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Monthly gleanings for October 2019

Parting formulas

I received a question about the origin of French adieu and its close analogs in the other Romance languages. This question is easy to answer. The word goes back to the phrase à Dieu “to God,” which is the beginning of the longer locution à Dieu commande, that is, “I commend (you) to God” or, if we remain with French, “je recommande à Dieu.” The European parting formulas are of rather few types. They may be like Engl. fare well (as in Byron’s 1816 poem: “Fare thee well, and if for ever, still for ever, fare thee well”). Latin vale, the imperative of the verb valēre “to be strong or well,” carries the same message. The practice of commending, that is, recommending one to God (à Dieu = ad deum) goes back to Christianity. French adieu enjoyed some popularity even outside France. Thus, it (or its northern variant adé) migrated to Germany. In rapid speech, its possibly Wallonian variant adjuus (sounding close to Spanish adiós) yielded the almost unrecognizable word tschüs. German Gott befohlen carries the same message as adieu. God may also be invoked elsewhere. Thus, Russian spasibo (stress on the second syllable) “thank you” goes back to spasi Bog ‘God save you’.

Other than that, consider Engl. see you soon and goodbye. See you soon is reminiscent of German auf Wiedersehen, a possible calque of French au revoir “until we see each other again.” Goodbye is an alteration of the phrase God be (by) you. Good has been substituted for God in it. Good day, good evening, and so forth have the same origin. Since a simple question from our correspondent has resulted in a full-fledged digression, I may mention the well-known fact that the origin of the English formula so long, unlike the origin of all the previous ones, is enigmatic. The phrase surfaced in print only in the middle of the nineteenth century and is, most likely, an Americanism. Its foreign origin is nearly certain, and several lending languages, from Hebrew (via Yiddish) to Irish, have been suggested.  German, as I think, though often mentioned in this context, is the least likely of them; so lange has never existed as a parting formula.

Fare thee well. Image credit: “kids waving goodbye ship” by skeeze via Pixabay.

I will quote two statements, because neither seems to have made it to websites. (Nowadays, an enterprising etymologist has to compete with the Internet, rather than with many dictionaries on the shelf, for, indeed, what is the point of writing books if anyone can Google for the interesting word, add etymology or origin to it, and get pages of usually reliable information?). Both statements, extracted from the periodical Notes and Queries, date to 1921: 1) “I heard this expression first early in 1875, when in Colombia (S[outh] A[merica]). It was in constant use among the Cornish, Welsh and English miners as an equivalents to Hasta luego [‘until then’], the usual Spanish form to taking leave.” 2) “About twenty years ago I was told that it is allied to Samuel Pepys’s expression ‘so home’, and should be written ‘so along’ or ‘so long’, meaning that the person using the expression must go his way.” The first source (from Spanish) looks promising. The second has no value, for Pepys lived in the seventeenth century, and the formula, as we have seen, is recent. But, since fanciful explanations of this sort are common, it is useful to have a safeguard against them.


S-mobile is like a barnacle, except that it appears in unpredictable places. Parallel forms with and without it have been recorded even in one and the same language. As I have mentioned in some previous post, the most detailed description of this enigmatic “prefix” and of the hypotheses of its origin can be found in Mark R.V. Southern’s book Sub-Grammatical Survival: Indo-European s-mobile and its Regeneration in Germanic (1999).

How mysterious is the origin of Engl. pig?

What do they have in common? Among other things, possibly a similar origin of their names. Image credit: “big-boar-clean” by Robert-Owen-Wahl via Pixabay.

Since I discussed this word in my book An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction (2008), I will dispense with the details. The origin of pig is called obscure, because, though old, this animal name has no respectable cognates, except Dutch big (!). It has been known for a long time that English, along with the other Germanic languages, has numerous words like pod, pud, bug, pug, buck, big, and others, beginning with b, d, g or p, t, k and ending in the same consonants. All of them refer to things fat, plump, bloated, or puffed up (that is, swollen and therefore sometimes frightening). Long lists of such monosyllables were put together as early as the end of the nineteenth century (by serious students of Indo-European, rather than by enthusiastic amateurs, ready to celebrate the first hypothesis that occurs to them), but it is amazing how reluctantly etymologists take note of them. The Indo-European word for “pig” has come down to English as sow and swine. Animal names are often baby words of the structure referred to above. They appear from “nowhere” and supplant the old-timers. I have been promoting the idea that dog (“of unknown origin”) is one of such words, and I have little doubt that in this respect dog and pig belong together.


The best-known etymology of tweed is as follows: “Trade name originating in the accidental misreading (by James Locke, a London merchant, as is alleged by some) of tweel or tweeled, Scottish forms of twill, twilled, assisted by association with the river Tweed” (The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology). Skeat, rather ominously, did not include the word in his Concise Dictionary, but the strongest dissenting voice known to me is Henry Cecil Wyld’s in The Universal Dictionary of the English Language: “Hardly from twill, as sometimes suggested, as the two kinds of cloth have no resemblance; probably the name of the Scottish river.”

Tweed and twill. Are they similar or different? Left image: “Harris Tweed” by PKM. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons. Right image: “Herringbone twill” by Kaushik Gopal. CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Our correspondent (I have not been authorized to disclose his name, thought of course there is no secret) writes: “This apparently developed from the “Tweed Fishing or Travelling Trousers” advertised in numerous publications from 1834-1838 by the clothing house of Doudney & Son, 49 Lombard Street. And the connection seems to be made here: ‘So celebrated has amateur rod-fishing in the Tweed become, that the proper costume of the sportsman has now become an object of speculation among the London tailors, one of whom advertises among other articles of dress “Tweed Fishing Trousers.” The anglers who have so long established their head-quarters at Kelso, for the purpose of enjoying the amusement of salmon fishing in the Tweed, have had excellent sport lately: some of the most skillful having caught five or six salmon a day, weighing from six to fourteen pounds each [New Sporting Magazine, June 1837]’.”

As our correspondent says, this quotation is certainly worth a look.

Two terminological questions

Sweet dusting. Image credit: “Bowl mit Himbeeren” by Marco Verch. CC by 2.0 via Flickr.
  • Some terms mean the direct opposite of what they seem to imply. One example is the legal phrase death recorded. Is there a term for such words and phrases? I can think only of enantiosemia. For example, to dust can mean ‘to remove the dust from the surface’ and to ‘to cover the surface with some powdered substance’, or Latin altus, which means both ‘high’ and ‘deep’ (the common denominator being ‘removed from the ground’), but this is hardly what our correspondent needs.
  • It sometimes happens that two different words have the same plural, as ellipse (pl. ellipses) and ellipsis (plural ellipses). Is there a term for this confusing homonymy?

Suggestions are welcome!

As usual, I have studied all comments, but, if I had nothing quotable to say or if I have said all I could on the issue in the past, I did not find it necessary to respond. Yet it should be taken for granted that I am grateful for all expressions of interest, agreement, and disagreement with what I write in the posts.

Featured image credit: “River Tweed” by alljengi. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr.

Recent Comments

  1. Constantinos Ragazas


    I will repeat what I said here long ago. The salutation “so long” is likely a contraction and transformation of “sail on”. The fact, as you previously stated when discussing this, this salutation first appeared and was most common among English sailors makes this even more likely.

    As for the ubiquitous and mysterious “s-mobile”, I have suggested considering the Greek grammatical prefix “se”(to you). Many of these mysterious “s-mobile” may be captured so.

    For example, the word “smell”, as I have argued previously, likely derives from the Greek “se mirizi” (it smells to you). Through the contraction “smeir” and the common r~l exchange. Thus getting, “smell”.

    As also some other mysterious prefixes. Like the “o” in the word “obelisk”, from the Greek pronoun “o” (the masculine) and “belona” (needle). With the deminutive “belisk” (little needle).

    There are many many other such examples where words in English have fussed some Greek grammatical prefixes with the Greek word root.

    Sometimes repetition is necessary to scale up over barriers.


  2. John Cowan

    You really should at least read Piotr Gąsiorowski’s very accessible paper on docga > dogge > dog, which shows that dog, like frog is the result of expressive gemination (plus a metathesis): they mean ‘dusky one’ and ‘jumper’ respectively.

    There are a number of other such words: I recently asked Piotr if he had any etymologies in the stewpot for pig, stag, (ear)wig, tagge ‘first-year sheep (dial.), or sugg ‘sparrow’, now surviving only as a proper name. Alas, he did not.

    Hog at least is understood: it’s a Norse borrowing that is cognate with hew, thus ‘the cut/castrated one’.

    Kostas: No, s-mobile can’t be of Greek origin, because Proto-Indo-European is not Greek, any more than it’s Sanskrit. We can reconstruct s-mobile doublets right back to PIE.

  3. Yves Rehbein

    “so lange” may not have ever existed, but “da lang” (that way), extensive variant “dort entlang”, with “so” giving it a slightly different sense, has at least something to do with walking. Well, I do not find that very promissing either.

    So long!

  4. Constantinos Ragazas

    Hello John Cowan,

    “Kostas: No, s-mobile can’t be of Greek origin, because Proto-Indo-European is not Greek,…”

    PIE is a hypothesis. Sometimes we need to step out of the theory to see the truth.


    “Most of the ancestry of the British population after 4,000 years BC (74% on average) is attributable to the Aegean Neolithic farmers. This indicates a substantial shift in ancestry with the transition to farming.[3]”

    These Aegean Neolithic farmers brought with them more than their pots. They brought with them their language. The reason why so many ‘primitive’ English words have Greek roots. Like the word “smell” which in all likelihood derives from the Greek “se mirizi” (it smells to you). Whether we call the “s” mobile or not is academic!

    I offered a sound explanation for some (if not all) of the “s-mobile”. What other is there?


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