Thursday, March 31, 2005

Carnival of Etymologies

[A regular Thursday feature of "Done With Mirrors"]

Today's list of words to be dissected was dragged, writhing and begging for mercy, from phrases that appeared in the Google "Zeitgeist" and the top 50 searches on Lycos for the week ending March 26.

* * *

Sin City, the new stylish violence flick starring Charles Bukowski, Frodo Baggins, and sumptuous eye-cicle Jessica Alba, got a ton of hits this week. But what is sin, anyhow?

Old English synn has relatives in most of the Germanic languages which are the basic words for "moral wrongdoing, transgression, offense against God, misdeed." Old Frisian sende, or Modern German Sünde, for instance. The proto-Germanic root of this group seems to have meant originally "to be true." That would relate sin to Gothic sonjis and Old Norse sannr, both of which mean "true." (Ultimately, this comes from the past participle of the ancient Indo-European base meaning "is," which also is preserved in is).

So what's the connection between "truth" and "sin?" The semantic development seems to be via the notion of "to be truly the one (who is guilty)." For instance, the Vikings had a phrase verð sannr at "be found guilty of," which might be translated as "to be true."

Similarly, the phrase "it is being" is used in Hittite confessional formulas. The same process probably yielded the Latin word sons (genetive sontis) "guilty, criminal" from the present participle of sum "to be, that which is." In fact, some etymologists believe the Germanic word was a direct early borrowing of Latin sontis rather than a native equivalent.

One waggish linguist has explained the connection of "to be truly the one" and "to be guilty of sin" by reference to the 1968 U.S. presidential campaign. Richard Nixon had a slogan, "Nixon's the one." Some of his opponents then printed up posters showing a pretty woman in an advanced state of pregnancy and the words "Nixon's the one."

* * *

Prom season approaches, and girls must have been online in droves last week shopping for prom dresses. Prom in the sense of "student formal dance in celebration of graduation" is an 1890s American shortening of promenade, which was being used in the sense of "school dance" by 1887.

Its original sense, when borrowed from French in the 16th century, was "leisurely walk," and it comes from the French phrase se promener, which meant "go for a walk." But the Late Latin source of the French word is promenare, which meant "to drive (animals) onward," from pro- "forth" and minare "to drive (animals) with shouts." The modern word seems to have drifted far from its roots, but faculty chaperones at high school proms might argue rather that the meaning has come a full circle.

* * *

March madness got a lot of hits last week, but now it's April

The word arrived in English in the late 13th century as aueril, from Old French avrill, which comes in turn from Latin (mensis) Aprilis, literally the "(month) of Venus." The second month of the ancient Roman calendar was dedicated to the goddess Venus, in this case perhaps from her name Apru, an Etruscan borrowing of Greek Aphrodite.

April Fool is attested from 1687; the customs of sending people on false errands on this day seem to have come to England from France in the late 17th century. In Cumberland, Westmorland, and northern parts of Lancashire and Yorkshire, however, May 1 was the day for hoaxing, and the fool was a May gosling.

* * *

As the name of the first full month of spring, April replaced Old English Eastermonað, but the two names both honor fertility goddesses.

Anglo-Saxon Eastre comes from proto-Germanic *Austron, the name of a goddess of fertility and sunrise whose feast was celebrated at the spring equinox. Her name is built from the ancient Indo-European root meaning "to shine," which was used especially in reference to the dawn and has yielded words for "dawn" and "east" in many languages.

Almost all English's neighboring languages in Europe use a variant of Latin pasche to name this holiday, but evidently the Anglo-Saxons were so fond of their fertility goddess and her day that the Church allowed them to keep the name. Bede himself says Anglo-Saxon Christians adopted her name and many of the celebratory practices into their Mass of Christ's resurrection.

Easter Island was so called because it was discovered by Europeans on Easter Sunday, 1722.

Latin pascha, by the way, comes, via Greek, directly from the Semitic word for "Passover," specifically from Aramaic pasha.

So what do you call this coming Sunday, the first Sunday after Easter? It's Quasimodo Sunday, in the old Church calendar, from Latin quasi modo, the first words of introit for the first Sunday after Easter: quasi modo geniti infantes "as newborn babes" (1 Pet. ii:2). The hunchback in Victor Hugo's novel was supposed to have been abandoned as an infant at Notre Dame on this day, hence his name.

* * *

Finally, the Internet search engines reported a spike in searches for spring break. Spring, by itself, meaning "season following winter" only dates from the 16th century. It's a shortened form of the Middle English terms such as springing time, spring-time, and spring of the year, which by the 14th century had replaced older Lent as the season name. The Old English term for "spring fever" was lenctenadle.

The notion, of course, is of the "spring of the year," when plants "spring up." From c.1300 the noun spring in English had a general sense of "action or time of rising or springing into existence," and it was used of sunrise, the waxing of the moon, and rising tides. But today, this sense only survives in the season name.

Other Germanic languages tend to take words for "fore" or "early" as their roots for the season name, such as Danish voraar, Dutch voorjaar, literally "fore-year;" and German Frühling, from Middle High German vrueje "early."

English almost got a Frenchified name for "spring," as in the 15th century the season commonly was called prime-temps, after Old French prin tans (modern French printemps, which in the 16th century replaced primevère as the common word for "spring"), from Latin tempus primum, literally "first time, first season."

The original Indo-European term for "spring of the year" is preserved in the second element of Italian primavera, which comes from Latin prima vera, the plural of primus ver, literally "first spring." Other relatives of Latin ver are Old Norse var, Greek ear, Sanskrit vasantah, Persian bahar, and Old Slavic vesna, all meaning "spring," and Lithuanian vasara, whose sense has shifted to "summer."

* * *

Springtime, proms, sins, and fertility goddesses; and even Easter fits the theme, if you crack the shell of its modern meaning and get to the yolk.