Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Etymology gleanings for March 2020

Should it be business as usual with the Oxford Etymologist? Closing the blog until better days will probably not benefit anybody. The terrain is like a minefield, but I’ll continue gleaning.

In reply to a complaint, I want to remind our correspondents that comments are posted in New York, and, if something falls through the cracks, the reason may be only an occasional computer glitch. Please resend your comments. By contrast, I do not react to everything I receive. Sometimes I have nothing to say. For instance, I have read a good deal about the Silk Road and told what I know about it in the previous posts. Rehashing the same information would be counterproductive. Yet I don’t believe that silk or Silk Road has anything to do with Engl. side ~ German Seite. I also suggest that those who have difficult questions post them as comments rather than writing me personally, because comments are seen by many, and someone may know a good answer.

Here are three examples of such questions. 1) “Do you know any other word or place name that relied on the accented syllable surviving, as is shown in Milan from Mediolanum?” I am out of my depth here and appeal to Romance scholars in Italy and elsewhere. The change from Mediolanum to Milano seemed to have happened on the basis of both Latin and the Italic languages of Italy, but we need details and analogs. 2) Why does it seem that, at least in English, we have an abundance of words for things very large and very small, but barely any words for things of medium size? I wrote to our correspondent and asked for examples. He did not respond. Yet perhaps someone is also interested in such matters and has an opinion. 3) Mr. Nathan Paige has been working on a list of words similar and, according to him, related in Chinese and English. The examples I examined struck me as relatively unconvincing, but I know nothing about Chinese and will refrain from further comment.

Still at the cutting edge

Where is the golden mean? Image from A Critique of the Theory of Evolution by Thomas Hunt Morgan. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

As discussed in the previous posts, the oldest recorded form of the Germanic word for “ax” is Gothic aqizi. The Gothic Bible was translated from Greek in the fourth century, and the word Bishop Wulfila saw was Greek aksíne (Luke III: 9; here is the text from the Revised Version: “And now also the axe is laid unto the root of the trees: every tree therefore which bringeth not forth a good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire”). The Goths could have borrowed Greek aksíne, but chose not to do so. However, the similarity between the words is apparent. They are either related or, as noted in an earlier post, we are dealing with the name that traveled from land to land and was modified slightly in its travels: Greek has aksíne, Latin askia (from aksia?), Hebrew hāšīn, Gothic aqizi, and so on. Since we do not know where the story began, we cannot answer the question about the initial form and meaning of the word. The name of a tool need not even reflect its function. As Ion Carstoiu points out, one could invent an awl and transfer the name of some other long and piercing object to it (think of the myriad words for “penis”). The same is also true of many other objects. As usual, God is in the details, and those are hard to reconstruct.

Another Germanic word for “awl” is Old Engl. prēon (Modern Germ. Pfriem, Icel. prjónn) The similarity between prēon and Greek prion “saw; borer” attracted the attention of etymologists long ago. If this similarity is not accidental, the Germanic word was more probably borrowed from Slavic, which was indeed a loan from Greek. A native (Germanic) etymology for prēon has also been proposed. The history of Icel. prjónn is unclear: native or borrowed? In Old Icelandic, prjónn occurred only as a nickname. “Origin disputed.”

Etch, hatchet, and awl

Engl. etch is an eighteenth-century borrowing of Dutch etsen, but this Germanic verb is old and initially had nothing to do with etchings. Even in Gothic, (fra)atjan “give away (to be consumed)” has been recorded. Atjan is the causative of etan “to eat,” that is, “to make one eat.” In some connection, not too long ago, I mentioned causative verbs. The parade example is set from sit. The rule for the formation of such verbs sounds like a recipe from a cookbook. “Take a strong verb, choose its second grade (past singular) and add the suffix –jan to it.” The past singular of etan, the “second grade of ablaut,” was at. In atjan (at + jan), j caused umlaut and the doubling of the consonant—hence ettjan, etsen, German ätzen, and so forth.” Hatchet is a borrowing from French, the diminutive of hache. I briefly discussed it in the introductory post on the names of the ax (March 18, 2020). It is thus not related to etch.

A classic Dutch etching. The Strolling Musicians, Rembrandt. CC0 1.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Greek trepau may be relatively late, but trepō “to turn, etc.” was a common word in Classical Greek. The suggestion to derive Germanic al– in the Germanic name of the awl from the last two sounds of trepau was probably meant as a joke. The length of the vowel a in the ancient Germanic form is uncertain. It is not necessary to accept secondary lengthening in Sanskrit ârâ, but the reason I chose to stay with short a in Germanic is this: Judging by the borrowed Romance forms mentioned in the post for March 11, 2020, Gothic had some word like alisna, whose a was short. I preferred to be guided by the Germanic, rather than the Sanskrit, form.

Squirrels and acorns

Granted, acorns grow on oaks, and squirrels like acorns. Squirrel is a Romances word, whose Latin protoform was borrowed from Greek, and its origin is crystal clear. The Germanic forms of the word for “squirrel” were neologisms (coined by those who hunted squirrels for fur?), and the forms varied from language to language: Old High German eihhurn(o), Middle Dutch eencoren ~ eenhoorn, Old Norse íkorni. The form íkorni presents some interest, because it has nothing to do with eik “oak,” and only some later dialectal Scandinavian forms begin with eik. Old English had weorn(a), a stub of the Indo-European protoform (w)oiwer, a reduplication (see the post for July 2019), also known from other ancient animal names. Later, it acquired a synonym, almost a doublet, namely, āc-weorn(a) ~ āc-wern; that is, āc was added to the old word in retrospect. Consequently, though an association between squirrels and oaks is obvious, in names like Eichhörnchen it is secondary. The acorn was called akran in Gothic, akarn in Old Icelandic, æcern in Old English, etc. The word has nothing to do with corn, but everything with acre. In my opinion, it is hard to detect the word for “acorn” in the Germanic name of the squirrel, old or new.

Squirrels, oaks and acorns, an indissoluble union. Public domain via needpix.com.

The verb bring (see the post for March 4, 2020)

No source I have consulted suggests that bring has any Baltic cognates. As to the origin of this verb and of German tragen “to carry,” I cannot add anything to what I wrote in that post. The modern past form brung, mentioned in one of the comments, is indeed well-known in dialects.

The state of Spelling Reform

The Expert Commission has produced a shortlist of six schemes from among the 35 submissions received and which passed the sifting process. Several schemes are quite reasonable, and there is hope that the best one will be acceptable to the public on both sides of the Atlantic.

If I survive my well-contented day, you will hear more from me next Wednesday. In the meantime, send letters and comments! We are now like the characters in Boccaccio’s Il Decamerone, so why not start telling one another good tales?

Il Decamerone: We’ll survive! Left image: Gravelot illustration, CC by 2.0 via Paul K on Flickr. Right image: A tale from the Decameron by John William Waterhouse. Collection: Lady Lever Art Gallery, National Museums Liverpool. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Feature image credit: Auditorium at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan. Unknown artist, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. Ivan Dickason

    Good Afternoon,
    In todays note you mention the Expert Commission on Spelling Reform. Where can I find out more about their work?

  2. Vivian Ramalingam

    Any imagined relationship between Etch and Axe can only be metaphoric. Although the Axe “bites (into)” its work material, it does not consume it. The acid used in etching does “eat into” or “eat away” (consume) its work material, but it too has only a metaphoric “bite.” It’s only in the jaws of the beholder.

  3. Bob Rosenberg

    Even Homer nods: “if something falls between the cracks” really ought to be “if something falls through the cracks.”

    Long-time reader, first-time whiner.

  4. Alan Mighty

    I write with regard to AL’s comment on Nathan Paige’s word list suggesting similarities between English and Chinese.

    Putting word transfers between modern Chinese and European languages aside, the seminal reference on relationships between Chinese and any Indo-European language is:

    Tsung-tung Chang, ‘Indo-European Vocabulary in Old Chinese: A New Thesis on the Emergence of Chinese Language
    and Civilization in the Late Neolithic Age,’ in _Sino-Platonic Papers_ 7 (January 1988), 56pp.

    Chang’s paper can be found on the internet by searching for “spp007_old_chinese”.

  5. Constantinos Ragazas

    Anatoly you write,

    “Greek trepau may be relatively late, but trepō “to turn, etc.” was a common word in Classical Greek. The suggestion to derive Germanic al– in the Germanic name of the awl from the last two sounds of trepau was probably meant as a joke.”

    No it wasn’t! The Greek words “τρεπαω” and “τρεπω” are the same! Differing only in their grammatical form. Whereas “τρεπω” means “to make a hole”, “τρεπαω” means “to be making a hole”.

    Certainly this last form would be more appropriate and closer to the function of the tool making a hole. And explains the double vowel “aw” in “awl”.

    Never mind the German “al-“! Since the English “awl” may have its independent origin in the Greek!

    You also say, “Greek has aksíne, Latin askia (from aksia?), Hebrew hāšīn, Gothic aqizi, and so on. Since we do not know where the story began, we cannot answer the question about the initial form and meaning of the word. ”

    Yea but…, only the Greek “αξινε” has clear and convincing meaning! Being derived from the Greek “ξινε” (grind).

    Thus we CAN “answer the question about the initial form and meaning of the word”! Even if you and others cannot!

    Kostas

  6. Cassandra Ammerman

    Thanks for pointing that out, Bob! Fixed.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *