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Archive for the 'Word Origins' Category

Alumnus, Alumni, Alumna, Alumnae

Saturday, June 11th, 2011

Probably half the words in English were borrowed from Latin or its descendants, French, Italian, and Spanish. Today English is hardly recognizable for the Germanic language it is, cousin to German, Dutch, Swedish, Norwegian, and Danish.

Originally, the plural forms of Latin nouns were borrowed along with the singular forms, so that the plural of abacus was abaci, of cactus, cacti. As time passed, however, that has changed in bewildering ways.

Abacuses and cactuses have all but totally replaced cacti and abaci, and foci is used as a plural of focus only in academic institutions. All dictionaries now list the plurals of callus and sinus as calluses and sinuses as the only options.

On the other side of the coin, most speakers don’t even know that agenda and media are, in historical fact, the plurals of agendum and medium. (Radio is one medium.) More and more I hear “a phenomena” presumably spoken by people who don’t know that the singular is phenomenon.

Gigi Marino, Editor of the Bucknell Magazine tells me she is weary of reading “I am an alumni” in letters to her office. The plural of the Latin word for “pupil”, alumnus, has not changed and is not even in the process of changing. The plural of this word is not optional but only alumni. It is the plural, not the singular. “I am an alumnus,” is the only way to express the singular sense of this word.

I suspect the reason for the plural of this word taking over the singular is the awkwardness of the expected change, alumni > alumnuses. No matter, the only plural for this word is alumni.

One final note. Not only did English borrow the Latin word for “pupil” as its word for “alumnus”, it borrowed the feminine forms: alumna and plural alumnae, pronounced [ahlumnee] to refer to female alums. Again, alumnae is the only plural form of alumna.

So, what if we are talking about several graduates, some men, some women? The general rule in Latin and all related languages is that in the general form covering both genders is the masculine. So alumni may refer to several male graduates or a mixture of male and female graduates. Also, if you are not sure whether the alum is male or female, alumnus is the general term to use. (This a grammatical rule that has nothing to do with sexism, by the way.)

Cool Way to Say “Insensitive”

Wednesday, May 18th, 2011

Pronunciation: pæ-kê-dêr-mê-tês • Hear it! • Adjective

Meaning: 1. Of, like or related to thick-skinned animals like elephants, rhinoceroses, and hippopotamuses. 2. Thick skinned, insensitive.

Notes: Well, we all have known that a pachyderm is an elephant since childhood; it should come as no surprise that this word has an adjective. That suffix -at before the -ous is redundant, so you may omit it if you wish: pachydermous is just as good as today’s word—and shorter, if you’re in a hurry. The state of having (abnormally) thick skin?Pachydermia.

In Play: Sometimes thick skin is a good defense mechanism: “I don’t think your referring to him as a burnt-out has-been will offend that pachydermatous old goat!” However, it can also be an indicator of insensitivity: “Donny Brooke is too pachydermatous to enjoy the subtleties of poetry; he wouldn’t enjoy the reading.”

Word History: Today’s Good Word comes to us, via Latin and French, from Greek pakhydermos “thick-skinned”, a compound made up of pakhys “thick” + derma “skin”. Pachys does not show up in many Greek borrowings in English; pachysandra was named for its thick stamens while pachycephalosaurs were named for their thick skulls.Derma, however, appears in many borrowings, including dermal “pertaining to skin”, epidermis “outer layer of skin”, and the study of skin, dermatology. (Today we are grateful to Andrew Shaffer, who magically sends out our Good Words to you daily and whose voice you hear pronouncing this word, for giving us the skinny on this funny word.)

Hems and Mayhem

Friday, April 29th, 2011

Pronunciation: may-hem • Hear it! • Noun, mass (no plural)

Meaning: 1. (Law) Intentionally maiming a person in order to disable and render them defenseless. 2. Wanton destruction. 3. Havoc, riotous chaos, total disorder.

Notes: Today’s Good Word is a rarity, indeed: an English word pronounced exactly as it is spelled! (Don’t listen to the US dictionaries; always pronounce the [h] in the middle. That’s what it is there for.) Mayhem is a lexical orphan without any related words, though our British cousins have used it as a verb in the past.

In Play: In peacetime, mayhem is, unfortunately, often associated with sporting events: “When the Dinglethwarp Turtledoves defeated the Swollingham Drubbers in the final seconds of the game, mayhem broke out among the fans.” We do hear this word often used hyperbolically, though: “Were I to suggest the company reduce its lunch break from an hour to a half hour, I’m afraid that mayhem might break out on the plant floor.”

Word History: Old French mahaigne “injury, mutilation” becamemahain then mahaim in Anglo-Norman, the French spoken in England after the Norman Conquest (1066). The Normans (so called because they originated in Normandy, France) picked up the word from a nearby Celtic language, Breton, where the word for “maim, mutilate” was mac’hagnañ. English borrowed the Anglo-Norman variantmahaim and developed it in two directions. In one instance the inconvenient H in the middle was dropped, leaving only maim. The other direction retained the H but only after folk etymology converted it into two recognizable English words, may and hem. The new “compound” survived despite its sounding more like the decision of a seamstress than an act of destruction. (In order to avoid any mayhem among our dear subscribers, let us now thank Dr. L. B. Tague for suggesting today’s riot of a Good Word.)

Origins of Silly Words

Wednesday, December 1st, 2010

Roger Bullard recently commented on my entry Silly Words in English, writing, “I sometimes use the word sticktoitiveness because for some weird reason, I just can’t think of the word perseverance. It doesn’t come to me when I need it.

I’ve decided to respond in a separate entry because it speaks to an issue that has intrigued me for decades. I had always thought that there was enough for some useful research, but never could gather enough data. Still, I think there is something here worth pursuing.

What do we do when we can’t think of a word? Speech is fast, which is why speaking is the most difficult of the four language proficiencies (reading, writing, comprehension, and speaking). We inevitably come upon words we know we know but can’t retrieve them fast enough to plug into the sentence we are uttering. We have to create a word on the spur of the moment, but how?

I noticed several words that seemed to be “near misses” and thought them the result of such moments. Two words originally caught my attention: hassle and (to) harry, as in harried. Their meanings are almost identical and identical with a far less often heard word, harass. I suspect that the two more common words are words someone uttered when they either could not remember harass, or could not decide which syllable of this word to emphasize, a problem associated with it.

I have a few other words in my files: embroil for embroglio, huffy for haughty, get in someone’s good graces for ingratiate, and kulacks for culottes.

As I say, I have never been able to gather a sufficient corpus of examples or find a way to prove my hypothesis. If it is true, however, it offers an explanation of folk etymology, since most of these examples seem to associate the meaning of the original word with words that are more common, more ‘Englishy’, the definition of folk etymology. Someone (or many) cannot remember how to write French m’aider “help me”, so they write what they remember: may day.

We do make errors when we speak, usually corrected quickly. But what if we simply can’t find the word but must continue speaking? Wouldn’t we try to utter a word with a similar sound that suggests the meaning we are getting at? Failing that, we would resort to something more desperate, like creating a word from a phrase like sticktoitiveness, as Roger claims to have done. No final conclusion here, but the issue is intriguing.

Lame Ducks of Washington

Wednesday, November 10th, 2010

Now that we have a few lame ducks down in Washington, I thought this peculiar phrase worth tracking down. So here is what I found.

First, referring to Congress as a whole as a “lame duck congress” is a misuse of the word, since those congressmen who were reelected are not lame ducks. In this context, the expression has taken on a slightly different meaning, a congress controlled by a party that loses that control at the end of the year. In this sense we have a lame duck House but not a lame duck senate.

The word more generally refers to people finishing their last term at some position, knowing they will soon be replaced. But this expression probably originates on the high seas as British naval slang referring to a disabled ship or a ship damaged at 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.

From the stock market the word then migrated to politics where it is used mostly 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.”

Noise about ‘Noisome’

Wednesday, June 2nd, 2010

Rob Nollan wrote today:

“First, let me tell you that I love your Dr. Goodword’s daily e-mail. Even when I’m too busy to read it, if I click on the mail and begin reading, I get sucked in and can’t escape. Your writing and wit make lexical discovery so much fun!”

“So…you state that noisome should not be confused with noise. But it isn’t too much of a stretch to recognize that noise comes from the Latin nausea which has nothing to do with sound, either.”

“Tracking the actual origin of words through historical usage is beyond my ability, but it seems to me that noise and noisome share identical meanings, other than the fact that one usually refers to sound and the other is an adjective.”

“Therefore, my question is this: how do you trace these words to know that noise and noisome really aren’t related? Just curious. Thanks for the great work!”

Here is, in a nutshell, how we do it. We follow the spelling of the word in historical documents as far as they go. Some languages have been preserved in many documents over long periods of time, some in few over only short periods, and yet others, in none. So that process is often limited.

Greek survives today, as does Latin (in French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian). The same is true of the languages that developed from Sanskrit (Hindi, Marathi, Gujarati, etc.) So, it is fairly easy to trace words back to these languages.

Doing that, we find that noisome unquestionably goes back to ‘in odium’ in Latin. Noise may come from nausea. Nausea is a Latin word based on the Greek word naus “ship” that we see in nautical and navigate. However, it may just as well originate in noxia “harm, damage”; we just aren’t sure. Either way, noise and noisome are probably two different words that are coincidentally  spelled similarly today.

Why aren’t we sure of the origin of noise? Even if there are written documents available, when talking about a span of 2000 years, there will be gaps of hundreds of years in which no written evidence has survived but the spoken language continued to change.

For those gaps etymologists apply rules learned from examining thousands of similar words without gaps over the same time period. That usually works, but not always. What we can’t predict are changes caused by the influence of other languages, people playing with their language, confusion of one word with another, and similar accidental phenomena.

It is fun, as you have discovered, but it is also revealing. I devote so much space in the daily Good Words to their histories  because words express us as surely as we express them. They express our ideas and attitudes. Their histories often provide insights into our cultures and especially the changes in our attitudes and thought over the centuries.

Talking Monetization

Wednesday, May 26th, 2010

A Facebook friend, Liza Kendall Christian, wrote Monday to express her curiosity about monetize:

“Bob, Do you knew the origin of the word monetize among all the other fun things you seem to dissect about language. Just a minor curiosity of when and in what venue/sphere it came into existence. Thank you, Bob!”

This word first began to appear in print in the second half of the 19th century in the sense of “to establish as the standard of currency”, a meaning which slowly evolved into “realize as or express in terms of money.”

In 1867 it was used several times in a book by J. A. Ferris called “The financial Economy of the United States”, e.g. “This would monetize gold again.” In 1903 it was being used widely throughout the English-speaking world. The British journal “The Speaker” was even using new words derived from it, e.g. “He demonetised silver in Germany and monetised gold.”

Money, money, money!The word was borrowed from French monétiser, which emerged some time before 1818. The French didn’t inherit it from Latin but created it from Latin moneta “money” plus the Greek suffix -iz-. The British still spell this suffix the French way -ise (monetise) while we long ago changed the spelling to -ize. The US spelling is, however, in the process of being adopted in the UK.

Incentive: An Incendiary Word?

Tuesday, April 20th, 2010

I’m having to adjust the Word History of a recent Good Word, incentive, as a result of a note from Monika Freund of Germany. My word history went thus:

“Incentive comes from Late Latin incentivus “singing a tune, inciting”, from incinere “to sound off”. This verb is made up of in-, an intensifier prefix + canere “to sing”. The Latin stem can- also underlies the noun, carmen “song, poem” which, after French worked its magic on it, emerged as charme, a word we borrowed less the silent [e]. In the Germanic languages the same root came up as Hahn, still the German word for that fowl singer, the rooster. The feminine of this word, Henne, shares the same ancestor as English hen.”

Monika wrote: “I don’t think incentive has anything to do with incincere “to sing”. It must be derived from incendere, which means “to set on fire to, to encourage”. In German you also say “Man feuert jemanden an “You set someone on fire (with a special treat etc).” Indeed, in English we say “to set a fire under him/her” in the sense of incentivizing them.

I should have mentioned that the meaning of the word was probably influenced by incendere “to set afire” but my etymology is correct. The English word comes from Latin incentivus “setting to music”; the correlate adjective from incendere is incensivus, also borrowed by English as insensive “fiery, tending to inflame, inciting”.

The metaphor in the case of incentive was by analogy of setting passive words to music to make them move. However, many etymologists do believe the shift in meaning was influenced by the sense of incendere, a note I should have added to my Word History.

Limning the History of Limnology

Tuesday, February 2nd, 2010

Kim Churchman responded to my treatment of limn with the following comment. I’ll bet it occurred to others, as well:

“About limn: doesn’t limnology mean the study of lakes? How does that fit with your definition of limn?

The answer is straightforward: in no way at all. Yes, the word limne means “lake” in Greek and, I think, Latin, too. But English limn comes from Latin lumen “light”, after good working over down through the ages.

Remember that English has been hauling words out of Latin for centuries. The words borrowed in earlier centuries underwent all the changes English has gone through since Old English. Limnology is a recent addition, only since lakes became a focus of scientific study.

Maths, Aftermaths, and Foremaths

Tuesday, January 26th, 2010

Donald Schark discovered a new word recently and wrote in about it. Words are “discovered” in other words, and this one is quite a surprise to me. Donald wrote:

“I am reading an author who wrote of people facing the math and aftermath of their decisions. I have never heard math used before without the prefix, so I checked Webster. Math is from the AS “mowing.” Why is such a useful word in disuse? It certainly applies to those who are currently suffering the math of war or the latest earthquake.”

Indeed, the sense of “mowing” has shifted to “a disasterous event”, since this is what is implied today by aftermath. It implies another compound, too, namely foremath, as the foremath of an earthquake or sunami. Much is being written about that now as we try to forecast these events. The foremath of hurricanes, we now know, is long, tumultuous, and filled with evidence about the storm itself.

I will run this word as a Good Word soon no matter what the research turns up simply because of the excitement at discovering a new word. I felt the same way when I found ease in disease and busy in business., and at one in atonement. Finding words inside words we take for granted everyday is an exciting experience—whether those around me realize it or not.