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Monthly gleanings for June 2021: odds and ends

Two birds (no stones): fieldfare and sparrow

In one of the comments on the etymology of fieldfare (23 June 2021), a reader took issue with my “disdainful demolition” of other points of view. Disdain is not among my vices (decades of research teach one modesty), and being able to reject a wrong solution makes one neither overweening nor smug. For example, I refuse to accept the idea suggested in the comment that –fare in fieldfare means “food.” Though in its present form fieldfare appeared only in the Middle period, its ancestor was known around the year 1100, while fare “food” turned up considerably later. Fare means “passage”; hence the later sense “the food needed for travel.” I cannot find a single bird in any European language in whose name, old or new, a similar idea is present. Fieldfare as “field food” sounds improbable. Also, while proposing an etymology, it is recommended to explain why the previous hypotheses are wrong.

The original meaning of sparrow has been the subject of protracted research. From Classical Greek several words have come down to us: sparásion, sporgílos, and (s)pérgoulos. They resemble the sparrow’s name in the languages all over Eurasia, with or without s- at the beginning (Latin parra, Gothic sparwa, and so forth). Perhaps the word meant “hopper” (if so, then the English verb spurn may be related: its present-day sense “to reject” developed from the concrete sense “to trample”). All the rest is guesswork. (Even, when dealing with such a pair as German Sperling and Spatz, both of which mean “sparrow,” it is not evident that they are cognate. (Russian vorobei is equally tough.)


A common bird with an uncommon etymology. (Image by David Friel via Wikimedia Commons)

This is one of the few words about which I will not say: “Of disputed origin.” Math (here) has the same unproductive suffix as in length, breadth, width, strength, warmth, and sloth. In aftermath, the root is a noun related to the verb mow “to cut grass.” Hence aftermath “a second crop of grass (the grass that grew after the first mowing)”; see the picture at the head of the post. The figurative sense has almost superseded the direct one; therefore, the etymology of this word is no longer clear to modern speakers.

Heifer and beyond

The post on heifer (16 June 2021) was no. 800 in this blog. Several readers sent me their greetings on this “anniversary.” My sincere thanks to them and to everybody who has been paying attention to “The Oxford Etymologist.” And I am not a bit surprised that méchant ended up with a wrong accent in that post. Méchant is one of the first French words I learned in my life, but words tend to live up to their etymology and sense (this is a law of my own discovery). How could such an adjective surface without a typo?

From my archive

I have a sizable supply of quotes from newspapers and books, some of which may be interesting to our readers.

Folk etymology: the adjective snide

Snide but usable clothes. (Image by Bbensmith via Wikimedia Commons)

Strangely, next to nothing is known about the origin of this relatively late Americanism, but since a snide remark (for example) is a “cutting” remark, there may (must?) be some connection with the root of such words as Dutch snijden or German schneiden “to cut.” This is what I read in American Notes and Queries, Vol. 4, for 12 April 1890. Someone asked the editor about the etymology of snide defined in the letter as “tricky, worthless, etc.” This was the reply: “I am told that men born in New York can remember in their boyhood a custom by which all tailors were called ‘Schneiders’ by the street boys,” says NY Sun. “Out of that grew the abbreviated word snide, which was at first applied only to cheap or poor clothing such as was made by German tailors in the little side-street shops. Now the word is applied to every mean, poor, or fraudulent thing.” If you have a better conjecture or if you know the origin of the phrase zoot suit, kindly share your information with me.

What is good English?

T. Adolphus Trollope, 1810-1892, a prolific novelist and a stickler for beautiful English. (Image by Harper and Bros via Wikimedia Commons)

This is a message from T. Adolphus Trollope, one of the most popular writers of his time. It appeared on 29 October 1892, three or four weeks before his death (Notes and Queries, 8th Series, vol. II, p. 357):

“In less vulgar times than these ‘fin de siècle’ days English custom was wont to sanction such modes of speech as writers—recognized to be good writers—and cultured people used. And neologisms became acclimatized and sanctioned slowly. In these days the process is a very much quicker one. Some fool with a very limited vocabulary at his command hears some word or combination of words—possibly a happy and suggestive one, but very far more likely an extremely stupid and ungrammatically constructed—which is new to him, and he forthwith delightedly seizes it and adds to his meagre store. Seven other fools worse than himself hear it, and each of them appropriates it and is in turn imitated, each by other seven spirits of his own kind. Some newspaper reporter, writing in hot haste, picks it up. Others plagiarize the ‘happy thought’. And the trick is done. English custom sanctifies the use of the newest phrase. Words thus not only change, but in some cases altogether lose their proper meaning.”

This is disdain indeed (and I hope the accent in siècle is correct). For decades, I have been telling my students (and once wrote in this blog and was even praised for the sentiment) that the history of language is an extremely interesting subject but that nothing is sadder than to be part of it.

Some things Trollope would probably have winced at

The so-called s possessive is natural when used with names (Tom’s, Dick’s, Harry’s, etc.). We often see it elsewhere (the town’s destruction, the country’s progress, and the like), but here are two examples: “English’s lack of a third-person singular gender-neutral pronoun is a problem centuries old” (from the NY Times Book Review, 2 Febr 2020, p.12). “Investigators… were on the scene well into Tuesday afternoon, but had yet to pinpoint the fire’s origin or cause” (from the Minneapolis Star Tribune). English’s lack, fire’s origin… Isn’t that usage odd? (On the other hand, the misuse of the apostrophe has been ridiculed more than once. I, for example, was delighted to read a recent letter from a person occupying a high post who sent her greetings to all dad’s.)

Long ago, I wrote in this blog that, if I am not mistaken, the split infinitive of the to not do type is an Americanism from the south, because Huck Finn says so six times; only once does he use this construction with always. No one commented on my hypothesis, and no one explained why this type of splitting suddenly became ubiquitous. It is even hard to understand what makes some speaker go to such lengths to make their message incomprehensible. “Our process calls for this type of message to only be sent via email”; “I promised to only write one email a day.” Any thoughts on the subject?

Perhaps you applied for a grant and your application was rejected. Take solace in the following note: “When in January 1932, Dr. Grant, the Editor of the Scottish National Dictionary, appealed for financial aid in his great work to about 270 Burns Clubs, he received one donation of £1.”

Next week, I’ll write about the word beacon (as promised).

Feature image: UGA CAES/Extension via Flickr

Recent Comments


    Dear Mr Liberman
    You have in today’s etymology post cunningly failed to fairly represent the case for ‘fieldfare = food’ as that case was made to you. There is no mention of the invariable sing./pl. for hunted game, for example. And so you continue to appear infallible to your readers: well done, that man!
    You also need to be corrected on an error in the phrase ‘this is a law of my own discovery’. This structure is followed by a gerund not a noun. You should have written ‘this is a law of my own discovering”, even if you thought it sounded more clunky. Or maybe you just didn’t know.

  2. Maggie Catambay

    You inspired me!
    I simply had to look up the split infinitive controversy to find out when splitting an infinitive might be preferred.
    Well, here is Wikipedia on the subject:

  3. Stephen Goranson

    From a song with a 1941 (?) copyright and 1942 recordings): “I want a zoot suit with a reet pleat and a stuff cuff And a drape shape….” Green’s Dictionary o Slang documents “reet” meaning “right” and suggests, note the question mark “? New Orleans patois zoot, cute.”

  4. Bechir Lamine

    Dear Mr. Liberman,
    With regard to sparrow, isn’t there a semitic origin? The Arabic word /ʕusˤ.fuːr/ is said to have the following etymology: ‘From Proto-Semitic *ṣapir- (“small bird”), from Proto-Afroasiatic *c̣ipar- (“small bird; guinea fowl”); variant form of صَافِر‎ (ṣāfir, “small bird”), the /ع/ perhaps derives from a conflation with another closely related root Proto-Semitic *ʿiṣṣūr- (“bird”). Compare Hebrew ציפור‎ (ṣippōr), Aramaic צִפְּרָא‎ (ṣippərā), Ugaritic 𐎕𐎔𐎗 (ṣpr), and Akkadian 𒄷 (iṣṣūru).’ (Wiktionary)

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