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Long-delayed gleanings

Long-delayed gleanings

I submitted my latest set of gleanings on 6 April. In the meantime, there has not been too much to glean; hence the delay. Now I have a full handbasket and can use it as a means of transportation in any direction, except that no new materials or ideas have come my way about the origin of soul.


It does seem that English is incomparably richer in phrases containing proper names (Hoppin’ John, Andrew Matin, and so forth) than other European languages. Our correspondent wrote that Russian hardly has any. Yet some such phrases did occur to me. When there is an excess of food for the guests, in Russian they say that enough seems to have been cooked for Malanya’s wedding. Characteristically, in writing, Malanya and other such names are not capitalized, and no one expects this lady to have existed. Yet the phrase must have had its origin in some situation! A very remote place is described as one to which Makar has not driven his calves. To show someone Kuz’ka’s mother means “to do the opponent great harm.” I think at one time, this idiom became famous because Khrushchev, probably in France, threatened to do exactly that to some opponent, and the French interpreter, who did not know the phrase, translated it literally with la mère de Kuzma, much to the delight of the Russians and to the utter consternation of the French. But then he also promised “to bury the West” and did not, so that Kuz’ka (which is a diminutive of Kuz’ma—stress on the second syllable) can wait. When a person is not fit for some business, they say that the cap is not for Sen’ka (the diminutive of Simon). I am sure there are more.

Hungarian has, a reader informed us, an exact equivalent of the phrase every cobbler stick to his last. I suspect that it owes its existence to the European common source, because German and French have the same idiom. By contrast, in Russian they say: “Each cricket know its stick.” (I was severely tempted to translate it with “Every cricket to its ticket.”)

Kuzma’s mother in search of sinners.
(Image via rawpixel, public domain)

A curious observation: in one of his albums, Tom Waits has so many idioms that also figure in Charles Earle Funk’s book A Hog on Ice that it probably is not a coincidence. I have no opinion, but the suggestion does not look improbable. As I once noted, modern English speakers grace their everyday speech with idioms sparingly. Apart from the common stock (to put something on the back burner and its likes), idioms are understood rather than used. (And many good idioms are not even understood.) The authors of fiction, journalists, and their colleagues are a different matter: they make a sustained effort to spice their prose with memorable phrases and often do it clumsily. Consequently, when a songwriter peppers his texts with idioms, we may indeed suspect that he used some work from which he could borrow them. Many such works exist, so that an exact source is hard to pinpoint.

Spelling and Spelling Reform

The Scripps National Spelling Bee has survived the onslaught of the pandemic and resumed its activities, and I will resume venting my impotent wrath on it, because I have always been against child abuse. A fourteen-year-old wrote correctly scyllarian, pyrrolidone, Otukian, and Senijextee.  My heart goes out to her. That said, may she use those words on her first date and live happily ever after. One day she may even eclipse the character of Hans Christian Andersen’s tale “Blockhead Hans”: that youngster (not Hans) knew three years’ issue of the daily paper of the town by heart and hoped to marry a princess.

In the meantime, poor mortals fail to remember that the past tense of lead is led, while the name of the metal is lead. Never mind my students: they have more important things to learn, but even in an article published as Bloomberg Opinion we read: “This hubris is what lead the US economy into this mess.” No doubt, led is meant. Hubris indeed.

But let me remind our readers that the English Spelling Society has been active and efficient and has produced a list words that will be respelled if the Reform is accepted. Here is short sample: enuff and coff (for enough and cough); beleev, buetiful; throo (for through), kew (for queue), dyaria (for diarrhea) and bo’y (for buoy). It would be instructive to know our readers’ reaction to this sample.

Malanya’s wedding in full glory.
(Image by Marco Verch via Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

Baby words and monosyllables

Many thanks are due to the correspondents who commented on Gothic daddjan “to breastfeed” and neatsfoot oil. Of course, I knew about this oil, but the connection with neat “cattle” did not occur to me. I may add that even such brief remarks are most helpful. I am now writing a book based on my most interesting posts (this blog is now in its seventeenth year). Not only do I rewrite the texts because separate essays and chapters in a book are different things. I also learned a lot from suggestions and corrections and incorporated them into my revised text.

Daddjan, the Gothic verb for “breastfeed.” I did consult LIV (Lexikon der indogermanischen Verben): the book stands in my office. Its etymology of daddjan is more realistic than the traditional one, but it is still different from mine. I don’t think daddjan is “Indo-European.” My risky suggestion amounts to the idea that we are dealing with a baby word like English daddy, Russian diadia “uncle,” and so forth. Such words are similar the world over, without being related: just so many mushrooms on a stump (very similar but rootless).

Dab hand. All sources agree that dab is a sound-imitative verb: one goes dab, dab, dab. Its frequentative twin dabble seems to have the same origin (even if it is a borrowing from Dutch, dab and dabble still must be related). Yet dab hand “skilled worker, apt striker (as it were)” is called a phrase of unknown origin. What exactly is unknown? Unless dab hand is a mysterious borrowing, the implication seems to be “an apt striker.” I have no literature on this phrase, and my guess is just a guess. But dab is like many other monosyllables (kick, dig, put), ancient or late, whose etymology is similar to that of dab, so that dab hand looks fully transparent.

Elephants in Ancient Rome.
(Image: “The Battle Between Scipio and Hannibal at Zama”, Cornelis Cort, via The Met, public domain)


The word elephant is a borrowing in all the European languages, too late to be part of an ancient common stock. The idea that the Romans knew elephants from the Second Punic War occurred to me too. But it is not their knowledge of Hannibal’s animals that resulted in the introduction of the word to Latin: elephpantus is a loan from Greek and, obviously, a bookish loan, because –nt– was taken over from the declined form: the Greek nominative was elephas.

Please write, send your questions, share your ideas, and voice your disagreement. Any echo in the wilderness is welcome.

Featured image via rawpixel, public domain

Recent Comments

  1. Vivian deGeorges

    Surely, you jest! “Here is short sample: enuff and coff (for enough and cough); beleev, buetiful; throo (for through), kew (for queue), dyaria (for diarrhea) and bo’y (for buoy).” Why not just go back to Middle English? At least that was more poetic and euphonious!

  2. Walter Turner

    bo’y (for buoy)? Lunacy. The new spelling should be boy. Let people who think it is pronounced booy spell it that way. No one will care if they put an apostrophe in that. I’m sure they are the same people who rhyme genealogy with biology and think the plural of process is process-eez, anyway.
    I remember being outraged when the spelling and pronunciation of buoy came up in first grade. It may have been the first deviation from the rules we had been learning.

  3. Masha Bell

    Several of the respellings seem odd and not in keeping with the main English spelling patterns: buetiful (cf dutiful), dyaria (cf diary),
    bo’y (cf boy).
    Isn’t the main point of reform to reduce exceptions to the main, well-established patterns?

  4. Richard Hennessey

    I find the noo spelling jarring, but, I’m shur, only becawz I hav spent seventy-plus yeers using the old.

    That was hard. But I note that such new spellings are more or less standard on social media frequented by those much younger.

  5. Gary Crouse

    The English Sterilisation (Sterilization) Society’s attempts to neuter the English Language are just stoopid. Bizarre spelling is what makes english unique.

Comments are closed.