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Etymology gleanings for December 2019

Once again, my thanks are to everybody who read this blog in 2019 and commented on its fifty two posts. However, I still have to wave a friendly goodbye to the ghost of the year gone by and do some gleaning on the frozen field of December.

An etymological problem: Why are Greek grassidi “grazing field” and Engl. grass not related?

It has, naturally, been known for a long time that Engl. grass and its cognates (they sound almost the same in the other languages) resemble Greek gráō “I chew, gnaw,” Sanskrit grásati “I devour”, Latin grāmen “grass,” and especially Greek grástis “forage, herbage.” Sanskrit and Greek words refer to food. Latin hordeum “barley,” another likely cognate, points in the same direction.

In contrast, English (and Germanic) grass is ensconced in a different semantic nest. Its cognates are grow and green. To conclude: the Greek forms and its congeners in Sanskrit and Latin describe eating (and grass as food for the cattle), while the Germanic ones deal with vegetation as such. If they were borrowed from Greek or some other non-Germanic language, they would probably have taken over the connotations familiar in those languages. This is how etymology can disentangle a knot of seeming lookalikes and suggest a reasonable solution.

Grass the Greek way, and grass, the Germanic way. Livestock image by stokpic from Pixabay. Landscape image by RitaE from Pixabay.

A short postscript may be of some interest. If Latin vorare “to eat greedily; devour” (compare Engl. voracious) is related to granum, the ancient root began with gw, and, if hordeum and granum belong together, that root began with gh . The root of grass certainly began with gh. Were the picture clearer, we might even prove that Engl. grass and Greek grassidi do not belong together. At the moment, we only have a cogent hypothesis.

This case teaches us an important lesson: words form groups and should be studied in their wider context. The distance from “grass” to “grazing” is short (graze is of course derived from grass), but in the early period of Germanic, the oldest nouns, adjectives, and verbs did not cross it. And I should repeat what I have said more than once: Greek is an Indo-European language related to Sanskrit, Germanic, Celtic, Slavic, and so on, but not their source.

Indo-European and substrates

An avalanche, a substrate phenomenon? Image by Hans Braxmeier from Pixabay.

Although hypotheses on the origin and spread of Indo-European are doomed to remain intelligent guesswork, the idea that this ancient language absorbed numerous elements from the immense territory of Eurasia cannot be contested. The important thing is not to jump to conclusions. Many words are of unknown or controversial origin. Strangely, this is also true of dozens of modern words, especially, but not only, of slang. Anyone who has followed the attempts to discover the etymology of heifer, niblick, masher, kibosh, or jitney will be surprised at the obscurity in which their past is enveloped. Etymology is unable to pull a rabbit out of its hat whenever the question “Where is this word from?” comes up. If modern words present such difficulties, what can we expect of the words that have existed since time immemorial? Consider the last post of the previous year (drink).

Substrate words certainly exist, and some features that characterize them as a group have been listed, but each case is problematic. Reference to the substrate is more convincing when we deal with plant and animal names, the words denoting some feature of the local landscape, and the like. I’ll cite only one example. Engl. avalanche is a borrowing from French, but its distant origin is disputed. Perhaps we are dealing with a substrate item of some Alpine language. Perhaps French avaler “descend” influenced it, or the word goes back to Latin lābī “glide, slide, slip; totter, fall.” Swedish has lauwine. The same form existed in Old High German but has been ousted by Lawine. A noun like this must have been coined by those who often watched masses of rapidly descending snow and gave this phenomenon a name.

Cicero and the Goths

According to a brief comment, Cicero predates the Goths. Why? Cicero lived in the first century BCE, while the Goths were noticed by Roman historians in the first century CE. Surely, unbeknownst to each other, the Goths as an identifiable tribe were at least as old as Cicero. We don’t know whether they spoke a language nearly identical to the one that has come down to us (Bishop Wulfila’s fourth-century Gothic), but this is beside the point.

Cicero and the Goths, near-contemporaries. Cicero from Master Builder: Monuments of Classical Antiquity, Vol. 1. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons. “Grande Ludovisi” sarcophagus, Roman artwork, ca. 251/252 CE. Jastrow, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

How many English words spelled as fret are there?

In my blog on eat, I mentioned fret “to gnaw,” fret “to adorn,” and fret “a wooden bar used in some stringed instruments.” But if we take into account the noun fret with some general meaning “a wearing away, abrasion, etc.,” then we’ll end up with a sizable list of  words, all sounding as fret: “chafing, as in the folds of the skin of fat children,” “herpes, tetter,” “the agitation of a the surface of a fluid, as when fermenting, or boiling (hence rippling on the surfaces of water)”; “a flurry; a glass composition, compounded of silica, lime, soda, etc.”  (The definitions have been adapted from The Century Dictionary). The common denominator is obviously “to gnaw; to wear away.”

Rum and its lookalikes

On October 6, 2010, I wrote a post on the etymology of the word rum. A question from a reader made me return to it. As usual, I discovered that some comments had appeared there much later. May I repeat that those who are kind enough to add something to an old essay should write the additions after the most recent post, for how else can I know that those additions have been made? Incidentally, this is Post 726, for the blog “The Oxford Etymologist” came into existence on March 1, 2006 and is approaching it fourteenth anniversary. Obviously, for each set of the “gleanings” I look only through the posts of the previous month.

Anyway, is dram “a small draught (draft) of liquor” related to rum? No, it is not.  The word refers to 1/8 fluid ounce and goes back to Old French drame or Medieval Latin dram, a variant of drachma, ultimately from Greek.

Hog on ice again

Words connected with games are often hopelessly obscure. In the previous set of gleanings (November 2019), I discussed the origin of the American idiom as independent as a hog on ice. The image seems to go back to the game of curling. Our correspondent writes: “Cochon ‘pig’ is the French for the little ball with which players of the game of boules or petanque in turn try to strike a large ball.” Another idea from the same correspondent seems to take us away from pigs, but, strangely, not from animals: “a puck (phonetically close to pig) is the object which players in hockey or ice hockey try to shoot into the opposite goal.” Some sources identify this puck with Puck “goblin”; others derive it from a variant of the verb poke. Our correspondent continues: “Could this word connect with a pig’s palpable unlovability,” so that thwacking it affords pleasure to the players? In the letter, those are called wild guesses. The similarity between pig and puck looks fortuitous, but the French term, as compared with hog on ice, is suggestive, is it not?

Stability amidst change


“…the kingdom’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, whom U.S. and other Western intelligence agencies have concluded ordered the killing.” American English keeps changing at full speed, but the confusion of who and whom has remained stable for a very long time.

Featured image credit: Fog Over the Sea by Tom Mrazek. CC-BY-2.0 via Flickr. Image has been cropped and flipped horizontally.

Recent Comments

  1. John Cowan

    The use of whom (except after a preposition) is moribund to dead, and people attempting to use it in writing are naturally going to make mistakes with its use, just as with any other archaic construction. I think of Debbie Reynolds saying in some forgotten movie “Wherever thou goest, I goest too.”

    The same may be said of the mandative subjunctive, as in “The general requested that his troops be withdrawn”. This is alive and well in American English but moribund in British English, where it is often replaced by the plain indicative. An alternative construction, possible in AmE and frequent in BrE, isunstressed should with the infinitive; this use of should has no obligatory force.

  2. Constantinos Ragazas


    The word groups you speak of are made up catagories by linguists to explain how ‘primitive’ words can be so similar but not connected. Done at a time when no mechanism for ‘primitive’ word assimilation from Greek to other languages was known to them.

    We now know better! The recent aDNA studies show the Early Neolithic farmers of Britain and Europe descended from the Aegean. Bringing with them their culture and their language.

    We can expect many ‘primitive’ words from their language (Greek) to have evolved and passed on to many millennia of people that followed them. Like “grassidi” (abbreviated to “grass”). Not as an etymological academic exercise or made up word groups, but as a natural everyday use of language.

    BTW, there is also a Greek word, “horta”, that is similar to the Latin “hordeum”. Which, also means “grass”.


  3. Constantinos Ragazas

    “… Greek words [“grassidi”] refer to food.


    In contrast, English (and Germanic) grass is ensconced in a different semantic nest. Its cognates are grow and green. ”

    Anatoly, these group classifications are arbitrary and contrived. “Grow”, for example, could easily be included in the group for ‘eating food’. Further, etymologically “grow” is closest to the Greek “graw”(eat), than English “green”.

    Besides, what does “green” ‘really mean’? More likely, “green” derives from “grass” than the other way around. As “green” for “money” certainly does.

    Further, Greek “grassidi” makes perfect sense in Greek (as a “grazing/eating field”). While English “grass” from “green” makes no sense and is cyclical and convoluted. And has no ‘original meaning’. All the more reason why it has to be rejected.


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