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.
When a word is isolated, etymologists are in trouble. A typical example is Engl. hunt, discussed last week (the post for February 12, 2020). But often, the cognates are so numerous that researchers are lost, embarrassed by the riches they face. This is what happens when we begin to investigate the origin of the English word mud.
The posts for the previous two weeks were devoted to all kinds of bloodsuckers. Now the time has come to say something about hunters and hunting. The origin of the verbs meaning “hunt” can give us a deeper insight into the history of civilization, because hunting is one of the most ancient occupations in the world: beasts of prey hunt for food, and humans have always hunted animals not only for food but also for fur and skins.
This story continues the attempts of the previous week to catch a flea. Anyone who will take the trouble to look at the etymology of the names of the flea, louse, bedbug, and their blood-sucking allies in a dozen languages will discover that almost nothing is known for certain about it. . This fact either means that we are dealing with very old words whose beginnings can no longer be discovered or that the names have been subject to taboo (consequently, the initial form is beyond recognition), or, quite likely, both factors were in play.