Caution is a virtue, but, like every other virtue, it can be practiced with excessive zeal and become a vice (like parsimony turning into stinginess). The negative extreme of caution is cowardice.
Last week some space was devoted to the crawling, scratching crab, so that perhaps enlarging on the topic “Crab in Idioms” may not be quite out of place. The plural in the previous sentence is an overstatement, for I have only one idiom in view. The rest is not worthy of mention: no certain meaning and no explanation. But my database is omnivorous and absorbs a lot of rubbish. Bibliographers cannot be choosers.
My travel through the English kr-words began with the verb creep, for I have for a long time tried to solve its mystery. On the face of it, there is no mystery. The verb has existed in Germanic from time immemorial, with cognates all over the place.
This post has been written in response to a query from our correspondent. An answer would have taken up the entire space of my next “gleanings,” and I decided not to wait a whole month.
Those who have followed this series will remember that English kl-words form a loose fraternity of clinging, clinking, and clotted-cluttered things. Clover, cloth, clod, cloud, and clout have figured prominently in the story.
There was a desperate attempt to find a valid Greek cognate for cloth, but such a word did not turn up. One way out of the difficulty was to discover a Greek noun or verb beginning with sk- and refer its s to what is known as s-mobile (“movable s”). Movable s is all over the place. For instance, the English cognate of German kratzen is scratch (the same meaning).
All words, especially kl-words, and no play will make anyone dull. The origin of popular sayings is an amusing area of linguistics, but, unlike the origin of words, it presupposes no technical knowledge. No grammar, no phonetics, no nothin’: just sit back and relax, as they say to those who fly overseas first class. So here is another timeout.
I keep clawing at the bars of the cage I built for myself. But first a digression. Walter W. Skeat wrote numerous notes on English etymology, some of which he eventually put together and published in book form. Much to my regret, not too many kl-words attracted his attention. But I was amused to discover that the verb clop means not only the sound made by shoes or hoofs but also “to cling, adhere to.”
Perhaps the story would not have been worth telling if German and Dutch klein, the closest cognates of Engl. clean, did not mean “small.” Long ago, on 4 July 2007, I devoted half of my post to the adjective mad.
As I have observed in the past, the best way for me to make sure that I have an audience is to say something deemed prejudicial or wrong. Then one or more readers will break their silence, and I’ll get the recognition I deserve (that is, my comeuppance).
In anticipation of the post on clean, I decided to say something about the idioms in which clean figures prominently, but chose only those which have the structure as clean as.
Last week, I mentioned Francis A. Wood’s rhyme words and rhyme ideas and cited his example cloud and crowd. In my life, such a pair is gleaning and cleaning.
Engl. cloud belongs so obviously with clod and its kin that there might not even be a question of its origin (just one more lump), but for the first recorded sense of clūd in Old English, which was “rock, cliff.”
Once again, no gleanings: the comments have been too few, and there have been no questions. Perhaps when the time for a real rich harvest comes, I’ll start gleaning like a house on fire. When last week I attacked the verb clutter, I planned on continuing with the kl-series; my next candidates were cloud and cloth.
In an old post, I once referred to Jack London’s Martin Eden, a book almost forgotten in this country and probably in the rest of the English-speaking world. Martin is not Jack London’s self-portrait; yet the novel is to a great extent autobiographical.
I expected that my series on dogs would inspire a torrent of angry comments. After all, dog is one of the most enigmatic words in English etymology, but the responses were very few. I am, naturally, grateful to those who found it possible to say something about the subject I was discussing for five weeks, especially to those who liked the essays.