From time to time, various organizations invite me to speak about the history of words. The main question I hear is why words change their meaning. Obviously, I have nothing new to say on this subject, for there is a chapter on semantic change in countless books, both popular and special.
To keep somebody or something at bay means “to keep a dangerous opponent at a distance; to hold off, ward off a disaster, etc.” The very first interpreters of this idiom guessed its origin correctly. They stated that bay here means “to bark” and that at bay refers to hunting.
The previous post on Nostratic linguistics was also part of the “gleanings,” because the inspiration for it came from a query, but a few more tidbits have to be taken care of before summer sets in.
The colleague who wrote me a letter is a specialist in Turkic and a proponent of Nostratic linguistics. He mentioned the Turkic root syn-, which, according to him, can mean “to test, prove; compete; prophesy; observe; body, image, outward appearance,” and wondered whether, within the framework of Nostratic linguistics, this root can be compared with the root of Engl. sin.
The phrase is outdated, rare, even moribund. Those who use it do so to amuse themselves or to parade their antiquarian tastes. However, it is not quite dead, for it sometimes occurs in books published at the end of the nineteenth century.
Today I am beginning where I left off last week. As we have seen, Old Icelandic sannr meant both “true” and “guilty.” Also, the root of this word can be detected in the word for “being” (Latin sunt, etc.).
This blog was launched on 1 March 2006, four or even five editors ago (to paraphrase Kurt Vonnegut’s statement about his wives), and is now in the twelfth year of its existence. It has been appearing every Wednesday since that date, and today’s number is 587.
In a way, this is the continuation of the previous week’s gleanings, because I owe today’s subject to a question from a student of Old English. Although I cannot say anything new about carouse, the story is mildly instructive.
Many thanks for the comments. One of the questions was about the dialect that could be used for the foundation of a new norm. No spelling can reflect the pronunciation of all English speakers.
We are so used to the horrors of English spelling that experience no inconvenience at reading the word knowhow. Why don’t know and how rhyme if they look so similar? Because such is life.
Yes, there is every reason to bother. Read the following: “One of the most common expressions in everyday life, and one which is generally used by all classes, is the expression ‘Don’t bother me!’ and the origin of the word bother has so frequently bothered me that I have spent some time in tracing its etymology.
Why Tom, Dick, and Harry? Generic names? If so, why just those? From Suffolk to Yorkshire people speak about some Laurence and some Lumley, whose fame rests only on the fact that both have alliterating lazy dogs (as lazy as L.’s dog, as laid him down to bark). Other farmers had worse luck.
From time to time people share with me their versions of Spelling Reform. I rarely respond to such letters, because, unfortunately, I have little to say. The problem, as I see it, is not the ideal version of the reform but the reality of its implementation. The choir is happy, and we keep preaching to it.
One good thing about English spelling is that, when you look for some oddity in it, you don’t have to search long. So why do we have the letter u in boulder (and of course in Boulder, the name of a town in Colorado)? If my information is reliable, Boulder was called after Boulder Creek.
Unlike Alice, who was advised to begin at the beginning and stop only when she came to an end, I’d rather begin at the end. The English-speaking world is interested in the Cheshire cat only because Lewis Carroll mentioned it. The origin of the proverbial grin has never been explained, so that, if you hope to receive an enlightening answer from this post, you can very well stop here.
James Murray showed great caution in his discussion of the Modern English words spelled and pronounced as brash (see Part I of this essay). It remains unclear how many of them are related. One of the homonyms seems to go back to French, but even that word is of Germanic origin.