Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Intractable words

In my correspondence with the journalist who was curious about the origin of caucus, I wrote that we might never discover where that word came from (see the posts for January 24 and January 31, 2024). She asked me whether more such intractable English words exist, and I promised to deal with her question in this blog. Here is my answer. People usually want to know “where such and such a word came from.” They seldom realize how tricky their question is. The answer should be: “How far do you want to go?”

We have two “actors” (sound and meaning) and would like to discover why just this combination of vowels and consonants evokes the familiar image. Why should b-i-g refer to a certain size, while p-i-g designates a familiar animal? Regrettably, with the means at our disposal, most of such questions can seldom be answered. The only words whose origin is clear are sound-imitating ones (the likes of bow-wow, oink-oink, beep-beep, puff, and hush) and a few baby words (mamma, papa, daddy, and so forth). When it comes to other words, be it house, man, red, go, yet, if, on, or any other, we at best (at best!) know their history in written documents and can state that, for example, fire and water are ancient nouns with numerous cognates, while the more recent boy and girl are of “contested origin” (which means that numerous language historians have tried to solve the riddle, but no one has been fully successful). Or we learn from our dictionaries that ruse and rose are borrowings, which means that their history is hidden in some foreign language.

A big pig: a simple image but two etymological riddles. Hairy pig with piglets on farm. By Brett Sayles via Pexels.

Here then is the conclusion: in most cases, an etymologist can go only so far. Consequently, we deal with many degrees of intractability. This conclusion should not come as a revelation: the “final” origin of hardly anything in the world is “known.” Caucus is so intriguing because the word emerged almost “the day before yesterday,” and we still have trouble deciding who and under what circumstances coined it. The same holds for most of slang.

Noah Webster was a passionate etymologist, but few of his bizarre word derivations outlived him. Noah Webster pre-1843 by James Herring. Public domain via Picryl.

In a comment on the latest post, a reader suggested that the best authority on etymology is Webster’s dictionary. The information posted by Merriam-Webster online is indeed generous and reliable. But as far as I can understand, the only dictionary that has a permanent group of etymologists is the OED. Other “thick” dictionaries, now defunct, had only consultants, none of whom could assess the information in hundreds of articles dealing with every word. Even finding such articles in at least a dozen languages is a major problem, now partially mitigated by my voluminous Bibliography of English Etymology. It is characteristic but not surprising that all editors missed Ernst’s important notes on caucus (both were discussed in detail in the previous post). We need a detailed dictionary of English etymology, with all the literature on every word listed, summarized, however briefly, and evaluated. Such dictionaries exist for several languages, but I have doubts that an English dictionary of this type will ever appear: no institutions train etymologists, and agencies are not in a hurry to fund the effort.

Spelling reform

I received a letter in which our correspondent pointed out that society is no longer interested in spelling reform, calendar reform, number-base reform, and their likes. What, he wonders, is my take on this phenomenon? I can say something only about spelling. Roughly between the 1870s and the First World War, it seemed that the incredibly erratic English spelling would soon be reformed. The most influential intellectuals, from Walter W. Skeat to George Bernard Shaw, supported the idea. The main obstacles are well-known. Those who can spell well are reluctant to forfeit their hard-won knowledge. They don’t want enough to become inuf or enuf and resent the idea of exceed and quick turning into ekseed and kwik. And the horror of gnaw becoming naw! All the arguments for and against reforming English spelling have been rehearsed more than once. Only one argument remains, but it outweighs all the others. Modern English spelling is so incredibly hard to learn that the effort is not worth the trouble, money, and anguish. The result is no secret: for instance, our contemporaries are unable to spell occurrence (the universal form is ocurence) and even after a semester-long course in German folklore and multiple reminders that there were two brothers write Grimm’s Tales. Long live the spellchecker!

Knight at the crossroads, or an etymologist pondering three dangerous solutions. Knight at the crossroads (1878). Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain via Picryl.

But this is not the worst part of it. Despite a catastrophic decline in our education (the greatest books remain unread, the most famous events in history are news to the young, and so forth), native speakers reach some level of (il)literacy, but today, English is the main international language, and for foreigners it costs a fortune and causes great psychological pain to cross the barrier between millions of people and the written/printed text in English. Why then don’t we witness universal enthusiasm for the Reform? Of course, I have no explanation, but perhaps the reason is that since 1914, the world has not had a single quiet day: there have always been catastrophes or periods of spasmodic recovery, and spelling receded into the background. Also, the last seventy years or so have witnessed such a triumph of low culture, with the intellectuals supporting and celebrating it, that a minor thing like spelling disappeared from the public view. Yet the English Spelling Society is still active and works on good projects. Not all is lost.

Confusing similarities

The author of another letter wonders why so many words designating opposite concepts sound alike. Most of his examples owe their existence to chance. For instance, LAD (a boy) and LADY (a woman) or TOP (with its reference to height) and DEEP. The same holds for GIRL (a late word in English) and CARL (“churl”), which has existed in the language for ages and whose origin is unclear. The relation between BLACK and BLEACH does pose some problems, but one thing is certain: Old English had a word with a short vowel (blæc, blac-), the ancestor of black, and another word with a long one (ā), that is, blāc, the root of Modern English bleach. No one knows why those adjectives arose in such close proximity. English speakers traveling in Italy often think that caldo means “cold,” but it means “hot.” CALDO and COLD go back to two different roots. A more interesting problem is covered by the term enantiosemy, a situation in which a word refers to two opposite concepts. Such is, for instance, Latin altus “high” and “deep.” You look up and observe height; you look down and see depth.

The origin of “lopsided”

English has the verbs lob ‘’to lump,” lop “to cut off branches, limbs” and lop “to hang loosely, droop.” The first component of lop-sided and lop-eared obviously refers to the idea of hanging loosely, but cutting is close by. The verb lob ~ lop is probably of Low German or Dutch origin, a so-called “popular word.” Hence the variation of final b~ p. Monosyllables like lap, lop, and lap are often expressive. Lopsided surfaced in English only in the early eighteenth century.

Feature image: Cpl. Emily E. Vandyke helps teach children to say. Defense Visual Information Distribution Service. Public domain via Picryl.

Recent Comments

  1. Richard Hollick

    Surely Carl/churl comes from the German, Kerl/fellow, doesn’t it?

  2. Constantinos Ragazas

    Anatoly,

    After a long section in your current post bemoaning how difficult it is to trace back the origins of a word, you then again advocate for spelling reform! Which would make such efforts even more difficult in the future!

    Is this your self-contradiction? We all have them! But few of us can see it…

Leave a Comment

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