With this post behind me, I’ll finally be able to beat my sword into a workable plowshare. Today, the immediate theme is the history of the word brand and its cognates, but it is also a springboard to an important conclusion.
I promised not to return to Spelling Reform and will be true to my word. The animated discussion of a month ago (see the comments following the April gleanings) is instructive, and I’ll only inform the contributors to that exchange that nothing they wrote is new. It is useful to know the history of the problem being discussed, for what is the point of shooting arrows into the air?
Last week (May 27, 2020), I discussed two attempts to solve the etymology of sword. The second of them would not have deserved so much attention if Elmar Seebold, the editor of the best-known German etymological dictionary, had not cited it as the only one possibly worthy of attention. His is a minority opinion, which does not mean it is wrong, though I believe it is.
Those who have read the posts on awl, ax(e), and adz(e) (March 11, 18, and 25, 2020) will find themselves on familiar ground: once again “origin unknown,” numerous hypotheses, and reference to migratory words. This is not surprising: people learn the names of tools and weapons from the speakers of neighboring nations (tribes), adapt, and domesticate them. Dozens of such names have roots in the remotest prehistory.
It is amazing how often the Devil is invoked in English idioms: he has certainly been given his due. Some phrases must go back to myths. The Devil and his dam reminds us of the ancient stories in which two monsters play havoc with human lives. A famous example is Grendel and his mother (Beowulf), but folklore is full of similar examples.
The readers of newspapers will have noticed the deadening repetition of the same words (I don’t mean pandemic, virus, distance, or opening—those are probably unavoidable). No, everybody nowadays hunkers down (the activity formerly reserved for the greatest leaders at their secret meetings), while many admire Sweden, where people trust their government.
I have read two comments on my post of April 29, 2020 and John Cowan’s post and came to the expected conclusion: even those who favor the idea of the Reform will never agree on what should change and in what order changes should be instituted. Every suggestion makes sense.
I keep receiving letters explaining to me the futility of all efforts to reform English spelling and even extolling the virtues of the present system. I will spend minimal time while rehashing what has been said many times and come to the point as soon as possible. The seemingly weighty but not serious objections are three. 1) If we reform spelling, we’ll lose a lot of historical information. Quite true, but spelling is not a springboard to an advanced course on etymology.
Would you like to be as learned as Dr. Doddipol? Those heroes of our intensifying similes! Cooter Brown (a drunk), Laurence’s dog (extremely lazy), Potter’s pig (bow-legged), Throp’s wife (a very busy person, but so was also Beck’s wife)—who were they? I have at least once written about them, though in passing (see the post for October 28, 2015). They show up in sayings like as drunk as…, as lazy as…, as busy as…, and so forth. Many people have tried to discover the identity of those mysterious characters.
I think I should clarify my position on the well-known similarities between and among some languages. In the comment on the March gleanings (April 1, 2020), our correspondent pointed to a work by Professor Tsung-tung Chang on the genetic relationship between Indo-European and Chinese. I have been aware of this work for a long time, but, since I am not a specialist in Chinese linguistics and do not know the language, I never mentioned my skeptical attitude toward it in print or in my lectures.
It is amazing how many words like aloof exist in English. Even for “fear” we have two a-formations: afraid, which supplanted the archaic afeard, and aghast. Aback, aboard, ashore, asunder—a small dictionary can be filled with them (but alas and alack do not belong here). The model is productive: consider aflutter and aglitter. One feature unites those words: they cannot be used attributively. Indeed, an asunder man and an astride rider do not exist.
Should it be business as usual with the Oxford Etymologist? Closing the blog until better days will probably not benefit anybody. The terrain is like a minefield, but I’ll continue gleaning.
I am picking up where I left off last week. The word adz(e) was coined long ago and surfaced more than once in Old English texts. It had several local variants, and its gender fluctuated: adesa was masculine, while adese was feminine. Also, eadesa and adusa have come down to us. Apparently, the tool had wide currency.
Wherever we look for the history of the names of instruments and tools, we confront a similar problem: the available material is either too copious or too scanty. Last week (March 11, 2020), we followed a hectic but inefficient hunt for the etymology of the word awl, and I promised a continuation: a post on adz (spelled as adze in British English).
Soon after the previous gleanings (February 26, 2020) were posted, a correspondent asked me to clarify the situation with the “prefix” br- in breath and bring (see the post on breath for January 22, 2020). I mentioned this mysterious prefix in connection with Henry Cecil Wyld, who accepted its existence in bring but doubted its validity in breath. From a historical point of view, we have two different components, even if both go back to Indo-European bhrē-. James A. H. Murray thought that br- in breath is a remnant of the root meaning “burn,” as in breed ~ brood, while br- in bring traces allegedly to the zero grade of the verb bear (zero grade is a term of ablaut; in this case, no vowel stands between b and r in br-; hence, “zero”); so Wyld, though, as we will see, the idea was not his. By contrast, in the full grade, as in bear, from Old Engl.
Anatoly Liberman addresses three comments left on recent posts, as well as recent letters sent to him.