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Etymology gleanings for August 2022

Etymology gleanings for August 2022


After posting the most recent essay on Spelling Reform, I received rather many comments, all of them friendly. I keep thinking that a reasonably cautions reform will meet with little opposition. Who will weep if acknowledge loses its c and build becomes bild? One can imagine a plan that will appear as a set of proposals divided into several groups, something like this:

  1. Would you agree to changing build to bild?
  2. Would you agree to changing scold to skold?
  3. Would you agree to changing occurrence to ocurrance?
  4. Would you agree to eliminating the letter q and substituting kw for it (akwaintance, kwik) and to comitee instead of committee?

And so on, about some mute letters and double letters, and many other things. This questionnaire, if published in two or three influential newspapers and online, will invite a flood of responses, both friendly and hostile. The agreement by, let us say, 70% of the public will guarantee (“garantee”) the success of the enterprise. The reformers should be pragmatic and try “to do no harm.” The public must be cajoled into accepting the change, rather than broken in. In principle, society is always against such a measure (? mezure), and no reform will satisfy all. For instance, in British English, due and Jew are usually homophones (I am horrified when I hear that I must pay my JEWS), and in American English, due is a homophone of do (and a typical letter from a student is: “When is the paper DO?”)—I have once written about this. Reform or no reform, all such problems will remain.

I may also answer some general questions submitted rather long ago. They address the connection between the written and the spoken language. In a society in which practically all people are literate, language perhaps develops more slowly than in preliterate societies. School slows down change, and we even have cases of spelling pronunciation (often, and its likes). “Received pronunciation” also has some prestige. However, at present, we are very egalitarian, the use of dialect in public is not condemned, and so on. In principle, language changes despite the best efforts of the cultural elite. The tremendous gap between written and spoken English, as we today know it, shows that spelling, the accepted norm, does not prevent language from evolving in the most radical way. This is why at least some version of spelling reform becomes necessary. Anyone will agree that it is irrational to say quire and write choir.

Umbrella and its kin

Sarie Gamp and her brolly.
(“Harry Furniss’s study of the great comic creation for the Charles Dickens Library Edition (1910)”, Sairey Gamp. Via The Victorian Web, public domain.)

Some time ago, I received a question about English umbrella and parasol. Why not parapluie? It seems that no one can explain why a certain word has not been borrowed, but the history of umbrella and its kin is curious. Both English words—umbrella and parasol—refer to a device meant to protect people from the sun (umbra “shade,” sol “sun”). Para– is a Romance prefix. It is the same element we see in the root of the verb prepare. Too bad, English did not make use of parapluie: in a country like England protection against bad weather (rain) is more “relevant” than a sunshade. To a northerner, German Regenschirm “rain’’ + “screen, protection” makes better sense than parasol or umbrella. Curiously, Russian zontik “umbrella” and “parasol” was borrowed from Dutch zondek “awning,” and obviously, referred to the sun (zon-), though in Russian life, too, umbrellas are mainly associated with rain.

A particularly striking development in this saga is the emergence of the word gamp “umbrella.” As is known, the word goes back to Sairey Gamp, an unforgettable nurse in Dickens’s novel Martin Chuzzlewit, a drunk and an impostor. She always carried a huge umbrella, certainly, not a “sunshade.” The final step in the degradation of umbrella is the form brolly, which I have cited more than once in this blog, to illustrate my inability to explain the change of e to o (the same in American frosh “freshman”). I am sorry that I talked so much around the question instead of answering it. If I knew the answer, I would have come straight to the point. The fact remains that English did not borrow parapluie, and probably no one knows why.

On mandibles

Keep your cheeks and the rest of your anatomy away from its jowls.
(Via Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

The reward for my recent post (31 August 2022: “Cheek by jowl”) was two emails. I wrote, most incautiously, that jowl has almost no existence outside the idiom and was reminded that a bulldog’s jaws are called jowls. Quite true. The other letter mentioned hog jowl and black-eyed peas, the traditional dish for New Year’s Day in some southern states. Since I was the only recipient of those letters, I thought it reasonable to publicize the content of both.

Finally, a small addition. In the post, I wrote that we do not know how Shakespeare pronounced jowl but that he probably rhymed it with bowl, because such is the more archaic American pronunciation. I should have made a more definite statement. One of the spellings of jowl in Shakespeare’s texts was jole.

Sound imitation and sound symbolism

The comments on the post “The Human Aspect of Etymology” were rather numerous and very much to the point. Indeed, nothing can be predicted in this sphere. A sn- and a sl-word can be devoid of any emotional coloring, evoke pleasant emotions, or fill us with disgust. With words like drip/drop, drivel, and drizzle, we don’t expect drool to refer to anything solid. But drones don’t drivel, drums don’t drool, and driver has almost become a synonym of “human being.” I was also asked to recommend one or two books on such matters. Since each of the posts in this blog advertises my book Word Origins…, may I risk recommending chapters 3 and 4 in it? They deal with sound imitation and sound symbolism.


One of our correspondents wrote that she enjoyed my discussion of idioms and asked whether there would be more posts on this subject. Probably not. My dictionary of English idioms, published by the University of Minnesota Press, is due (“do”) to appear any day now, and there is no use milking it for more examples. But to illustrate how amazing the assortment of idioms is, I may cite the following.

A scene in Topsham or Warsop?
(Photo by Ihor Malytskyi on Unsplash, public domain)

“Do you come from Topsham”? This is or was said to those who leave the door open. Topsham is in Devonshire, but the phrase was recorded in Yorkshire (!). The name Topsham does not contain a pun, so that the origin of the question remains a puzzle. Even more puzzling is the fact that this is a migratory formula. The place name seems to be arbitrary, but the genre (the door-shutting proverb) is well-known, though I have only one more example. In Nottinghamshire, they used to say (my examples go back to the beginning of the twentieth century): “I see you come from Warsop way; you don’t know how to shut doors behind you.” I have not been able to find any explanation of such phrases in folklore. If our readers know more such phrases or are aware of their origin, their comments will be appreciated.

Featured image via rawpexels (public domain, CC0).

Recent Comments

  1. Anand Kumar

    In England we say “Were you born in a barn?” when someone leaves a door open.

  2. Gavin Wraith

    I think spelling ‘committee’ as ‘comitee’ would break a lot of the conventions on stress. Most co- words in English are unusual in having the stress on the second syllable. Admittedly, the stress in ‘controversy’ is beginning to move to the first syllable; that may be because more people are reading the word before hearing it. Where do you put the stresses in ‘lunatic fanatic’, by the way?

  3. Nicholas Staite

    I wonder if the place name was Topham, a hamlet on the River Went, in Yorkshire.

    Winston Churchill was often described as ‘jowly’, supposedly like a British bulldog.

  4. John Cowan

    The born in a barn question is known in the U.S. as well. I suspect that whoever devised it had a NORTH-START (i.e. “born-barn”) merger, so that the words sounded the same. This merger, says Wikipedia, is today “found in some Caribbean English accents, in some West Country accents in England, and in some accents of Southern American English. Areas of the United States in which the merger is most common include Central Texas, Utah, and St. Louis, but it is not dominant even there and is rapidly disappearing.” Note that it does not affect FORCE words; i.e. for is merged but not four.

  5. Nandha kumar

    Really nice!

  6. Rohan Singh

    Awesome, your words are really nice and heart touching completely

Comments are closed.