Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Winter etymology gleanings

When in March 2006 this blog came into existence, the idea was that I would be inundated with letters, comments, and questions to which I would respond once a month. The flood did not materialize; yet a trickle has never run dry. In recent weeks, even comments have become rare. I assume that the COVID horror and the political climate in the whole world do not foster people’s interest in historical linguistics, though, whenever I speak on the radio or by Zoom, sizable crowds gather to listen to the “news” (the origin of obscure words, the vagaries of modern usage, Spelling Reform, or whatever). Our regular readers may have noticed that my gleanings have become scarce. Yet some questions and comments keep coming my way, and, since the year is drawing to an end, I decided to inspect my archive and post the last gleanings of 2021.

Usage

An occasional contributor to the Minneapolis StarTribune (I live in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and subscribe to the largest local newspaper) often received letters about the misuse of the apostrophe. It is an old hat, but some of the examples are mildly amusing. A CEO reminds the shop workers to pay their due’s. Some company advertises taco’s. In the same vein, quite a few of my students have never learned the difference between its and it’s. Long, long ago, we were told that grammar is not FUN, and as a result, we provide the world with due’s and taco’s. One often reads that language is changing and that only old fogies resist progress. True enough. “Me and him are going on a ski trip in Colorado,” “It’s a gift to you and I,” and so forth. Since the days of King Alfred, English has lost nearly the whole of its morphology. Why not lose what little is still left? I agree and only refuse to be the standard-bearer of progress, just as I refuse to say and write: “President Joe Biden is mistaken to now hope….” Whether he is mistaken or justified in cherishing some hopes, I keep saying to be or not to be, rather than to be or to not be.

Serving an enlightened populace
Images: (left) © Copyright Neil Theasby (CC BY-SA 2.0), (right) Brian Kelly (CC BY 2.0)

I would like to reproduce a comment from my colleague Dr Ari Hoptman and wonder whether other opinions on this point exist. He writes: “Apparently, a couple of generations ago, a 50 dollars fine and a two weeks vacation were normal. [My spellchecker asks me whether I want the noun to be in the singular or in the plural. It also inquires whether I need week’s or weeks’. It is a very particular spellchecker.] For some reason, a two weeks vacation still sounds a bit more OK than a 50 dollars fine. I don’t think you could ever say a five dollars bill.” Likewise, he adds, a five minutes’ walk and a three weeks anniversary have become a five-minute walk and a three-week anniversary. His usage agrees with mine, but it’s curious to read nineteenth- and twentieth-century grammars, both British and American, on this point. Comments, as noted, are welcome.

Equally often I receive complaints about the overuse of buzzwords. Weeds are ineradicable. If I am not mistaken, the ubiquitous phrase you know has all but disappeared (“I came, you know, and he says, you know: ‘Well, you know, of all people!’.” I was once present at a dissertation defense, and half of the introductory speech by the prospective PhD consisted of you know; I forget the other half: it was rather trivial.) Now it is like (“I came, like, half an hour before the beginning, and, like, there was not a single free seat.”). One of my students always says like before the first word: it is like clearing the throat. At a recent linguistic conference, a keynote speaker was invited with a presentation on the profundity of this phenomenon. As a clever nineteenth-century author wrote on another occasion: “The futile pastime of misguided acumen.”

There is not, like, a free seat here
Image by Jim Bahn via Wikimedia Commons

Here is a short list of such cliches from newspapers. When two heads of state meet, they always huddle together or hunker down for discussion. The invariable European context for Donald Trump was: “In Germany, where he is deeply unpopular…” Tragic situations begin to sound trivial because the same shopworn words are used to describe them. After a long battle with cancer, a person dies, shocks go through the community (or the community is stunned). Counselors arrive and teach people to cope with grief, after which the process of healing begins. “Tired of all this, for peaceful death I cry”:  no counselors, no coping, no postmortem healing. My list of hackneyed words is endless. This vocabulary is particularly irritating, because journalists are trained to avoid everyday words and stun the public with exotic synonyms, just to show off (loquacious for eloquent or glib and “such-like” stuff).

Etymology

On October 20, 2021, I wrote a post on the origin of the word spook. In a comment, a Dutch scholar offered his etymology of it. He derived the word from the root of early Modern Dutch spoken “to reflect” and noted that Dutch spook also once meant “omen.” In his opinion, the word owes its existence to the concept of divination. The Indo-European root allegedly meant “see, look, observe.” This may be a correct etymology, but, like mine, it has a few weaknesses. Ghosts have no obvious ties to divination but have everything to do with frightening people and leading them astray. Also, in this context, I would stay away from Icelandic spá-kona “seeress,” for here special pleading is needed to justify the sound correspondence. After all our efforts, spook will remain a word “of unknown origin,” but every new effort may be a step in the right direction. (And in answer to another comment: yes, h in ghost owes its existence to Caxton.)

The Hardy-Weinberg principle, or mind your p’s and q’s (suggested by a geneticist and a friend of the Oxford Etymologist)
Image by Johnuniq via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Distant etymologies

I am in regular correspondence with two people. One is the Rumanian etymologist Ion Carstoiu, the name of the other I won’t disclose, but he allowed me to post his letter. After some of my essays, he suggests a Hebrew-Yiddish origin of the word I discuss. Here is the letter.

The published etymology for pumpernickel (in etymonline, for instance) is too ridiculous for dispute. I suspect it has a Yiddish origin.

It was a bread first eaten by the “common people”, not the elite. The borrowed-into-Hebrew word for the public is PuMBi. This bread was and often still is made with fermented dough, usually called sourdough. The word FeRMent was borrowed into both Hebrew and Yiddish. And NicKeL looks like a reversal of LeKheM (bread), a Hebrew word that every Yiddish speaker would know. But (RN)iKeL may be a reversal of Yiddish meL Ka(RN) = rye flour. And PuMBi may also be a reversal since the MB has become an MP.

In other words, it looks like a bread made with fermented rye flour and that is exactly what it is.

I stand in awe of his ingenuity but try to save my approach. Why is it so easy to come up with such solutions? Mr Constantinos Ragazas keeps insisting that numerous English words are not cognates of the related words in Greek but borrowings of very early Greek nouns and verbs. In “my” etymology, every step is shaky, while in “theirs” everything is fully convincing. I am beginning to lose ground. Are we back in the Middle Ages? Did Rasmus Rask and Jacob Grimm ever live? By contrast, Mr Carstoiu has no historical “agenda,” and, as far as I can judge, he is not an advocate of Nostratic linguistics. Yet he has put together numerous lists that show that all over the world words denoting a certain object sound alike. Those words are seldom expressive, as are those in Wilhelm Oehl’s lists. For instance, words for “earth” tend to begin with the syllable re. Why do they? He asks me: “Are those numerous coincidences due to chance?” Food for thought, isn’t it?

Featured image via Wikimedia Commons

Recent Comments

  1. Nigel Middlemiss

    The apostrophe in the wrong place is called the “greengrocer’s apostrophe” in the UK. It was often seen on greengrocers’ stalls in handwritten signs indicating what was for sale e.g. potato’s, tomatos’, and pointed to a vague awareness that plurals sometimes have apostrophes but no great certainty of when or where.

    I’m not sure what circles your colleague Ari has done his research in in the US but the usage he says was common 2 generations ago has been both rare and a sign of ignorance here in Britain since the 19th century at least.

    In the UK words and phrases like “like”, “you know” and “kind of” are all common in spoken English, and are sometimes called phatic utterances, i.e. carry little or no “explicit information load”. What they do do though is imply the speaker’s state of mind e.g.: uncertainty, searching for the right word, seeking approval from the other person etc. That’s why they’re interesting and worthy of thoughtful comment.

    Yes I’d GUESS there are similarities between languages in strongly onomatopoeic words like “thunder”, “sneeze”, “scream”, and also in words that allude more faintly to their subject i.e. don’t exactly replicate the sound but hint at it, like “cry / weinen / pleurer” – a long drawn-out sound of sorrow, or “hit / attaquer / anschlagen” – hard consonant sound of a sharp blow landing. I think the former lot probably apply across more languages than the latter lot.

    Kindly discuss, with examples, Professor!

  2. Constantinos Ragazas

    Anatoly, you write

    “Mr Constantinos Ragazas keeps insisting that numerous English words are not cognates of the related words in Greek but borrowings of very early Greek nouns and verbs.”

    You continue to be dismissive and intentionally misleading of these etymologies!

    These are not “borrowings”! That would involve two distinct people and cultures in close contact with word-diffusion between their languages.

    What we have here is “absorption” of words from the substrate language, passed on to descendants over time. With the natural evolution of the language spoken.

    Recent ancient DNA research has discovered a 90% replacement of the indigenous Mesolithic UK people by Neolithic Aegean settlers. These Neolithic Aegean settlers of the UK brought with them their agriculture as well as their language. Both of which they passed on to their descendants. To eventually become the English we speak and learned to love now.

    You further write,

    “By contrast, Mr Carstoiu has no historical “agenda,” …”

    “historical “agenda” “? Really? Such accusations can easily boomerang when the truth is known!

    Here is another “ridiculous” etymology I know will shock you:

    The ‘primitive’ English word “stars” derives from the Greek “asteria”. This being a compound Greek word, “a (not)-steria (earth)”. Meaning “not of the earth”. Which, of course, “stars” are!

    You didn’t know that! But neither do you know what the word “stars” really means in any other language! Nor any other etymologists know that, that write our dictionaries! Are we in the Middle Ages?

    May I suggest you write posts that will stir controversy, if you want more comments!

  3. Michael Rogers

    A Viennese lady, back in 1970, assured me that pumpernickel was so named by the French (perhaps the occupying Napoleonic forces of the 1800s) as being only “bon pour Michel” – not the French name, but der deutsche Michel, the archetypal German peasant… It may, of course, have been “pain” rather than “bon”. An interesting example of Volksetymologie after the event!

  4. Peter Jones¹

    In the UK the word ‘like’ at the beginning is being replaced by ‘so’

  5. Maggie Catambay

    Please see this website:
    http://gnomonpedia.com/editorial/etymology/?lang=en

    Is this where Mr. Constantinos Ragazas got this etymology for star?

  6. Susan LaVelle

    Hello Professor Liberman, This has nothing to do with the etymology of Germanic or Scandinavian words, but rather I was looking for your opinion on where the Яга comes from in Баба Яга. Any thoughts? I was in your “Intro to Old Norse” course a decade ago and you were not particularly impressed with me, but I bet you remember me, because you remember everything that ever was.

  7. OUPblog team

    Dear Susan – thank you for your comment. Anatoly has asked me to let you know that he will reply in his upcoming “gleanings” blog post. With kind regards, the OUPblog team.

Leave a Comment

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