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Archive for the 'Word Origins' Category

Podunk Potemkin Villages

Monday, June 22nd, 2009

Yvonne Owens couldn’t help being struck by both the phonetic and the semantic similarities between our recent Good Word podunk and Potemkin and wondered if the two words were related.

For all its similarity, Potemkin has nothing to do with Podunk. Podunk is a word from an American Indian language while Potemkin comes to us from Russian. The Russian word is a commonization of the name of Grigory Potemkin (or Potyomkin, as it ir pronounced in Russian). Potemkin was a favorite of Catherine, probably her lover, and for the majority of her reign, the most powerful person aside from Catherine in Russia.

Grigori PotemkinAccording to European legend, in order to impress Western European dignitaries visiting Russia, Potemkin very quickly built several settlements in territories taken by Catherine from Turkey in order to convince those dignitaries that the land now belonged to Russia and that Russian would not surrender it under any circumstance. To make the point, Western Europeans had to see Russian putting the land to Russian use, even though the peasants compelled to move into them left soon after the dignitaries departed.

Although unrelated to podunk, Potemkin’s action bears a striking resemblance to the action of Israelis in building settlements in the West Bank territorities siezed during the Six Day War. Both instances are based on the assumption that “possession is 9/10 of the law” plus the additional difficulty of undoing what has already been done. The difference, of course, is that Israel is building real settlements; Potemkin built nothing more than empty shells of buildings grouped to look like settlements in an unsettled territory.

Beautiful Foreign Words in English

Friday, June 19th, 2009

Mark Conn is only the most recent reader of our “100 Most Beautiful Words in English” list to ask why so many seem to be French, not English. I guess it is time to put a reply up for everyone.

The reason is that well over 50% of the English vocabulary is borrowed from French. When William the Conqueror invaded England in 1066, he initiated the Norman Period of English history and the Middle English period of the language. Religious, legal, judicial, educational, and governmental institutions were conducted entirely in French and Old English became the language of the lower classes. Thousands of words were imported into English, a process that continued even after English reestablished itself as the strongly French-influenced national language again around 1300.

We can push the percentage of words borrowed from French and its mother, Latin, even higher if we include medical and legal terms, and higher still if we include the Greek language. The vast majority of current English vocabulary is borrowed, in fact. 

English doesn’t simply borrow words from other languages, it plunders other languages for their lexical treasures like a vocabulary pirate: Norwegian, Swedish, Dutch, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Russian, Polish, Yiddish, Hindi, Chinese, Japanese, plus dozens if not hundreds more, have all seen their word stores scanned directly into the English lexicon.

Now, does that mean that English contains only a few thousand English words? That would be a hard case to make. Once we borrow a word like chatoyant (pronounced [shæto] then change its meaning and pronunciation (English [shætoyênt]), it is English. The fact that a French word is borrowed from a language associated with high culture, fashion, and epicurean sophistication does add to its beauty and allure, though.

The aspect of a native word like becoming, fetching, or comely that sets it off from the rest is a sense of being quaintly out of fashion, a warm, and cozy sense like that of a dowdy old aunt or grandmother. Here the distance is in time rather than place but it is still the sense of removal that adds elgance and grace to such such words.

That doesn’t mean that some current native words are not beautiful: love, lilt and offing certainly fill that bill. Certainly other aspects enter the lexical beauty equation. However, just as a sense of anachronism positively inclines us toward native words, the exoticity of distant cultures in words borrowed gains our vocabulary the same advantage.

I’m working on a longer, more detailed explanation of how beauty works in words for the book, The 100 Most Beautiful Words in English scheduled for August publication.

Upskirting: Sex in the Slow Lane

Thursday, June 18th, 2009

The Sunbury Daily Item this morning reported the arrest of an out-of-state visitor in the Susquehanna Mall for upskirting. (The online edition changed the headline so as not to unintentionally encourage its readership). Upskirting, according to the Deadly Item (as it is fondly called by those of us who adore it), is bending over to take a digital photograph up a lady’s skirt (or a naughty girl’s, for that matter). Given the length of skirts these days, I have difficulty visualizing this, since either the man is something of a contortionist or the skirts involved were very short.

The important point, however, is that the perp is from out of state, Missouri, to be exact. Readers in that state should be on guard! Another important point—aside from the one on this guy’s head—is that upskirting is not yet listed among the crimes in Pennsylvania, so the district attorney has to decide whether the actual crime is disorderly conduct or harrassment, neither of which carry stern penalties.

Here at alphaDictionary, of course, we are more interested in the fact that this new verb has reached the area. To upskirt, according to the Urban Dictionary, has been around since 2006, along with the misuse of photographic cell phones itself. Since the verb to skirt means “to go around, circumvent”, I would have expected to upskirt to mean “to circumvent by raising to a higher level”, as to upskirt an insult with a compliment to the insulter. Apparently, that is not the case.

Anyway, this brave new step into sexual perversion and the vocabulary it shleps with it has us all talking in appropriately hushed tones here in centrally isolated Lewisburg. Who knows where it will lead to next: peeking at girls in bikinis at the beach, no doubt. What’s the world coming to?

Hagia Sophia and Saint Peter

Sunday, June 14th, 2009

John Myes wanted to know if the hagia in Hagia Sophia is related to the hagios in our Good Word hagiographyHagia Sophia is the name of the museum in Istanbul that was once the seat of the patriarch (= pope) of Eastern Orthodoxy.  Indeed, Greek hagia “holy” is the feminine form of hagios, which is also the word for “saint”, so Hagia Sophia means “Saint Sophia”. (We find the same relation in saint, which was originally Latin sanctus “holy”.)

I always thought it interesting that the patron saint of the Roman Catholic Church was a man, St. Peter, the Rock, while the patron saint of the Eastern Orthodox Church (once a part of the Roman Church), was a woman, St. Sophia, also the Greek word for ”Wisdom”. 

The several historical attempts to (re)marry these two faiths have failed. They would seem to be incompatible despite all their common interests.

If Right is Right, is Left Wrong?

Monday, June 8th, 2009

Maureen Koplow’s third question in the two sentences she wrote concerning my discussion of benight, was this: Where do we get the “various meanings of right as in ‘that’s right’ vs. ‘you don’t have the right to do that.’”

Well, that is a simple one. The association of right-handedness and the right way to do things has been with us for millennia. The Greeks, the Romans, and the (original) Indians built that into their speech thousands of years ago. The reasoning goes something like this: if 98% of the people in the world are right-handed, the doing things with the right hand is the right way and doing them with the left hand is not right, right?

OK, next step. If right = right, and everyone wants to do right and be done right to, we begin to expect to be treated in the right way. The right way then becomes a right in a third sense. We then have and to protect our rights in this third sense of the word, we need laws to protect our rights from those who do things wrong.

So, if right is right, and right our right, where does that leave left? The Latin word for “left” gives us a hint; it is sinister.

However, left-handers have rights, too, and I’m proud to say that over a decade ago my university, Bucknell, no doubt following the lead of others, began providing desks for left-handers in our classrooms, erasing the connection between left and wrong. Moreover, the rest of us have forgotten the origin of right and sinister and they may well be two sleeping dogs best left to lie right where they are.  (I hope you didn’t get left behind in this blog; that wouldn’t be right.)

Why is W Called ‘Double U’?

Saturday, May 2nd, 2009

Do you ever wonder about the names of letters? Generally, they are straightforward: A is ay, B is bee, C is see, and so on. But there is one very peculiar name: W = Double U. Did you ever wonder why?

The letters U is a fairly modern innovation. In Rome it was often carved as V to avoid the difficult-to-carve rounded bottom.  Even in Old English manuscripts you see it drawn this way.  So V years ago was a U named “you” (or “ewe”).  So, if you put two of these together, as in W, what do you get? Right.

The interesting thing about the sounds these three letters, U, V, and W, represent, is that one often morphs into one of the others over time. The sounds [u] and [w] (nothing but lip-puckering) are essentially the vowel and consonant variation of the same linguistic sound (phoneme), so that periodically you will find old typesetting with no W, so that west is spelled uest and woman, uoman.

Boning up on deBoning

Thursday, April 30th, 2009

BonerCharlene Moore notices the darnedest things in English. I always enjoy mulling them over because it inevitably gives me a tickle. Today she wanted to know why bone and debone mean that same thing. Well, it is a good question. Couple and decouple have opposite meanings. So do regulate and deregulate. May Day! May Day? What’s going on with bone?

Make no bones about it, to bone by itself means to remove the bones from whatever you happen to be operating on, just as to shell means to remove the shell from and to husk means to remove the husk from. So, I have no bone to pick with Charlene on this one.

However, as I boned up on the problem I discovered this: to bone also means to put bones in, as to bone a skirt with stays, originally made of whalebone. So, verbing nouns like bone can result in a verb meaning “to add to” or “to remove from”. To saddle, to soap, and to clothe all indicate adding saddles, soap, and clothes to something. In fact, the sense of addition is far more prevalent than the sense of removal, so that interpretation of bone would be far more natural. Hmmm. That could lead to confusion, couldn’t it?

Well, the solution is to add something to bone that would clarify the fact that we have in mind removing bones and not sticking them in. Now, what is the prefix we use for that? I know! DE-! Best of all, we will keep that meaning for both bone and debone so that any bonehead can use them without making a boner. Right? Right! Aren’t English-speakers smart? You betcha!

Livery, Grocery, and the Suffix -Ery

Wednesday, April 29th, 2009

William Hupy has been struggling with the English suffix -ery, which seems to have at least two different meanings, neither of which fit livery and grocery. I wrote this up quickly in hopes of clarifying the functions of this suffix and its various relationships. I thought some of you might be interested, too.

The English suffix -ery is an adaptation of the Latin -oria which came to French as the suffix -erie, usually meaning “place of”: bakery, eatery, brewery, nunnery. However, it sometimes converts a noun into the quality that identifies the noun: tomfoolery, knavery, savagery.

When English borrows such words directly from Latin, the suffix -ory is the result, e.g. laboratory, observatory, dormitory, depository, a suffix more frequently used to convert verbs into adjectives: congratulatory, conciliatory, exclamatory. (Don’t be surprised that a suffix in English has more than one function. Suffixes are dying out like flies in English and, as the number of suffixes dwindle, the remainder must pick up more and more funtions.)

Livery and grocery do not contain either suffix. Livery comes from a French word meaning “delivery”, originating in the Latin word liberare “to liberate, set free”. Grocery is simply the suffix -y added to grocer. The latter word has an interesting history. It comes from grossus “large, thick” with the suffix -arius, a personal suffix meaning “someone who (does something)”. The original word, grossarius, meant “wholesaler”, i.e. someone selling on a large scale, as opposed to a small-scale retailer, rather like someone selling by the gross rather than by the item.

Latest Clichés: Skin and Haircuts

Thursday, April 2nd, 2009

The latest Beltway clichés are beginning to irritate me and I can no longer resist the inclination to complain about them. “Put some skin in (the game)” brings up memories of falling and scraping knees, elbows, heads, and the like. 

This cliché replaces “ante up”, which replaced “cough up”, whose demises please no one more than me. ”Put some skin in” is milder than “give a pound of flesh”, donated by Shakespeare but still it is pretty raw. “Ante up” comes from poker; it means literally to put more money in the game and hence is more fitting for the financial crisis than “putting in more skin” (unless, of course, you’ve been skinned by Bernie Madoff).

OK, the image is bad, so what is better? Let’s try “give/get a haircut”, as to give GM employees or AIG managers a haircut. Well, that isn’t a graphic image of an injury but then it doesn’t really imply a contribution to the cost of resurrecting our economic institutions. Hair cuts are something we all get on a regular basis and implies willingly giving up something we consider superfluous. It implies no kind of sacrifice at all which is the very point of these metaphors.

This is what comes of ignoring our poets and listening to the faces on radio and TV that talk faster than they think. Clichés, of course, are simply metaphors that catch on and are repeated ad nauseum by those who cannot come up with their own. I’m sure at least one poet in our midst has dreamed up a better metaphor than the ones that are morphing into clichés even as I click away now.

-Er or -Or?

Wednesday, February 25th, 2009

Joe Kozuh asked a question yesterday that puzzles many more than him: “What is the difference between -er and -or on nouns and is there a rule of thumb that governs their selectioin?”

Generally, -or is a Latin suffix and -er is the Germanic equivalent meaning, roughly, “one who Vs”, where V represents any verb. Words borrowed directly from Latin, then, tend to end on -or: governor, calculator, arbitrator, legislator, alternator. Words of Germanic origin (English is a Germanic language) generally take -er: runner, thinker, worker, joker

However, two factors muddy the water.  English borrowed many words from French in the Middle Ages and the French equivalent of -or and -er, is -eur.  English generally reduced that suffix to -er, keeping it only in a few words borrowed late: amateur, restauranteur, raconteur, coiffeur. English also borrowed many verbs from French and added the English suffix: employer, deceiver, certifier.

So, you need to know the etymologies of many of the verbs that -er and -or are added to, in order to know how to distribute them. You can be sure that verbs ending on -ize and -ify will take the suffix -er and that verb ending on the suffix -ate will be suffixed with -or.  Other than that, though, we have the etymological rule of a very small and barely helpful thumb.