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1. Bamboo Universe

Early summer in London is heralded by the Chelsea Flower Show. This year, the winner of the Best Fresh Garden was the Dark Matter Garden, an extraordinary design by Howard Miller. Dark matter is invisible and thought to constitute much of the universe, but can only be observed through the distortion of light rays, an effect represented in the garden by a lattice of bent steel rods and lines of bamboo, swaying in the wind.

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2. Out of Shakespeare: ‘Aroint thee’

By Anatoly Liberman

Dozens of words have not been forgotten only because Shakespeare used them. Scotch (as in scotch the snake), bare bodkin, and dozens of others would have taken their quietus and slept peacefully in the majestic graveyard of the Oxford English Dictionary but for their appearance in Shakespeare’s plays. Aroint would certainly have been unknown but for its appearance in Macbeth and King Lear. From the speech of the first witch (Macbeth III, opening scene): “A sailor’s wife had chestnuts in her lap, / And munch’d and munch’d and munch’d.—‘Give me,’ quoth I: / ‘Aroint thee, witch!’ the rump-fed ronyon cries.” And in King Lear Edgar, pretending to be mad (III. 4, 129), also says “Aroint thee.”

The origin of aroint has been the object of an intense search. In 1874 Horace H. Furness, the editor of the variorum edition of Shakespeare, knew almost everything said about the word, but he offered a dispassionate survey of opinions without comments. Very long ago, in Cheshire, rynt, roynt, and runt were recorded. Milkmaids in those quarters would say “rynt thee to a cow, when she is milked, to bid her get out of the way.” The phrase meant “stand off.” “To this the cow is so well used that even the word is sufficient.” Rynt you, witch as part of the proverbial saying rynt you, witch, said Besse Locket to her mother turned up in a provincial dictionary published in 1674, approximately sixty years after Macbeth and King >Lear were written. The lady whom Robert Nares, the author of an 1822 glossary of obscure words, consulted added: “…the cow being in this instance more learned than the commentators on Shakespeare.” The taunt missed its target: philologists are not cows, and neither the lady nor the milch cows elucidated the word’s origin. (In my experience, no one understands the word milch, and this is why I have used it here.)

The fanciful derivation of aroint as a compound from some verb for “go” and a cognate of (be)hind does not merit attention. The familiar dialectal pronunciation of jint for joint suggests that the etymological vowel in the verb rynt was oi, not i. Old English had the verb ryman “to make room,” and Skeat derived aroint from the phrase rime ta (ta = thee), imperative, “which must necessarily become rine ta (if the i be long).” I am not sure why the change was necessary, but Skeat sometimes struck with excessive force. Anyway, he reasoned along the same lines as most of his predecessors and followers, who thought that aroint meant ‘begone’. A similar idea can be observed in several attempts to find a Romance etymon of aroint.

Horne Tooke, famous, among other things, for a two-volume book EPEA PTEROENTA, Or, The Diversions of Purley (1798-1805), traced Shakespeare’s word to “ronger, rogner, royner; whence also aroynt… is a separation or discontinuity of the skin or flesh by a gnawing, eating forward, malady” (compare Italian rogna “scabies, mange” and ronyon in Macbeth, above). He obviously glossed aroint as “to be separated” and found several supporters. Other early candidates for the etymon known to me (for nearly all of which I am indebted to Furness’s notes on Macbeth and King Lear) are French arry-avant “away there, ho!”, éreinte-toi “break thy back or reins” (used as an imprecation), Latin dii te averruncent “may the devils take thee,” and Italian arranca (the imperative of arrancare “plod along, trudge”). A strong case has been made for aroint being an expected phonetic variant of anoint or acquiring in some contexts the figurative sense “thrash” (the latter derivation was defended by George Hempl, a distinguished American philologist), or because it “conveys a sense very consistent with the common account of witches, who are related to perform many supernatural acts by means of unguents.” Finally, Thomas Hearne’s Ectypa Varia ad Historiam Britannicam… (1737) contains a print in which “a devil, who is driving the damned before him, is blowing a horn with a label issuing from his mouth and the words: ‘Out, out Arongt’.” Arongt resembles aroint but its existence does not clarify the etymology of either.

The opinions, as one can see, are many, but only one conclusion is almost certain. Shakespeare, a Stratford man, knew a local word, expected his audience to understand it even in London, and used it in his plays dated to the beginning of the seventeenth century. Thus, he did not invent aroint, and the suggestion that it is his adaptation of around cannot be entertained, for how would it then have passed into popular speech in that form? As follows from the facts summarized above, in addition to witches, cows in Cheshire understood aroint thee and the phrase became proverbial in some parts of England. The milkmaids’ experience notwithstanding, it will probably not be too risky to propose that aroint thee was coined to ward off witches, damned souls, and their ilk (arongt does look identical with aroint) and that only later it spread to less ominous situations. Perhaps its origin has not been discovered because nearly everybody glossed it as “begone, disappear, stand off.” But (and this is my main point) aroint thee may have meant something like beshrew thee, fie on you. Louis Marder, in updating Furness’s Macbeth (1963), said: “The local nature, the meaning, and form of the phrase, seem all opposed to its identity with Shakespeare’s Aroint,” because ryndta! in Cheshire and Lancashire is “merely a local pronunciation of ‘round thee’= move around.” Except for having doubts about the currency of ryndta in Lancashire, OED endorsed this verdict. In my opinion, the match is quite good. Ryndta does not necessarily have to go back to round thee, while the local character of the phrase cannot be used as an argument for or against its identity with what we find in Macbeth and King Lear.

At least as early as 1784, it was suggested that aroint has something to do with rauntree, one of several variants of the tree name rowan. This tree, perhaps better known as mountain ash, is famous in myth and folklore from Ancient Greece to Scandinavia. One of its alleged virtues is the ability to deter witches and protect people and cattle from evil. The great Scandinavian god Thor was once almost drowned in a river because of the wiles of a mighty giantess but threw a great stone at her, was carried ashore, caught hold of a rowan tree, and waded out of the water; hence the tree’s name “Thor’s rescue.” It would be quite natural to shout rauntree or rointree, in order to chase away a witch: on hearing the terrible word, she would be scared and flee. Rowan is a noun of Scandinavian origin (Icelandic reynir, Norwegian raun; the earliest citations in OED do not predate the middle of the fifteenth century), so that various diphthongs, including oi, developed in it. An imprecation like a raun ~ reyn to thee seems to have existed and become aroint thee. The only lexicographer who entertained a similar idea was Ernest Weekley. He wrote: “Exact meaning and origin unknown. ? Connected with dialectal rointree, rowan-tree, mountain-ash, efficacy of which against witches is often referred to in early folklore.” I take it to be the most promising hypothesis of all. The word (rowan), pronounced differently in different dialects, reached England from Scandinavia, but the curse is probably local. In any case, its Scandinavian analogs have not been found.

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: Rowan by Ivan Shishkin, 1892. Public domain via Wikipaintings.org.

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3. Monthly etymology gleanings for January 2013, part 2

By Anatoly Liberman

I am picking up where I left off a week ago.

Mare and Mars. Can they be related?
The chance is close to zero. Both words are of obscure origin, and attempts to explain an opaque word by referring it to an equally opaque one invariably come out wrong. Although Mars, the name of the Roman war god, has been compared with the Greek verb márnamai “I fight,” this comparison may be the product of folk etymology. Some festivals dedicated to Mars involved horses, but the connection was not direct. Since the success of campaigns depended on the good state of chariots, war and steeds formed a natural union. Mare has multiple Germanic and Celtic cognates. However, it may be a migratory word of Eastern origin. For example, Russian merin “gelding” has almost the same root. A similar case is Latin caballus “packhorse; nag,” later just “horse” and Russian kobyla “mare” (stress on the second syllable).

Along the same lines, I must defer judgment with regard to the word for “monkey” in Arabic, Farsi, and Romany. At the end of my post on monkey, I suggested that we might be dealing with a migratory animal name. If I am right, the etymology of one more hard word will be partly clarified.

In the post on suppletive forms, I wrote that better is the comparative of a nonexistent positive degree (good has a different root).The question from our correspondent concerned Farsi beh, behtar, behtarin. Are those forms related to better? Not being a specialist in Indo-Iranian, I cannot answer this question. (However, if h is a separate phoneme belonging to the root, the relation is unlikely.) I will only say that better is akin to Engl. boot in to boot and bootless (all such cognates refer to gain and improvement) and that the standard etymological dictionaries of Indo-European (Walde-Pokorny and Pokorny) mention only Sanskrit and Avestan congeners of better (Gothic batiza); they mean “happy.”

En gobelet (French) ~ en vaso (Spanish).
These phrases designate a vine pruned to the shape of a hollow cup. Was the drinking vessel named after the shape of the vine, or was the shape of the vine named after the drinking vessel? I am sure the second variant is correct.

Overused Words

As noted last time, I received a sizable list of words that the listeners of Minnesota Public radio “hate.” It is an instructive list. I also have my peeves. For example, I wince every time I hear that so-and so is a Renaissance man. In some circles, it suffices to know the correct spelling of principle and principal to become an equal of Leonardo. Fascinating is another enemy, and so is the cutting edge (in academia, to be on the cutting edge, one has to be interdisciplinary). Nothing is nowadays good, acceptable, or proper: the maid of all work is sustainable: sustainable behavior, sustainable budget, sustainable tourism—every quality and object has its sustainable niche (rhyming in the Midwest and perhaps everywhere with kitsch, witch, and bitch). Some of my “enemies” are pretentious Latinisms. For instance, I never accepted utilize outside its technical context (use is good enough for me) and morph for “change.” Why should things morph instead of changing? And why do students hope to utilize my notes? Do they want to recycle them?

I began to pay attention to other buzzwords only after they were pointed out to me:

True enough, newspapers and TV find themselves constantly enraptured. Their frame of mind is one of permanent astonishment and wonderment: the simplest things amaze them: a readable book, cold weather, and even cheap pizza. As a result, amazing has come to mean “worthy of notice.” It followed the same “trajectory” as Renaissance man. Rather scary are also the adjectives epic and surreal. The protagonists of epic poetry are larger than life, but with us every important event acquires “epic” dimensions. Likewise, though reality is full of surprises, every unexpected situation need not be called surreal.  

The word has been worked to death. Path, road, way, development, direction, and the rest have yielded to it. This holds for journalists and speech writers at all levels. President Obama: “I think Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not.”

This word has killed influence and its synonyms. I remember the time when the concerned guardians of English usage fought the verb impact. Now both the verb and the noun have become the un-words of the decade. Everything “has an impact” and “impacts” its neighbors. Impact is a tolerably good word, but, like chocolate, it cloys the appetite and produces heartburn if consumed in great quantities.

I will now quote some of the messages I received. Perhaps our correspondents will comment on them:

“I absolutely hate dialogue used as verb, as in let’s dialogue about that. Also hate go-to as in it’s my go-to snack or it’s my go-to workout.” Both do sound silly, for go-to (never a beauty) originated in contexts like this is the person to go to (= turn to) if you need good advice. Shakespeare would have been puzzled: in his days go to was a transparent euphemism for go to the devil. As for dialogue, it has succumbed to the powerful rule that has “impacted” English since at least the sixteenth century: every noun, and not only nouns, can be converted into a verb (consider “but me no buts,” “if ifs and buts were candy and nuts,” and the like). Sometimes the opposite process occurs: meet is a verb, and meet, a noun, came into being. It does not follow that we should admire the verb dialogue.

“My least favorite word… when politicians use the word folks, like they are intimately familiar with their audience.” I agree! Folks should not be used as a doublet of folk.

“Whenever so-called experts weigh in on news stories, they preface their statements with the word clearly. Clearly somehow makes whatever they say irrefutably true.”

“…count the number of times the word is used in a culture of growing mistrust of analysts and experts who make predictions about news before it happens…” I have waged a losing war against such adverbs (actually, really, clearly, definitely, certainly, doubtlessly) for years, but actually is the worst offender, a symptom of what I call advanced adverbialitis (–Where were you born? –Actually, I was born in California.)

Doubling down.
“The one I started hearing a lot this year is ‘So-and-so is doubling down on [a provocative statement or position]. Holy cow, political commentators, what did you do before this phrase crawled into your brains!” I guess they were milking some other venerable cow, possibly unrelated to gambling.

There was a complaint about the use of the verb evolve as meaning “develop; change” (“…so many people describe themselves or their opinions as ‘evolving’….”). In the past, I resented devolve as a synonym of degenerate, because I had been using this verb only in contexts like “I devolved all authority to my assistant,” but gradually accepted the other sense. By now I have heard evolve “change” so many times that it no longer irritates me (unlike morph).

In my talk show, I said that I am tired of hearing that nearly everything I buy is called organic or natural and was reprimanded: “There are strict standards set by government for the term organic, while the term natural is not regulated. You are maligning the organic food industry by proffering the incorrect information.” I stand corrected and apologize.

One of the listeners resented the promiscuous use of the adjective random (the epithet above is mine). Mr. Dan Kolz wrote in a letter to me: “In programming circles, a random value is one generated by the computer which is not predictable or predefined by the programmer. It can be used like: ‘I found a bug in test which generated random values as parameters’. It is sometimes used as a synonym for arbitrary or in a longer form ‘an arbitrarily chosen value’. This indicates that from the programmer’s perspective the value was unpredictable (if not actually from the user’s). It is in this sense that the word random could have acquired the meaning ‘selected or determined for no reason I know or could have predicted’, as in ‘I went to the party, but there were just a bunch of random people there’.” This strikes me as a reasonable explanation. Computer talk has really (clearly and actually) had a strong influence on Modern English. For instance, cross out and expunge have disappeared from the language: everything is now “deleted.”

May I repeat my old request? Sometimes people discover an old post of mine and leave a comment there. I have no chance to find it. Always leave your comments in the space allotted to the most recent posts. Above, I rejected a connection between mare and Mars. By way of compensation, you will see an equestrian print of the Roman war god, though I suspect that his horses were chargers rather than mares.

Char de Mars. Engraving. Wonders: Images of the Ancient World / Mythology — Mars. Source: NYPL.

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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4. Quiz on the word origins of food and drink

Did you know that ‘croissant’ literally means ‘crescent’ or that oranges are native to China? Do you realize that the word ‘pie’ has been around for seven hundred years in English or that ‘toast’ comes from the Latin word for ‘scorch’? John Ayto explores the word origins of food and drink in The Diner’s Dictionary. We’ve made a little quiz based on the book. Are you hungry for it?

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John Ayto is a freelance writer and the author of many reference works, including the Dictionary of Slang, the Dictionary of Modern Slang, and Oxford Dictionary of English Idioms. Seasoned generously with literary wit, The Diner’s Dictionary is a veritable feast, tracing the origins and history of over 2,300 gastronomical words and phrases.

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5. ‘Dr. Murray, Oxford’: a remarkable Editor

Dictionaries never simply spring into being, but represent the work and research of many. Only a select few of the people who have helped create the Oxford English Dictionary, however, can lay claim to the coveted title ‘Editor’. In the first of an occasional series for the OxfordWords blog on the Editors of the OED, Peter Gilliver introduces the most celebrated, Sir James A. H. Murray.

By Peter Gilliver

If ever a lexicographer merited the adjective iconic, it must surely be James Augustus Henry Murray, the first Editor of the Oxford English Dictionary; although what he would have thought about the word being applied to him—in a sense which only came into being long after his death—can only be guessed at, though it seems likely that he would disapprove, given his strongly expressed dislike of the public interest shown in him as a person, rather than in his work. The photograph of him in his Scriptorium in Oxford, wearing his John Knox cap and holding a book and a Dictionary quotation slip, is almost certainly the best-known image of any lexicographer. But there is a lot more to this prodigious man.

In fact prodigious is another good word for him, for several reasons. He was certainly something of a prodigy as a child, despite his humble background. Born on 7 February 1837 in the Scottish village of Denholm, near Hawick, the son of a tailor, he reputedly knew his alphabet by the time he was eighteen months old, and was soon showing a precocious interest in other languages, including—at the age of 7—Chinese, in the form of a page of the Bible which he laboriously copied out until he could work out the symbols for such words as God and light. Thanks to his voracious appetite for reading, and what he called ‘a sort of mania for learning languages’, he was already a remarkably well-educated boy by the time his formal schooling ended, at the age of 14, with a knowledge of French, German, Italian, Latin, and Greek, and a range of other interests, including botany, geology, and archaeology. After a few years teaching in local schools—he was evidently a born teacher, and was made a headmaster at the age of 21—he moved to London, and took work in a bank. (It was only in 1855, incidentally, that he acquired the full name by which he’s become known: he had been christened plain James Murray, but he adopted two extra initials to stop his correspondence getting mixed up with that of the several other men living in Hawick who shared the name.) He soon began to attend meetings of the London Philological Society, and threw himself into the study of dialect and pronunciation—an interest he had already developed while still in Scotland—and also of the history of English. In 1870 an opening at Mill Hill School, just outside London, enabled him to return to teaching. He began studying for an external London BA degree, which he finished in 1873, the same year as his first big scholarly publication, a study of Scottish dialects which was widely recognized as a pioneering work in its field. Only a year later his linguistic research had earned him his first honorary degree, a doctorate from Edinburgh University: quite an achievement for a self-taught man of 37.

Dr. Murray, Editor

By this time the Philological Society had been trying to collect the materials for a new, and unprecedentedly comprehensive, dictionary of English for over a decade, but the project had gradually lost momentum following the early death of its first Editor, Herbert Coleridge. In 1876 Murray was approached by the London publishers Macmillans about the possibility of editing a dictionary based on the materials collected; the negotiations ultimately came to nothing, but the work which Murray did on this abandoned project was so impressive that when new negotiations were opened with Oxford University Press, and the search for an editor began again, it soon became clear that Murray was the only possible man for the job. After further negotiations, in March 1879 contracts were finally signed, for the compilation of a dictionary that was expected to run to 6,400 pages, in four volumes, and take 10 years to complete—and which Murray planned to edit while continuing to teach at Mill Hill School!

The Dictionary progresses. . .

As we now know, the project would end up taking nearly five times as long as originally planned, and the resulting dictionary ran to over 15,000 pages. Murray soon had to give up his schoolteaching, and moved to Oxford in 1885; even then progress was too slow, and eventually three other Editors were appointed, each with responsibility for different parts of the alphabet. Although for more than three-quarters of the time he worked on the OED there were other Editors working alongside him—he eventually died in 1915—and of course from the beginning he had a staff of assistants helping him, it is without question that he was the Editor of the Dictionary. (He soon had no need of those extra initials: a letter addressed simply to ‘Dr. Murray, Oxford’ would reach him without any difficulty, and he even had notepaper printed giving this as his address.) It was Murray who, in 1879, launched the great ‘Appeal to the English-speaking and English-reading public’ which brought most of the millions of quotation slips from which the Dictionary was mainly constructed—slips sent in from all parts of the English-speaking world, recording English as it was and had been used at all times and in all places. And it was during the early years of the project that all the details of its policy and style had to be settled, and that was Murray’s responsibility; the three later Editors matched their work to his as closely as they could. He was also responsible for more of the 15,000-plus pages of the Dictionary’s first edition than anyone else: the whole of the letters A–D, H–K, O, P, and all but the very end of T, amounting to approximately half of the total.

A dedicated man

What qualities enabled him to achieve this remarkable feat? It hardly needs to be said that he brought an extraordinary combination of linguistic abilities to the task: not just a knowledge of many languages, but the kind of sensitivity to fine nuances in English which all lexicographers need, in an exceptionally highly-developed form. He was also knowledgeable in a wide range of other fields. But one of his most striking qualities was his capacity for hard work, which once again deserves to be called prodigious. Throughout his time working on the Dictionary it was by no means unusual for him to put in 80 or 90 hours a week; he was often working in the Scriptorium by 6 a.m., and often did not leave until 11 p.m. Such a punishing regime would have destroyed the health of a weaker man, but Murray continued to work at this intensity into his seventies.

Somehow he managed to combine his work with a vigorous family life; another image of him which deserves to be just as well known as the studious portraits in the Scriptorium is the photograph showing him and his wife surrounded by their eleven children, or the one of him astride a huge ‘sand-monster’ constructed on the beach during one of the family’s holidays in North Wales. He also found time to be an active member of his local community: he was a staunch Congregationalist, regularly preaching at Oxford’s George Street chapel, and an active member of many local societies, and frequently gave lectures about the Dictionary. It is just as well that his conviction of the value of hard work was combined with an iron constitution.

But there is one image which vividly captures another, crucial aspect of this remarkable man, an aspect which arguably underpins his whole approach to life and work. Tellingly, it is not an image of the man himself, but of one of the slips on which the Dictionary was written. The winter of 1896 saw one of Murray’s numerous marathon efforts to complete a section of the Dictionary, in this case the end of the letter D. Very late in the evening of 24 November he was at last able to put the finishing touches to the entry for the word dziggetai (a mule-like mammal found in Mongolia, an animal which Murray would never have seen, and an apt illustration of the Dictionary’s worldwide scope). At 11 o’clock, on the last slip for this word, he wrote: ‘Here endeth Τῷ Θεῷ μόνῳ δόξα.’ The Greek words mean ‘To God alone be the glory’, a phrase which is to be found several times (in various languages) in his writings. For Murray his work on the OED was a God-given vocation. He certainly came to believe that the whole course of his life appeared, in retrospect, to have been designed to prepare him for the work of editing the Dictionary; and perhaps it was only his strong sense of vocation which sustained him through the long years of effort.

A version of this article originally appeared on the OxfordWords blog. 

Peter Gilliver is an Associate Editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, and is also writing a history of the OED.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is widely regarded as the accepted authority on the English language. It is an unsurpassed guide to the meaning, history, and pronunciation of 600,000 words — past and present — from across the English-speaking world. Most UK public libraries offer free access to OED Online from your home computer using just your library card number.

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6. ‘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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7. Drinking vessels: ‘tankard’

By Anatoly Liberman

One drinks to the coming New Year, and one drinks while remembering the old one. Besides, some do it according to the Gregorian calendar, while others prefer the Julian one. As could be expected, the end of the world has been delayed and life continues. I was touched by the kind words from our regular correspondents; over time they have become my good friends. Although I cannot provide them with drinks (distance learning is possible, but no software has yet been invented for distance drinking), I am ready to go on with my series “Drinking Vessels.” Now that we have dispensed with bumper, the turn of tankard has come around.

If you want to know the origin of tankard, you are advised to look it up in some of our best reference works. In The Century Dictionary (CD), you will read: “…origin unknown. The notion that the word is from tank ‘a pool of deep water, natural or artificial’ is wholly untenable.” The first edition of the CD appeared in 1889, before the birth of armored cars on caterpillar wheels. Henry Cecil Wyld’s The Universal Dictionary of the English Language was published in 1932. Like CD, it contains excellent etymologies and says the following about tankard: “…origin uncertain; perhaps connected with tank.” Enlightened by this information, we can now start from scratch.

As early as 1266, the Latinized form tancardus turned up in a British source. In a 1317 inventory of golden and silver vessels from Florence, two grandi tancardi and two piccoli tancardi are mentioned, which means that tankards have not always been large. In French, tancquard surfaced only in Rabelais, so at least two centuries later. Old Dutch tancquaert, which graces the pages of many English dictionaries, is misleading, because the word has not been attested until the early Modern Dutch period (the digraph ae designates long a, as in Engl. spa). Given the order of the forms at our disposal, tankard looks like a genuine English word, genuine not as meaning that it is of Anglo-Saxon descent but that it was coined in England. Its structure makes one think of the elements tank (the root) and the suffix -ard. However, tank had not been recorded in English until the seventeenth century, and despite Wyld’s and many other people’s suggestion could not be the etymon of tankard, as Skeat pointed out long ago. The suffix provides no clue to the word’s origin. The home of -ard was Old High German, from where it spread to Old French. In Modern English it is mildly productive and turns up in both French borrowings (bastard, coward, and the like) and native words, such as drunkard (a nice dialectal noun is dizzard “blockhead”). The origin of some words ending in -ard, including buzzard and blizzard, has been a matter of involved speculation, while leopard has no suffix at all.

Tankard does not have to be tank + ard; it may be tan- + -kard (or -card). A modern tankard contains a quart, and more than one scholar has derived the name of the vessel from the volume of the liquid that fills it to the brim. Tri-quart? This is not a good idea. Tri- would be hard to change into tan-, and we should not forget the piccoli tancardi of the Florentine inventory: piccoli (plural) means “small,” and, to make matters worse, why three? Also, the French spelling with final -d complicates the connection between -kard and quart. Or perhaps tan- is from tin-, which is from French étain “tin,” unless it is from étang, the French reflex of Latin stagnum “pool”? The last etymology is not too different from the one that traces tankard to tank + -ard, because in at least two languages of India (the country from which tank came to England) tank “pool” has possible Sanskrit antecedents. Among some impressive-looking etymological dictionaries of English some are unoriginal and often unreliable. Such is, for example, the work by Ernest Klein. He says about tankard: “From tant quart,” that is, “only a quart.” Perhaps he borrowed this etymology from one of his predecessors, but I have not seen it anywhere else. Unfortunately, Yoshio Terasawa copied it in his English-Japanese dictionary. Stay away from hasty products and dissociate tankard from both tank and quart.

This is a tank, and THIS IS A TANKARD.

Charles Mackay, my constant target of regretful derision, suggested that tankard had come from Irish Gaelic teann “stretch forth” and caraid “friend”: “…the etymology would point to the same original idea as that of the English loving cup, a goblet stretched forth in friendship or affection, for friends to partake of.” This conjecture, of the same order as bumper from bon père, is fanciful and doesn’t explain why the medieval British term should have come to English from Gaelic. Equally unconvincing were attempts to reduce tankard to sound imitation, as though from twang. One should of course beware of dismissing anything Skeat said as unacceptable, but the etymology he offered in the first edition of his dictionary (1882) has little to recommend it. He derived (tentatively) tankard from Swedish stånka “large wooden can; tankard” (before him, Wedgwood looked for a Norwegian source of tankard). As a parallel, he referred to Engl. standard “a standing bowl.”

Drinks have frequently been used as a form of punishment. Consider students’ emptying a sconce at Oxford and Cambridge. Some victims have been obliged to drink a huge quantity of intoxicating swill at one gulp (Peter I of Russia enjoyed this entertainment; he was a great czar). To add an element of hilarity to public humiliation, the construction of the vessel might prevent it from being stood on its bottom. The best proof that such glasses existed is the word tumbler “footless goblet,” which needs little help from etymologists to tell its story. But just as we are puzzled by the Irish heritage of tankard in Mackay’s explanation, we wonder why a Swedish word should have become so popular all over Europe. If borrowed from the Vikings, it would hardly have been Latinized and made its way to Italy. Skeat had moderate trust in his etymology from the start but never quite gave it up.

The author of the first English etymological dictionary (1617) was John Minsheu. He derived tankard from Latin cantharus (originally a Greek word) “chalice; tankard,” by metathesis (cantha- to tanka-). The coincidence is indeed striking. Minsheu’s etymology was known very well. Skinner (1671), Junius (1743), Todd (in Johnson-Todd, 1827), and Eduard Mueller (1867) endorsed or at least mentioned it, and it emerged in The Gentleman’s Magazine in 1768. That is why I was surprised to read in Skeat that, when all is said and done, the best hypothesis can be found in Webster-Mahn (1864): tankard is probably an alternation of cantharus. What gross injustice! Mahn replaced Webster’s Armenian-Hebrew derivation with Minsheu’s, and Skeat couldn’t possibly be ignorant of the authorship of the cantharus-tankard idea. Apparently, he wrote the entry in a hurry.

Minsheu’s idea is clever. Switch around cantha- and tanka-, add a suffix, and you will get tankard. Similar examples of metathesis are not too few, but why should the change have occurred in this word? I will quote Ernst Weekley’s suggestion (with abbreviations expanded). “I take it [tankard] to be a jocular metathesis (? due to the fame of the Crusader Tancred), of Latin cantharus, … suggested by the personal name Tankard, once common and still a surname…. A similar metathesis is seen in Norwegian, Danish hopper, pox, for earlier pokker.” So be it. The names of vessels often go back to personal names, as Weekley indicated. Perhaps tancardus, from cantharus, was the result of ignorance, perhaps it originated in the language of topers, who seldom speak distinctly and are prone to cracking silly verbal jokes, or they might have toasted Tancred much too often and got it all wrong. But isn’t it instructive that three centuries after Minsheu we are bound to admire his perspicacity and acknowledge his wit? Tankard, nearly rhyming with drunkard, may have nothing to do with cantharus, but even more probably it does.

Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Themas 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 credits: (1) Toy Army Tank with Camouflage Paint Scheme Isolated on White. Photo by yusufsarlar, iStockphoto. (2) beer. Photo by Chepko, iStockphoto.

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8. The Dirty Dozens

English has two great rhyming slanguages, cockney rhyming slang and the dozens, the African American insult game. We’ll leave the parsing of cockney phrases for now and examine the dirty, bawdy, and wonderful world of verbal street duels. While its origins lie in “yo’ mama” jokes, this was language meant for music, as rap and hip-hop today can attest. Here’s a taste with an excerpt from Elijah Wald’s The Dozens: A History of Rap’s Mama.

Gilda Gray, a Polish dancer and singer known as the “Queen of the Shimmy,” had set Broadway on fire that year with her blues singing, and when she was interviewed by the New York Herald she quoted the chorus of “The Dirty Dozen” as an example of the numbers she was featuring in her show. She explained that it had “a wayward sound” and added a comment that, if accurate, suggests a secondary meaning of the title: “I don’t suppose there’d be room enough to give all twelve verses.”

The Herald reporter described the song’s lyrics as “incomprehensible,” and wrote that “the singer fairly froze an atmosphere of red lights.” Indeed, Gray’s whole performance was limned in terms that accentuated its primitive sensuality. Her songs were “a form of art new to Broadway… for as the carvings of Dahomey and the totem poles of Alaska are art, crude, even repulsive tho it is at times, so the ‘blues’ are a form of art, an expression of the moods of a certain class of individuals.” The New York Sun’s Walter Kingsley similarly typed Gray’s blues as “the little songs of the wayward, the impenitent sinners, of the men and women who have lost their way in the world… the outlaws of society.”

Despite such knowing commentary, neither Gray nor the reporters seem to have been aware that “The Dirty Dozen” was connected with an insult game or referred to anything but a large, poor family. The first evidence of our kind of dozens crossing over to Euro-American pop culture is from 1921, when the pianist and composer Chris Smith published “Don’t Slip Me in the Dozen, Please” under the imprimatur of his own Smith & Morgan company. Born in 1879, Smith was touring in African American musical shows by the turn of the century and had a major national hit in 1913 with “Ballin’ the Jack,” a song based on the dance whose “vulgar contortions” the Indianapolis Freeman critic attacked. His dozens song began with a scene-setting verse that included the first printed explanation of the title phrase:

Brownie slipped Jonesie in the dozen last night
Jonesie didn’t think it was exactly right
Slipping you in the dozen means to talk about your fam’ly folks
And talkin’ ’bout your parents aren’t jokes.
Jonesie said to Brownie “Really I am surprised
If you were a man you would apologize,
If you refuse to do what I’m telling you to do
I’ll swear out a warrant for you:

It makes no diff’rence who you are
Please don’t talk about my Ma and Pa
Talk about my sister, my brother and my cousin
But please don’t slip me in the dozen.
Talk about my past or my future life
Talk about my first or my second wife,
I’m beggin’ ev’ry human on my bended knees
Don’t slip me in the dozen, please.”

By the time this song appeared, Smith had formed a partnership with the singer Henry Troy, another show business veteran who had toured England in 1905, formed an act with the composer and pianist Will Marion Cook in 1907, and in 1909 became a sideman to the most famous African American performer of that era, the musical comedian Bert Williams. It is not clear when Smith and Troy teamed up, but by the late teens they had crossed over to white vaudeville, and an ad from 1923 described them as “perhaps the best known and most popular Colored artists on the Keith circuit today.” Given the earlier mention of dirty dozens routines in black theaters, the explanatory lines in their song were presumably intended for Euro-American fans, and the sheet music was specifically targeted at that audience, showing a white singer and pianist on its cover. Smith and Troy recorded “Don’t Slip Me in the Dozen” for the Ajax record label in 1923, with Troy reciting the lyric in a mournful style reminiscent of Williams’s comic masterpiece “Nobody.” After the final chorus, he murmured: “I just can’t stand it. It’s my cup. It’s my bucket. It’s my little red wagon,” and the duo went into a skit that briefly illustrated their theme:

TROY : Look-a-here: Didn’t you say last night that my father was stung by horseflies?
SMITH : Yes, I said that, yes. What about it?
TROY : Well, I suppose you know what a horsefly is, don’t you?
SMITH : Oh, I know what a horsefly is.
TROY : What’s a horsefly?
SMITH : Why, a horsefly ain’t nothing but one of them old dirty flies what hangs ’round the stables and skips over the horses and bites the jackasses.
TROY : Hey, wait a minute! Do you mean to insinuate that my father was a jackass?
SMITH : No, no, no, no! Course I know your old man. Know him good. He’s a blacksmith. But you know, it’s kind of hard to fool them horseflies.

We are a long way from Jelly Roll Morton’s Chicago dives, and Smith and Troy’s whitewashed “Dirty Dozen” is typical of the way African American traditions have regularly been reshaped to suit mainstream commercial needs. Within a half dozen years, another “Dirty Dozen” song would make the phrase more popular than ever, but the bowdlerizing had already begun.

Elijah Wald is a musician and writer who has toured on five continents and written thousands of articles for newspapers, magazines, and album notes. His ten published books include The Dozens: A History of Rap’s Mama, Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues, How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘n’ Roll: An Alternative History of American Popular Music, and The Blues: A Very Short Introduction. He has taught blues history at UCLA and won multiple awards, including a 2002 Grammy.

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9. Drinking vessels: ‘goblet’

By Anatoly Liberman

One more drinking vessel, and I’ll stop. Strangely, here we have another synonym for bumper, and it is again an old word of unknown origin. In English, goblet turned up in the fourteenth century, but its uninterrupted recorded history began about a hundred years later. Many names of vials, mugs, and beverages probably originated in the language of drinkers, pub owners, and glass manufacturers. They were slang, and we have little chance of guessing who coined it and in what circumstances.

Goblet may have been one of such coinages. French gobelet means the same as Engl. goblet, a word with a history not less obscure than that of its English namesake. The diminutive suffix -et is Romance, so that gobelet looks like the name of a little gobel. Unfortunately, we have no idea what a gobel is or was. Only gobeau has been attested. Nor does the suffix provide secure guidance to the origin of goblet. To be sure, the word may have been French, suffix and all, though it is strange that gobeau, not gobel, has turned up. On the other hand, a Romance suffix could be added to an English noun. Strumpet is almost certainly a Germanic word, but -et, as I mentioned in one of my previous blogs, turned a homegrown English whore into a classy Frenchified harlot. We had similar trouble with -ard in tankard.

An Old High German Reader by Theodor Wilhelm Braune.

Gobelet ~ goblet are not restricted to French and English. Spanish cubilette seems to be a close cognate going back to Medieval Latin cupellum “cup.” However, the similarity may be due to chance, because it remains unclear why the French and the English reflex of initial c (that is, k) should have been g. Derivation of gobelet from cup/cupellum, directly or via French, was proposed long ago. However, since the beginning of English lexicography it has had a strong rival. French gober means “swallow, gulp down.” Given such a root, goblet can be understood as a vial whose contents had to be gobbled up hurriedly or greedily — less than a fully convincing interpretation. Besides, we are in the dark about the origin of gober. Braune (1850-1926), one of the most distinguished German language historians, who had a rather frustrating habit of giving his name as Wilhelm on book covers but Theodor when signing his articles (so that for a long time I could not decide whether Wilhelm and Theodore, those precursors of Oscar Wilde’s Mr. Bunbury, were one person or two), isolated the root g-b ~ g-f in the Romance languages and traced it to Germanic. A seemingly ill-assorted group of words, including goblet, gag, giggle, goggle, javelin, jig, jug, and quite a few others, found themselves in the same group. If a scholar less solid and of less fame than Braune had come up with such a list, it would have been laughed out of court. As a matter of fact, a series of articles by him, all of which are like the one in which gob and goblet occur (1922), had minimal influence on Germanic etymologists; it seems because they have been ignored rather than rejected as containing fanciful ideas.

Not unexpectedly, a connection between gob and goblet occurred to many people before 1922. To justify it, goblet was defined as “a cup containing a long quantity for one opening of the mouth, for one draft or swallow” (Charles Richardson). How much one can drink at one opening of the mouth depends on the size of the consumer’s throat and cannot serve as a foundation for a secure etymology. Hensleigh Wedgwood, who always tried to detect sound imitative roots in English words, explained goblet so: “The names of vessels for containing liquids are often taken from the image of pouring out water, expressed by forms representing the sound of water guggling out of the mouth of a narrow-necked vessel.” As usual, he cited numerous words from various languages bearing out his conclusion. Wedgwood’s etymology makes sense, and many dictionaries offer some version of it, specifying that the source of gob might be the Irish word for “mouth” and “beak.” I have a curious confirmation of his hypothesis. Russian drunks are in the habit of sharing a half-liter bottle among three people. But how can 500 grams be divided into three equal parts?  Strangely, in the process of careful pouring a half-liter bottle yields 21 “glugs.” Each thirsty alcoholic receives seven glugs. This is (at best) what scholars call anecdotal evidence. We still face the question whether gob and goblet are related. Nor should it be forgotten that goblets are not narrow-necked.

Uncle Toby

Those who have read my essay posted two weeks ago will remember that Ernest Weekley derived tankard from a proper name. He offered a similar etymology for goblet and many other vessels. This is what he said (I will only expand his abbreviations): “goblet. Old French gobelet, diminutive of gobel, gobeau. All these words are French surnames, Old High German God-bald, god-bold (cf. Engl. Godbolt), and the vessel is no doubt of same origin. Cf. Engl. dialectal gaddard, goblet, Old French godart, Old German Gott-hart, god-strong, named in same way. See goblin, and cf. demijohn, jack, gill, jug, tankard, Middle Engl. jubbe (Job) in Chaucer, etc.” In the entry tankard, he also mentioned toby-jug, bellarmine, and puncheon. Under his pen goblin ended up as a diminutive name of Gobel. A Toby Philpot jug, or simply Uncle Toby, was made in the shape of a stout man in a long coat, knee breeches, and three-cornered hat, seated. The phrase no doubt, when used in etymological studies, always makes me wince. Toby is a clear case. Perhaps Weekley guessed well that tankard has something to do with Tancred, but the path from God-bald to goblet is not straight. As concerns style, Weekley’s entries resemble Braune’s article: inspiring but a bit reckless.

Thus, we have several conjectures: goblet may go back to Latin cupellum, via French, or to Engl. gobble (which may be traced to Irish gob), or to the name God-bald, admittedly, not much to choose from. In a very general way, Braune may have been right. It seems that goblet is ultimately a Germanic word (regardless of its putative ties with Irish gob “beak, mouth”) and that its derivation from Latin and French, though supported by such authorities as Skeat, should be treated with a grain of salt.

When dictionaries explain the rhetorical figure of hendiadys, they sometimes give the example drink from gold and goblet for drink from golden goblets. Let this fact efface the salty impression left by the last sentence, above.

Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Themas 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 credits: (1) Cover page for Althochdeutsches Lesebuch (1888) via Open Library. (2) Toby Jug, Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, England. Reptonix free Creative Commons licensed photos via Wikimedia Commons.

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10. Do you know your references and allusions?

Are you an Athena when it comes to literary allusions, or are they your kryptonite? Either way, the Oxford Dictionary of Reference and Allusion can be your Henry Higgins, providing fascinating information on the literary and pop culture references that make reading and entertainment so rich. Take this quiz, Zorro, and leave your calling card.

Your Score:  

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Andrew Delahunty and Sheila Dignen are freelance lexicographers who have extensive experience compiling dictionaries. From classical mythology to modern movies and TV shows, the revised and updated Oxford Dictionary of Reference and Allusion, third edition explains the meanings of more than 2,000 allusions in use in modern English, from Abaddon to Zorro, Tartarus to Tarzan, and Rambo to Rubens.

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11. Wrenching an etymology out of a monkey

By Anatoly Liberman

Primates have given Germanic language historians great trouble. In the most recent dictionary of German etymology (Kluge-Seebold), the entry Affe “ape” is one of the most detailed. In the revised version of the OED, monkey is also discussed at a length, otherwise rare in this online edition. Despite the multitude of hypotheses, the sought-for solution is not in view. (Mine, however, will appear at the end of the present post.) Only one thing is clear: wherever the ancestors of the modern Germanic speakers lived, including the southernmost areas of the lands they once inhabited (Italy and the shores of the Black Sea), they could not observe monkeys and apes roaming tropical woods. This means that the names of both animals are, most probably, borrowed.

No extant citation of monkey predates 1530 (so the OED), and the word cannot be much older. Before the sixteenth century, ape was the generic term for both species. The question is about the original land of the import. The suspects are two: northern Germany and some Romance country. In Spanish, mona (feminine) and mono (masculine) resemble monkey, and in Middle French monne (Modern French mone) has been attested. Likewise, Italian had monna ~ mona. The source of those words remains undiscovered; clearly, monkeys were as foreign to the Romance speaking lands as they were to the English and Germans. In the nineteenth century, etymologists accepted the explanation of Friedrich Diez, the founder of Romance comparative philology, who looked upon mona as a “corruption” of Madonna. He based his conclusion on the fact that the name of a female monkey surfaced before the name of its masculine partner.

Skeat, The Century Dictionary, and others followed him, though Skeat suggested that monkey was an alteration of Old Italian monicchio, a diminutive of monna. He traced it back to Latin domina and referred to Madonna “my lady”: “The degradation of the term is certainly very great; but there is an exactly parallel instance in the case of the term dam, which has been degraded from the Latin domina, in French ‘notre dame’, till it now means only the mother of racehorse, or of a less important animal.” This reconstruction is but slightly different from Diez’s. Later researchers went to Greece, Turkey, India, and the Arab lands for the elusive etymon. I am leaving out of account a few fanciful suggestions that may amuse but not enlighten our readers. In no modern Romance language, except Spanish, is mono the main name of the monkey. In Italy, it turned up in 1438, a century before it reached an English book. The first French citation goes back to 1545.

The central argument in my reasoning resolves itself into the following. The English hardly coined the word monkey; they must have borrowed it. Therefore, I have no sympathy for the conjecture of Klaus Dietz (not to be confused with Friedrich Diez!) that monkey is a native word, made up of the root monk and the suffix -ie ~ -(e)y. Little capuchin monkeys allegedly resembled little Capuchin friars; moreover, apes were traditionally used in satiric portrayals of the clergy. Dietz advanced his idea in 2006 and wrote a short article on this subject in 2008. The most recent entry in the OED online testifies to Dietz’s influence. Long ago, Eduard Mueller (or Müller) remarked in his useful but now forgotten dictionary of English etymology (1865-67; 1878) that English speakers could not help noticing a strong resemblance between monkey and both monk and man. Before him, Franciscus Junius (1743; a posthumous edition) had the same idea, and in 1863 August Lübben considered but rejected this possibility. I also refuse to treat monkey as a word initially endowed with the sense “little monk.”

William Caxton, the first English printer. In 1481 he brought out his translation of the Dutch version of Reynard. The Booke of Reynarde the Foxe (in prose; the original is a versified poem) is a delight to read. It exists in several excellent modern editions.

Another theory takes us to the famous Low German animal epic Reynke de Vos (1498) or (in French) Reynard the Fox. In it Martin the ape has a son Moneke; in French, the “youngster” is called Monnekin. Both -ke and -kin are familiar diminutive suffixes: compare Engl. manikin, another word strongly resembling monkey. Some scholars thought that Moneke had come to England with German traveling showmen or by some such route. But there are problems with this idea: the vowels of monkey (whose first syllable rhymes with dun rather than don) and Moneke do not match, and nothing testifies to the popularity of the poem’s fame in England in the first quarter of the sixteenth century. The name of Martin’s son occurs only once in the poem, and it is unbelievable that it could have stayed in people’s memory and caught their fancy to such an extent as to cause the formation of a new word. Dietz makes this point, and his objections to the Moneke theory, contrary to his etymology, are irrefutable.

The real question is why the ape’s son bore the name Moneke, and it was answered ingeniously and, I think, persuasively, in 1869, but etymologists have a short memory, which is not their fault, for without exhaustive bibliographies unearthing a relevant note with a vague title is impossible. Moneke was a familiar name for Simoneke, that is, Simon. Simon is a Greek word, derived from the adjective simós “snub-nosed” or “flat-nosed,” and the meaning of the name was known, even though in the late Middle Ages few people may have realized that Simon had been confused with Hebrew Simeon. Apparently, Moneke “the flat-nosed,” was, in addition to the pet name for Simoneke, a slang word for “monkey,” with reference to the German-Latin pun, for the Latin for “monkey” was simia (a borrowing from Greek; feminine, like Modern French guenon and the Romance words, cited above). Judging by Dutch simminkel, the unattested Latin simiuncula “little monkey” also had some currency; hence the name of the ape’s son in Reynke. It is this word that must have become known in England. In German and Dutch it did not stay, but in English it did. The phonetic difficulties (the quality of the stressed vowels) are hardly insurmountable here. To be sure, I have no proof that moneke “monkey” existed, but if this word had been recorded, the riddle would have been solved centuries ago and saved us a lot of monkey business. In any case, Martin must have had a good reason for calling his son Moneke.

Something should also be said about the Romance words. One might suggest that in French and Spanish we are dealing with the Germanic noun that lost its suffix, but this would hardly be a convincing solution. Also, Italian mona was recorded a hundred years before monkey surfaced in English, and a loan from German or Dutch is probably out of the question. I would risk the hypothesis that the Romance names of the monkey have nothing to do with their Germanic look-alikes. In Kanarese, a Dravidian language, the male monkey is called manga; a related Tamil noun sounds mandi. One may perhaps ask whether a migratory culture word for the monkey, known from India to northern Germany, enjoyed some popularity in the past. It may not be for nothing that so many similar simian forms have been found. If some such word traveled with the animal, in every country speakers would adapt it slightly under the influence of folk etymology. Whatever the answer, I believe that, as regards the etymology of Engl. monkey, both monks and the medieval animal epic should be left in peace.

Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Themas 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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12. Monthly etymology gleanings for January 2013, part 1

By Anatoly Liberman

Last time I was writing my monthly gleanings in anticipation of the New Year. January 1 came and went, but good memories of many things remain. I would like to begin this set with saying how pleased and touched I was by our correspondents’ appreciation of my work, by their words of encouragement, and by their promise to go on reading the blog in the future. Writing weekly posts is a great pleasure. Knowing that one’s voice is not lost in the wilderness doubles and trebles this pleasure.

Week and Vikings.
After this introduction it is only natural to begin the first gleanings of 2013 with the noun week. Quite some time ago, I devoted a special post to it. Later the root of week turned up in the post on the origin of the word Viking, and it was Viking that made our correspondent return to week. My ideas on the etymology of week are not original. In the older Germanic languages, this noun did not mean “a succession of seven days.” The notion of such a unit goes back to the Romans and ultimately to the Jewish calendar. The Latin look-alike of Gothic wiko, Old Engl. wicu, and so forth was a feminine noun, whose nominative, if it existed, must have had the form vix. Since the phrase for “in the order of his course” (Luke I: 8) appears in Latin as in ordine vicis suae and in Gothic as in wikon kunjis seinis, some people (the great Icelandic scholar Guðbrandur Vigfússon among them) made the wrong conclusion that the Germanic word was borrowed from Latin. In English, the root of vix can be seen in vicar (an Anglo-French word derived from Latin vicarius “substitute, deputy”), vicarious, vicissitude, vice (as in Vice President), and others, while week is native. Its distant origin is disputed and need not delay us here. Rather probably, German Wechsel (from wehsal) “exchange” belongs here. Among the old cognates of week we find Old Icelandic vika, which also had the sense “sea mile,” and this is where Viking may come in. “Change, succession, recurrent period” and “sea mile” suggest that the oldest Vikings (in the beginning, far from being sea robbers and invaders) were called after “shift, a change of oarsmen.” But many other hypotheses pretend to explain the origin of Viking, and a few of them are not entirely implausible.

The present perfect.
More recently, while discussing suppletive forms, I mentioned in passing that the difference between tenses can become blurred and that for some people did you put the butter in the refrigerator? and have you put the butter in the refrigerator? mean practically the same. This remark inspired two predictable comments. The vagaries of the present perfect also turned up in one of my recent posts and also caused a ripple of excitement, especially among the native speakers of Swedish. As with week and Viking, I’ll repeat here only my basic explanation. In Germanic, the perfect tenses developed in the full light of history, and in British English a good deal seems to have changed since the days of Shakespeare, that is, the time when the first Europeans settled in the New World. To put it in a nutshell, there was much less of the present perfect in the sixteenth and the seventeenth century than in the nineteenth. In the use of this tense English, wherever it is spoken, went its own way. For instance, one can say in Icelandic (I’ll provide a verbatim translation): “We spent a delightful summer together in 1918, and at that time we have seen so many interesting places together!” The perfect foregrounds the event and makes it part of the present. In English, the present perfect cannot be used so. Only a vague reference to the days gone by will tolerate the present perfect, as in: “This has happened more than once in the past and is sure to happen again.” Therefore, I was surprised to see Cuthbert Bede (alias Edward Bradley) write in The Adventures of Mr Verdant Green: “Who knows? for dons are also mortals, and have been undergraduates once” (the beginning of Chapter 4). In my opinion, have been and once do not go together. If I am wrong, please correct me.

However, in my next pronouncement I am certainly right. British English has regularized the use of the present perfect: “I have just seen him,” “I have never read Fielding,” and so on. I mentioned in my original post that, when foreigners are taught the difference between the simple past (the so-called past indefinite) and the present perfect, they are usually shown a picture of a weeping or frightened child looking at the fragments on the floor and complaining to a grownup: “I have broken a plate!” American speakers are not bound by this usage: “I just saw him. He left,” “I never read Fielding and know no one who did,” while a child would cry: “Mother, I broke a plate!” A British mother may be really cross with the miscreant, whereas an American one may be mad at the child, but their reaction has nothing to do with grammar. Our British correspondent says that he makes a clear distinction between did you and have you put the butter in the refrigerator, while his American wife does not and prefers did you. This is exactly what could be expected. My British colleague, who has not changed his accent the tiniest bit after decades of living in Minneapolis and being married to an American, must have unconsciously modified his usage. I have been preoccupied with the perfect for years, and once, when we were discussing these things, he said, with reference to the present perfect, that during his recent stay in England, his interlocutor remarked drily: “You have lived in America too long.”

Blessedly cursed? Tamara and Demon. Ill to Lermontov’s poem by Mikhail Vrubel’, 1890. (Tretiakov gallery.) Demon and Tamara are the protagonists in the poem by Mikhail Lermontov (1814-1841). The poem is famous in Russia; there is an opera on its plot; several translations into English, including one by Anatoly Liberman, exist; and Vrubel’ was obsessed by this work.

Suppletive girls and wives.
In discussing suppletive forms (go/went, be/am/is/are, and others), I wrote that, although we have pairs like actor/actress and lion/lioness, we are not surprised that boy and girl are not derived from the same root. I should have used a more cautious formulation. First, I was asked about man and woman. Yes, it is true that woman goes back to wif-man, but, in Old English, man meant “person,” while “male” was the result of later specialization, just as in Middle High German man had the senses “man, warrior, vassal,” and “lover.” Wifman meant “female person.” The situation is more complicated with boys and girls. Romance speakers will immediately remember (as did our correspondent, a native speaker of Portuguese) Italian fanciullo (masculine) ~ fanciulla (feminine) and the like. In Latin, such pairs also existed (puellus and puella). But I don’t think that fanciulla and puella were formed from funciullo and puellus: they are rather parallel forms. But I am grateful for being reminded of such pairs; they certainly share the same root.

Lewis Carroll’s name.
I think the information provided by Stephen Goranson is sufficient to conclude that the Dodgson family pronounced their family name as Dodson, and this confirms my limited experience with the people called Dodgson and Hodgson.

PS. At my recent talk show on Minnesota Public Radio, which was devoted to overused words, I received a long list of nouns, adjectives, and verbs that our listeners hate. I will discuss them and answer more questions next Wednesday. But one question has been sitting on my desk for two months, and I cannot find any information on it. Here is the question: “I was wondering if you knew what the Latin and Italian translations would be of the term blessedly cursed? I know this is not a common phrase, but I would think that there would be a translation for it.” Latin is tough, but our correspondents from Italy may know the equivalent. Their help will be greatly appreciated.

To be continued.

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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13. Are you still writing 2012 on your tweets?

By Mark Peters

Twitter is a joke factory, where professional comics and civilian jesters crank out one-liners round the clock.

In that joke factory, there are popular models. Every day, new jokes play on phrases such as “Dance like no one is watching,” “Sex is like pizza,” and “When life hands you lemons.” While the repetition can be maddening, I’m impressed by how, inevitably, there’s always another good joke lurking in even the most tired formula. “Give a man a fish” variations are endless, but there’s always a fresh catch, like this tweet by Erikka Innes:

Give a fish a man, he eats for a day. Teach a fish to catch a man and OH MY GOD DON'T STEAL MY AWESOME IDEA FOR A HORROR MOVIE
Erikka Innes

Some formulas are seasonal. The arrival of 2013 brings variations of a formula I presume originated as a simple observation: “It’s X year, but I’m still writing X-1 year on my checks.” Some use the snowclone-like formula to point out its own exhaustion:

I can't believe it's almost 2013! I'm still writing a popular joke construction on all of my checks!
Jelisa Castrodale
I'm still writing hacky jokes on my checks.
Alex Baze

Ugh, I'm still writing this joke format on all my tweets.
Wile E. Quixote

People write these kind of tweets about every joke formula, so I’d say pointing out hackiness has become its own form of hackery. Another option is using this format to comment on how checks have mostly gone the way of dinosaurs. This was a popular theme this year:

Still writing "nobody accepts checks anymore, ya stupid check" on all my checks
Sarah Thyre
Ugh. I'm still writing "what is a check" on Twitter.

I’m still writing “WHY THE HELL IS THERE NO WAY TO PAY THIS ONLINE?” on all my checks.
Bryan Donaldson

When jokesters move beyond the world of checks by replacing the word check, the humor gets more humorous:

Ugh, still writing 2012 on my death threats.
Dangit! I'm still writing "2012" on my suicide notes.

So embarrassing, I'm still writing 2012 on my boss's car with my keys.
Ryan Purtill

Others keep the check part and replace 2012. In some cases, the subject matter stays close to the world of money, usually implying the tweeter is broke or a deadbeat:

It's 2013, but I'm still writing "This will bounce" on all my checks.
Highway To Helv
I'm still writing 112th Congress on my checks. (I don't have any money.)
Nina Bargiel

Ugh! It's 2013 and I can't believe I'm still writing "Child Support, choke on it Denise" on all my checks.
Ramsey Ess

Sometimes 2012 gets replaced with something a lot more creative:

It's January 3. I can't believe I'm still writing "I’ve always viewed the smoke break as the golf course of the creative class" on my checks
I Punch Hitler

It's 2013, but I'm still writing "THE BLOOD OF MINE ENEMIES SHALL POUR DOWN LIKE RAIN" on my checks.
Rob Kutner

A double replacement adds more possibilities:

It's 2013 and I'm still writing "I want to go home" on all of my work emails.

Ugh. I’m still writing “2082” on all the specimen jars in my time machine.
Jason Sweeney

And there’s plenty of room for absurd silliness, intriguing questions, and wordplay galore:

I'm still writing 2012 on allthsnarrgleflug HONK HONK
It's 2013 but hipsters are still writing 1890 on all their checks.
Dan Kennedy
If you’re still writing 2012 on your cheques, the real question is, what’s with the British spelling?
Mαtt Thomαs
I'm still writing "KONY 2012" on all my children.
Beer Baron

"I'm still writing 2012 on all my Czechs." -Guy who likes writing on people from Central Europe
Jess Dweck

Love it or loathe it, this joke format will likely survive as long as we have years. Even in 3013, I bet we’ll still be writing “Please have sex with me” into the programming of our robots.

Mark Peters is a lexicographer, humorist, rabid tweeter, and language columnist for Visual Thesaurus. He also writes Lost Batman Tales. Read his previous OUPblog posts.

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14. 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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15. Finding the right word

How do you choose the right word? Some just don’t fit what you’re trying to convey, either in the labor of love prose for your creative writing class, or the rogue auto-correct function on your phone.

Can you shed lacerations instead of tears? How is the word barren an attack on women? How do writers such as Joshua Ferris, Francine Prose, David Foster Wallace, Zadie Smith, and Simon Winchester weigh and inveigh against words?

We sat down with Katherine Martin and Allison Wright, editors of the Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus, to discuss what makes a word distinctive from others and what writers can teach you about language.

Writing Today, the Choice of Words, and the Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus

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Reflections in the Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus

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The Use and Abuse of a Thesaurus

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Katherine Martin is Head of US Dictionaries at Oxford University Press. Allison Wright is Editor, US Dictionaries at Oxford University Press.

Much more than a word list, the Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus is a browsable source of inspiration as well as an authoritative guide to selecting and using vocabulary. This essential guide for writers provides real-life example sentences and a careful selection of the most relevant synonyms, as well as new usage notes, hints for choosing between similar words, a Word Finder section organized by subject, and a comprehensive language guide. The third edition revises and updates this innovative reference, adding hundreds of new words, senses, and phrases to its more than 300,000 synonyms and 10,000 antonyms. New features in this edition include over 200 literary and humorous quotations highlighting notable usages of words, and a revised graphical word toolkit feature showing common word combinations based on evidence in the Oxford Corpus. There is also a new introduction by noted language commentator Ben Zimmer.

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16. Do you ‘cuss’ your stars when you go ‘bust’?

By Anatoly Liberman

Here, for a change, I will present two words (cuss and bust) whose origin is known quite well, but their development will allow us to delve into the many and profound mysteries of r. Both Dickens and Thackeray knew (that is, allowed their characters to use) the verb cuss, and no one had has ever had any doubts that cuss means “curse.” Bust is an Americanism, now probably understood everywhere in the English-speaking world. The change of curse and burst to cuss and bust seems trivial only at first sight.

The sound designated in spelling by the letter r differs widely from language to language. Even British r is unlike American r, while German, French, and Scots r have nothing in common with Engl. r and one another. All kinds of changes occur in vowels and consonants adjacent to r. Those who know Swedish or Norwegian are aware of the peculiar pronunciation of the groups spelled rt, rd, rn, and rs. In some Germanic languages, postvocalic r tends to disappear altogether. In British English, it seems to have merged with preceding vowels some time later than the beginning of the seventeenth century, because most dialects of American English have preserved postvocalic r; in their speech, father and farther, pause (paws) and pours are not homophones.

In principle, nothing of any interest happened to Engl. r before s. But when we comb through the entire vocabulary, we occasionally run into puzzling exceptions. Thus, a common word for the waterfall is foss, an alteration of force. This force, unrelated to force “strength, might” (of French descent), is a borrowing from Scandinavian. Old Norse had fors, but in Old Scandinavian the spelling foss already turned up in the Middle Ages, and this is why I mentioned the treatment of rs (among other r-groups) in Swedish and Norwegian. Today in both of them rs sounds like a kind of sh to the ear of an English-speaker. Therefore, one could have expected Engl. fosh rather than foss. Forsch did occur in Middle Low (= northern) German, but the extant English form is only foss.

A similar case is the fish name bass. (I am very happy to return to the fish bowl.) All its cognates have r in the middle: Dutch baars, German Barsch, and so forth. The word is allied to bristle. Apparently, r was lost before s in Old Engl. bærs (æ had the value of a in Modern Engl. ban) but not without a trace, for the previous vowel was lengthened and developed into a diphthong, as in bane and its likes. In the name of the game prisoner’s base (a kind of tag with two teams, as probably everybody knows), base may go back to bars. If so, bass, the bristly fish, and base, the game in which participants find themselves behind “bars,” had a similar history. But the fish name is spelled bass instead of base, and this is one of the strangest spellings even in English (imagine lass and mass pronounced as lace and mace).

A bust of a ruler whose empire went bust.

To be sure, we have another bass “low voice,” also pronounced as base, but at least there is an explanation of that oddity. Italian basso was (quite correctly) identified with base “of low quality” and pronounced like that adjective, with the written image of the noun remaining intact. But why bass, the fish name? I could not find any discussion of this minor problem and will venture a conjecture. We have seen that in fors r was lost, and yet the preceding vowel did not undergo lengthening. Perhaps, once bærs shed r, it existed in two forms, with a short vowel (as happened in foss, from fors) and with a long one. The outcome of the compromise was to pronounce the word according to one form and to spell it according to the other. That is why English spelling is such fun. (Compare heifer: the written image reflects its development in the dialects in which the diphthong has been preserved, but the Standard form sounds heffer.)

Another fish name is dace, from Old French dars. Among the fifteenth-century English spellings we find darce and darse. It may not be due to chance that the loss of r before s occurs in words belonging, among others, to fishermen’s vocabulary and children’s lingo. Analogous cases are known from hunters’ usage. The phonetic change in question looks like a feature of unbuttoned and professional speech, for who would control the sounds of the “lower orders” and of the hunters’ jargon? The Standard treated it as vulgar. But fighting the street is a lost cause, though language does not develop from point A to B, C, and all the way to Z. It rather resembles an erratic pendulum; the norm of today may be rejected tomorrow, so that the conservative variant may prevail.

This is what happened in the history of the word first. In the pronunciation of many eighteenth-century speakers (in England), first was indistinguishable from fust- in fustian. Fust for first is not uncommon in today’s American English, but it is “substandard.” Also in the eighteenth century, nurse, purse, and thirsty occurred even in the language of the educated as nus, pus, and thustee. Shakespeare once has goss for “gorse,” and the idiom as rough as a goss has been recorded in the modern Warwickshire dialect. The devil is always worsted, but the fabric worsted is “wusted.” The place name Worstead is only for the locals to pronounce correctly. Those who are not afraid to be lost in this jungle may compare Worcester (UK), Worchester in Georgia and Massachusetts, and Wooster, Ohio. Rejoice that you are not reading a 1721 ad: “Thust things fust.”

This is then what happened to cuss and bust. Cuss, from curse, never left the low (base?) register, though everybody understands cussed and cussedness without a dictionary. Bust fared better (or worse, depending on the point of view). First (fust), its descent from burst isn’t always clear to the uninitiated, so that it became a word in its own right, rather than a shadow cast by burst. Second, although mildly slangy in the phrase go bust, it won a decisive victory in its derivative buster. (Do many people still remember that Theodore Roosevelt was called Trust Buster?) The word’s popularity was reinforced by Buster Brown, the character and the shoes. The “street” scored an important point — so much so that blockbuster is no longer slang. It may perhaps be called colloquial, but it has no synonym of equal value. A blockbuster is a blockbuster.

Perhaps someone is interested in the origin of bust, as in sculpture or in the ads for those women who suspect that their bust is inferior to that of Mrs. Merdle of Little Dorrit fame. It is a borrowing of Italian busto, a word, I am happy to report, of highly debatable etymology.

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: 17th century marble bust, from Florence, Italy, of Vespasian, (9-79), first roman emperor of the flavian dynasty, on display at Château de Vaux le Vicomte, France. Photo by Jebulon, 2010. Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

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17. Celebrating Scotland: St Andrew’s Day

30 November is St Andrew’s Day, but who was St Andrew? The apostle and patron saint of Scotland, Andrew was a fisherman from Capernaum in Galilee. He is rather a mysterious figure, and you can read more about him in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. St Andrew’s Day is well-established and widely celebrated by Scots around the world. To mark the occasion, we have selected quotations from some of Scotland’s most treasured wordsmiths, using the bestselling Oxford Dictionary of Quotations and the Little Oxford Dictionary of Quotations.


There are few more impressive sights in the world than a Scotsman on the make.
J. M. Barrie 1860-1937 Scottish writer


Robert Burns 1759-96 Scottish poet


From the lone shielding of the misty island
Mountains divide us, and the waste of seas –
Yet still the blood is strong, the heart is Highland,
And we in dreams behold the Hebrides!
John Galt 1779-1839 Scottish writer


O Caledonia! Stern and wild,
Meet nurse for a poetic child!
Sir Walter Scott 1771-1832 Scottish novelist


Hugh MacDiarmid 1892-1978 Scottish poet and nationalist


O flower of Scotland, when will we see your like again,
that fought and died for your wee bit hill and glen
and stood against him, proud Edward’s army,
and sent him homeward tae think again.
Roy Williamson 1936-90 Scottish folksinger and musician


I love a lassie, a bonnie, bonnie lassie,
She’s as pure as the lily in the dell.
She’s as sweet as the heather, the bonnie bloomin’ heather –
Mary, ma Scotch Bluebell.
Harry Lauder 1870-1950 Scottish music-hall entertainer


Robert Crawford 1959– Scottish poet


My poems should be Clyde-built, crude and sure,
With images of those dole-deployed
To honour the indomitable Reds,
Clydesiders of slant steel and angled cranes;
A poetry of nuts and bolts, born, bred,
Embattled by the Clyde, tight and impure.
Douglas Dunn 1942– Scottish poet


Who owns this landscape?
The millionaire who bought it or
the poacher staggering downhill in the early morning
with a deer on his back?
Norman McCaig 1910–96 Scottish poet


The Little Oxford Dictionary of Quotations fifth edition was published in October this year and is edited by Susan Ratcliffe. The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations seventh edition was published in 2009 to celebrate its 70th year. The ODQ is edited by Elizabeth Knowles.

The Oxford DNB online has made the above-linked lives free to access for a limited time. The ODNB is freely available via public libraries across the UK. Libraries offer ‘remote access’ allowing members to log-on to the complete dictionary, for free, from home (or any other computer) twenty-four hours a day. In addition to 58,000 life stories, the ODNB offers a free, twice monthly biography podcast with over 130 life stories now available. You can also sign up for Life of the Day, a topical biography delivered to your inbox, or follow @ODNB on Twitter for people in the news.

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18. Oh, what lark!

By Anatoly Liberman

For some time I have fought a trench war, trying to prove that fowl and fly are not connected. The pictures of an emu and an ostrich appended to the original post were expected to clinch the argument, but nothing worked. A few days ago, I saw a rafter of turkeys strutting leisurely along a busy street. Passersby were looking on with amused glee while drivers honked. The birds (clearly, “fowl”) crossed the road without showing the slightest signs of excitement (apparently, after Thanksgiving they had nothing to worry about), though two or three accelerated their pace somewhat. Not a single one flew. This convinced me that my theory was correct, and I decided to stay for a while in the avian kingdom; hence lark.

One of the Old English forms of lark was læwerce (with long æ), later laferce. Its West Germanic (Frisian, Dutch, and German) cognates resemble læwerce more or less closely. Modern Scots laverock and Dutch leeuwerk, unlike Engl. lark and German Lerche, have retained more flesh. The contraction of læwerce to lark should cause no surprise, because v from f was regularly lost between vowels: for example, head goes back to heafod, and hawk to hafoc.  The protoform of lark must have sounded approximately like laiwazakon (-on is an ending). Obviously, such a long word must either have been a compound or made up of a root and a suffix. Attempts to discover two meaningful elements in laiwazakon began with our first English etymologist John Minsheu (1617). He detected leef-werck “life work” in lark, “because this bird flies seven sundrie times every day very high, so sings hymnes and songs to the Creator, in which consists the lives worke.” No one has ever repeated this etymology. But the search for the elements in the allegedly disguised compound continued.

Old (and Modern) Icelandic lævirki “lark” provided the greatest temptation. The word falls into two parts: - “treason, deceit” and virki “work.” It is not quite clear whether the Scandinavians borrowed their name of the lark from the south or whether we are dealing with a genuine cognate. In any case, lævirki is transparent. Unfortunately, too transparent, and it is surprising that Skeat let himself be seduced by such a hoax. He suggested that, according to some unknown superstition, the lark might be a bird of ill omen or, conversely, a revealer of treachery. The OED followed Skeat with a few minor modifications, and Skeat ended up with the tentative gloss lark “skillful worker, or worker of craft” (because sometimes meant “craft”; however, it hardly ever lacked the connotations of wiles). I think the time has come to forget it. Icelandic lævirki is the product of folk etymology: an opaque word acquired a deceptively clear shape (compare Engl. asparagus becoming sparrow grass, though everybody knows that sparrows are not herbivorous creatures). Dutch leeuwerk begins with leeuw “lion,” but no one would reconstruct a lost story in which a lark entertained a lion with its songs.

Two features of the lark are especially noticeable to humans: it is an early bird (whence its association with daybreak), and its songs (trills) are loud and melodious (after reading this post, listen to the recordings of Glinka-Balakirev’s “The Lark,” a set of beautiful variations). Quite naturally, most etymologists tried to find reference to morning or sound in the Germanic word. As early as 1846, Wilhelm Wackernagel, a famous philologist, believed that the old form consisted of lais- “furrow” and “waker”; the lark, he said, alerted the plowman that morning arrived and work should begin. Lais- would have been a cognate of Latin lira “furrow” (long i) and Engl. last (literally, “track”), as in cobbler’s last. This etymology was mentioned in a few old dictionaries and rejected, but it has found an enthusiastic modern supporter. The only non-controversial part of the reconstructed form laiwaza-k-on is -k-, a common suffix in animal and bird names. The part -aza- remains obscure; it has been called another suffix, but its meaning has not been discovered. I will skip several fanciful suggestions in which the poor lark lost a good deal of its plumage, and mention only one, because it belongs to an excellent scholar. In Sanskrit, the root lu- enters into many words meaning “cut.” Therefore, it has been proposed that the lark got its name from the habit of pecking at grains — an uninviting idea.

I can now come to the point. In lai- most researchers recognize a sound imitative complex. Last week, while discussing lollygag, I touched on the complex lal- ~ lol- ~ lul- ~ lil-. Among other things, it often refers to sound.  Here we find such different words as Russian lai “barking,” Engl. lullaby, Engl. ululate “howl” (from French, from Latin), Engl. hoopla (from French), and a host of others. It matters little whether the lark’s call resembles la-la-la; in this situation, anything goes. Most dictionaries, unless they say “origin unknown (uncertain),” state that, although the etymology of lark is debatable, the word is onomatopoeic. Some authors add certainly and undoubtedly to their statements. Perhaps lark is indeed an onomatopoeia (la certainly and undoubtedly suggests sound imitation), but the problem of its ultimate origin remains.

The Latin for lark is alauda, and the Romans knew that their word was Gaulish (Celtic). Alauda and laiwazakon do not look like perfect congeners, but they are close enough to invite speculation about their affinity. The Latin noun (speciously) contains the root of laudare “praise” (compare Engl. laud, laudable, laudatory, and so forth), and this fact must have suggested to Minsheu the idea of the lark’s praising the Creator. The best nineteenth-century etymologists were puzzled by the similarity between læwerce and its kin and alauda. Jacob Grimm and Lorenz Diefenbach saw no serious arguments against uniting them, while their younger contemporaries showed some restraint. (Diefenbach’s name will mean nothing to non-specialists, but he was one of the greatest philologists of his generation.) Long ago — my reference takes me to 1887 — Moritz Heyne brought out volume six of the Grimms’ Dictionary and suggested that the hopelessly obscure word for “lark” had been borrowed from some other language. If we accept this hypothesis, the form in both Celtic and Germanic will emerge as an adaptation of the etymon we have no chance of finding. In recent years, the idea of the substrate has been much abused. Numerous words of unclear etymology have been given short shrift and assigned to some pre-Indo-European language of Europe. But the name of the lark does look like a loan from a lost source, for the etymology of Latin alauda is as impenetrable as that of laiwazakon.

Reference to the substrate leaves some phonetic details unexplained. Also, we will never know why the new inhabitants of Europe had no native name for such a widespread bird and how exactly the original word sounded. But perhaps we can risk the conclusion that lark is neither a Celtic nor a Germanic word (so that it cannot be represented as a compound made up of two Germanic roots) and that it probably contains an onomatopoeic element. This is a familiar denouement: the sought-for answer escapes us, but we seem to be closer to the truth than we were at the outset of our journey.

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: Book cover. Jean Anouilh. The Lark. Christopher Fry, translator. New York: Oxford University Press, 1956. via Bryn Mawr.

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19. Mars: A lexicographer’s perspective

By Richard Holden

The planet Mars might initially seem an odd choice for Place of the Year. It has hardly any atmosphere and is more or less geologically inactive, meaning that it has remained essentially unchanged for millions of years. 2012 isn’t much different from one million BC as far as Mars is concerned.

However, here on Earth, 2012 has been a notable year for the red planet. Although no human has (yet?) visited Mars, our robot representatives have, and for the last year or so the Curiosity rover has been beaming back intimate photographs of the planet (and itself). (It’s also been narrating its adventures on Twitter.) As a result of this, Mars has perhaps become less of an object and more of a place (one that can be explored on Google Maps, albeit without the Street View facility).

Our changing relationship with Mars over time is shown in the development of its related words. Although modern readers will probably associate the word ‘Mars’ most readily with the planet (or perhaps the chocolate bar, if your primary concerns are more earthbound), the planet itself takes its name from Mars, the Roman god of war.

Drawing of Mars from the 1810 text, “The pantheon: or Ancient history of the gods of Greece and Rome. Intended to facilitate the understanding of the classical authors, and of poets in general. For the use of schools, and young persons of both sexes” by Edward Baldwin, Esq. Image courtesy the New York Public Library.

From the name of this god we also get the word martial (relating to fighting or war), and the name of the month of March, which occurs at a time of a year at which many festivals in honour of Mars were held, probably because spring represented the beginning of the military campaign season.

Of course, nobody believes in the Roman gods anymore, so confusion between the planet and deity is limited. In the time of the Romans, the planet Mars was nothing more than a bright point in the sky (albeit one that took a curious wandering path in comparison to the fixed stars). But as observing technology improved over centuries, and Mars’s status as our nearest neighbour in the solar system became clear, speculation on its potential residents increased.

This is shown clearly in the history of the word martian. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the most common early usage of the word was as an adjective in the sense ‘of or relating to war’. (Although the very earliest use found, from Chaucer in c1395, is in a different sense to this — relating to the supposed astrological influence of the planet.)

But in the late 19th century, as observations of the surface of the planet increased in resolution, the idea of an present of formed intelligent civilization on Mars took hold, and another sense of martian came into use, denoting its (real or imagined) inhabitants. These were thought by some to be responsible for the ‘canals’ that they discerned on Mars’s surface (these later proved to be nothing more than an optical illusion). As well as (more or less) scientific speculation, Martians also became a mainstay of science fiction, the earth-invaders of H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds (1898) being probably the most famous example.

A century on, robotic explorers such as the Viking probes and the aforementioned Curiosity have shown Mars to be an inhospitable, arid place, unlikely to harbour any advanced alien societies. Instead, our best hope for the existence of any real Martians is in the form of microbes, evidence for which Curiosity may yet uncover.

If no such evidence of life is found, perhaps the real Martians will be future human settlers. Despite the success of Martian exploration using robots proxies, the idea of humans visiting or settling Mars is still a romantic and tempting one, despite the many difficulties this would involve. Just this year, it was reported that Elon Musk, one of the co-founders of PayPal, wishes to establish a colony of 80,000 people on the planet.

The Greek equivalent of the Roman god Mars is Ares; as such, the prefix areo- is sometimes used to form words relating to the planet. Perhaps, then, if travel to Mars becomes a reality, we’ll begin to talk about the brave areonauts making this tough and unforgiving journey.

Richard Holden is an editor of science words for the Oxford English Dictionary, and an online editor for Oxford Dictionaries.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is widely regarded as the accepted authority on the English language. It is an unsurpassed guide to the meaning, history, and pronunciation of 600,000 words — past and present — from across the English-speaking world. Most UK public libraries offer free access to OED Online from your home computer using just your library card number. If you are in the US, why not give the gift of language to a loved-one this holiday season? We’re offering a 20% discount on all new gift subscriptions to the OED to all customers residing in the Americas.

Oxford University Press’ annual Place of the Year, celebrating geographically interesting and inspiring places, coincides with its publication of Atlas of the World — the only atlas published annually — now in its 19th Edition. The Nineteenth Edition includes new census information, dozens of city maps, gorgeous satellite images of Earth, and a geographical glossary, once again offering exceptional value at a reasonable price. Read previous blog posts in our Place of the Year series.

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20. Drinking vessels: ‘bumper’

By Anatoly Liberman

Some time ago, I devoted three posts to alcoholic beverages: ale, beer, and mead. It has occurred to me that, since I have served drinks, I should also take care of wine glasses. Bumper is an ideal choice for the beginning of this series because of its reference to a large glass full to overflowing. It is a late word, as words go: no citation in the OED predates 1677. If I am not mistaken, the first lexicographer to include it in his dictionary was Samuel Johnson (1755). For a long time bumper may have been little or not at all known in polite society. Even Nathan Bailey (1721 and 1730) missed it. But once it surfaced in dictionaries, guesswork about its origin began.

Johnson derived bumper from bum “being prominent.” Etymology was not his forte (to put it mildly), and the source of the consonant p hardly bothered him. Of the revisions of Johnson’s work especially serious was the one by the Reverend H. J. Todd (1827). Although later scholars derided Todd’s etymologies, his explanations were not always useless, despite the fact that he had no notion of the progress historical linguistics had made by 1827. Be that as it may, to discover the origin of seventeenth-century English slang (and I assume bumper was slang), one can dispense with the facts of Indo-European and even of Old English. Todd called Johnson’s conjecture far-fetched, offered none of his own, and only said that others had traced bumper to bumbard ~ bombard. It is most irritating that he did not indicate who the “others” were. I have been unable to find his authority and will be very pleased if someone enlightens me on this point.

Bombard, a word known to Shakespeare and his contemporaries, meant “cannon” and (on account of its size or form?) “leather jug or bottle for liquor.” For a long time Skeat had sufficient trust in this etymology. Bumper, he said, appeared in English just as the older bombard, a drinking vessel, disappeared and was “a corruption of it.” This hypothesis fails to convince. A jug or a bottle for liquor is not a glass, and it remains unclear why a word, evidently in common use, should have been “corrupted.” Nevertheless, the bombard-bumper etymology appeared in numerous good dictionaries, though, surprisingly, Skeat’s early competitors Eduard Mueller and Hensleigh Wedgwood passed by the word.

Then there were attempts to present bumper as a disguised compound. Such an idea should not be dismissed out of hand. For example, bridal, now understood as an adjective, derives from Old Engl. bryd “bride” and ealu “ale” and meant “ale drinking at a wedding feast.” The indefatigable Charles Mackay, who traced hundreds of English words to Irish Gaelic, explained bumper as the sum of bun “bottom” and barr “top”: bum-barr or bun-parr “full from the bottom to the top.” A somewhat more reasonable theory looked upon bumper as a borrowing from French and decomposed it into bon “good” and père or Père “father.” A typical statement ran as follows: “When the English were good Catholics, they usually drank the Pope’s health in a full glass after dinner—Au bon Père—whence your bumper.” Perhaps this derivation was first offered in Joseph Spence’s posthumous (1820) Anecdotes, Observations, and Characters, of Books and Men…, an amusing and entertaining book. Spence had no idea when bumper surfaced in English and did not doubt that at the time of the word’s appearance the English were still good Catholics. Nor did he provide any evidence that the rite he mentioned ever existed. (Those with a taste for such reading will also enjoy Samuel Pegge’s Anecdotes of the English Language…, 1844.)

This is a country bumpkin. Bumpkin and bumper are not related.

Soon after the publication of Spence’s Anecdotes Alexander Henderson brought out a volume titled The History of Ancient and Modern Wines (1824), a learned and eminently readable piece of scholarship. Like many of his contemporaries, he occasionally dabbled in etymology. According to him, bumper was “a slight corruption of the old French phrase bon per, signifying a boon companion.” Granted, French pair “one’s equal, peer”  had the form per in Old French, but where did Henderson find the collocation bon per “boon companion”? This is the problem with both Mackay and the adherents of the French theory. The etymons they posed do not and did not exist in the alleged lending languages, so that, following their logic, the phrases had to be coined in English from two foreign elements, change their shape, merge, and become opaque simplexes. This chain of events defies belief.

Not unexpectedly, some people thought they had found a tie between bumper and bump up, a rather rare collocation meaning “swell up.” The glass was said to be filled so as to cause the liquid to “bump up” slightly above the rim. Several variations on the bump up theme exist. At this point I need a short digression. Some etymological dictionaries have been written by monomaniacs, as Ernest Weekley called them. They derived all the words of English from several ancient roots or from a few primordial cries, or from one language (Irish Gaelic, Arabic, Hebrew, etc.). Criticizing their labors is a thankless task. By contrast, the authors of some dictionaries were so misguided, even if learned, that one wonders how they managed to produce their monstrosities. One such monster is Words: Their History and Derivation, Alphabetically Arranged by Dr. F. Ebener and E.M. Greenway, Jr. (Baltimore and London, 1871). Greenway was, apparently, the translator of this hapless work from German, while Ebener may have been a medical doctor. Among the physicians of the past one can find several crazy etymologists. The dictionary caused such an outcry that its publication was discontinued after the letter B. But my experience has taught me to consult all sources, because a heap of muck sometimes contains a grain of precious metal. (Consider also the dust heaps immortalized in Our Mutual Friend.) This is what I found in the short entry Bumper: “After Grimm [sic], a full glass which in toasting is knocked on the table or against another bumper. He compares [sic] with bomber-nickel.” (It is so easy to translate this text back into German!)

What is a bomber-nickel? And where did Grimm (I assume, Jacob Grimm) say it? His multivolume Deutsche Grammatik has a word index, compiled by Karl Gustav Andresen and published in 1865, but bumper is not in it. Once again I am turning to the assistance of our correspondents. Perhaps they will be able to find the relevant place in Jacob Grimm’s other books or Kleinere Schriften. I cannot imagine that Ebener made up the reference. The OED suggested cautiously that bumper is connected with bumping and its synonym thumping “very large.” Quite possibly, that’s all there is to it. Yet a link seems to be missing, namely some reference to drinking.

The short-lived adjective bumpsy (bumpsie) “drunk,” with an obscure suffix seemingly borrowed from tipsy, has often been cited by those who looked for the origin of bumper. I wonder whether bump up at one time also meant “guzzle” or that the noun bumper “drunkard” existed in colloquial use. Bumper “full glass” may, as suggested above, have been avoided by Samuel Johnson’s closest predecessors because it was current only as occasional slang, even though Johnson did not call the word low (an epithet of which he was fond). Bumper “full glass,” coexisting with bumper “drunkard,” is possible. For instance, a reader is someone who reads and a book for reading. Also, bump “drink heavily,” a homonym of bump “strike” and bump “bulge out, protrude,” may have had some currency as an expressive doublet of the little-known verb bum “consume alcohol.” Verbs ending in -mp (jump, thump, slump, dump, and of course bump) are invariably expressive. I wish it were possible to show that slum, a word of undiscovered origin, is in some way connected with slump!

The etymology of bumper is simple (not a “corruption” or a disguised compound), but, unfortunately, some details have been lost along the way. Let us not des-pair. Good wine needs no bush, so au bon père!

Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Themas 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: A portrait of a man aiming a shotgun. Critical focus on tip of gun. Isolated on white. Photo by steele2123, iStockphoto.

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21. Don’t bank on it

By Beverley Hunt

With just over a week to go until Christmas, many of us are no doubt looking forward to the holidays and a few days off work. For those working on the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, however, writing the history of the language sometimes took precedence over a Christmas break.

Christmas leave in the UK today centres around a number of bank holidays, so called because they are days when, traditionally, banks closed for business. Before 1834, the Bank of England recognized about 33 religious festivals but this was reduced to just four in 1834 – Good Friday, 1 May, 1 November, and Christmas Day. It was the Bank Holidays Act of 1871 that saw bank holidays officially introduced for the first time. These designated four holidays in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland — Easter Monday, Whit Monday, the first Monday in August, and Boxing Day. Good Friday and Christmas Day were seen as traditional days of rest so did not need to be included in the Act. Scotland was granted five days of holiday — New Year’s Day, Good Friday, the first Monday in May, the first Monday in August, and Christmas Day.

So when James Murray took over as editor of the OED in 1879, Christmas Day was an accepted holiday across the whole of the UK, Boxing Day a bank holiday everywhere except Scotland, and New Year’s Day a bank holiday only in Scotland. Yet this didn’t stop editors and contributors toiling away on dictionary work on all three of those dates.

At Christmas play and make good cheer

Here is the first page of a lengthy letter to James Murray from fellow philologist Walter Skeat, written on Christmas Day, 1905. Skeat does at least start his letter with some seasonal greetings and sign off “in haste”, but talks at length about the word pillion in between! There are at least two other letters in the OED archives written on Christmas Day – a letter from W. Boyd-Dawkins in 1883 about the word aphanozygous (apparently the cheekbones being invisible when the skull is viewed from above, who knew?), and another from R.C.A. Prior about croquet in 1892.

Boxing clever

Written on Boxing Day, 1891, this letter to James Murray is from Richard Oliver Heslop, author of Northumberland Words. After an exchange of festive pleasantries, Oliver Heslop writes about the word corb as a possible misuse for the basket known as a corf, clearly a pressing issue whilst eating turkey leftovers! Many other Boxing Day letters reside in the OED archives, amongst them a 1932 letter to OUP’s Kenneth Sisam from editor William Craigie concerning potential honours in the New Year Honours list following completion of the supplement to the OED.

Out with the old, in with the new

Speaking of New Year, here is a “useless” letter to James Murray from OUP’s Printer Horace Hart, written on New Year’s Day, 1886. Although not an official holiday in Oxford at that time, this letter provides a nice opportunity for discussing the etymology of the term Boxing Day. The first weekday after Christmas Day became known as Boxing Day as it was the day when postmen, errand-boys, and servants of various kinds expected to receive a Christmas box as a monetary reward for their services during the previous year. This letter talks about baksheesh, a word used in parts of Asia for a gratuity or tip.

Holidays are coming

In case you’re wondering, New Year’s Day was granted as an additional bank holiday in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland in 1974, as was Boxing Day in Scotland (and 2 January from 1973). So the whole of the UK now gets all three as official days of leave in which to enjoy the festive season.

This article originally appeared on the OxfordWords blog.

Beverley Hunt is Archivist for the Oxford English Dictionary but will not be archiving on Christmas Day, Boxing Day, or New Year’s Day.

If you’re feeling inspired by the words featured in today’s blog post, why not take some time to explore OED Online? Most UK public libraries offer free access to OED Online from your home computer using just your library card number. If you are in the US, why not give the gift of language to a loved-one this holiday season? We’re offering a 20% discount on all new gift subscriptions to the OED to all customers residing in the Americas.

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22. The Naming of Hobbits

By Michael Adams

It will be interesting to see how much of J.R.R. Tolkien’s several invented languages will appear in Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit. In a letter to his American publisher, dated 30 June 1955, Tolkien suspected there were limits to how much invented language readers would ‘stomach’ — to use his term. There are certainly limits to how much can be included in a film. American audiences, anyway, are subtitle averse.

Of Tolkien’s invented languages, Elvish receives most attention, not unreasonably, since it is illustrated most often in Tolkien’s works and most fully articulated in his manuscripts. Other languages are essential to The Lord of the Rings, however. When Gandalf reads out the delicately curved Elvish script on the One Ring in the rough-hewn Black Tongue of Mordor it represents so incongruously, Tolkien proves that some language — just the sound of it — can petrify us as surely as any Ringwraith. Tolkien’s languages aren’t suitable only for poetry or gnomic verses on rings. They also include the element of language most familiar to speakers speaking to one another every day, namely, names.

Tolkien as Philologist

When Tolkien came up with what sounded to him like a name, he would play with it a bit, experiment with its sound structure, and eventually a system of linguistically related names would emerge. Thus a family was invented, a family with relationships to other families in a mythical place, ready to take part in stories. As Tolkien explained in the letter already mentioned, “The ‘stories’ were made rather to provide a world for the languages than the reverse. To me a name comes first and the story follows.” And in his lecture on creating languages, ‘A Secret Vice’ (1931), he wrote “the making of language and mythology are related functions” and an invented language, at least one developed at length, will inevitably “breed a mythology.”

A slip written by J.R.R. Tolkien on the etymology of “walrus” during his years working for the Oxford English Dictionary. Image courtesy the Oxford University Press Archives.

Tolkien was always a philologist, whether in scholarship or fiction. He treated his fictional languages as though they were real, as though he were discovering rather than inventing them. In his scholarship, reconstruction of the sound system or grammar of languages like Old English and Old Norse was routine. For instance, he wrote ‘Appendix I: The Name “Nodens”’, in the Report on the Excavation of the Prehistoric, Roman, and Post-Roman Sites in Lydney Park, Gloucestershire, published by the Research Committee of the Society of Antiquaries of London (1932). So, it isn’t in every library, but it has been helpfully reprinted in Volume 4 of the annual journal Tolkien Studies (2007). In it, you will find passages like this one: “Although it is perhaps vain to try and disentangle from the things told of Nuada any of the features of Nodens of the Silures in Gloucestershire, it is at least highly probably that the two were originally the same. This is borne out by the isolation of the name in Keltic [sic] material, the importance of Nuada (and of Nodens), and not least by the exact phonological equation of Nōdont- with later Nuadat.” This reads very much like a passage from one or another appendix to The Lord of the Rings, and if you read it without knowing it deals with a matter of linguistic and historical fact, you might well think it was fiction.

How to Name a Baggins

Many names in Tolkien’s fiction are not invented, or, at least, not invented by him. Nearly all of the names of dwarfs in The Hobbit can be found in Dvergatal or ‘Tally of the Dwarfs’ in the Old Norse poetic Edda, as can the Old Norse precursors of Gandalf and Thorin’s nickname, Oakenshield. Hobbit names are an interesting blend of borrowed and invented items. For instance, a few males of the Baggins family of Hobbits sometimes bear real — though indisputably outmoded — personal names, such as Drogo (name popular among the French nobility c1000 CE, but since, not so much), Dudo (name of a tenth-century Norman historian and ecclesiast), and Otho (name of a Roman emperor). Other masculine names are converted from surnames or words found in natural languages, such as Balbo, Bingo, Fosco, Largo, Longo, Minto, Polo, and Ponto. But still others appear to be well and truly invented by Tolkien, such as Bilbo, Bungo, and Frodo. Perhaps they were invented to sound and look like the borrowed and converted names, but more likely those were found to fit patterns implied by the invented ones.

The 1937 Allen & Unwin hardback edition cover designed by Tolkien.

Many female Bagginses were given English flower names, such as Daisy, Lily, Myrtle, Pansy, Peony, and Poppy. Others had personal names common in English and other natural languages, for instance, Angelica, Dora, Linda, and Rosa. And a few bore personal names converted from surnames, like Belba, or historical but unfamiliar personal names, like Prisca (name of a Roman empress). The repurposing of such names and words as names of Hobbits may be inventive yet not count as an invention. Yet the invention is not of the names themselves — not most of them, anyway — but of linguistic relations among the names and social relations, embedded in the linguistics, among those to whom they belong.

The names have no actual relation to one another. They are borrowed from Italian and Scots and Norman French, or in those few cases made up. Tolkien brought them into relation by means of their sound shapes: the masculine names, whatever the source, and for whatever genuine etymological reason, are all two syllables and end in -o, which is proposed as a mark of the masculine name in the naming practices of Bagginses. For female Bagginses, the flower names are a fashion that obscures the way gender is marked in Baggins names: Belba, Dora, Linda, Prisca, and Rosa are marked with the contrasting feminine -a. Among all of the flower names, the -a names suggest a diminishing but tenacious historical tendency. But all language changes, as do naming practices, and any reconstruction of personal names in a historical language must account for remnant forms, anomalies, and generational trends.

There and Back Again

Other Hobbit clans have different types of names from those of the Bagginses. Brandybuck names have a distinctly Celtic shape, given the profuse -doc suffix: Gormadoc, Marmadoc, Saradoc, and, of course, Meriadoc. The Tooks prefer names from medieval romance and beast epic: Adelard, Ferumbras, Flambard, Fortinbras (rather than Armstrong, which has a quite different shape), Isengrim, and Sigismund, for instance. The Longfathers have names constructed from Anglo-Saxon elements: Hamfast and Samwise, in which -wise may mean, as it sometimes does in Anglo-Saxon, ‘sprout, stalk’. Over the generations, clan marries into clan, and the names mingle and develop new patterns: the names are the genealogical architecture of a culture.

Through alliances and friendships, Hobbit culture reticulates into the wider web of cultural relationships across Middle Earth and deep into the mythology of which the story of Middle Earth is only a part. The linguistic bases for cultural relationship and contrast are woven tightly and everywhere into the fabric of Tolkien’s fiction. In the middle of the mythological pattern, Tolkien has pricked in the -o and the -a, suffixes that say something about who the Bagginses are, or who they think they are, something that allows one Baggins to find the Ring and another to destroy it, just in time.

Michael Adams teaches English language and literature at Indiana University. In addition to editing and contributing to numerous linguistic journals, he is the author of Slang: The People’s Poetry and Slayer Slang: A Buffy the Vampire Slayer Lexicon, and he is the editor of From Elvish to Klingon: Exploring Invented Languages.

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23. Why don’t ‘gain’ and ‘again’ rhyme?

By Anatoly Liberman

This is a story of again; gain will be added as an afterthought. Throughout the first half of the twentieth century, dictionaries informed their users that again is pronounced with a diphthong, that is, with the same vowel as in the name of the letter A. (I am adding this explanation, because native speakers of English with no knowledge of phonetics seldom realize that the vowel in day, take, main consists of two parts: the nucleus and a glide; the formulation that, for example, a in bait is the “long counterpart of short a” in bat makes matters even worse.) Some people still rhyme again with fain, feign, fane. However, most rhyme it with Ben, den, ten; all the recent British and American dictionaries agree on this point.

The history of the adverb again is surprisingly checkered. In Modern English, the use of the digraphs ai, ay, and ei for short e is, as undergraduate students like to put it, not “very unique”: compare said, says, and heifer. But that does not make the puzzle easier, because says and said stand out as abnormal even in English, in which one can sometimes feel uncertain of how to spell the shortest words. Clearly, the spelling, irrational from today’s point of view, goes back to the pronunciation of old, but tracing the fortunes of each freak is no easy matter. This holds especially for heifer, but again too poses many difficulties.

Only the origin of again is clear. Among its cognates we find German entgegen “opposite” and Old Icelandic í gegn “against.” In the English word, the prefix a- goes back to the preposition on. Old Engl. ongean meant “in the opposite direction” and “back,” not “once more.” The oldest sense of -gain has been preserved in gainsay, literally “speak against.” The Germanic root of -gean and -gegn must have been gag-; its meaning need not occupy our attention, The vowel ea in ongean was long, which means that it consisted of two halves, each of which could be stressed, depending on the word’s  place in the sentence, intonation, and emphasis. There was a time when in words of such structure stress shifted from e to a, though it is not clear whether the attested modern dialectal form agan owes its vowel to , from éa.

As far back as in Old English, the letter given here as g in ongean designated the sound we now hear in yes, you, and yonder. The interplay of g and y is common in the West Germanic languages. Those who have been exposed to the Berlin dialect know that, for instance, Gegend “area” sounds like yeyend there. In Middle High German, legt “lays” and trägt “carries” were spelled leit and treit. Old Engl. g- also changed to y- before i- and e-, and the modern forms yield and yearn bear witness to that change (their German cognates begin with g-: gelten and begehren). There would have been many more English words like those two but for the Viking raids. In the language of the Scandinavians, g remained “hard,” and that is why Modern Engl. get has not merged in pronunciation with yet. Also, give is a phonetic borrowing from the north, whether directly from the invading Danes or from the northern English dialects in which g- withstood “softening” to y-.

In Middle English, the most common form of again was ayen, still with a long vowel. To an unschooled observer the phonetic history of every well-documented language looks like an endless exercise in futility, a conspiracy invented for obfuscating beginning students. Long vowels become short and some time later undergo secondary lengthening, only to lose the hard-gained length a century or two later. Monophthongs turn into diphthongs, while diphthongs become monophthongs and occupy the slots vacated by their former neighbors. Wouldn’t it have been more natural for them to stay put and avoid playing lobster quadrille? Language is a self-regulating mechanism, and many changes only look erratic, but others are accounted for by the fact that sounds, like people, succumb to contradictory rules: from one point of view it may be expedient for a vowel to lengthen, but from another it would be better if it remained short or became long and then returned to its initial state. Phonetic system is like a modern democracy, which faces chaos and in trying to overcome it produces even greater chaos. There is no end to this process. In the history of again we observe how the original diphthong became a long monophthong, shortened, lengthened, and diphthongized. The coexistence of two modern pronunciations of again reflects those changes. Says and said exhibit partly the same picture, but only the short variants have survived.


Somewhat unexpectedly, again is not pronounced ayen. In the fourteenth century, the Kentish English for “pricks (or rather “bite”) of conscience” was ayenbite of inwyt, as we know from the title of moralizing prose written in 1340 (compare backbiting). Ayen-bite is a morpheme by morpheme translation of Old French re-mors “remorse,” literally “biting with ever-increasing ‘mordancy’.” But by the seventeenth century the forms with ag- superseded those with ay-. As usual in such cases, suspicion falls on northern English or Scandinavian speakers. The reason why in this word the southern and central consonant gave way to northern g- has never been explained.

Against surfaced as an adverb: Middle Engl. ageines is agein followed by an adverbial suffix. Its final -t is, to use a scholarly term, excrescent. This “parasitic” sound has also made its way after s into amidst, whilst, amongst, and a few others. A well-known vulgarism is acrossed.  A similar change affected Old Engl. betweohs ~ betwyx ~ betwux: betwix became betwixt(e), and the idiom betwixt and between is still alive.

In distinction from again, gain (noun and verb) has an easily recoverable past. It is a borrowing of Old French gain (masculine; feminine gagne); the verb was gaigner (Modern French gagner). But the ancient word came to Romance from the Germanic verb for “hunt” and acquired the senses “cultivate land” and “earn.” It follows that gain in gainsay, in which again appears without its old prefix, and gain, as in gainful occupation, are distinct words, and only chance turned them into homophones and allowed them to meet in Modern English. Such is the story of gain1 and gain2. It is more complicated than what one could expect from a blog posted in late December, but nothing venture, nothing win, as the British say, or nothing ventured, nothing gained, as they say in America.

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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24. Words like lumps of coal

It’s the night before Christmas and all through the house not a creature was stirring, except the writer throwing her manuscript across the room. What words will Santa give her? Gifts of ‘stillicide’ or ‘ectoplasm’ for her National Book Award — or lumps of coal for failing NaNoWriMo. We’d like to share a few reflections on terrible words from writers such as David Foster Wallace, Zadie Smith, and Michael Dirda in the Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus below.

Joshua Ferris says “Bah, humbug” to… ACTUALLY

Actually is a fashionable word circa 2011, especially in colloquial, voice-driven contemporary writing, and it’s all over the place in everyday speech. It’s used wrongly and excessively, even speciously, and is one of the worst tics of tendentious writing. As a qualifier, it’s fine (Jack is actually eleven, not twelve). As an intensifier (like its brothers literally, really, utterly, and totally), it attempts to replace subjective opinion for objective fact (the play was actually a lot better than Jack thought it was). One can’t use a word that means ‘existing in fact, real’ in the context of something debatable or contentious. I’d suggest a basic usage rule that says whenever you can replace actually with in my opinion, the actually should be avoided.

Zadie Smith says “Bah, humbug” to… BARREN

Nullipara. A woman who has never given birth to a child. One of the few nouns referring to the sexual/reproductive/aging status of a woman that is not in any way pejorative, simply because it is almost never used. Should be printed on T-shirts.

Michael Dirda says “Bah, humbug” to… BRAVE

Excepting the few who boldly confront oppressive laws or governments (Émile Zola, Anna Akhmatova), or those who join fighting brigades where they risk being killed in battle (Ernst Junger, Andre Malraux), no writer should be referred to as brave. Too often modern poets are called brave—or daring or fearless—simply because they write openly about being lonely, sexually frustrated, or drug-dependent. Worse yet, critics sometime present the verbal equivalent of the Silver Star to some assistant professor attempting an unfashionable verse form in his latest contribution to the Powhatan Review. That’s not quite what placing your life on the line means. Save all those courageous adjectives for coal miners, firefighters, and the truly heroic.

David Foster Wallace says “Bah, humbug” to… INDIVIDUAL

As a noun, this word has one legitimate use, which is to distinguish a single person from some larger group: one of the enduring oppositions of British literature is that between the individual and society; or boy, she’s a real individual. I don’t like it as a synonym for person despite the fact that much legal, bureaucratic, and public-statement prose uses it that way—it looms large in turgid writing like law-enforcement personnel apprehended the individual as he was attempting to exit the premises. Individual for person and an individual for someone are pretentious, deadening puff-words; eschew them.

David Auburn says “Bah, humbug” to… QUIRKY

Just as the British use clever as a backhanded insult, meaning ‘merely clever, not actually intelligent or thoughtful,’ quirky is often used to mean ‘mildly and harmlessly peculiar’ with ‘and totally uninteresting’ implied. I hate quirky and hate having it applied to my own writing. I would rather receive a negative review that didn’t use this word than a rave that did.

Francine Prose says “Bah, humbug” to… SCUD

Once I heard a teacher tell a seventh-grade class that this was precisely the sort of verb they should use to make their writing livelier and more interesting. The example she gave was: The storm clouds scudded over the horizon. In fact, this is precisely the sort of word—words that call unnecessary attention to themselves, that sound artificial and stop the reader in mid-sentence—that should not be used for that reason. Or for any reason. When in doubt, use a simpler and more everyday word, and try to make the content of the sentence livelier and more interesting, which is always a better idea. If you don’t have anything fresh to report about the rapidly moving clouds, writing that they scudded won’t help.

David Lehman says “Bah, humbug” to… SYNERGY

Some words don’t work. Synergy is one of them. Theoretically it makes sense. Synergy is a business term, corporate-speak for the advantages of amalgamating the operations of several different but related companies. When, for example, a book publisher merges with a movie studio, one reason given is that there are bound to be significant synergies: ways one branch of the new structure can feed the other. It turns out, however, that the concept is flawed; these mergers seldom go according to plan. And that is surely why you hear the word only in the business news, among executives and mouthpieces for whom hope springs eternal.

Suleiman Osman says “Bah, humbug” to… TECHNICALLY

When someone starts a phrase with the word technically, he or she almost always follows with a statement that is useless or wrong. This is particularly true when a person is using the term as a way to correct someone gently. “Technically, the city is called Par-ee.” Who has not been enjoying a view of a lovely body of water and muttered to oneself “what a beautiful bay,” only to be interrupted by someone who points out that “technically it’s a sound.” Feel free to tell him or her that “technically” there is no difference between a sound, bay, firth, gulf, cove, bight, or fjord. There are only different local conventions. Or if you aren’t sure, you can always ask “technically, according to whom?”

Tell us the words you say “Bah, humbug” to in the comments below.

Much more than a word list, the Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus is a browsable source of inspiration as well as an authoritative guide to selecting and using vocabulary. This essential guide for writers provides real-life example sentences and a careful selection of the most relevant synonyms, as well as new usage notes, hints for choosing between similar words, a Word Finder section organized by subject, and a comprehensive language guide. The text is also peppered with thought-provoking reflections on favorite (and not-so-favorite) words by noted contemporary writers, including Joshua Ferris, Francine Prose, David Foster Wallace, Zadie Smith, and Simon Winchester, many newly commissioned for this edition.

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25. 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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