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1. Etymology as a profession

By Anatoly Liberman


Two or three times a year I receive questions about what the profession of an etymologist entails. I usually answer them briefly in my “gleanings,” and once I even devoted a post to this subject. Perhaps it won’t hurt if I return to the often-asked question again.

Etymology purports to explain why the words we use have the meanings familiar to us. Why is a tree called “tree,” why do we say man, winter, nine, and so forth? People have always been interested in the origin of things. Numerous myths explain how the world was created, how the first people came into being, why it rains, and why winds blow. There is no myth about the origin of the faculty of speech. We don’t know how human language originated. It is not even quite clear what we are looking for. How complicated should signals be to deserve the name of language? Are we looking for intelligible primordial cries or a well-formed vocabulary, or coherent syntax? The wide use of the term language (compare the language of art, of music, and the like) makes the search even more complicated. We constantly hear about some bright chimpanzees mastering language at the level of a two-year-old child, about the language of bees, dolphins, and others. This is all very interesting but not particularly helpful.

Numerous attempts have been made to obtain the answer about the origin of language from a study of the languages of “primitive peoples.” Alas, the level of material culture proves no clue to the level of the speakers’ language sophistication. The concept of primitive people has been compromised for all times, and, when it comes to the Indo-European languages, the more ancient a language is, the more complex its structure turns out to be. A language of primordial cries has not been found. The chasm between the first words of humanity and the words at the disposal of modern linguists is impossible to bridge. Our records span only a few millennia, and there is no certainty that any of the truly ancient words are still current today. The Semitic languages developed more slowly than the languages of the Indo-European family, but even with Aramaic and Hebrew we are incalculable centuries away from the beginning.

Consequently, we are better qualified to discover the origin of the words of Sanskrit, Greek, Latin, English, and other “extant” languages than the origin of the elusive first words. But even this task is often unattainable. Some words are among the oldest known, and we have no idea how long they had existed before they surfaced in written records. They are simply signs to us. One of such words is the numeral one. In all the Indo-European languages its cognates mean the same, and at some early time it probably sounded as oinoz. The form is unrevealing. Did it refer to the thumb or the little finger, or some single object? We feel more comfortable when it comes to derivatives. Thimble is related to thumb, and we only have to find out whether thimbles were ever worn on the thumb. We also notice that the German for thumb is Daumen and wonder why the English word has b at the end. Such questions can usually be answered quite well. It follows that an etymologist has to be informed about the properties of the things whose names are being discussed. Sometimes the answer is almost on the surface, but more often it is not. For example, German einladen means “to invite,” while laden means “to load.” What does loading have to do with invitation? This is a fairly complicated problem. The trouble with one is typical. Scholars collected all the forms related to it. The search presupposed the existence of certain nontrivial rules. They asked how people counted at the dawn of civilization and, to do this, traveled all over the world. The result is a mass of conflicting hypotheses, and a method is needed to decide which of them are especially promising. Hundreds of pages have been written about the origin of numerals.

The only junk worth admiring.

The only junk worth admiring.

Other words are late. They too are the product of human creativity, but, even while dealing with recent coinages, we often fail to discover their sources. It may amuse non-specialists to see how many people have tried to find the origin of jazz and how uncertain even the best results are. Bigot (the subject of a recent post), like jazz, must also have arisen as a slang word. The circumstances in which a certain word comes into being may be so inconspicuous that we have little chance of discovering them. For a long time I have been planning to write a series of short essays on the words jink “to dodge a blow,” high jinks, I’ll be jiggered, and jingo, and their possible connections with jiggle (jink looks like a nasalized version of jiggle, and by jingo! is as emotional as high jinks). Unfortunately, too little is known about their history. Does junk belong with them? Is junk something that is avoided, “jinked”? Compare the vowel alternation in sink ~ sunk and drink ~ drunk. One should tread gingerly, that is, gently on this marshy ground. In a British journal for 1928, I read: “The taxi-drivers of London have announced that they are going to call the new two-seaters jixis, after the licencing House Secretary, Sir Williams Joynson-Hickes.” I am glad I know it. Otherwise, I may have proposed a profound theory of jixi being related to the jink words. In fact, it is a blend of Joynson and taxi (still not jaxi!).

So what are the qualifications of an etymologist? There is a thin layer of late words like jixi that requires no expertise in linguistics. Quite naturally, journalists prefer to write mainly about them, though the history of slang is often irritatingly opaque (capricious coinages, borrowings, and so forth). Work with the other words presupposes familiarity with historical phonetics, historical grammar, and historical semantics. If a language has a long written record, the specialist should be able to read old texts. Comparison is the backbone of linguistic reconstruction. Therefore, an etymologist is expected to have at least a passive knowledge of related and unrelated languages. Since words are the names of things, it is important to feel at home among both things and words. One may ask whether there are or have been people who met the requirements mentioned above. Yes, and rather many. Thanks to them we have an array of excellent etymological dictionaries. To the extent that a complicated etymology is a reward for weighing probabilities, it is seldom final and, by definition, can be superseded by a better one. But the assertion that nothing is final in this area of knowledge misses the mark. It is the end that tends to elude us, for a hunter cannot always be successful.

Occasionally I am asked whether there are job opportunities for etymologists. Paid jobs for experts in word history are few, though great dictionaries usually need editors who revise the etymological part of the entries. The OED has a group of professional etymologists, but this case is exceptional. Even university courses in etymology are rare, because historical linguistics has fallen into desuetude on our campuses. However, the public has a healthy interest in word origins, and books on etymology find a good market. Blogs dealing with etymology have a wide readership, and a stream of questions sent to bloggers never dries up. As long as people exist, they will want to know where words come from, and the world will need specialists who are able to satisfy their curiosity. However, a student aspiring to be an etymologist should remember that etymology is a respectable but not a lucrative occupation. Pre-etym is not quite the same thing as pre-med and pre-law.

Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins And How We Know Them as well as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears on the OUPblog each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to him care of blog@oup.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.” Subscribe to Anatoly Liberman’s weekly etymology articles via email or RSS.

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Image credit: A Chinese junk depicted in Travels in China. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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2. Is our language too masculine?

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As Women’s History month comes to a close, we wanted to share an important debate that Simon Blackburn, author of Ethics: A Very Short Introduction, participated in for IAITV. Joined by Scottish feminist linguist Deborah Cameron and feminist psychologist Carol Gilligan, they look at what we can do to build a more feminist language.

Is our language inherently male? Some believe that the way we think and the words we use to describe our thoughts are masculine. Looking at our language from multiple points of views – lexically, philosophically, and historically – the debate asks if it’s possible for us to create a gender neutral language. If speech is fundamentally gendered, is there something else we can do to combat the way it is used so that it is no longer – at times – sexist?

What do you think can be done to build a more feminist language?

Simon Blackburn is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Cambridge. Until recently he was Edna J. Doury Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the University of North Carolina, and from 1969 to 1999 a Fellow and Tutor at Pembroke College, Oxford. He is the author of Ethics: A Very Short Introduction.

The Very Short Introductions (VSI) series combines a small format with authoritative analysis and big ideas for hundreds of topic areas. Written by our expert authors, these books can change the way you think about the things that interest you and are the perfect introduction to subjects you previously knew nothing about. Grow your knowledge with OUPblog and the VSI series every Friday, subscribe to Very Short Introductions articles on the OUPblog via email or RSS, and like Very Short Introductions on Facebook.

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3. Monthly etymology gleanings for December 2012

By Anatoly Liberman


A Happy New Year to our readers and correspondents! Questions, comments, and friendly corrections have been a source of inspiration to this blog throughout 2012, as they have been since its inception. Quite a few posts appeared in response to the questions I received through OUP and privately (by email). As before, the most exciting themes have been smut and spelling. If I wanted to become truly popular, I should have stayed with sex, formerly unprintable words, and the tough-through-though gang. But being of a serious disposition, I resist the lures of popularity. It is enough for me to see that, when I open the page “Oxford Etymologist,” the top post invites the user to ponder the origin of fart. And indeed, several of my “friends and acquaintance” (see the previous gleanings) have told me that they enjoy my blog, but invariably added: “I have read your post on fart. Very funny.” I remember that after dozens of newspapers reprinted the fart essay, I promised a continuation on shit. Perhaps I will keep my promise in 2013. But other ever-green questions also warm the cockles of my heart, especially in winter. For instance, I never tire of answering why flammable means the same as inflammable. Why really? And now to business.

Folk etymology. “How much of the popular knowledge of language depends on folk etymology?” I think the question should be narrowed down to: “How often do popular ideas of language depend on folk etymology?” People are fond of offering seemingly obvious explanations of word origins. Sometimes their ideas change a well-established word. Shamefaced, to give just one example, developed from shame-fast (as though restrained by shame). Some mistakes are so pervasive that one day the wrong forms may share the fate of shame-fast. Such is, for example, protruberance, by association with protrude. Despite what the OED says, it seems more probable that miniscule developed from minuscule only because the names of mini-things begin with mini-. Incidentally, from a historical point of view, even miniature has nothing to do with the picture’s small size. Most people would probably say that massacre has the root mass- (“mass killing”), but the two words are not connected. Anyone can expand this list.

Sound symbolism. A correspondent has read my book on word origins and came across a section on words beginning with gr-, such as Grendel and grim. Since they often refer to terror and cruelty (at best they designate gruff and grouchy people), he wonders how the word grace belongs here. It does not. Sound symbolism is a real force in language. One can cite any number of words with initial gl- for things glistening and gleaming, with fl- when flying, flitting, and flowing are meant, as well as unpleasant sl-words like slimy and sleazy. But green, flannel, and slogan will show that at best we have a limited tendency rather than a rule. Besides, many sound symbolic associations are language-specific. So somebody who has a daughter called Grace need not worry.

Grendel attacking Three Graces.

Engl. galoot and Catalan golut.  More than four years ago, I wrote a triumphant post on the origin of Engl. galoot. The reason for triumph was that I was the first to discover the word’s derivation (a memorable event in the life of an etymologist). Just this month one of our correspondents discovered that post and asked about its possible connection with Catalan golut “glutton; wolverine.” This, I am sure, is a coincidence. In the Romance languages, we find words representing two shapes of the same root, namely gl- and gl- with a vowel between g and l. They inherited this situation from Latin: compare gluttire “to swallow” and gola “throat.” English borrowed from Old French and later from Latin several words representing both forms of the root, as seen in glut ~ glutton and gullet. As for the sense “wolverine” (the name of a proverbially voracious animal, Gulo luscus), it has also been recorded in English. By contrast, Engl. galoot has not been derived from the gl- root, with or without a vowel in the middle. It goes back to Dutch, while the Dutch took it over from Italian galeot(t)o “sailor” (which is akin to galley).

Judgement versus judgment. This is an old chestnut. Both spellings have been around for a long time. Acknowledgment and abridgment belong with judgment. Since the inner form of all those word is unambiguous, the variants without e cause no trouble. The widespread opinion that judgment is American, while judgement is British should be repeated with some caution, because the “American” spelling was at one time well-known in the UK. However, it is true that modern American editors and spellcheckers require the e-less variant. I would prefer (though my preference is of absolutely no importance in this case) judgement, that is, judge + ment. The deletion of e produces an extra rule, and we have enough of silly spelling rules already. Another confusing case with -dg- is the names Dodgson and Hodgson. Those bearers of the two names whom I knew pronounced them Dodson and Hodson respectively, but, strangely, many dictionaries give only the variant with -dge-. Is it known how Lewis Carroll, the author of Alice in Wonderland, pronounced his name?

Zigzag and Egypt. The tobacco company called its products Zig-Zag after the “zigzag” alternating process it used, though it may have knowingly used the reference to the ancient town Zig-a-Zag (I have no idea). Anyway, the English word does not have its roots in the Egyptian place name.

Lark. I was delighted to discover that someone had followed my advice and listened to Glinka-Balakirev’s variations. It is true that la-la-la does not at all resemble the lark’s trill, and this argument has been used against those who suggested an onomatopoeic origin of the bird’s name. But, as long as the bird is small, la seems to be a universal syllable in human language representing chirping, warbling, twittering, trilling, and every other sound in the avian kingdom. It was also a pleasure to learn that specialists in Frisian occasionally read my blog. I know the many Frisian cognates of lark thanks to Århammar’s detailed article on this subject (see lark in my bibliography of English etymology).

Bumper. I was unable to find an image of the label used on the bottles of brazen-face beer. My question to someone who has seen the label: “Was there a picture of a saucy mug on it?” (The pun on mug is unintentional.) I am also grateful for the reference to the Gentleman’s Magazine. My database contains several hundred citations from that periodical, but not the one to which Stephen Goranson, a much better sleuth that I am, pointed. This publication was so useful for my etymological bibliography that I asked an extremely careful volunteer to look through the entire set of Lady’s Magazine and of about a dozen other magazines with the word lady in the title. They were a great disappointment: only fashion, cooking, knitting, and all kinds of household work. Women did write letters about words to Notes and Queries, obviously a much more prestigious outlet. However, we picked up a few crumbs even from those sources. The word bomber-nickel puzzled me. I immediately thought of pumpernickel but could not find any connection between the bread and the vessel discussed in the entry I cited. I still see no connection. As for pumpernickel, I am well aware of its origin and discussed it in detail in the entry pimp in my dictionary (pimp, pump, pomp-, pumper-, pamper, and so forth).

Again. It was instructive to see the statistics about the use of the pronunciation again versus agen and to read the ditty in which again has a diphthong multiple times. If I remember correctly, Byron, Shelley, Wordsworth, and others rhymed again only with words like slain, though one never knows to what extent they exploited the so-called rhyme to the eye. Most probably, they did pronounce a diphthong in again.

Scots versus English, as seen in 1760 (continued from the previous gleanings).

  • Sc. fresh weather ~ Engl. open weather
  • Sc. tender ~ Engl. fickly
  • Sc. in the long run ~ Engl. at long run
  • Sc. with child to a man ~ Engl. with child by a man (To be continued.)

Happy holidays! We’ll meet again in 2013.

Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them as well as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here, each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to him care of blog@oup.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”

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Image credit: (1) Lucas Cranach the Elder’s The Three Graces, 1531. The Louvre via Wikimedia Commons. (2) An illustration of the ogre Grendel from Beowulf by Henrietta Elizabeth Marshall in J. R. Skelton’s Stories of Beowulf (1908) via Wikimedia Commons.

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4. Maybe academics aren’t so stupid after all

By Peter Elbow


People who care about good language tend to assume that casual spoken language is full of chaos and error. I shared this belief till I did some substantial research into the linguistics of speech. There’s a surprising reason why we — academics and well-educated folk — should hold this belief: we are the greatest culprits. It turns out that our speech is the most incoherent. Who knew that working class speakers handle spoken English better than academics and the well-educated?

The highest percentage of well-formed sentences are found in casual speech, and working-class speakers use more well-formed sentences than middle-class speakers. The widespread myth that most speech is ungrammatical is no doubt based upon tapes made at learned conferences, where we obtain the maximum number of irreducibly ungrammatical sequences. (Labov 222. See also Halliday 132.)

Our language as it’s spoken / words by Geo. W. Day ; music by F.W. Isenbarth. c1898. Source: New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.

But just because so much spoken language is incoherent and ungrammatical, that doesn’t make it useless for writing. Careless casual speech may be too messy for careful writing, but it happens to be full of linguistic virtues that are sorely needed for good writing. For example, speakers naturally avoid the deadening nominalizations and passive verbs that muffle so much writing. Try asking students what they were trying to say in a tangled essay that you can’t quite understand: they’ll almost always blurt out the main point in clear and direct language.

In the past, I’ve been interested in the wisdom that can be found hidden behind incoherence. But now I want to explore the wisdom revealed by incoherence itself, a particular kind of incoherence that is especially characteristic of academics. That is, I’m not talking about little interruptions that so many literate people make to correct a piece of careless “bad grammar” that slipped out of their mouth. No, the chaos that bedevils the speech of so many academics takes the form of frequent interruptions in the flow of speech — interruptions that come from imperious intrusions into our minds of other thoughts. Before one sentence is finished, we break in with “well but, that isn’t quite it, it’s really a matter of…”). Academics often can’t finish one sentence or thought before launching into a related one. (“Elections tend to favor those who… You know what’s interesting here is the way in which political parties just… Still, if you consider how political parties tend to function…” and so on.) Alternatively, we drift into sentence interruptus: a phrase is left dangling while we silently muse — and we never return to finish it.

When we academics were in graduate school, we were trained to write badly (no one put it this way of course), because every time we wrote X, our teacher always commented, “But have you considered Y? Don’t you see that Y completely contradicts what you write here.“ “Have you considered” is the favorite knee-jerk response of academics to any idea. As a result, we learn as students to clog up our writing with added clauses and phrases to keep them from being attacked. In a sense (a scary sense), our syntactic goal is create sentences that take a form something like this:

X, and yet on the other hand Y, yet nevertheless X in certain respects, while at the same time Y in other respects.

And we make the prose lumpier still by inserting references to all the published scholars — those who said X, those who argued for Y, those who said X is valid in this sense, those who said Y is valid in this other sense.

As a result of all this training we come to internalize these written voices so that they speak to us continually from inside our own heads. So even when we talk and start to say “X,” we interrupt ourselves to say “Y,” but then turn around and say “Nevertheless X in certain respects, yet nevertheless Y in other respects.” We end up with our minds tied in knots.

It’s tempting to laugh at this — and I try to smile good-heartedly when people make fun of my speech. After a recent talk, a listener said to me, “Peter, you never completed a single sentence.” But it’s time for the worm to turn. Finally I want to try to stick up for my linguistic disability. I want to suggest that it comes from a valuable habit of mind. It’s the habit of always hearing and considering a different idea or conflicting view while engaged in saying anything. Too many things seem to go on at once in our minds; we live with constant interruptions and mental invasions as we speak. We are trained as academics to look for exceptions, never to accept one idea or point of view or formulation without looking for contradictions or counter examples or opposing ideas. Yet this habit gets so internalized that we often don’t quite realize we are doing it; we just “talk normally” — but this normal is fractured discourse to listeners.

This linguistic problem comes in two flavors. The first is characteristic of strong-minded, confident academics who tend (especially after they get tenure and have published some books) to have few doubts about their own views. Strong-minded people like this can be incoherent in speech because they constantly think about criticisms that could be leveled against their idea. They constantly interrupt themselves to insert additions or digressions to defend what they are saying against any criticism. Sometimes the digression gets even longer as they move on from simple defense of their idea to an active attack on the criticism. This is a mind constantly on guard. Here is one philosopher’s ambivalent praise for the ability of a highly-respected philosopher to write steel-plated prose:

The argument is heavily armored, both in its range of reference and in the structure of its sentences, which almost always coil around some anticipated objection and skewer it; [Bernard] Williams is always one step ahead of his reader. Every sentence… is fully shielded, immune from refutation. Williams is so well protected that it is sometimes hard to make out the shape of his position. The sentences seldom descend to elegance, and lucidity seems less highly prized than impregnability…” (McGinn 70)

But there’s a second flavor of linguistic incoherence that comes from what seem like weak-minded, wishy-washy academics. Their sentences are confused because it seems as though they can’t quite make up their minds; they are characteristically tentative and tend to undermine what they are saying by being unable to resist mentioning a telling criticism. I have a special sympathy for this flavor of incoherence because I suffer from it. It comes from a tendency to feel loyalty to conflicting points of view. As soon as I start to say X, my mind is tickled by the feeling that Y is also a valid point of view. “Maybe I’m wrong. Uh oh. I can’t quite figure out what I really think. Should I change my mind?”

I want to argue that there’s something valuable here. (Let’s see if I can make this argument without being too be weak-kneed about it. I don’t want to do you the favor of mentioning the vulnerable points.) I want to celebrate the mental ability to feel the truth in conflicting ideas. It’s a habit of mind that can help people avoid being dogmatic or narrow-minded. When I say something and someone gives a reason why I’m wrong, I often feel, “Oh dear, that sounds right to me. How can I be right in what I was trying to say?” I can be left in mental paralysis. But I want to argue that this is a frame of mind that can help people move past either/or conflicts and transcend the terms in which an issue is framed. “I believe X. Yet Y seems right. How can that be? What should I think? Let’s see if I can reshape the whole discussion and find a different point of view from which both X and Y are true?” Surely this is an important way in which genuinely new ideas are born.

In short I’ll be less apologetic about my inability to explain an idea clearly and forcefully. And besides, it was this ineffectuality in speech that led me to take writing so seriously. Nevertheless, the habit of constant interruption invades my writing too and makes me have to revise interminably. If I want strong written words that readers will hear and take seriously, I need coherent, well-shaped prose. For this goal, it turns out that the unruly tongue comes to the rescue. My tongue may breed incoherence when I let it run free, but if I take every written sentence and read it aloud with loving care and keep fiddling with it till it feels right in the mouth and sounds right in the ear, that sentence will be clear and strong. Why should the tongue make such a mess when given freedom to speak or draft, yet be able to craft strong, clear sentences when used for out loud revising? That’s an intriguing mystery that I’ve had a good time trying to explore.

Peter Elbow is Professor of English Emeritus at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and former director of its Writing Program. He is the author of Vernacular Eloquence: What Speech Can Bring to Writing, Writing Without Teachers, Writing With Power, Embracing Contraries, and Everyone Can Write.

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5. ‘Guests’ and ‘hosts’

By Anatoly Liberman


The questions people ask about word origins usually concern slang, family names, and idioms. I cannot remember being ever asked about the etymology of house, fox, or sun. These are such common words that we take them for granted, and yet their history is often complicated and instructive. In this blog, I usually stay away from them, but I sometimes let my Indo-European sympathies run away with me. Today’s subject is of this type.

Guest is an ancient word, with cognates in all the Germanic languages. If in English its development had not been interrupted, today it would have been pronounced approximately like yeast, but in the aftermath of the Viking raids the native form was replaced with its Scandinavian congener, as also happened to give, get, and many other words. The modern spelling guest, with u, points to the presence of “hard” g (compare guess). The German and Old Norse for guest are Gast and gestr respectively; the vowel in German (it should have been e) poses a problem, but it cannot delay us here.

The hostess and her guests

The related forms are Latin hostis and, to give one Slavic example, Russian gost’. Although the word had wide currency (Italic-Germanic-Slavic), its senses diverged. Latin hostis meant “public enemy,” in distinction from inimicus “one’s private foe.” (I probably don’t have to add that inimicus is the ultimate etymon of enemy.) In today’s English, hostile and inimical are rather close synonyms, but inimical is more bookish and therefore more restricted in usage (some of my undergraduate students don’t understand it, but everybody knows hostile). However, “enemy” was this noun’s later meaning, which supplanted “stranger (who in early Rome had the rights of a Roman).” And “stranger” is what Gothic gasts meant. In the text of the Gothic Bible (a fourth-century translation from Greek), it corresponds to ksénos “stranger,” from which we have xeno-, as in xenophobia. Incidentally, by the beginning of the twentieth century, the best Indo-European scholars had agreed that Greek ksénos is both a gloss and a cognate of hostis ~ gasts (with a bit of legitimate phonetic maneuvering all of them can be traced to the same protoform). This opinion has now been given up; ksénos seems to lack siblings. (What a drama! To mean “stranger” and end up in linguistic isolation.) The progress of linguistics brings with it not only an increase in knowledge but also the loss of many formerly accepted truths. However, caution should be recommended. Some people whose opinion is worth hearing still believe in the affinity between ksénos and hostis. Discarded conjectures are apt to return. Today the acknowledged authorities separate the Greek word from the cognates of guest; tomorrow, the pendulum may swing in the opposite direction.

Let us stay with Latin hostis for some more time. Like guest, Engl. host is neither an alien nor a dangerous adversary. The reason is that host goes back not to hostis but to Old French (h)oste, from Latin hospit-, the root of hospes, which meant both “host” and “guest,” presumably, an ancient compound that sounded as ghosti-potis “master (or lord) of strangers” (potis as in potent, potential, possibly despot, and so forth). We remember Latin hospit- from Engl. hospice, hospital, and hospitable, all, as usual, via Old French. Hostler, ostler, hostel, and hotel belong here too, each with its own history, and it is amusing that so many senses have merged and that, for instance, a hostel is not a hostile place.

Unlike host “he who entertains guests,” Engl. host “multitude” does trace to Latin hostis “enemy.” In Medieval Latin, this word acquired the sense “hostile, invading army,” and in English it still means “a large armed force marshaled for war,” except when used in a watered down sense, as in a host of troubles, a host of questions, or a host of friends (!). Finally, the etymon of host “consecrated wafer” is Latin hostia “sacrificial victim,” again via Old French. Hostia is a derivative of hostis, but the sense development to “sacrifice” (through “compensation”?) is obscure.

The puzzling part of this story is that long ago the same words could evidently mean “guest” and “the person who entertains guests”, “stranger” and “enemy.” This amalgam has been accounted for in a satisfactory way. Someone coming from afar could be a friend or an enemy. “Stranger” covers both situations. With time different languages generalized one or the other sense, so that “guest” vacillated between “a person who is friendly and welcome” and “a dangerous invader.” Newcomers had to be tested for their intentions and either greeted cordially or kept at bay. Words of this type are particularly sensitive to the structure of societal institutions. Thus, friend is, from a historical point of view, a present participle meaning “loving,” but Icelandic frændi “kinsman” makes it clear that one was supposed “to love” one’s relatives. “Friendship” referred to the obligation one had toward the other members of the family (clan, tribe), rather than a sentimental feeling we associate with this word.

It is with hospitality as it is with friendship. We should beware of endowing familiar words with the meanings natural to us. A friendly visit presupposes reciprocity: today you are the host, tomorrow you will be your host’s guest. In old societies, the “exchange” was institutionalized even more strictly than now. The constant trading of roles allowed the same word to do double duty. In this situation, meanings could develop in unpredictable ways. In Modern Russian, as well as in the other Slavic languages, gost’ and its cognates mean “guest,” but a common older sense of gost’ was “merchant” (it is still understood in the modern language and survives in several derivatives). Most likely, someone who came to Russia to sell his wares was first and foremost looked upon as a stranger; merchant would then be the product of semantic specialization.

One can also ask what the most ancient etymon of hostis ~ gasts was. Those scholars who looked on ksénos and hostis as related also cited Sanskrit ghásati “consume.” If this sense can be connected with the idea of offering food to guests, we will again find ourselves in the sphere of hospitality. The Sanskrit verb begins with gh-. The founders of Indo-European philology believed that words like Gothic gasts and Latin host go back to a protoform resembling the Sanskrit one. Later, according to this reconstruction, initial gh- remained unchanged in some languages of India but was simplified to g in Germanic and h in Latin. The existence of early Indo-European gh- has been questioned, but reviewing this debate would take us too far afield and in that barren field we will find nothing. We only have to understand that gasts ~ guest and hostis ~ host can indeed be related.

There is a linguistic term enantiosemy. It means a combination of two opposite senses in one word, as in Latin altus “high” and “deep.” Some people have spun an intricate yarn around this phenomenon, pointing out that everything in the world has too sides (hence the merger of the opposites) or admiring the simplicity (or complexity?) of primitive thought, allegedly unable to discriminate between cold and hot, black and white, and the like. But in almost all cases, the riddle has a much simpler solution. Etymology shows that the distance from host to guest, from friend to enemy, and from love to hatred is short, but we do not need historical linguists to tell us that.

Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them as well as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here, each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to him care of blog@oup.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”

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Image credit: Conversation de dames en l’absence de leurs maris: le diner. Abraham Bosse. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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6. Jane Austen and the art of letter writing

By Ingrid Tieken-Boon van Ostade


Jane Austen at Writing Desk No, the image to the left is not a newly discovered picture of Jane Austen. The image was taken from my copy of The Complete Letter Writer, published in 1840, well after Jane Austen’s death in 1817. But letter writing manuals were popular throughout Jane Austen’s lifetime, and the text of my copy is very similar to that of much earlier editions of the book, published from the mid-1750s on. It is possible then that Jane Austen might have had access to one. Letter writing manuals contained “familiar letters on the most common occasions in life”, and showed examples of what a letter might look like to people who needed to learn the art of letter writing. The Complete Letter Writer also contains an English grammar, with rules of spelling, a list of punctuation marks and an account of the eight parts of speech. If Jane Austen had possessed a copy, she might have had access to this feature as well.

But I doubt if she did. Her father owned an extensive library, and Austen was an avid reader. But in genteel families such as hers letter writing skills were usually handed down within the family. “I have now attained the true art of letter-writing, which we are always told, is to express on paper what one would say to the same person by word of mouth,” Jane Austen wrote to her sister Cassandra on 3 January 1801, adding, “I have been talking to you almost as fast as I could the whole of this letter.” But I don’t think George Austen’s library contained any English grammars either. He did teach boys at home, to prepare them for further education, but he taught them Latin, not English.

So Jane Austen didn’t learn to write from a book; she learnt to write just by practicing, from a very early age on. Her Juvenilia, a fascinating collection of stories and tales she wrote from around the age of twelve onward, have survived, in her own hand, as evidence of how she developed into an author. Her letters, too, illustrate this. She is believed to have written some 3,000 letters, only about 160 of which have survived, most of them addressed to Cassandra. The first letter that has come down to us reads a little awkwardly: it has no opening formula, contains flat adverbs – “We were so terrible good as to take James in our carriage”, which she would later employ to characterize her so-called “vulgar” characters – and even has an unusual conclusion: “yours ever J.A.”. Could this have been her first letter?

Cassandra wasn’t the only one she corresponded with. There are letters to her brothers, to friends, to her nieces and nephews as well as to her publishers and some of her literary admirers, with whom she slowly developed a slightly more intimate relationship. There is even a letter to Charles Haden, the handsome apothecary who she is believed to have been in love with. Her unusual ending, “Good bye”, suggests a kind of flirting on paper. The language of the letters shows how she varied her style depending on who she was writing to. She would use the word fun, considered a “low” word at the time, only to the younger generation of Austens. Jane Austen loved linguistic jokes, as shown by the reverse letter to her niece Cassandra Esten: “Ym raed Yssac, I hsiw uoy a yppah wen raey”, and she recorded her little nephew George’s inability to pronounce his own name: “I flatter myself that itty Dordy will not forget me at least under a week”.

It’s easy to see how the letters are a linguistic goldmine. They show us how she loved to talk to relatives and friends and how much she missed her sister when they were apart. They show us how she, like most people in those days, depended on the post for news about friends and family, how a new day wasn’t complete without the arrival of a letter. At a linguistic level, the letters show us a careful speller, even if she had different spelling preferences from what was general practice at the time, and someone who was able to adapt her language, word use and grammar alike, to the addressee.

Writing Desk

All her writing, letters as well as her fiction, was done at a writing desk, just like the one on the table on the image from the Complete Letter Writer, and just like my own. A present from her father on her nineteenth birthday, the desk, along with the letters written upon it, is on display as one of the “Treasures of the British Library”. The portable desk traveled with her wherever she went. “It was discovered that my writing and dressing boxes had been by accident put into a chaise which was just packing off as we came in,” she wrote on 24 October 1798. A near disaster, for “in my writing-box was all my worldly wealth, 7l”.

Ingrid Tieken-Boon van Ostade has a chair in English Sociohistorical Linguistics at the University of Leiden Centre for Linguistics (Leiden, The Netherlands). Her most recent books include In Search of Jane Austen: The Language of the Letters, The Bishop’s Grammar: Robert Lowth and the Rise of Prescriptivism, and An Introduction to Late Modern English. She is currently the director of the research project “Bridging the Unbridgeable: Linguists, Prescriptivists and the General Public”.

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Image credits: (1) Image of Jane Austen from The Complete Letter Writer, public domain via Ingrid Tieken-Boon van Ostade (2) Photo of writing desk, Ingrid Tieken-Boon van Ostade.

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7. Mr. Manners’ Guide to The F-Word:Or, “When it is Permissible to Refer to a Goat-effing Contest”

Mark Peters, a language columnist for Good and Visual Thesaurus, as well as the blogger behind The Pancake Proverbs, The Rosa Parks of Blogs, and Wordlustitude is our guest blogger this week. In this post, he looks at variations and usage of the f-word. Obviously, this post contains rather strong language.

Jesse Sheidlower’s The F-word is many things: a super-mega-normous look at all things fuck; a huge, steaming pile of filth; and a huge, erudite pile of scholarship. It’s a myth-dispelling history lesson in taboo language, literary culture, and pop culture, with appearances by The Sex Pistols, Pulp Fiction, Dick Cheney, Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, James Joyce, and Kurt Vonnegut. It may be the greatest bathroom book of all time.

This citation-packed historical dictionary also raises questions about the moral fiber—not to mention the moral cocoa puffs—of society. There was a time when fuck didn’t even get included in dictionaries, and now there’s a dictionary with only fuck, in its third edition no less? How can the tender hearts and minds of our time cope with a book so explicitly illustrating the history of fuck-a-doodle-doo and its barnyard brother, the fucked duck? What will they say at (as Jerry Seinfeld put it) “the finest finishing schools on the eastern seaboard” when confronted with almost two pages on doublefuck and six on ratfuck? Will schoolchildren of the future soon be texting and tweeting DILLIGAF and FYBIS? (”Do I look like I give a fuck?” and “Fuck you, buddy, I’m shipping out,” for the acronymically innocent).

Yes, this is a ticking bomb clock of a book, and the average language-user can’t be expected to know where the red, blue, green, and mauve wires are leading. That’s where I come in (cue “The Final Countdown”).

In addition to being the leading prophet of a new religion based on pancakes, I am also an authority on etiquette. In fact, I am a licensed etiquitte-ologist, and the fact that I made the license myself with crayons is something etiquette forbids you to notice. Instead, you should latch your eyes onto the following usage guide like a hobo seizing a discarded KFC bucket. My advice on these sensitive terms, selected from Sheidlower’s towering temple of titillation, is guaranteed to save—or cause—an embarrassing faux pas, or your money back.

(In the interests of full disclosure and maximum courtesy, I must confess to being one of several word-herders thanked in The F-word, though my contributions were small, and I remain chagrinned that my finding of neurodoublefucked didn’t warrant inclusion. Har-smurfing-umph).

pigfuck
Though not as well known in the highest echelons of society as violin concertos or speed metal, pigfuck is the name of a music genre, specifically one “associated with the late 1980s and typically regarded as an outgrowth of punk and a precursor to grunge, characterized by a gritty, noisy sound.” Thus, pigfuck is entirely appropriate to use when discussing that genre, and that genre alone. However, discretion must be exercised when proximity to a barnyard might cause ambiguity. Similarly, it is always OK to call the windfucker bird (or kestrel) by name, just as long as you don’t say it was my idea.

HMFIC (head motherfucker in charge), MFWIC (motherfucker what’s in charge)
The supreme leaders, supreme commanders, dear leaders, grand poohbahs, rear admirals, and assistant deans of the world all feel, at times, that their present titles may not sufficiently connote the grandeur they wish to inspire in the help and the masses. However, if you refer to yourself as, for example, “Dr. Vargas, HMFIC” I am almost certain those children will stop laughing at you.

IHTFP (I hate this fucking place)
As a former resident of Buffalo, NY, where the snow sometimes falls in six-feet-per-week increments, and the football team loses games that range from heart-attack-spawning to mass-suicide-provoking, I can heartily recommend the use of this expression there. It is also handy and apropos in Phoenix or hell during the summer. Speaking of those sweltering mid-year months, I think we can all agree alternatives are needed to the overused, worn out clichés “Hot enough for ya?” and “It’s hotter’n Satan’s thong!” I suggest using hotter than a fresh fucked fox in a forest fire, an expression dating from 1950, for future steamy summers and eternal flame-y torments. Sometimes, freshness of phrase trumps ickiness of idiom.

goat-fucking contest
The question of when it is “okey-dokey” or “swell” to refer to a goat-fucking contest has puzzled correctness czars and English professors since Christ was a corporal. We can learn something from a Sheidlower-collected 1998 citation: “Colonel, you and me been to three county fairs and a goat-fuckin’ contest and I ain’t seen you hit by nothin’ heavier than shrapnel.” First, it seems this expression is super-apropos in the military, an entity that cultivates profanity by the bucketload. Secondly—and I presume this has something to do with the metric system—this and other examples include three country fairs along with the goat-humping, so precedent dictates that these words should stay wedded idiomatically. We can also extrapolate that a goat-flipping contest is not to be mentioned or invoked lightly. No matter how good that coffee is, it’s probably not three-county-fairs-and-a-goat-fucking-contest good. Finally, since the expression often includes merely a goat-fuckin’ (or goat-ropin’) with no mention of a contest, I am almost certain this expression is not fit for ESPN.

CFM, fuck-me
CFM is an acronym for “come fuck me” that, in the older and commoner form “fuck-me” usually applies to skirts, shoes, boots, heels, pumps and other traditionally conjugalicious women’s wear. Sheidlower defines fuck-me as “(especially of an article of clothing, typically footwear) intended to invite sexual advances; seductive, vampish, sexy.” I just wonder if the haberdashers and seamstresses and J. Petermans of the world have sufficiently plumbed the depths of CFM-ness. Perhaps some enterprising clothes-ologist could design the fuck-me fez, the fuck-me Mr. Rogers sweater, and—for the cautious-minded—the fuck-me tin-foil hat. We all need love, you know.

Finally, etiquette mavens and manners enthusiasts—not to mention politeness pundits—may be baffled when considering the bulging bucket of insults for which fuck is a prefix. Thankfully, Sheidlower’s definitions lend a helping hand. Consider this handy chart of fifteen easily confused terms:

fuckass: “a despicable or contemptible person”
fuckbag: “a disgusting person, ‘asshole’, etc.”
fuckface: “an ugly or contemptible person.—usually used abusively in direct address”
fuckhead: “a stupid or contemptible person”
fuckhole: “a despicable person; an asshole”
fuck-knuckle: “a stupid or offensive person”
fucknob: “a stupid or contemptible person”
fucknut: “a stupid or contemptible person”
fuck-pig: “a contemptible person”
fuckrag: “a worthless, contemptible, or despicable person”
fuckshit: “a despicable person”
fuckstick: “a worthless, contemptible, or despicable person”
fucktard: “a despicably stupid person”
fuckwad: “a stupid or contemptible person; an asshole”
fuckwit: “a stupid person”

If only I had this list during grad school, I could have been so much more accurate and beaten up!

Thanks to these distinctions, I’ll be able to send Festivus cards with confidence this year. My colleague Bucky is quite dumb, yet possesses no despicable or contemptible qualities, so I shall address him as “little fuckwit.” My nemesis Dr. Vargas is cunning as a sewer rat and quite despicable; therefore, he is a fuckass (as well as a fuckshit and fuck-pig). My cousin Jeffrey is neither despicable nor contemptible, but he is worthless, so I guess he’s a fuckrag, like Grandma always said.

You see, even in this warp-speed world of Twitter and moon-smashing, there’s always time for the right word in the right place for the right worthless, contemptible, or despicable person. It may be impolite to call a doofus a fucknut, but it’s impolite and inaccurate to call a fuckbag a fuckrag. There’s no excuse for it–even if you’ve been to four county fairs and a goat-you-know-what-ing.

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8. Should Everybody Write? Or is There Enough Junk on the Internet Already?

Dennis Baron is Professor of English and Linguistics at the better pencilUniversity of Illinois. His book, A Better Pencil: Readers, Writers, and the Digital Revolution, looks at the evolution of communication technology, from pencils to pixels. In this post, also posted on Baron’s personal blog The Web of Language, he looks at  writing on the internet.

“Should everybody write?” That’s the question to ask when looking at the cyberjunk permeating the World Wide Web.

The earlier technologies of the pen, the printing press, and the typewriter, all expanded the authors club, whose members create text rather than just copying it. The computer has expanded opportunities for writers too, only faster, and in greater numbers. More writers means more ideas, more to read. What could be more democratic? More energizing and liberating?

But some critics find the glut of internet prose obnoxious, scary, even dangerous. They see too many people, with too little talent, writing about too many things.

Throughout the 5,000 year history of writing, the privilege of authorship was limited to the few: the best, the brightest, the luckiest, those with the right connections. But now, thanks to the computer and the internet, anyone can be a writer: all you need is a laptop, a Wi-Fi card, and a place to sit at Starbucks.
The internet allows writers to bypass the usual quality-controls set by reviewers, editors and publishers. Today’s authors don’t even need a diploma from the Famous Writers School. And they don’t need to wait for motivation. Instead of staring helplessly at a blank piece of paper the way writers used to, all they need is a keyboard and right away, they’ve got something to say.

You may not like all that writing, but somebody does. Because the other thing the internet gives writers is readers, whether it’s a nanoaudience of friends and family or a virally large set of FBFs, Tweeters, and subscribers to the blog feed. Apparently there are people online willing to read anything.

Previous writing technologies came in for much the same criticism as the internet: too many writers, too many bad ideas. Gutenberg began printing bibles in the 1450s, and by 1520 Martin Luther was objecting to the proliferation of books. Luther argued that readers need one good book to read repeatedly, not a lot of bad books to fill their heads with error. Each innovation in communication technology brought a new complaint. Henry David Thoreau, never at a loss for words, wrote that the telegraph – the 19th century’s internet – connected people who had nothing to say to one another. And Thomas Carlyle, a prolific writer himself, insisted that the explosion of reading matter made possible by the invention of the steam press in 1810 led to a sharp decline in the quality of what there was to read.

One way to keep good citizens and the faithful free from error and heresy is to limit who can write and what they can say. The road to publication has never been simple and direct. In 1501, Pope Alexander VI’s Bulla inter multiples required all printed works to be approved by a censor. During the English Renaissance, when literature flourished and even kings and queens wrote poetry, Shakespeare couldn’t put on a play without first getting a license. Censors were a kind of low-tech firewall, but just as there have always been censors, there have always been writers evading them and readers willing, or even anxious, to devour anything on the do-not-read list.

Today crit

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9. The Power of Names

Michelle Rafferty, Publicity Assistant

Barry Blake is Emeritus Professor of Linguistics at La Trobe University, and his books include Playing with Words, All About Language, and this most recently Secret Language: Codes, Tricks, Spies, Thieves, and Symbols. In the following piece he reveals the mysterious significance of the name in societies past. To read more from Barry Blake check out his piece on allusions that may have eluded you.

In Western Society we have at least two official names, a given name and a surname. Surnames carry some history in that they give an indication of our ethnic origins. Think of Zellweger, Banderas or Zeta-Jones, to take a few at random. Given names often have similar associations of ethnicity or religious affiliation; some tend to be associated with a particular generation, and a few such as Napoleon and Washington evoke particular historical figures. Occasionally we have to hide our ethnic or religious affiliation. During World War I the British royal family had to change their name from Battenberg to Windsor, but normally we have no fear about revealing our name, and right from when we start school we have to give our name to authorities. However, in many societies in the past, and still in some today, people tended to keep their name secret. This is possible in a small-scale traditional society where there are no authorities wanting to record your real name, and for most purposes you are called by a pet name, a nickname, or a kin name like ‘little brother’ or ‘nephew’.

The reason for keeping personal names secret is that one’s name can be used in sorcery. In a wide variety of cultures it is believed that if enemies know your name, they can place an effective curse on you. This belief in the power of a name is linked to a belief that a name is part of one’s being just like an arm or a leg. In English we can say ‘my arm’ or ‘my leg’ just as we might say ‘my dog’ or ‘my car’. We treat them all as possessions, though of course an arm or a leg is part of one’s body. In some languages you cannot speak of body parts as possessions. For example, in most of the indigenous languages of Australia words for ‘my’ and ‘your’ cannot be used with body parts. In the Kalkadoon language, for instance, although you can say, ‘There’s a spider on your blanket’ to say ‘There’s a spider on your arm’, you have to say, ‘There’s a spider on you, arm.’ In other words you say the spider is on the person and then specify what part of the person is involved. Names are treated like body parts. You can’t say, ‘He wrote down my name’, you have to say, ‘He wrote down me, name.’

Since a name was considered an integral part of a person, it could be an effective target for sorcery. In some literate societies mistreating a person’s name was thought to be able to produce an analogous effect on the person. In Ancient Egypt the names of enemy kings would be inscribed on pottery bowls and ritually smashed with the aim of bringing about the death of these rulers. Curse tablets from the Ancient Greek and Roman world have been unearthed in whic

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10. The Government Does Not Control Your Grammar

By Dennis Baron


Despite the claims of mass murderers and freepers, the government does not control your grammar. The government has no desire to control your grammar, and even if it did, it has no mechanism for exerting control: the schools, which are an arm of government, have proved singularly ineffective in shaping students’ grammar. Plus every time he opened his mouth, Pres. George W. Bush proved that the government can’t even control its own grammar.

Nonetheless, grammar conspiracy theories abound. In a YouTube video, Jared Lee Loughner, arrested for the Tucson assassinations that so shocked the nation, warns, “The government is implying mind control and brainwash on the people by controlling your grammar.” As further evidence that Loughner’s own grasp both of grammar and of reality is tenuous, he is reported to have asked Rep. Gabrielle Giffords the truly bizarre question, “What is government if words have no meaning?” three years before he put a bullet through the left side of her brain, the part that controls language.

But wresting control of grammar away from the government the same way other revolutionaries might take over the newspapers and the radio stations is the underlying theme of another denier of government authority, the right-wing loony-toon David Wynn Miller, a former pipe-fitter who made up his own language in order to challenge the government’s legitimacy and avoid paying taxes. News accounts detail attempts by Miller’s followers, after attending his expensive how-to seminars, to bring the courts to a standstill by filing stacks of incomprehensible legal motions written in what Miller calls “Quantum Language,” or sometimes, “communication-syntax-language,” but is literally psychobabble.

The idea that government controls language, which appeals to conspiracy theorists, is just a subset of the more-commonly-held view that language controls thought. George Orwell used Newspeak to illustrate this kind of linguistic mind control in his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), and in his essay “Politics and the English Language (1946), where he decried the connection between “politics and the debasement of language.” In the essay, Orwell presents a “catalogue of swindles and perversions” of words like “class, totalitarian, science, progressive, reactionary, bourgeois, equality“–together with syntactic forms like the passive voice. Orwell claimed that all of these were used in political writing “in most cases more or less dishonestly,” and, using the passive voice, he added that “political language . . . is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”  0 Comments on The Government Does Not Control Your Grammar as of 1/28/2011 6:14:00 AM

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11. The linguistic impact of “9/11″

By Dennis Baron The terrorist attacks on 9/11 happened ten years ago, and although everybody remembers what they were doing at that flashbulb moment, and many aspects of our lives were changed by those attacks, from traveling to shopping to going online, one thing stands out: the only significant impact that 9/11 has had on the English language is 9/11 itself.

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12. How to communicate like a Neandertal…

By Thomas Wynn and Frederick L. Coolidge


Neandertal communication must have been different from modern language. To repeat a point made often in this book, Neandertals were not a stage of evolution that preceded modern humans. They were a distinct population that had a separate evolutionary history for several hundred thousand years, during which time they evolved a number of derived characteristics not shared with Homo sapiens sapiens. At the same time, a continent away, our ancestors were evolving as well. Undoubtedly both Neandertals and Homo sapiens sapiens continued to share many characteristics that each retained from their common ancestor, including characteristics of communication. To put it another way, the only features that we can confidently assign to both Neandertals and Homo sapiens sapiens are features inherited from Homo heidelbergensis. If Homo heidelbergensis communicated via modern style words and modern syntax, then we can safely attribute these to Neandertals as well. Most scholars find this highly unlikely, largely because Homo heidelbergensis brains were slightly smaller than ours and smaller than Neandertals’, but also because the archaeological record of Homo heidelbergensis is much less ‘modern’ than either ours or Neandertals’. Thus, we must conclude that Neandertal communication had evolved along its own path, and that this path may have been quite different from the one followed by our ancestors. The result must have been a difference far greater than the difference between Chinese and English, or indeed between any pair of human languages. Specifying just how Neandertal communication differed from ours may be impossible, at least at our current level of understanding. But we can attempt to set out general features of Neandertal communication based on what we know from the comparative, fossil, and archaeological records.

As we have tried to show in previous chapters, the paleoanthropological record of Neandertals suggests that they relied heavily on two styles of thinking – expert cognition and embodied social cognition. These, at least, are the cognitive styles that best encompass what we know of Neandertal daily life. And they do carry implications for communication. Neandertals were expert stone knappers, relied on detailed knowledge of landscape, and a large body of hunting tactics. It is possible that all of this knowledge existed as alinguistic motor procedures learned through observation, failure, and repetition. We just think it unlikely. If an experienced knapper could focus the attention of a novice using words it would be easier to learn Levallois. Even more useful would be labels for features of the landscape, and perhaps even routes, enabling Neandertal hunters to refer to any location in their territories. Such labels would almost have been required if widely dispersed foraging groups needed to congregate at certain places (e.g., La Cotte). And most critical of all, in a natural selection sense, would be an ability to indicate a hunting tactic prior to execution. These labels must have been words of some kind. We suspect that Neandertal words were always embedded in a rich social and environmental context that included gesturing (e.g., pointing) and emotionally laden tones of voice, much as most human vocal communication is similarly embedded, a feature of communication probably inherited from Homo heidelbergensis.

At the risk of crawling even further out on a limb than the two of us usually go, we make the following suggestions about Neandertal communication:

1)  Neandertals had speech. Their expanded Broca’s area in the brain, and their possession of a human FOXP2 gene both suggest this. Neandertal speech was probably based on a large (perhaps huge) vocabulary – words for places, routes, techniques, individuals, and emotions. We have shown that Neandertal expertise was large

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13. Masculine/Feminine Rhyme: Who Knew?

Just when you thought it was safe to break out your rhyming dictionary (or start running all your rhyming endings alphabetically through your head), someone tells you there's gender to contend with in the rhymes you write. What's up with that? After all, the last time you paid any attention to linguistic gender was Spanish class in the ninth grade---or was it when you ordered that beer during Spring Break in Puerto Vallarta?

No matter. The last place you thought gender would be an issue had to be rhyme, right? Well, fear not. It's not quite as problematic as you may anticipate. In fact, except that someone back in the day must have thought structural endings and sounds ought to be classified according to gender, it's unlikely that anyone would even notice. But just out of curiosity, it might be fun to try and sleuth out who among the ancients decided gender was important---and why.

So, where did the whole gender in rhyme thing originate? Did the early Chinese rhymers grapple with gender in their day? Although some of the oldest surviving Chinese poetry contains lyric aspects, because the written language is character based, any gender association to poetic form may be difficult to tease out. Left with that uncertainty, is the male-female poetic structure primarily western in origin? Could it simply be a non-functioning, vestigial "leftover" from Old Latin which etched its subtle tracks on the English language as romantic entanglements ebbed and flowed across Europe?

According to one source in the English Department at Carson-Newman College, (http://web.cn.edu/kwheeler/lit_terms_R.html) the word "rhyme" itself originates "from Old French, rime meaning 'series,' in turn adopted from Latin 'rithmus' and Greek 'rhythmos'." Given some of the other gender assignments in Greek and Latin, might we ascribe gender features to the rhyming verses penned by the early Greeks and Romans?

No doubt, the definition of gender in rhyme could probably be argued until the cows come home, with a break taken only for milking before the debate starts again. As is true with virtually any sorting out of why words in any language might be classified as masculine versus feminine, rhymes are no different. One thing seems clear: at least in English, gender in rhyme seems to have little or nothing to do with the gender rules found in some romance languages.

That is, whether a line of verse in English ends in an "a" or "o" or other gender laden vowel or consonant, doesn't really matter as much as it does in the Spanish language. And speaking of word endings, despite its compromise value in the Italian language, the use of a neutral vowel (such as the letter "i") at the end of the plural form of both masculine and feminine words is not a gender-driven issue in English rhyme. But you have to admire the logical recognition of not being able to sort out gender in groups.

In the French language, the definition suggests line ending words which end in "e" are feminine and those that don't are masculine. Some sources also refer to "e" endings and unaccented ending syllables as being weak. Although I was a French major in college, I'll leave the "why" of those "differences" to others who know far more about the origins of the French language and who don't mind getting their shins kicked.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, although the reasoning might be debatable, the rules regarding gender in English rhyme are remarkably clear. According to the Collaborative International Dictionary of English, a female rhyme has a rhyming set in which the rhyming lines end in double-syllable words (ego, amigo). A male rhyme, on the other hand, is one where only the last syllable in the line endings agree (stand, demand). No doubt you have noticed the difference in where the stress is placed---keep reading.

The definitions are extended slightly in Brande and Cox (A Dictionary

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14. Monthly Gleanings for February 2012, Part 1

By Anatoly Liberman


There has been a good deal to glean this month because the comments and responses have been numerous and also because, although February is a short month even in a leap year, in 2012 it had five Wednesdays. Among the questions was one about the profession and qualifications of an etymologist. It is a recurring question from young correspondents, and I have answered it briefly more than once, but always in the “gleanings.” It occurred to me that perhaps I should write a short essay on this subject and, if someone else asks me about such things in the future, I will be able to refer to this post. The rest will be discussed next week.

Etymology as an occupation for a breadwinner does not exist. There are no departments of etymology (and most people never learned the difference between etymology and entomology). Unlike other linguists, etymologists do not meet at special conferences and congresses. I even doubt that a dissertation devoted to etymology can nowadays be recommended (books are fine, but not dissertations). When Colonel Pickering asked Professor Henry Higgins whether there was a living in phonetics, Higgins answered: “Oh yes. Quite a fat one.” This cannot be said about etymology.

Those who study and “profess” it are specialists in something else — usually, unless they are journalists, in the history of language and, if they are so lucky as to have an academic job, teach Classical Greek or Latin, or Old English, or any other old language. Although great dictionaries need someone who from time to time updates their current etymologies, they either hire consultants or assign this task to a knowledgeable member of their staff burdened with many other duties. The only exception is the OED (it has a permanent group of etymologists), but one cannot expect to become a Ph.D. and get a position there, just as even a good singer will probably not end up at the Met or La Scala. Popular books on etymology, especially those published by presses with good marketing departments, sell reasonably well, but living on royalties for such books is out of the question.

Etymologists study the origin of words. People have been wondering for millennia why certain combinations of sounds have certain meanings. Why man, tree, eat, red? This quest need not always take us to the beginning of human speech. For example, there is a book about the origin of the phrase hot dog. The now well-known name for a sausage in a bun was coined by some wits in the United States, not by dog worshipers at the dawn of civilization, who, on dog days, sacrificed their hounds to the eye of heaven. That much is clear, and hot does not puzzle us, but why dog?

To find out, one needed endless patience rather than expertise in a dozen foreign languages. Sometimes a dedicated amateur without any familiarity with the intricacies of historical linguistics can solve such riddles. However, there is no certainty: looking through hundreds of old magazines, newspapers, and ads may not yield any worthwhile results. This is the trouble with the profession of an etymologist: convincing answers are never guaranteed, which is bad for dissertations and grant proposals. No one will fund a project titled “In Search of the Proto- Hot Dog.” The explorer who will find the ancestor of all hot dogs, the primordial hot puppy, will be rewarded with thank you and sometimes with an article in a popular magazine (for example, the researcher who traced OK to its beginnings became a minor celebrity), but this is as far as it goes. Etymology is the least lucrative occupation in the world.

This brings me to m

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15. A Stampede in My Mailbox

On Monday, I got an envelope from Clarion. I thought it was a poetry book, since I'm on the CYBILS nominating panel. But it was a copyedited manuscript of my poetry picture book, STAMPEDE! POEMS TO CELEBRATE THE WILD SIDE OF SCHOOL. 

My lovely editor, Jennifer Wingertzahn, had gone through with blue pencil (I think that was her first color) and made a few marks about punctuation. Then a Clarion copyeditor had gone through and marked the heck out of it. She (I don't know if it was a she, but I'm sticking with she to make it easy on me!) used a brown/red pencil and asked questions all over the place. She wanted to add punctuation, italicize certain words, and hyphenate some things. Then Jennifer had gone through it again, this time with green pencil, and responded to some of the copyeditor's marks. Then she sent the manuscript on to me for me to respond to the whole thing.

It was a bit of an internal debate for me over whether to use periods in a kind of prose way in this collection, which is what the copyeditor suggested and Jennifer also thought would work well. I read the ms several times and also opened up a bunch of the CYBILS-nominated books to study what kind of punctuation and with how much consistency it was used in excellent books for this same age range (1st-2nd grade). Jennifer and I emailed back and forth a couple of times. She's very open to hearing my side of things, and I'm very open to hearing hers, so this whole process is not contentious at all. It's just everyone trying to figure out what makes the best book.

And then there were other decisions. For instance, the copyeditor wanted to hyphenate hide and seek. But in the poem I used it in, I was describing the act of hiding and seeking, and I wanted the meter of HIDE and SEEK, DUM da DUM. But hyphenating it to hide-and-seek makes you say it faster and also changes the meter to hide-and-SEEK, da-da-DUM. So I rejected that change.

It was fun dealing with the minutae of words, hyphens, and periods for a little while. Especially as I'm immersed in overall, big picture structure questions with my work in progress. Periods and hyphens I could handle. It was a relief after asking myself about a different work: But what am I really trying to do here? What will serve this topic the best?

Anyway, I finished marking it up (in plain grey pencil), made a copy to keep, and overnighted it back to Clarion. The illustrator, whose name I think I can say now but I'm not positive, so I'll hold off a little longer, is ready to paint! The sketches, I assume, have all been approved, and Jennifer was eager to get the copyediting stage finished so the illustrator could get to work.

Hurray! It's really happening. It won't be out until spring 2009, but it's so fun to have it move through each stage!

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16. David Crystal's BY HOOK OR BY CROOK in The Bloomsbury Review

David Crystal's By Hook or by Crook receives warm praise from The Bloomsbury Review in the May/June 2008 issue: "Crystal stands out amongst contemporary linguists, as his ruminations on the language often go beyong strict linguistic study and delve into the realm of the trivial, the unusual, the humorous, or the fascinating - in short, all those things avid readers find intriguing about language. By Hook or By Crook may be Crystal's most unusual contribution to this field yet, and perhaps his most enjoyable as well."

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17. A World Without Math?


I read this fascinating article last year about the Piraha, an Amazonian tribe whose unique language has received a lot of attention in recent years. The Piraha language has only three pronouns, has no abstract words for color, allows male speakers only one consonant (while female speakers are allowed seven), has almost no past tense, and, most disturbingly to the international linguistic community, has no subordinate clauses.

But what is most interesting to me, as a math educator, is that the language contains no numerals.

Piraha is not the only language to contain no fixed numbers. Warlpiri, and a number of related Pama-Nyungan languages also lack number systems. Many of these languages have words for "few," "some," and "many," Piraha included, but this grammar makes no distinction between singular and plural in the case of nouns and pronouns.

I wonder what we can learn from such a language about the mathematical mind? As a teacher, I often maintained to my students that "Numbers are not math!" but rather, that math is about applying axiomatic rules to closed systems. It was my view that mathematical understanding is hardwired into the human mind, like our sense of time and space, and that math education was simply a formalization of that inherent mental organization.

Was I right? Does the existence of language without number or quantity support my position or does it blow it right out of the water? For now, I'm not sure--I could imagine that the former is the case, but for now, any comparisons I make between a speaker of Piraha and myself are purely speculative.

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18. West Coast Phrases To Know

My mother, the real librarian (not a digital muckety muck thingamajig like me), will be visiting me here in San Francisco next week. Since she will be hanging around with non-Midwesterners, I thought it would be good to provide her with an introduction to west coast language. I know, right?

  • I know, right?

    Rumored origin: L.A.
    Literal meaning: “Can you believe this thing we are talking about? It goes without saying, and yet we are saying it.”
    Connotation: “We are all in agreement here. Also, I have never read Beowulf.”

  • Hella

    Rumored origin: NoCal.
    Literal meaning: Intensifier. “Their pie is hella good.”
    Connotation: “I am twelve.”

  • Yeah yeah yeah

    Rumored origin: Coffee-fueled Berkeley undergraduates
    Literal meaning: “I agree so strongly that it can be quickly dismissed with a rapid exclamation.”
    Connotation: “We are getting things DONE in this conversation.”

  • Chill

    Rumored origin: The 1960s.
    Literal meaning: “Good. Calm. Without trouble. Easy.”
    Connotation:”I have had lots of therapy and/or drugs.”

Got more? Send ‘em in!

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19. Damián Baca, Scripts for Liberation


Damián Baca works at the intersection of rhetoric, comparative writing systems in Mesoamerica/later America, and globalization. Generally, he looks to cultures in Latin America, the Caribbean, and U.S. Latinidad as a lens through which to complicate and inform two correlative domains of inquiry:

1) The disciplinary formation of the study of alphabetic writing as it emerges during a crucial period of Western territorial annexation, and

2) The imperial complicity between "racialized" subjectivites and economy, from the development of the transatlantic commercial circuit in the sixteenth century to the present stages of global capitalism.

Baca is especially interested in the rhetorical potential of post-Occidental reason - an invitation to theorize with, against, and beyond inherited patterns of thinking that emerged in Western Europe under capitalism. In place of merely challenging the Western Rhetorical tradition from a so-called "alternative" cultural locus, his work examines how and why the current study of Rhetoric and Composition becomes an unquestioned alternative to the immense global plurality of communicative forms and knowledges that remain obscured. He perceives these inquiries as having substantial implications for the politics and ethics of research, teaching, and curricular reform.

Author Bio:


Damian Baca, assistant professor of English at the University of Arizona, earned his Ph.D. from Syracuse University in 2006. He is a member of the National Council for Teachers of English (NCTE) and serves on the council's Committee Against Racism and Bias in the Teaching of English.

Baca is a recipient of the NCTE Cultivating New Voices among Scholars of Color scholarship, and was supported by the Ronald E. McNair Post-Baccalaureate Achievement Program during his years as a graduate student. His research and teaching areas include Chicano Chicana Rhetoric & Poetics, Comparative Technologies of Writing, Rhetorics of Mesoamerica/Colonial Mexico and the U.S./Mexico Border, Globalization, Colonial/World-Systems Analysis, Digital Humanities, and Ancestral Literacy.

Baca is author of Mestiz@ Scripts, Digital Migrations, and the Territories of Writing (New Concepts in Latino American Cultures Series) Palgrave Macmillan, 2008. He is also lead co-editor of Rhetorics in the Americas: 3114BCE to 2012CE with Victor Villanueva, scheduled for publication in late 2009.

He is currently preparing his third manuscript on pedagogical resistance to inherited patterns of thinking that emerged in Western Europe under capitalism.
A native of New Mexico and descendent of Sephardic Crypto Jews (primarily through his matrilineal line, Espinosa), Baca regularly conducts research at the National Hispanic Cultural Center Foundation and numerous other locations throughout the region. Additional information is about Baca is available at http:/u.arizona.edu/~damian.


2008 Palgrave Macmillan Press Release for Mestiz@ Scripts, Digital Migrations, and the Territories of Writing:

Conventional scholarship on written communication positions the Western alphabet as a precondition for literacy. Thus, pictographic, non-verbal writing practices of Mesoamerica remain obscured by representations of lettered speech. This book examines how contemporary Mestiz@ scripts challenge alphabetic dominance, thereby undermining the colonized territories of "writing." Strategic weavings of Aztec and European inscription systems not only promote historically-grounded accounts of how recorded information is expressed across cultures, but also speak to emerging studies on visual/multimodal education. Baca argues that Mestiz@ literacies advance "new" ways of reading and writing, applicable to diverse classrooms of the twenty-first century.

La Bloga's discussion with Damian Baca

How would you describe your career arc?

I trace my present inquiries back to my training and experience in graduate school. The teaching of college writing is a practice that is claimed by Rhetoric and Composition, a discipline within the larger field of English Studies. On one hand, the discipline focuses most of its attention on writing activities in controlled academic spaces with histories firmly embedded in the thinking of ancient Athenians, Roman imperialists, Aryan-Germanic philosophers, and descendants of Puritan immigrants. On the other hand, Rhetoric and Composition proclaims that writing is more or less a life-long activity that is relevant in multiple ways and for multiple cultural situations. So a notable predicament arises?how can scholars make authoritative claims about (and thus teach) the "diversity" of writing while simultaneously surrendering to an outdated and culturally provincial historical fantasy?

My point of departure from the discipline has become two-fold. First, while the discipline's governing gaze remains fixed upon a linear "Greece>Rome>Europe>North America" global trajectory, I'm committed to questioning pre- and post- conquest legacies on our own continent. While conventional academics theoretically look back across the Atlantic to the West and Europe, I aim to think from the South, from Mesoamerica, colonial Mexico, and the U.S./Mexico borderlands. And not surprisingly, Rhetoric and Composition is structured upon the largely unquestioned ideology that Western Roman alphabetic symbols comprise the foundation of writing and literacy. But this is not my foundation.

Indeed, our continent tells an "other" narrative, one of a plurality of graphic marks that produce Olmec calendrics, Maya hieroglyphs, Aztec pictographs, Inca quipu knotted cord systems, Chicana Chicano iconography, and Zapatista digital communications. A truly hemispheric and global plurality provides precisely what Rhetoric and Composition experts have yet to grasp: historically-sound and theoretically grounded accounts of multiple and conflicting writing systems in the Americas, the Caribbean, and beyond. I believe such accounts foster perspectives that are better suited for our contemporary world problems of perpetual warfare, territorial occupation, economic exploitation and systemic poverty, and the politics of communication across cultural borders.

Why this area of study?

Good question. Why study and teach writing? My interest is driven by a conviction that critical agency and justice cannot emerge from a single overarching rhetorical tradition upon which all civilizations across the globe must follow. In this spirit, I practice and teach writing as a political and creative art, an art that involves building theoretical frameworks, analyzingand developing concepts, and thinking beyond the sentence-level to critically reflect upon larger, underlying structures. This is why instead of "teaching writing as production" or "teaching texts as consumption," I tend to think in terms of teaching through inquiries associated with legacies of conquest and resistant discourses that challenge global powers of our day.

A series of interlocking life-changing events, from the colonial break-up of the Ottoman Empire and the Balfour Declaration of 1917 to Al-Qaeda attacks of September 2001 complicate --among other things-- isolationist narratives that recast Western civilization as separate from the world rather than part of it.

The political and ethical potential of my work, I hope, might provide
space for enlarging the harmfully narrow frameworks that academics use to study and teach written language and literacy. In addition to an increased awareness of, for example, transnational migrations, fundamentalist faith systems, and multinational corporations, a more global concept of writing might likewise call into question the foundations of the humanities and social sciences.

When and where do the Americas and the Caribbean become literary, literate, and rhetorical? According to whom and with whose definitions? Should North Atlantic imperialism dictate the historical and creative imaginary of the rest of the world? I prefer looking to wider geographic, temporal, and cultural contexts for rethinking hemispheric and world history. Building a wide-angle transatlantic view is helpful in teaching beyond the provinces of Athens, Western Europe, Massachusetts Bay, the British colonies, and toward a global past and global present.

How are writing technologies and disciplinary lenses
already embedded within transnational processes of oceanic trade, migration, and industrialization? How can writing specialists better understand the plurality of writing systems, empires, and trade networks that thrived in
the
Western Hemisphere long before European occupation? How have these earlier commercial networks set the stage for our current era of technoglobalism, human trafficking, and unregulated capitalist expansion? As a teacher, these inquiries impact multiple scenes of learning, teaching, and institutional leadership, from hallway conversations to seminars, from faculty search committee meetings to conference presentations. The classroom is merely one space where learning,teaching, and writing happen.

What is the significance of specific constructs of language in Chicano contexts?

There are so many writers who've influenced my thinking about language and rational thought. Lucha Corpi, Sandra Mar?a Esteves, E.A. Mares, Rosaura S?nchez, Ben S?enz, Aurora Levins Morales, Demetria Martinez, José Antonio Burciaga, Manuel Mu?oz, Laura Pérez, and numerous others. The late Gloria Anzald?a and her groundbreaking Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza also comes to mind. Borderlands adds significantly to our understanding of Chicana Chicano politics of language, I think, by advancing a new strategy of imagination and invention?the critical invention between multiple discourses and the memories that are embedded in those discourses. Mexican Spanish, Spanglish, Cal? and Pachuquisma, Tex-Mex, English variations, Nahuatl fragmentations, Espa?otli.

I see this intervention as a powerful rhetorical
tactic, but one that is often confused with the mere encounter between different cultures and worldviews. Numerous writers have shown that Chicana Chicano discursive experiences are far more complex than this. For example, Anzald?a employs nepantla as a concept of borderland thinking. Nepantla, which can translate as "the space between two oceans," is a Nahuatl expression coined in the early sixteenth century in the aftermath of European invasion, rape, genocide, and conquest. The first generation of children from Mesoamerican mothers and Iberian fathers recognized that "authentic" pre-European ways of life were impossible to recover. At the same time, the Spanish colonial world of brutal Christianization was not a suitable alternative.

Nepantlism,
then, is a strategy of thinking and speaking from a border space through multiple
expressions and oppositions. Inventing and communicating from nepantlism, suspended between paradoxical frames of reference, was first a possibility in the mind of the Mesoamerican, not the Spaniard. Both worlds experienced and negotiated cultural difference and linguistic "diversity," yet the Spanish colonial administration had no equivalent to the Nahuatl nepantla. Anzald?a's border thinking is a distinct articulation that emerges from the underside of colonization, from the perspectives of the subjugated and silenced. These Chicana Chicano articulations undermine and revise Western conventions of communication by enacting "new" memories, subaltern recollections in which splintered Mesoamerican and other language practices are strategically reconfigured and embroidered within our post-Columbian world of colonial and global power. Moreover, our culture has no need to accept either/or linguistic binaries. Anzald?a, like so many others in our community, reveals U.S. linguistic assimilation debates for what they are?outmoded ideas and false dilemmas.

What are some future areas of study?

In early 2009 I'll complete a book project I've had in mind for a few years now, Rhetorics of the Americas: 3114BCE to 2012CE, an edited manuscript under contract with Palgrave Macmillan. I believe this will be a groundbreaking collection, the first of its kind, as it extends the culturally provincial study of Western Rhetoric into an introduction to pre-Columbian rhetorics of the Americas. The book addresses an understanding of discourse meant to persuade within Pre-Columbian civilizations; that is, in presenting the rhetoric that coincided with but was not influenced by Greco-Latin ones.

Each
contributor provides glimpses into what those indigenous rhetorics might have looked like, how they are tied to culture and conquest and, perhaps most importantly, how their influences remain.

The collection brings together
scholars from Rhetoric, American Indian Studies, American Studies, Mesoamerican and Latin American Studies, Art History, and Comparative Spanish Literatures, among other disciplines. I approached Victor Villanueva, Director of American
Studies at Washington State University, to step in as co-editor for the project. Victor?s an amazing person and an award-wining scholar whose contributions to Rhetoric and Composition studies are too numerous to list here. I'm blessed to be working with him, and blessed to work with such a wonderful group of scholars.

Lisa Alvarado

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20. Alliterative morning

Today I Skimmed Schmaltz, and was Rawked at by a Raven.

Raven with Sausages by quinet

The schmaltz came from a mess of chicken soup I made. A thick layer of chicken fat rose to the top overnight and was skimmed off and used to season the cat’s breakfast.

Chicken soup for the soul by tsheko

The raven is a Common Raven, who was hanging out in one of the San Francisco parks that I walk through on my way to work. Common Ravens are more common out here than they are back east.

They are about the size of a small dog, and live shoulder to shoulder with their smaller corvid friends the Crow and the Western Scrub Jay. All three species enjoy Rawking, poking at things with their substantial bills, and Making Trouble.

What alliterative things happened to YOU today?

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21. Around Ethnic Slurs Part 1: Squaw

By Anatoly Liberman

Few words are more offensive than ethnic slurs. The origin of some of them is “neutral” (for instance, a proper name typical of a group), but the sting is in their application, not in their etymology. The story of squaw is well-known, but it bears repetition. It is also a sad story because it should not have happened.

In 1992 Suzan Harjo said to Oprah Winfrey that the word squaw means “vagina” and added: “That’ll give you an idea what the French and British fur trappers were calling all Indian women, and I hope no one ever uses that term again.” Countless TV viewers believed her and joined the ranks of protesters. Fight against the s-word began. On June 6, 1994 Saint Paul Pioneer Press carried an article titled “Students Seek to Expunge Place Name ‘Squaw’.” This is its beginning: “Squaw Lake. Minn. ASSOCIATED PRESS. Two high school students have launched a campaign to change the names of a small city, a reservation community, a half-dozen lakes and a pond, all of which contain the word ‘squaw’. The word, the students say, is offensive. Their teacher [I deleted the name] agrees. He referred to works by Saxon Gouge, an instructor in American literature at Wisconsin-Eau Claire, and a book Literature of the American Indian, which said the word probably is a French corruption of the Iroquois word “otsiskwa,” which means “female sexual parts.” The initiative met with near universal approval. The students were also encouraged by Indian elders and tribal authorities, who until they were enlightened by the two teenagers (or the TV show) had had no idea how bad the word squaw is. But “[b]oth students knew that the word went beyond its definition as ‘Indian woman’, found in some dictionaries, and they wrote letters to several newspapers advocating changes” (emphasis added).

The moral of this episode is that etymology is a science and in serious situations should be left to specialists. Neither an instructor in American literature nor Thomas E. Sanders and Walter W. Peck, the authors of Literature of the American Indian, could have an informed opinion about word origins and should not have been cited as authorities. It is now an open secret that squaw has never meant “vagina, vulva,” but lots of people, including some Native Americans, decided that they had either done wrong or been wronged, and the fib triumphed, for any word means what speakers believe it means. This is how misspent political zeal turned squaw into an ethnic slur. Place names have been changed in Minnesota and Arizona, Utah did not stay away from the campaign, and there is little doubt that the stone will keep rolling. An ingenious author even mentioned the horrors of sound symbolism and explained that no one would want to be called a name beginning with the sounds one hears in squint, squat, squalid, and the like. I wonder whether he is equally squeamish when it comes to eating squash, crossing a square, or looking at squirrels playing in front of his house

Mohawk  ojiskwa (such is its usual spelling) does mean “vagina,” but squaw was borrowed by Europeans from Massachusett, the language of an Algonquian people, which is not related to Mohawk or any other Iroquoian language. Nor were there any cultural ties between the two communities, separated by half of North America (a reminder: Massachusetts is not in the Midwest, and the action of The Song of Hiawatha is not set in Massachusetts). By contrast, cognates of squaw exist in many Algonquian languages and mean “woman” in all of them. Present day Mohawk speakers do not identify the English word squaw with any word in their language. The similarity between -sqwa and squaw is accidental. One can as well compare squaw with the last syllable of Moskva.

The motto of every political initiative should be: “Do no harm” (as in medicine). Looking before leaping is also useful. Although language is easy to politicize, historical linguistics rarely falls prey to this kind of maneuvering. Rabble rousers occasionally use borrowed words for boosting the national pride of their group, but in retrospect such campaigns fill the victims of fraud with shame and surprise at their gullibility. Words for “woman” have a tendency to deteriorate: from “the loved one” to “whore,” from “maid(en)” to “a pert, saucy girl,” and so forth. The causes of such changes reflect the societal attitudes that are known only too well. But the recent history of squaw is a unique case: ignorant people explained to native speakers that the word of their mother tongue is an ethnic slur. Some evidence exists that in English (but not in Mohawk!) squaw was used in a disparaging way. This happened because some people chose to treat the Indians as unworthy of respect. Compare nigger (which, like Negro) means simply “black”), pickaninny (perhaps from Portuguese; the original meaning is approximately “a small one”), and zhid (a slur for a Russian Jew, probably from Italian giudeo, from Latin judaeus “belonging or pertaining to Judea”). All of them are racist terms despite their innocuous etymology. Depending on the mores of a given society, squaw had the potential of becoming offensive. Compare madam “a woman who manages a brothel” or villager acquiring in the Middle Ages the connotations of villain, whereas things urban, naturally, became urbane. If squaw had to be ostracized, it should not have happened for etymological reasons.

Anyone with an interest in this problem will find abundant material in the Internet, in the magazine Native Peoples, and other sources. The article “The Sociolinguistics of the ‘S-Word’: Squaw in American Placenames [sic]” by William Bright was published in the periodical Names (vol. 48, 2000, 207-216) but is also available online, and so is the passionate defense of the word by Marge Bruchac.


Anatoly_libermanAnatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them as well as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here, each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to blog.us@oup.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”

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22. A Derailed Myth, or, a Story of the Word Tram

By Anatoly Liberman

The trick that once probably took everybody’s breath away or, to use a more modern phrase, wowed the whole world (very genteel) has by now acquired a rather threadbare look. I mean the art of giving punning titles to newspaper articles. For example, if a restaurant goes out of business and a liquor store replaces it, the newspaper will say: “Something Is Brewing Again.” Plumbers’ profits go down the drain, whereas chimneysweeps’ money, naturally, goes up in smoke. Fowlers croak. Coopers kick the bucket. Tenors join the Choir Invisible. How unbearably trite! The genre has outstayed its welcome, but journalists keep producing more and more paper tigers. To show how easy it is to engage in such lackluster punning, I gave my post a corresponding name. So back on track: to the story of tram.

A street car can also be called tramway or simply tram. At one time, trams used to dominate towns; now they are gone almost everywhere. A typical folk etymological tale has woven itself around the word tram, and, for a change, we seem to know its author. Allegedly, tram is the second syllable of Benjamin Outram’s family name. According to the OED, we owe the popularity of this fib to Samuel Smiles’s book Life of George Stephenson (see p. 59 of the 1857 edition; different pages in later reprints). Both Outram (1764-1805) and Stephenson (1781-1848) were distinguished civil engineers, and Smiles was an influential author regularly writing about engineers’ achievements. In Life of George Stephenson, he devoted a short paragraph to the origin of tram, but it did the harm anyway. He wrote: “In 1800, Mr. Benjamin Outram, of Little Eaton, in Derbyshire, used stone props instead of timber for supporting the ends and joining of the rails. As this plan was pretty generally adopted, the roads became known as ‘Outram roads,’ and subsequently, for brevity’s sake, ‘tram-roads’.”

Even though Smiles could hardly have invented the Outram—tram story, no references to it prior to 1857 have been found. Here is a passage from the Stamford Mercury, September 6, 1861: “The father of Sir Jas. Outram was the founder of the Butterley Ironworks, now the largest ironworks in England. He was a man of great ability, energetic, self-reliant, of fertile and ready resources; so much so, that his opinion was deferred to by many of the most eminent engineers, such as Sir John Rennie and Thos. Telford. He was the first, in connection with these works, to lay down an iron way, and it is to this circumstance, and from his name, that we have the word ‘tramway’.” This passage was reproduced in Notes and Queries a few days later and set off a lively discussion. Many correspondents, also possessing fertile and ready resources (Rudyard Kipling, steeped in the idiom of his day, called one of his characters a man of great resource and sagacity), pointed out that this derivation of tram is wrong. Indeed, the word tram is much older than 1800, the date of Outram’s invention; besides, Outram has initial stress, so that no one can hear tram in it. I assume that some witty man noticed the similarity between Outram and tram, made a joke about it, and Smiles took it seriously.

The real, rather than folk, etymology of tram, first recorded in the middle of the 15th century, is more complicated, but some basic facts have been discovered. The word is, apparently, of northern descent. It was a local name for a special wagon; hence tramway “the road on which this wagon ran.” In coal-mining, a tram was a frame or truck for carrying coal baskets. The shaft of a barrow was also called a tram, and in the Scandinavian languages all kinds of things called tram, tromm, etc. are made of wood too. That is why Skeat suggested that the original “tramroad” was a log road. Low (= northern) German treme means a “doorstep” (thus, another object made of wood), and some other words beginning with tr-, such as German Treppe “doorstep” (perhaps allied to Engl. trap), may be “obscurely or distantly related” to tram. This is what etymologists say when faced with a mass of near synonyms looking similar but not similar enough to qualify as congeners.

Latin trabs “beam” seems to belong here too, but it can be akin to Treppe and its likes only if at one time they began with th (such is the rule: compare Latin tres versus Engl. three), but th changed to d in the continental Scandinavian languages and German, while in German d was often confused with t, so that in the Germanic group one has to look for thram, tram, and dram as possible cognates of tram, and this complicates matters. Trabs and trap end in b ~ p and may be of some interest in discussion of tram only if we are dealing not with real cognates but with sound imitative nouns and verbs of the tread and tramp type, in which almost any combination of vowels and consonants is able to reproduce some noise. In case all these tr- words in the Indo-European languages go back to the sound of a tool interacting with wood (to knocking on wood, as it were), an etymological family, or rather a foster home, emerges. Granting affinity to its inhabitants may take us too far. It is therefore safer to say that tram is a word of either northern German or Scandinavian provenance whose earliest meaning was “a wooden object” (with specifications). Shafts, beams, doorsteps, wagons, and logs will feel at ease in its company. When trams were put on iron sleepers, the old name remained. This is a usual case. Compare pen, originally “feather,” though no one has been using quills for more than a century and a half, and even fountain pens are now antiques.


Anatoly_libermanAnatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them as well as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here, each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to blog.us@oup.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”

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23. The Deceptive Transparency of Compounds, with a Note on the Charms of Etymology as a Science

By Anatoly Liberman

Most words do not reveal their origin to a modern speaker. Nor are they in a hurry to open up to an etymologist. But compounds pose fewer problems, especially those of the roommate or cornflakes type. Room, mate, corn, and flakes are conventional signs to us (that is, we don’t know why they mean what they do, whether they are native or borrowed, and how long they have existed in the language), but their sum is clear: room + mate, corn + flakes. However, compounds tend to deteriorate, and we are surprised to discover that long ago barn contained two syllables and meant “a place for storing grain, “barley”)” or that bridal was the ale drunk at the wedding ceremony in honor of the bride and bridegroom (for us -al is an adjectival suffix). All books on the history of English words discuss such disguised compounds, as they are called. The origin of barn “storehouse” is as opaque today as the origin of bairn “child.” But many compounds have not succumbed to wear and tear or have changed their phonetic shape in a minimal way, and yet we still have trouble understanding their history. For a long time I have been collecting such words and below will write a few lines about three of them beginning with black (the reason for my brevity is that each of them deserves a full-fledged essay).

What is blackguard? It has lost one sound, for we do not pronounce kg in the middle, but other than that, its elements are without doubt black and guard. In Modern English, a blackguard is a worthless, contemptible person, so where does guard come in? The earliest example of blackguard in the OED is dated to 1532. In this and in a few other citations the word refers to a group of people (“guard”) doing the same work. In some contexts scullions were meant, and those must have been sooty. Other members of the blackguard were link boys (torch bearers), youngsters of ill repute. Perhaps they too were covered with soot. According to an old suggestion, a blackguard may have consisted not only of link boys but also of mutes (mourners at a funeral), carrying torches and wearing black clothes. (It will be remembered that one of Oliver Twist’s first occupations was that of a mute. He was instructed by his master to look sad, though he did not need that advice, for despondency was his natural state.) With time the meaning blackguard was transferred to all kinds of servants making a living in great households and to menial riffraff in general, to use a cruel characterization of a late Victorian author. The collective meaning of the noun gradually disappeared; today a blackguard is an individual, not a body of people. Black may have contributed to the word’s negative meaning. The Devil is black, however He is painted, and compare Black Friday and the like. The OED mentions the possibility of a guard of soldiers at Westminster having been called the Black Guard, but if it existed, we do not owe the emergence of blackguard to it. Thus, not every aspect of the question has been clarified.

Needless to say, attempts to derive blackguard from some foreign language cannot be taken seriously, but I would like to mention a small detail. James Emerson Tennent (Notes and Queries 1853, Volume VII, pp. 78-79) made an improbable suggestion that blackguard goes back to French blagueur “joker, teller of tall tales.” He was rebuffed by other correspondents (first in Vol. VIII, pp. 414-415). This exchange does not amount to antedating blagueur in the OED (1883), but it may serve as an example of the occurrence of the word in the popular British press thirty years before it was used, still italicized, in a non-linguistic context.

Even more obscure than blackguard is blackleg “scab, non-unionist.” This meaning is an American creation, but blackleg “a turf swindler; also, a swindler in other species of gambling” occurred in England as early as 1774. The OED remarks dryly: “As in other slang expressions, the origin of the name is lost; of the various guesses current none seem worth notice.” Clearly, hypotheses like Brewer’s in the original edition of his Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (“so called from gamecocks, whose legs are always black”) do not seem worth notice because the ways of the metaphor have not been explained, but blackleg is a compound of the same type as redcap (whether applied to a station master or Little Red Riding Hood), so that there may be some truth in the explanation given in Hotten’s Slang Dictionary: “The derivation of this term was solemnly argued before the full Court of Queen’s Bench upon a motion for a new trial for libel, but was not decided by the learned tribunal. Probably it is from the custom of sporting and turf men wearing black top boots.” The Century Dictionary does not find Hotten’s etymology totally fanciful.

Finally, a story with a happy end. What is the origin of blackmail? The answer is known. The hitch is that mail also meant “tribute.” Mail “post” and mail “armor” are not related to it. Skeat explains: “Mail is a Scottish term for rent. Blackmail or black rent is the cattle, as distinct from white money or silver.” So it arose as a term for a tribute exacted by freebooting chiefs and came to mean any payment extorted by intimidation or pressure.

My list of puzzling compounds includes browbeat and beetle-browed, pitfall (why not fallpit?) and deadpan, among dozens of others. Etymology deals with ancient roots and modern slang, with sounds and meanings, as well as with spelling and printing conventions. It also concerns itself with history, and that is why it is one of the most interesting areas in the humanities, even though so much in it depends on guesswork.


Anatoly_libermanAnatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them as well as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here, each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to blog.us@oup.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”

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24. Send in the Hench-poodles! An Underrated Prefix for Underlings

by Cassie, Publicity

Mark Peters, a language columnist for Good and Visual Thesaurus, as well as the blogger behind The Pancake Proverbs, The Rosa Parks of Blogs, and Wordlustitude is our guest blogger this week. In this post, he looks at the various uses of “hench” as a prefix.

So I was hanging upside down like a bat in my underground lair, enjoying the pleasures of an undisclosed location, when I realized, “Man! I am getting nothing done around here.” Even with a loyal staff of minions, lackeys, toadies, lickspittles, facilitators, enablers, provosts, and drooling zombie slaves, my evil plans have come to naught in 2009, according to the quarterly reports.

True, I did swindle some orphans and bunnies. I also made a sweet deal with “the cartel.” (Note to self: check receipt to see which cartel that might be, and what I will receive for my millions.) Deliciously, I vanquished Dr. Vargas—my chief rival in the fields of global domination, local pranksterism, and polar-bear training (don’t ask). So the year hasn’t been a total loss.

But what have I done lately? Then it occurred to me what I need: more henchmen.

Fortunately, the field of henchology is no longer limited to mere men, who I know from personal experience would rather live in a ridiculous fantasy world than wrestle with the issues of the day (or those polar bears). Today, an evil employer has options.

You see, when I’m not hip-deep in rivers of evil, I’m armpit-deep in the seas of lexicography, as curator of Wordlustitude, where I’ve collected hench-words beyond the wildest dreams of my nemesis Dr. Vargas and his colleagues Dr. Doom, Dr. Evil, and Dr. Phil. I’ve found uses of henchblob, henchboob, hench-chicken, hench-Cylon, henchdemon, henchgoat, henchidiot, hench-lady-men-partners, hench-monster, henchscum, hench-wench, plus spokeshenchman, sub-sub-henchman, under-henchlings and many others. Finally, some good news: It turns out hench is a mega-productive prefix and the hench-business is ever-bustling, even in an economic downturn.

My favorite hench-book, the Oxford English Dictionary, tells us henchman originally meant, in the 1300s, “A squire, or page of honour to a prince or great man, who walked or rode beside him in processions, progresses, marches, etc.; also, one who, on occasion, fulfilled the same office to a queen or princess.” Subservience, if not evil deeds, was always part of the henchly package. Other right-hand-man-y meanings evolved over time, but it wasn’t until the 1800s that the current sense started to take hold: “A stout political supporter or partisan; esp. in U.S. ‘A mercenary adherent; a venal follower; one who holds himself at the bidding of another’ (Cent. Dict.).” Mercenary adherents, venal followers, now we’re getting somewhere… The OED also has entries for hench-boy (1611) and henchwoman (1889), so the prefixitude of hench has established precedents. Those words are the primordial predecessors of hench-bunny-men and hench-robot.

This brings us to the wild world of contemporary hench-folk, who are usually mentioned in a fictional or humorous setting. Some henchnames reinforce the lackeydom of such lackeys (henchgoon, henchminion, hench-thug) while other reinforce their monsteriness (hench-vamp, hench-thing, hench-zombie) or evil (henchscum, hench-lawyer). A few names remind us that very few henchpersons could win a battle of wits with a box of rocks; these include henchmoron, henchidiot, and henchdoofus. Speaking of doofi, some writers love to imagine the nefarious thugs of their political enemies, such as “(George W.) Bush and his hench-psychos” or John Kerry and “his henchscum.”

But the funnest of the fun are the terms that take the hench prefix on a wild ride to words and beings not usually associated with the hench-istic arts: I think henchnoncorporeal being might be my favorite, though hench-toddler is a contender. Perhaps because pet-havers are called masters, many people can imagine their pets as hench-companions, inspiring the words henchdog, hench-ferret, hench-hamster, and hench-kitty. Bizarrely, there are several terms such as hench-cleavage and hench-breasts, which might be an indication of how boob-obsessed the world is, or a sign that the cleavage-killing Chesty Morgan and her Deadly Weapons are more influential than I thought. I’m not sure how useful a hench-cacti would be, but if Dr. Vargas gets one, I will too! Damn him!

Anyhoo, besides its wide use as a prefix, hench has been up to other lexical shenanigans. While searching Twitter for more hench-words, I was psyched to read this tweet: “@Rocmoney I think Madonna scared herself when she realised that she looked like a hench skeleton” (July 30, 2009, Andremcdmusicpr). At first I thought I’d be adding hench-skeleton to my list of words and roster of employees, before my brain informed me that I was making even less sense than usual, because who the heck would Madonna be a hench-skeleton for? Oprah? Zeus? Unlikely.

That sentence is an example of a slang meaning of hench as a henchman-inspired term for beefy, bulky, muscular, and strong, as in “A lion! It would be my personal bodyguard!! Do you know how HENCH and HUGE a lion is?! Mos definitely a lion! Hands down!”
(July 31, 2009, TEAMaiwo) and “Arrived at the gym, time to get hench!!” (July 29, 2009, U.S.F.). An upcoming movie about a struggling henchman is called Hench, so I imagine the word will continue to take on a wide-ranging, man-free life of its own, as noun, adjective, prefix, and whatever else it pleases. Who’s gonna stop it?

So, employers and warlords and supreme leaders, let this be a lesson! Don’t be so hasty when filling the rank ranks of your hideous hordes. Clip and save the following list of hench-folks. Refer to it as you write an ad for Craigslist or Evil Illustrated. And if you ever question your way of life, remember the words of that brave, muscular, lovelorn overlord of the underworld in the South Park movie: “Without evil there could be no good, so it must be good to be evil sometimes.”

henchape, henchnoncorporeal being
“[Pearl and her henchmen, er, henchape and henchnoncorporeal being, stand in the foreground, looking very, very annoyed.]”
(May 2, 2002, “Mystery Usenet Theater 3000: Spider-Man: The Movie“)

hench-cacti
“This has been a wonky day. Jose Cuervo and his hench-cacti are out to get me.”
(July 28, 2009, Amy Mohr)

hench-commissioner
“So NBA hench-commissioner Adam Silver begins pulling the team-logo placards out of the envelopes amid the overwhelming silence and TV-studio ambient buzz. The dominant sound, in fact, is the scraping of the placards against the inside of the envelopes as he pulls each one out. Is this great TV or what!”
(King Kaufman, May 21, 2008, Salon)

hench-lobbyist
“AT&T threw a lavish, secret party near the Denver Democratic Convention for the Blue Dog Democrats and their hench-lobbyists that voted them the gift of retroactive immunity for drift-net spying. Glenn Greenwald, Matt Stoller, Jane Hamsher and others tried to get in, only to discover how aggressively private the party was.”
(Aug. 25, 2008, isen.blog)

hench-masseuse
“Oh, how I hate sleeping on the hovercraft… I woke up so stiff this morning… I need a hench-masseuse. The lair includes a sauna.”
(July 24, 2009, Diabolical One)

hench poodle
“Perhaps the evil hench poodle threw a bucket of water on her computer!”
(Aug. 30, 2007, Labradoodle Discussion Board)

hench-psycho
“It’s unfortunate that if Bush and his hench-psychos continue to have their way, it’s the United States that will end up on the ash heap. And sooner rather than later.”
(Dec. 9, 2007, Grumpy Lion)

hench-rodent
“It started out on Animaniacs as a series of short skits about two genetically engineered lab mice. Every night, Brain hatches a plot to take over the world with Pinky as his faithful (if insane) hench-rodent.”
(April 8, 2007, Answer Bag)

hench-species
“Scar says this about the hyenas in Disney’s The Lion King. Unfortunately, this is justified, as they’re the only hench-species available in the savannah.”
(Date unknown, TV Tropes)

hench-toddler
“I had more trouble thinking up a name for the young one. ‘Satan’s Hench-toddler’ seemed appropriate a couple of weeks ago. Then she got a cute new haircut, and I thought maybe ‘Pixie’ might work better.”
(April 9, 2008, Diapers and Wine)

hench-writer
“Thanks to my wonderful hench-writer and grand vizier Andrew.”
(July 28, 2009, Snail in a Turtleneck)

hench-zombie
“I also went back to a much earlier saved game point to make sure I hadn’t missed something (which I had but it wasn’t important. Basically Hilrad wasn’t in the movie cut-scene when the beholder zapped him because he was too busy getting beat up by my hench-zombie for whatever unknown reason).”
(Aug. 17, 2007, Neverwinter Nights 2 Vault)

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