside world, continued as slang, and finally merged with the more “respectable” words (compare the history of slang: the post for September 28, 2016).

Admire the snood and think of the origin of the word. “Snood Met” by Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. CC 1.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Snide and snitty seem to be Americanisms. Are they loans from Dutch speakers? Surely, snitty existed before 1978, and its closeness to schnöde looks convincing. Snide may be a member of the same family. Next, surprisingly, comes Engl. snood “hairband; a fillet worn traditionally in Scotland by unmarried women.” The function of the snood was to keep the hair close to the skin of the head. Snide, snitty, and snood, though an ill-assroted family, look like belonging together. Yet each has its own history whose details may be lost for all times.

Featured image: “Eclipse Twilight Moon” by ipicgr. Pixabay License via Pixabay

Recent Comments

  1. dr. peter köhler

    Thank you for your very interesting column –
    I read it since a long time – now I found the first mistake: In German there is no “Bewußtseinlage”, only a “Bewußtseinslage”… I think it means the case of Genitive, “die Lage des Bewußtseins” connected in one word-
    Peter Köhler, Munich, Bavaria

  2. Vivian Ramalingam

    Spellchecker humor: a colleague wrote a letter on behalf of a student, mentioning his research on “cornetts and sackbuts” (trombones). Then he ran the letter through the spellchecker, and the phrase became, “corsets and jackboots.” (Can “Mack the Knife” be next?)
    The worst moment on one spelling bee was the word “shaytel” (Yiddish: wig worn by married women). How the Inquisitors could pose a phonetic transcription of a dialectal variant infuriated me. One variant demands the long “A”; the other would require an “EI”. Was the lexicographer a Galitzianer or a Litvak? (In the event, the speller
    got it wrong.)
    There is a summary of common social “cuts” in older editions of Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, one of which is on-line. My fave is the “cut sublime.”

  3. Constantinos Ragazas

    Anatoly, you write

    “I accuse the establishment of promoting a harmful sport [spelling bee]”

    Chill out! Lots of tournaments and competitions in America! Are you as upset with “chess tournaments”? Or “baseball cards collecting”?

    BTW, before there was “Latin taurus” there was Greek taurus! Like in the “Minotaur”!

    But of course you know that!

    Kostas

  4. Yves Rehbein

    > “Bewusstseinlage”

    “state of conscious”, should be “Bewustseinslage”, which is a matter not of spelling convention, but grammatical convention, the Fugen-Laut *s* that appears unpredictably (Arbeit-s-Amt “employment office”, but Arbeit-Nehmer “employment taker”), is not clearly syntactic though semantics can be ascribed. It might appear like a genitive morpheme (cp. “bird’s eye view”) that does seem like a plural morpheme, too, if comparing e.g.
    Hund-e-Hütte “dogs shelter” (in which *Hunde* looks ambiguous over genitive or plural).

    Nevertheless, while “month’s end” (Monatsende) seems a clear case, “a month’s time” (Monatsfrist) or “three months’ time” (Dreimonatsfrist? rather: dreimonat-ige Frist) seems peculiar, and “three dollarsworth; worth three dollar[[‘]s]” confuses native English speakers, too.

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