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Bimonthly etymology gleanings: September 2021

This past summer we experienced a severe drought. Even clover did not grow close to the place where I live. Nor did my correspondence with the world burst into bloom. Or perhaps the prevailing spirit of the time caused by the pandemic is at fault. I had to skip the August gleanings for lack of material, but by now I have enough tidbits to deal with. I’ll tackle them in the order of appearance, beginning with the earliest one.

The origin of flow. My indomitable opponent who keeps finding Greek sources of multifarious English words suggested pléo as the etymon of flow and predicted that I would reject his etymology. He was right. I will ignore his reference to the data that allegedly explain when the ancestors of Germanic-speaking people might pick up so many Greek words. That fact is irrelevant. But I hasten to note that the verb pléo meant “to swim; float; sail, navigate; progress; swing” (thus, “move along,” not “flow”) and had a short vowel in the root. The Old English for “flow” was flōwan (with long o). Pléo is an impossible cognate or source of flow.

By the way, among my correspondents one writes me almost after every post and shows that the words I discuss go back to Hebrew. I admire his ingenuity but stubbornly refuse to understand how the connections could come about, though he usually offers an explanation. I have seen works tracing English to Greek, Latin, Arabic, and Irish and have little enthusiasm for those theories (excuse my understatement). The real problem here, as I wrote two months ago, is that Latin fluere, which, in dictionaries is diplomatically said to have influenced the English verb, cannot be its cognate. One is forced to admit that fl- was a sense-symbolic group evoking the idea of moving with or along the stream. However, it seems that pl- could also refer to water: compare Greek plēo (cited above) and Latin pluit “it rains,” with immediately recognizable reflexes in the Modern Romance languages.

Väinamöinen. (By Robert Wilhelm Ekman via Wikimedia Commons.)

One of the posts was about the words ninepence and nine. I made a ridiculous mistake and wrote that the attraction of 3, 7, and 9 might be in the fact that they were prime numbers. It is curious how we come up with such statements and remain blind to what we have produced. Don’t I know that 9 = 32? But numerology remains one of the toughest problems in folklore reconstruction. I am sure I am not the first to think so, but couldn’t the near-universal attraction of nine be explained by the mysterious fact that pregnancy lasts nine months? Even in such an archaic poem as the Finnish Kalevala the creation of the world lasts nine long epochs, at the end of which the great singer Väinamöinen is born.

In my discussion, of monkey as slang (monkey “mortgage”), I asked whether anybody had ideas about this strange sense of the word. But first I would like to call our readers’ attention to my post for 23 January 2013 with its punning title “Wrenching an etymology out of a monkey.” In it the origin of the word monkey was discussed, and I expressed my strong disagreement with the derivation offered in Online Etymology Dictionary, the only source of inspiration for hundreds of readers. But more important than the post are the numerous comments, some of which were added several years after the publication of that essay. I have written more than once that anyone who wishes to say something about an old post should add a comment after the most recent one, with reference to the original date, for otherwise, how can I know that some additions were made much later? I find one conjecture about the origin of monkey extremely interesting, but I stumbled on it by chance, while consulting my old post for the benefit of this one. The OED suggests that monkey business goes back to a phrase in Bengali. If so, our reader’s proposal that the word monkey is a borrowing from the Gypsy language gets additional support. Gypsy showmen often traveled with performing animals.

A monkey on the house. (Image by Devanath on Pixnio.)

In the comments on the recent post, it was pointed out that monkey lends itself well to such phrases as monkey’s uncle on account of the internal rhyme. The idea looks plausible. Another reader wrote that monkey was slang for £500 and suggested a possible connection. I also wonder: didn’t the proximity of the words money and monkey play a role in the coining of some words and phrases mentioned above?

Mother “sediment” (the post on homonyms). I agree with the comment that in mother of pearl, rather than in mother of vinegar, it is hard to decide which sense is meant. But that is probably the reason English and some other Germanic languages so readily accepted the clash of such seemingly irreconcilable homonyms. Mother as “the lowest layer” and mother as “producer” tend to get into each other’s way quite naturally.

The history of henchman. This was the subject of two consecutive posts. According to one suggestion, German Henker might be akin to the English word. Henker is related to the verb hang, that is, German hängen, and means “executioner.” However little we know about the early duties of the henchman (attendant? helpful servant?), those were not related to hanging, even if that servant was his master’s hanger-on. Dutch (om)heining (both were mentioned in a comment) has a transparent etymology: its root is related to English haw (remembered mainly from hawthorn and the name Hawthorn) and hedge, German Hecke, etc. In the same comment, Finnish hangas was mentioned. How could the English and the Finnish words interact?

Mr. Pickwick, Esq. (By Joseph Clayton Clarke via Wikimedia Commons.)

While discussing henchman, I mentioned the fact that no name of an English attendant or servant begins with horse or its synonym. Equerry came up in a comment. This word surfaced in English texts only in the sixteenth century and meant “royal or princely stables,” later “an officer in charge of such stables,” and still later “an officer of the royal household in attendance on a prince.” The root of the word can be seen in Medieval Latin scura ~ scuria “stable” (French écurie “stable”). The origin of the Latin word is unknown. The sense “officer in charge of stables” seems to depend on Old French escyer d’escuyrie “squire of the stables.” However convoluted the history of English esquire and its aphetic form squire may be, both words go back to the French phrase cited above, though the modern spelling and the pronunciation of the word were influenced (again influenced!) by Latin equus “horse.” Thus, the connection with horses is even here a product of folk etymology.

P.S. Walter W. Skeat (1887) on the state of the art: “The remarkable article on this word [icicle in Notes and Queries] is of great interest, as showing the determined way in which Englishmen prefer guess-work [sic] to investigation when they have to do with a word belonging to their own language. …when it comes to English, …speculation becomes a pleasure and delight to the writer. I can only say that some readers at least feel a most humiliating sense of shame and indignation at seeing such speculations in all the ‘glory’ of print.” (The great James A. H. Murray also used to say that he needed facts, not opinions.)

Recent Comments

  1. Constantinos Ragazas

    Anatoly, you write

    “I will ignore his reference to the data that allegedly explain when the ancestors of Germanic-speaking people might pick up so many Greek words. That fact is irrelevant. ”

    That fact is very relevant! As it demonstrate a mechanism by which ancient Greek roots entered into English and other Germanic languages.

    And it wasn’t through “borrowing”. But through language assimilation from the prehistoric people to the present. Ignor at your peril!

    Further you write,

    “But I hasten to note that the verb pléo meant “to swim; float; sail, navigate; progress; swing” (thus, “move along,” not “flow”) and had a short vowel in the root. The Old English for “flow” was flōwan (with long o). Pléo is an impossible cognate or source of flow.”

    Again you selectively switch and distort the meaning and sound for the Greek “πλεω”. If you “float” in a moving stream you will be “flowing”!
    Further, in Thucydides, this word is also attested as “πλω”! Greek word endings can be richly varied to add nuence and rhythm. Your objection to the “short vowel in the root” is a distraction!

    But what about the Greek “π” transforming into the Germanic/English “f” that in the past you made such a critical determinant of “true” etymology? Why abandon it here now?!

    “πλω” -> “flow”

    No etymology can be more clear!

    As for your frequent correspondent who “shows that the words I discuss go back to Hebrew”, ask them to post these in the open, as I always do, for public scrutiny, as you always do of mine. Otherwise it is a meaningless false equivalence!

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