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Etymology gleanings for May 2020

English spelling

I promised not to return to Spelling Reform and will be true to my word. The animated discussion of a month ago (see the comments following the April gleanings) is instructive, and I’ll only inform the contributors to that exchange that nothing they wrote is new. It is useful to know the history of the problem being discussed, for what is the point of shooting arrows into the air? Look through the booklet by Walter W. Skeat The Problem of Spelling Reform. London: Henry Frowde, 1906. This was originally a paper read before the Royal Society; the tiny booklet (18 pages) has recently been reprinted. All the arguments and counterarguments were old and trite even then. We have posted Skeat’s portrait many times. It won’t hurt anyone to look at the great scholar again. Over the ages, spelling has often changed by decree or without it in various cultures. Some people were unhappy, others expressed satisfaction, and still others never noticed the difference. My colleague signs his letter with: “Your’s truly.” And my students often ask me: “Proffesor [sic], when is the paper do?” No version of the reform will affect them. Let every cobbler stick to his last and enjoy life. Time will show whether the Reform will ever materialize. In my opinion, it is long “overdo.”

The more we read Walter W. Skeat, the smarter we become. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

The grammatical gender in language history

Old Germanic inherited three genders from Indo-European, but the assignment of the masculine, feminine, or neuter makes sense only if it is predictable, for example: “A noun ending in –a is (usually) feminine (as in Latin and Russian) or neuter (as in Greek).” But by looking at a word in Gothic, Old English, or Old Norse, we can seldom guess its gender. Therefore, it does not come as a surprise that many nouns vacillated between the masculine and the feminine or between the feminine and the neuter. Sometimes different dialects of Middle High German assigned different genders to the same word. As a result, the modern language occasionally retains the ancient vacillation, though Germans have the uncanny ability to remember the correct gender of all words, while foreigners have trouble in mastering even the system of two genders, as, for example, in French or Swedish. Bless your stars that English has lost gender distinctions (so far, mainly in grammar). I should perhaps add that a student of Old Germanic should not expect every noun to have the same gender as in Standard Modern German.

The force of short i

In my discussion of words like snitch and snatch (May 13, 2020), I wrote that, when there is a progression of vowels, be it in whippersnapper, tick-tack-toe, or Big Bad Wolf, the direction is always the same: from short i (which stands for something small) to a. Patter-pitter instead of pitter-patter would have produced a ridiculous anticlimax. Among other words, I mentioned wigwam. The objection from a reader was that wigwam is a borrowed word in English. The question was: “Is the progression discussed in the post a universal?” Yes, it seems to be such: i (as in bit) is a closed vowel, while, when we say a (as in bat), we open the mouth wide; hence probably the sound-symbolic reaction.

The origin of the word sword

An etymologist as the modern-day Lancelot. Image via Public Domain Vectors.

Since I don’t believe that Old Germanic borrowed words from the speakers of Ancient Greek, I’d rather stay away from discussing whether one sound from a Greek word could be added to a Germanic word (those interested in such procedures are advised to read Gogol’s play Marriage) or whether some Greek words were tortured into producing Old English nouns. I know that I’ll incur the wrath of my opponent, but I prefer to be conservative in linguistic reconstruction. The attacker’s flaming sword will probably try to destroy me, so that I have my harness and visor on. The comment on the Latvian words resembling sword is interesting, but the similarity is probably accidental. I am sorry that there is no English equivalent of the German term Benennugsmotif “the reason a word is called the way known to us.” Finding a true motivation for “calling a spade a spade” is the main task facing an etymologist. As we know, from the point of view of ancient speakers, the most noticeable feature of swords (strangely!) was not always their ability to cut. Compare Latin ferrum “iron; sword” (from the name of the material).

If, as I argued, sword and sward are related, the chance that sword was borrowed from some distant source diminishes. I have received a letter pointing to the similarity between Germanic swerð– and a Hebrew word. Again, the similarity is, most likely, coincidental. Viktor Levitsky, as pointed out in a comment, wrote an article about sword. He repeated his hypothesis in a Germanic etymological dictionary, published shortly before his death. The dictionary is, unfortunately, in Russian and will therefore remain closed to most of those who need it.

The latest works on the subject known to me are Friedrich Grünzweig, Das Schwert bei den Germanen… and Lisa Deutscher, Das Schwert—Symbol und Waffe…. Levitsky developed a theory of Germanic roots on which I deliberately did not touch, for it would have taken me too far afield. In my opinion, his main merit (as regards sword) is the insistence on the relatedness between sword and sward, the point first made by Sperber but ignored or ridiculed by everybody else. I am less enthusiastic about tracing the root of sword to the idea of cutting, but I am in general not too much interested in finding the ancient (reconstructed) Indo-European roots of the words under investigation. The reference to “shining” is my idea, because I tried to make sense of swords being “smooth.”

Let the cobbler stick to his last. Unknown artist, around 1425. Via Wikimedia Commons.

A study in advanced Modern English

From a newspaper (a statement by an elected official): “A state full of graduating seniors have been told they can’t have an in-person ceremony,” L. tweeted. “Us elected officials [no commas] should be held to the same standard.” A forceful statement. It reminds me of two more in my archive: “Let’s you and I frame the discussion between you and I” and “Let I quote the letter to the editor.”

“Last semester, university senior *** said they were misgendered on the first day of class. Feeling unsafe from potential harassment, they dropped the course.” Compare the section on the grammatical gender above.

Out of the mouth of babes

Many years ago, I occasionally followed Gene Bluestein’s column Words to the Wise in The Fresno Bee. Here is an extract from his publication on May 15, 1992: “My wife taught in a kindergarten where one of the children complained, ‘Johnny said the F-word’. She said, ‘Tell him not to’. But after several repetitions, she wondered what these kids were in fact talking about. ‘What is the F-word?’ she asked. ‘Kiss my butt!’ said the child.” What’s in a word?

Feature image credit: Royal society meeting hall at Burlington house. Unknown author, 1906. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. Constantinos Ragazas

    “Since I don’t believe that Old Germanic borrowed words from the speakers of Ancient Greek, I’d rather stay away from discussing whether one sound from a Greek word could be added to a Germanic word ”

    Broad brushing the issue only highlights it! Its not just “one sound” … its whole words! Not borrowed — what happens when two thriving cultures culturally interact. But ‘primitive’ core words spoken by prehistoric Aegean settlers of Europe. (As recent aDNA scientific findings now have established.) And passed on to become the core language of the geographic region. And get transformed over thousands of years. To become “of unknown source”!

    What linguists recognized as PIE. Now we know how this happened!

    In the context of your post, such words as

    ξιφος –> knife (notice the “k” which comes from the “ξ”)

    σπαθη –> spade, sword

    μαχερι –> Gothic hairus and mekis


  2. nikita

    Ah, sweet memories: “Если бы губы Никанора Ивановича да приставить к носу Ивана Кузьмича, да взять сколько-нибудь развязности, какая у Балтазара Балтазарыча, да, пожалуй, прибавить к этому ещё дородности Ивана Павловича — я бы тогда тотчас же решилась.”

  3. Allan Campbell

    Okay, so there is nothing new under the Sun in reasons for and ways of upgrading our spelling.
    All the effort and money put into plans to modernize it by the likes of the Simplified Spelling Board (US), Simplified Spelling Society (UK), President “Teddy” Roosevelt, Robert McCormicks Chicago Tribune, and British Labour MP Dr Mont Follick came to nothng. Why?
    It seems the missing element was the marketing of the idea. It is necessary to go thru all the steps of organizing, planning, promoting, revising, and delivering.
    Its mor about selling than spelling.

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