Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Etymology gleanings for June 2020

Response to some comments

The verb cut. The Middle Dutch, Dutch, and Low German examples (see the post for July 1, 2020) are illuminating. Perhaps we are dealing with a coincidence, because such monosyllabic verbs are easy to coin, especially if they are in at least some way expressive. But another possibility is that in a rather large area, cut and its look-alikes had near-universal currency among cutters, diggers, and perhaps some other artisans and laborers. While researching the etymology of several words (in my experience, adz(e) and ajar: see the posts for August 22, 2012 and March 25, 2020), I suggested that they might have belonged to the lingua franca of itinerant workers. Cut looks like a proper candidate for inclusion in an international jargon of manual workers, both skilled and unskilled. The Greek synonym kottō “to cut” also confirms the idea that this short syllable is a common instinctively chosen sound complex for accompanying an effort. The Polish verb cited in the comment belongs here too.

Cut, cut, cut! Image: public domain via pxfuel.

Greek kottō cannot be the source of its Germanic near-homonym, because, if the speakers of Germanic had borrowed it from Greek during the Paleolithic Period (let us say, ten thousand years ago), it would have undergone the consonant shift and become something like hoth. In general, the more a Greek and an Old Germanic word resemble each other, the smaller the chance that they are related, because in Germanic, not only consonants but also vowels would have diverged from the Indo-European protoform. The Greeks were not the first inhabitants of their archipelago. The homeland of the Germanic nomads is also unknown. In any case, the Germanic (or First) Consonant Shift is centuries later than Homer.

Before the First Consonant Shift. Image 1: public domain via pxfuel. Image 2: Bradshaw rock paintings by TimJN1. CC by-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

The noun sword. It cannot be related to German schwarz “black.” Schwarz is a Common Germanic noun, going back to swart-, while the protoform of sword was swerð-, so that the final consonants are not compatible. This obstacle may perhaps be overcome, but the suggestion that sword meant “burned, or black wood” looks indefensible. When were swords wooden and black? It will be remembered that, if my reconstruction is realistic, swords were called this because they were shining (see especially the post for June 17, 2020).

The verb gnash. It was mentioned in a comment on the post devoted to the origin of knife (June 24, 2020). Like initial kn-, gn– occurs in some sound-imitative words. Gnash and gnaw are among them. Old Icelandic is full of gn-verbs. Yet no direct tie exists between gnash and knife.


(There we go) laughing and scratching. What is the origin of the phrase? Our correspondent found numerous examples of this amusing phrase, and so did I, but not a hint of its source. Perhaps some of our readers will be more fortunate. The obscurity of the phrase is especially irritating, because to laugh and scratch has passed into modern slang with the meaning “to inject a drug.”

Another correspondent wonders how specialists discover the origin of some recent words. The procedure is the same in all etymological searches: the linguist tries to find where and when the word appeared for the first time, compares the neologism with other similar coinages, and tries to make an intelligent guess.  The letter contained five words. Four of them are more or less transparent: finna (a contraction, like the synonymous gonna, probably based on the verb find), simp “fool” (the root of simple ~ simpleton); titcow (the formation and meaning are easy to guess), Poggers “a Twitch Emote for Pepe the Frog,” evidently, a blend of P and (Fr)og; and doge, about which I know nothing, unless it contains an ironic reference to some big shot (doges were the chief magistrates of Genoa and Venice).

English spelling

Six alternative schemes have been offered for final debate, and the second Spelling Congress is being planned. Consult the website of THE ENGLISH SPELLING SOCIETY.

In my posts, I sometimes refer to E. Cobham Brewer, but few people may know his brief contribution to Spelling Reform (Notes and Queries, 8th Series, vol. II, 1893, pp. 363-64; available online). Some of his suggestions have become the norm in the United States. Brewer pleaded for dialog, catalog, program, and so forth (without the useless letters at the end). But his spelling cigaret, favorit, and so forth found no support, though, surprisingly, preterit, a technical term of grammar, has broken through in America. Some of his other ideas were bizarre, but such were also many of his etymologies that alternated with shrewd remarks on the origin of words and idioms. His Dictionary of Phrase and Fable enjoyed such popularity that the lack of later comments on his spelling ideas is surprising.

The beginning of serious English etymology in England

Henry Sweet (1845-1912). Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

In 1879, the first fascicle of William W. Skeat’s An Etymological Dictionary of the English Language on an Historical Basis (A—DAR) came out, and Henry Sweet, at that time the best specialist in the history of English, wrote a review of it. In retrospect, such giants as Skeat and Sweet have acquired superhuman proportions in our minds, but no, they were like the rest of us. Also, Sweet was a bitter, irascible man, because he never got an academic position which he so richly deserved. This lack of official recognition always surprised his German colleagues. They even wondered whether Sweet was the man’s real name. Perhaps he was a Jew, Mr. Süß? No, he was an Englishman, every inch of him.

In Sweet’s opinion, Skeat was strong on Middle English, but his “treatment of the Old English period is the most unsatisfactory, as Prof. Skeat has here relied mainly on the extant dictionaries, all of which (with the exception of [C. W. M.] Grein) teem with the grossest errors handed down from one compiler to the other. [Edward] Lye pillaged [Franciscus] Junius, and Lye and Sommer, together with the later glossaries to various text editions, were digested into one uncritical mass by [Joseph] Bosworth, who not only retains all the blunders of his predecessors, but even adds to them.” This is followed by close to two pages of corrections and the following conclusion: “I have made these criticisms, not to depreciate Prof. Skeat’s work, but to show how vast the subject is, and what many-sided training and research its study involves. Etymology is not a pursuit to be taken up by dabblers and dilettanti, as many still assume, but is really the sum of the results on every branch of philological science” [Hear! Hear!] (and a few more placating words)—The Academy 16, 1879, 34-35.

Advanced Modern English

If your friend is coming to see you, look for them both ways. Photo by Loudon Dodd. CC by-SA 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons.

They. I know that the pronoun they referring to a single person is here to stay but cannot resist the temptation to quote a few nice samples of this usage from letters to the student newspaper of my university:  “I am always struck by the feeling the writer has spent a lot of time thinking about their situation….” (Only his or her own?) “As someone who has been pro-life all their life, I believe…” [not all my but their life!]. “If your friend told you they were going to have sex with someone they knew ‘pretty well’, you’d probably tell them to be very careful.” (Agreed: group sex is dangerous.) “It’s just a process to have that individual come into the office so they can be explained their rights [and] they can understand the process better.” Isn’t there a rule that, when people begin to speak such advanced English, they can no longer hear what they are saying? “They can be explained their rights….”!

Tricky agreement. I have the impression that the agreement in the following two sentences is now the norm, but isn’t it an odd norm? “Each of the plans, which were emailed to faculty and staff earlier this month, include a combination of classes in both the disciplinary inquiries” and “Each of the plans keep current writing requirements but add two new fundamentals.” (The header to today’s post shows a crowded restaurant, hopefully, in a communist society: “From each according to his [!] abilities, to each according to his [!] needs.”)

Comments are welcome!

Feature image credit: Carnegie deli by Joakim Jardenberg. CC by 2.0 via Flickr.

Recent Comments

  1. Margaret Catambay

    What if we think of phrases “each of their plans” as being one word–“Eachoftheirplans”, then using “were” would it be “grammatical”? Or not?

    Are there other languages that do something like this?

    Or perhaps it is the way we respond to the last plural we hear?

    Anyway, it is hard to stop the trend, no matter how annoying it is to people who are trying to correct it. I might catch myself and others in writing, but hearing it is easy to dismiss.

    What do you think?

  2. Rudy Troike

    My favorite example of how independent paths of change in different languages can lead to surface similarities is English “much” < OE mycle and Spanish "mucho" < Latin multus (cf. Italian "molto"). Thus the similarity is neither the result of common inheritance nor borrowing. (The prior inheritance from Indo-European to Germanic and Italic is not relevant here.)


Leave a Comment

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