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Canoeing. Oxford Etymologist, Oxford University Press

Spring gleanings and a partial spring cleaning

I have received several letters dealing with borrowings and cognates (that is, related forms). I hasten to thank our correspondents for their questions and those who did not ask me anything but stated that the blog helps them in teaching language, spelling, and (in particular) etymology. Friendly feedback is a rare commodity. Only irritation and abuse are common and cheap.

Canoose, “the end piece of a loaf of bread”

Does this last piece of bread look like a canoose?
(Via PxFuel, public domain)

Much to my surprise, I know the word’s etymology. I am surprised because the great Dictionary of American Regional English does not seem to feature canoose, though the Internet reports its occurrence in several places. In any case, the derivation from German cannot be doubted, that is, the word was brought to America by German immigrants (possibly, but not certainly, from the north). The following German forms have been recorded: Knust, Knaust, and the diminutive Knäust-chen (chen is a suffix, as in Mädchen “girl, maiden” and Gretchen), with exactly the same meaning as canoose. Numerous German words beginning with kn– designate thick objects. Not improbably, the meaning of the noun Knaus developed from “fat; conceited” to “stingy.” In English, kn– does not occur initially, except when you go “c’noeing”; hence the intrusive vowel a between k and n. (Words like knock, knead, and the rest bear witness to the existence of kn– in the past. We still tolerate kn if a syllable boundary divides k and n, as in ack-nowledge or rock’n’roll. No one knowns for sure why kn– changed to hn, and then, predictably, to n. But this change does not affect the etymology of the American noun.)

Beginning and end

Bo-bo? It will go away.
(Via Pexels, public domain)

The non-Germanic cognates of end have been known for a long time. Those are Sanskrit ántas “end, boundary; death,” Greek anti “opposite,” and others. The Hittite adjective hanza “front” (mentioned in the letter) is close. In my post, I ignored all of them (dictionaries list them with or without questions marks), because I tried to show that the words for “beginning” and “end” often have the same semantic nucleus. This circumstance makes their origin especially interesting. By contrast, a tie between begin and the root found in generate is out of the question. Why should the earliest Germanic speakers have isolated the stem of the Greek word, changed the vowel, and shifted the sense from “generate” to “start”? Also, as I have pointed out more than once, if a word with initial g had been borrowed very long ago, it would have undergone the First Consonant Shift and become ken. Finally, the gen– root does have a legitimate cognate in Germanic: such is English kin (Gothic kuni). It is also useful to remember that unlike children picking up pebbles on a beach, people do not borrow words in an unpredictable, haphazard manner. (Here is a good root, why not borrow it?) I am afraid that our correspondent and I have been talking at cross-purposes for a long time.

Bubu, kibosh, troll

To repeat a piece of trivial information: for almost every word of a given language one can probably find a similar-sounding word in any other language with a more or less matching sense. (Thus, an old correspondent of mine pointed to a similarity between wīf, the etymon of wife, and a Hebrew word. Well, things happen.) English bubo is mainly remembered because of the phrase bubonic plague. Greek boubōn means “groin; swelling in the groin.” The word made its way into Medieval Latin and from there into English. Our correspondent cited a rather similar Biblical Hebrew word (Exodus 9: 9, 10: in translation—I always use the Revised Version—a boil breaking forth). Is there any connection? Dictionaries derive the Greek word from a root “to swell.” As usual, one wonders whether such a root ever existed. Words like bubu, baba, and bobo are typical baby words (like baby itself), and the name for a swelling, something that hurts, could very well be a word used by adults while addressing and soothing infants.

Putting a kibosh on.
(By puuikibeach, via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 2.0)

Kibosh has recently attracted great attention. See the book by Gerald Cohen, Stephen Goranson, and Matthew Little On the Origin of Kibosh (2020). Our correspondent, who is aware of the connections between the speakers of Greek and Hebrew in the ancient world, cites kabash “subdue” in Exodus 1: 28 (in translation: …and subdue it…). He also refers to the use of the word in Arabic. Could this verb enter Yiddish and be borrowed by English? The Yiddish etymology of kibosh has been suggested many times and even accepted by some authorities. In the aforementioned book, a special chapter is devoted to the refutation of this etymology. The main problem, as I understand it, is that the supporters of the Yiddish origin of kibosh have to explain the derivation of the entire phrase, rather than of the enigmatic word. Somebody had to PUT A KIBOSH (apparently an object) on somebody or something. An isolated verb could hardly become a noun and end up as part of the phrase we know (kibosh never occurs outside the idiom in question). See other arguments along the same lines in the aforementioned book.

English troll, “to move back and forth.” The letter I received concerns itself with the hypothesis that the verb may go back to Vulgar Latin tragulare “to trace.” The origin of troll (the verb not the noun!) is doomed to remain guesswork, partly because the word and its lookalikes surfaced late and partly because, with its initial tr-, it may be sound-symbolic. But in Germanic, it resembles several other words outside English and thus seems to be more at home than in Romance. Besides, troll may be related to a few words beginning with s, such as English stroll and German Strolch “vagabond.” It seems that the old opinion (traditionally supported by both Germanic and Romance historical linguists) deriving the verb troll from Germanic still stands.

Three g-words

Ghee “clarified butter made from buffalo’s milk” is a seventeenth-century borrowing from Hindi (the Sanskrit root means “to sprinkle”). Grime came to English from Middle Low German or Middle Dutch. I think Earnest Weekley was the first to suggest that Old English grīma “mask” is related. If grime goes back to the root meaning “to rub; anoint,” then Christ is indeed related. The root of grisly (a Germanic word) means “horror,” and the word can therefore be allied to many other gr-words for fear; horror.

Finally, I am grateful for the comment that informed me that the word sib is still very much alive in Modern English. I believed that it rarely occurs in everyday speech but was, apparently, wrong.

I was also asked about the origin of rake and scratch. I’ll deal with both words next week.

Featured image by USFWS/Steve Hillebrand (CC BY 2.0)

Recent Comments

  1. Vivian Ramalingam

    “Troll”, to move back and forth, esp. in fishing with a line, is well known, from “Die Forelle” to https://www.dictionary.com/browse/troll; but what about “Troll the ancient Yuletide carol”? I find this: To troll a song is simply to sing it in a full, rolling voice. This, of course, is how people do sing at Christmas parties, especially those who have indulged in three or four cups of eggnog. Excerpt from “’The New England Sampler,” Yankee Magazine, December 1995.Nov 25, 2014 (etc). I had thought that people walked about while trolling carols (caroler = to sing and dance a round dance, among other meanings). An old church document (French; 13th C) states that the Jews taught the Christians to dance while singing.

  2. Justin T Holl Jr

    To troll the tongue is found in Milton’s Paradise Lost.

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