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Archive for the 'Word Origins' Category

Where does PIE ‘Nest’ Nest?

Thursday, November 14th, 2013

I received this very pleasant comment from Supriya Dey today:

“I absolutely enjoy the daily Dr Goodword feeds. Thank you.”

“For today’s word, I was wondering if nid in nidicolous is related to nir [neer]. which means “home” or “nest” in some Indian languages. The syllable col also means “lap” in Bengali, an Indian language. Any relations?”

I responded:

It depends on which Indian languages you are talking about. If they are Indo-European, like Bengali, Hindi, Marathi, and Oriya, the answer would be an unqualified “yes” for nir “nest”. They would not be included in the etymological sources that I use because little is known by Western European etymologists about Indo-Iranian languages. If you are talking about Dravidian languages, like Kanada, Telugu, Mayalayam, the answer would be “no”.

The word col “lap” presents more problems, however. Col- is the PIE root (if this is the root of Latin colere at all), which would have changed considerably in the past 5000 years. This root became carati, calati in Sanskrit and referred to movement. There are many questions surrounding this word even if it occurs in Bengali. As I say in the Good Word nidicolous: it takes some stretch of the imagination to take “rotate” to “inhabit”. The same would apply for “lap”. Taken together, the sound change problem and the semantic one, would probably exclude it from consideration.

I heard back from Supriya telling me that nir does, in fact, occur only in north Indian languages.

A Small Menu

Tuesday, October 15th, 2013

I received this interesting note from Jean Perry this morning:

“I recently read in Barbara Ehrenrich’s book Dancing in the Streets, about public festivals, that menu peuple meant ‘simple people’. I couldn’t find the connection between menu as in ‘list’ and menu as in ‘simple’. Can you help me with this?”

This is a Middle French usage that came over when English borrowed the word. French menu then meant “unimportant” or “small”, because menu came to Old French from classical Latin minutus “minúte”. The earliest written evidence in Middle French was les menus = le menu peuple “the small, unimportant people”, plural of la gent menude “the small, unimportant person”. The usage of menu in this sense is now considered archaic.

Of Peckerwoods and Woodpeckers

Tuesday, September 17th, 2013

I received an interesting inquiry from Jeanne Henry. Here is that inquiry and my response.

Peckerwood. That is what our Southern Baptist pastor called us kids when he got angry with us. I just attended a 40-year reunion of the youth church choir and we laughed about Dr. Jimmy Morgan getting mad at us in church and announcing from the pulpit, “You little peckerwoods better shut up!” Of course, that made us giggle and shake the church pews even more. Poor guy.”

“Anyway, what is the history of the word Peckerwood?”

It started out as simply a Southern variant of woodpecker. However, it is not always used that way and has naughty overtones due to a poem kids back in the 20s and 30s once recited:

Woodpecker pecking on the schoolhouse door.
He pecked and he pecked ‘til his pecker got sore.

When my mother heard me or my cousins reciting this rhyme—long before we knew the other meaning of pecker—she became clearly embarrassed and forbade its recitation. Of course, this only egged us on.

Since the word begins with pecker, it has become mildly profane as well as a mild insult. That word is covered up a bit in woodpecker.

The Names of Things

Friday, September 6th, 2013

Randy Bynder appealed to Dr. Goodword for help with a common problem facing parents: answering a child’s innocent question. Children are learning machines, sponges that absorb thousands of facts every day. Here is a questiona that stumped Randy:

“Lately my 8 year old daughter keeps asking where partcular words come from. For instance ‘Daddy why do they call it a couch? Why are we called people?’ etc.

“Question: can you help me to formulate an intelligent but easy to understand response to such questions? Thank you.”

The answer, according to Plato, is that there is no answer; the relation between sounds and meanings are purely arbitrary. We call a horse a “horse” while Russians call the same animal a loshad’, Germans call it a Pferd, Spaniards a caballo, and Serbs a kon. It is the same animal referred to by different sounds depending on which part of the world you are in, more specifically, the language you are speaking.

Historically speaking, is another question. The similarities between English sister, German Swester, Russian sestra are not coincidental. These languages belong to a known language family, called “Indo-European”. A language family is exactly what it sounds like, a group of related languages that descended (developed over time) from the same “proto” language. They have descended from one language that existed earlier.

So the best response is to take advantage of the question to make your daughter aware that people around the world speak 6,912 languages and dialects. People speaking a different language are not to be feared; they are just saying more or less the same things we say in a different way.

Maneuvering Manure

Thursday, June 27th, 2013

Gail Rallen just sent in a funny anecdote related to our recent Good Word maneuver:

“When my brother was very young he had a stock of really quite funny malapropisms, with today’s GW among them. He was concerned about people who allowed pets to run loose in their yards, because the dogs maneuver in their grass.”

Considering the fact that French manœvre was the origin of both maneuver and manure, he wasn’t far from being correct.

More “Tucker”

Saturday, January 19th, 2013

We received two responses to our Good Word tucker back in mid-December that fell between the cracks until now. Brian Peretti wrote, “Just an addition to the tucker post. My mother was from West Virginia, and she would use the phrase: “best bib and tucker”, as in, “We’re goin’ to church, so put on your best bib and tucker” (otherwise known as your Sunday-go-to-meetin’ clothes).”

Well, Brian, both these expressions were prevalent in North Carolina when I was growing up and I’ll bet they are still in use today, at least among the older population. In fact, “bib and tucker” was used in England as early as 1747, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, so the use must have been wide-spread at one time. A bib is the front of a false shirt and a tucker was one you tucked into your pants. Originally referred to a lace front that women wore, but later on came to refer to the false-front shirts men wore as well.

Graham Thomas then wrote from South Africa:

“Regarding you comments today about tucker, I was born in South Africa of British heritage, and we often used the work tuck to refer to food and the shop supplying food at school was referred to as a tuck shop. So I think that the reference to it being uniquely used in Australia is a bit misleading. It does sounds that it could have originated in England with the two countries common heritage.”

It seems I underestimated the both the geographic and the semantic extent to which tucker is currently used. The word was printed in a London newspaper in 1858, so it must have been current was before that. However, as the citations in the Oxford English Dictionary make clear, it continued to be used only in Australia and New Zealand—and South Africa, as you write. It was never prevalent in the US or Canada nor England after the mid-19th century.

The Lame Ducks of Washington

Thursday, November 8th, 2012

We now have quite a few lame ducks walking about Washington. I thought that a peculiar phrase, worth tracking down. So here is what I found.

First, referring to Congress as a whole as a “lame duck congress” was a misuse of the word, since those congressmen who were reelected are not lame ducks. So, this expression has taken on a slightly different meaning: a congress controlled by a party that loses control at the end of the year. This year neither house is a lame duck in this sense.

Recently this word’s meaning has expanded even more to the congress after elections but before the new congress is sworn in, whether its ducks are lame or not.

The term probably originates out on the high seas where it originally referred to a disabled ship or a ship damaged on the sea. The term duck makes more sense in this context.

If this is correct, then the term migrated from naval slang to financial slang, referring to a bankrupt investor or an investor in default of his debt at the exchange. At the stock exchange there are bulls, bears, and lame ducks, people who can not raise the liquidity to invest in any market. The carry-over sense is a financially wounded person who can’t keep up with the people who have their ducks in a row.

From the stock market the word then migrated to politics, where it is mostly used today. It is available outside politics, though, in reference to any thing or person who is disabled in any way. The American Heritage Dictionary says that it may refer to “an ineffective person; a weakling”.

The Origin of ‘Aryan’

Saturday, October 6th, 2012

Lena Åseth raises an interesting question I’ll bet many of the readers of this blog would be interested in. It has to do with the first word in the name of a racist organization called “The Aryan Brotherhood”.

“I need your expertise on the word aryan. Where does this word come from, and is it still in use? I know that it was used during the Nazi-war, under Hitler, but it’s a bit older than that, right?”

—Lena Åseth, Oslo, Norway

Although the word is still around, it is now used only in its racist sense. It comes from the Sanskrit word arya “noble, of a good, high-ranking family”. The word originally referred to the Proto-Indo-Europeans, but the inherent elitism of the word’s etymology led to its demise as a technical term.

The word was then picked up by the Nazis, who thought the Indo-Europeans must have been a race of exclusively white people (excluding Jews, of course). They attached this word to that mythical race. The elitism of the word’s etymology aligned itself quite nicely with the new meaning.

Most intellectuals now use Indo-European, while police departments and laymen use the more nearly descriptive term Caucasian, in referring to the original sense of Aryan. The Indo-Europeans, of course, did not originate in the Caucasus, but in an area now occupied by eastern Poland, Ukraine, and southern Russia. So, even this term is misleading.

How did Turf Come to be ‘to Turf’?

Friday, February 24th, 2012

A old verb is currently being tossed about the networks, to turf. It seems to mean “throw or kick someone forcibly out of some organization or office”. In these days of artificial turf, how did this noun turn up as a verb meaning this?

The verb derived from the noun was first recorded in 1598. It meant “to place or lay under the turf; to cover with turf”. By the 18th century it had metaphorized to “bury”, which is a kind of cover-up with turf.

It was only in the late 19th century that to turf turned up with the meaning it has today. What happened between the 18th and 20th centuries?

In the late 19th century the phrase on the turf came to mean “on the street(s)” in the sense prostitutes are “on the street”. So this sense of turf influenced the meaning of the verb, which became “to put out on the street”.

Now, since we use the verbal particles out when we say kick out, it was natural to use turf out as a slang replacement.

Short Shrift for ‘Short Shrift’

Monday, February 13th, 2012

Brad Stafford from Down Under raised this question ages ago:

Any chance of finding out where the phrase short shrift derives from?

Indeed, that is no great secret. Shrift means “confession, penitence”. Shrifts usually require long penances, sometimes up to a year or even a life-time. Short shrift was a brief penance given to a person condemned to death so that absolution could be granted before execution. Presumably, any shrift would be too, too short in that situation.

The verb that this noun is derived from is shrive, shrove, shriven “to listen to confession and render absolution”. It comes from Latin scribere “to write” and shrift from Latin scriptus “writing”.