A story that keeps recycling the same episodes tends to become boring. So today I’ll say goodbye to my horned friends, though there is so much left that is of interest. In dealing with cows, bulls, bucks, and the rest, an etymologist is constantly made to choose among three possibilities: an ancient root with a transparent etymology (a rare case), a migratory word, or a sound-imitative formation. Like cattle breeders, words are nomads, but some are more sedentary than the others.
The buck stops nowhere: it has conquered nearly all of Eurasia. The Modern English word refers to the stag. At one time, it was a synonym of he-goat, or Billy goat. But Old Engl. buc “stag” seems to have coexisted with bucca “Billy goat.” Perhaps later they merged. German Bock is a rather general designation of “male animal,” such as “ram” (or “wether”; wether is a nearly forgotten word, though still recognizable in bellwether), “stag,” and others; it is a common second element of compounds like Schafbock (Schaf “sheep”).
When people began to domesticate the cow, what could or would they have called the animal? Ideally, a moo. This is what children do when they, Adam-like, begin to invent names for the objects around them. However, the Old English for “cow” was cū, that is, coo, if we write it the modern way, not mū. Obviously, cows don’t say coo. Pigeons do. Therefore, we are obliged to treat this word in the traditional way, that is, to look for the cognates, reconstruct the most ancient form, and so on.
Part 1: A Turning Point in the History of Spelling Reform? On 30 May 2018 the long-awaited International Spelling Congress will have its first online meeting. “The Congress is intended to produce a consensus on an acceptable alternative to our current unpredictable spelling system. The goal is an alternative which maximizes improved access to literacy but at the same time avoids unnecessary change.
As long as there were no towns, people did not need the word street. Yet in our oldest Germanic texts, streets are mentioned. It is no wonder that we are not sure what exactly was meant and where the relevant words came from. Quite obviously, if a word’s meaning is unknown, its derivation will also remain unknown. Paths existed, and so did roads. Surprisingly, the etymology of both words (path and road) is debatable.
It is perfectly all right if your answer to the question in the title is “no.” I am not partial. It was not my intention to continue with the origin of organs, but I received a question about the etymology of kidney and decided to answer it, though, as happened with liver (see the post for 21 March 2018), I have no original ideas on this subject.
Thanks to all of our readers who have commented on the previous posts and who have written me privately. Some remarks do not need my answer. This is especially true of the suggestions concerning parallels in the languages I don’t know or those that I can read but have never studied professionally. Like every etymologist, I am obliged to cite words and forms borrowed from dictionaries, and in many cases depend on the opinions I cannot check.
One of the questions I received was about dent, indent, and indenture. What do they have in common with dent- “tooth,” as in dental and dentures? Dent, which surfaced in texts in the 13th century, meant “stroke, blow” (a noun; obviously, not a derivative of any Latin word for “tooth”) and has plausibly been explained as a variant of its full synonym or doublet dint.
Etymological bodybuilding is a never-ceasing process. The important thing is to know when to stop, and I’ll stop soon, but a few more exercises may be worth the trouble. Today’s post is about liver. What little can be said about this word has been said many times, so that an overview is all we’ll need. First, as usual, a prologue or, if you prefer, a posy of the ring.
To an etymologist the names of some organs and body parts pose almost insoluble problems. A quick look at some of them may be of interest to our readers. I think that in the past, I have discussed only the words brain and body (21 February 2007: brain; 14 October 2015: body). Both etymologies are hard, for the words are local: brain has a rather inconspicuous German cognate, and the same holds for body. I risked offering tentative suggestions, which were followed by useful, partly critical comments. As usual, I see no reason to repeat what I said in the past and would like to stress only one idea. Etymologists, when at a loss for a solution, often say that the inscrutable word could enter Indo-European or Germanic, or Romance from some unknown, unrecorded language (such languages are called substrates).
So long, a formula at parting (“good-bye”) is still in use, unlike mad hatter and sleeveless errand, the subjects of my recent posts, and people sometimes wonder where it came from. I have little of substance to say about the formula’s origin, but, before I say it, I would like to make the point I have made so many times before.
Everybody’s path to etymology: From time to time I receive questions about etymology as a profession. Not long ago, someone from a faraway country even expressed the wish to get a degree in etymology. I can refer to my post of April 2, 2014. This month, a correspondent asked me to say something about why I became an etymologist. The history of my career cannot be interesting to too many of our readers, so I’ll be brief and rather tell a story.
My database on please the pigs is poor, but, since a question about it has been asked by an old and faithful correspondent, I’ll say about it what I can. Perhaps our readers will be able to contribute something to the sought-for etymology. When a word turns out to be of undisclosed or hopelessly obscure origin, we take the result more or less in stride, but it comes to many as a surprise to hear that the circumstances surrounding the emergence of an idiom are beyond reconstruction.
The most ancient roots: The question concerned the root rō- that is said to underlie the English words oar and row. Where did the root come from? This question is almost equal to the more basic one, namely: “How did human language come into being?” The concept of the root is ambiguous. When we deal with living languages, we compare words like work, works, worked, rework, worker, and the rest and call their common part their root.
Odds and ends: I am delighted to say that in January I received unusually many questions. When this blog came into existence, the idea was that I would be flooded by “notes and queries,” as happens to word columnists who work for newspapers. That is why the last week of every month was reserved for answers. But all these years the traffic has been modest, and sometimes my replies were limited to what I had read in the comments. January and the beginning of February 2018 have been an exception; hence the extended “gleanings.”
My most recent post (mad as a hatter) aroused a good deal of criticism. The reason is clear: I did not mention the hypothesis favored in the OED (mercury poisoning). Of course, when I quoted the medical explanation of long ago, I should have written the last set of hypotheses… instead of the last hypothesis. I find all medical explanations of the idiom untenable, and I should have been explicit on this point, rather than hiding behind polite silence.