Thursday, April 28, 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 April 27.

Earth Day came around again last week. Here in the east of the U.S., the lousy weather forced many observances indoors and unleashed a plague of The World's Worst Newspaper Article Lede, the one that begins, "Rain couldn't dampen the spirits of _____" or words to that effect.

The basic sense of Old English eorðe was "ground, soil, dry land." It also was used (along with middangeard) in the sense of "the material world," as opposed to the heavens or the underworld. It comes from a Germanic root that is recognizable in the languages most closely related to English, for example Old Norse jörð, Middle Dutch eerde, Old High German erda, and Gothic airþa.

Not until modern astronomy began to take hold in the popular mind did people begin to conceive of the planet we inhabit as the same essential thing as the planets that cross the night sky during the year. When this happened, people extended the old word for "the ground we walk on" to mean "the planet we inhabit."

This is logical, but using the same word in different senses like this can be confusing. One of the bitterest debates among copy editors in my newsroom is whether "Earth" should be capitalized when it is used in the sense of "the planet Earth." Obviously, I'm the one who thinks it should be. I lost that fight in the newsroom, as I usually do. But this is my site, so screw them.

The use of Earth in English in a planetary sense is found at a date that seems to me surprisingly early, a century before Copernicus published.

The dual sense of earth/Earth in English forces people to grope for new words to express the different senses, but there has been no general agreement on it yet. In King Alfred's day, earthling (Old English eyrþling) meant "plowman." But in Shakespeare's time it began to be used in the sense of "inhabitant of the earth." Earthman originally (1860) meant "a demon who lives underground;" the science fiction sense of "inhabitant of the planet Earth" is first attested 1949 in the writing of Robert Heinlein.

The Latin word terra meant "earth, land," originally "land as opposed to sea," since it comes from the ancient Indo-European root word for "dry" that also lies behind torrid and thirsty.

But this ancient "earth as dirt" word came to be used in an "Earth as a planet" sense by science fiction writers in the 1880s, who invented an adjective, terran, to mean "of or pertaining to the planet Earth." And of course its most obvious incarnation is extraterrestrial (1860s as an adjective; 1963 as a noun).

In the same family is terrier, which is literally an "earth dog" (medieval French chien terrier), so called because the dogs pursue their quarry (foxes, badgers, etc.) into their burrows or setts.

The French term for "potato" is pomme de terre, literally "earth-apple;" and a Swedish dialectal word for "potato" is jordpäron, literally "earth-pear." Another version of "earth-apple" is camomile, which ultimately derives from ancient Greek chamaimelon.

Words for "world" in some other Indo-European languages derive from the root for "bottom, foundation" (cf. Irish domun, Old Slavic duno, which are related to English deep). The Lithuanian word pasaulis is a compound of pa- "under" and saule "sun."

Many modern "Earth" terms have been coined from the Greek goddess name Gaia. Her name is a collateral form of ge (Dorian ga) meaning "earth." This word has no detectable connection to any other Indo-European word, and it may come from a long-lost language spoken in Hellas before the Greeks descended into the peninsula.

The Roman equivalent goddess of the earth was Tellus, which was sometimes used in English poetically or rhetorically for "Earth personified" or "the Earth as a planet." Another offshoot of it is the chemical name telluride.

Latin tellus "earth" is from a root meaning "ground" or "floor." In Old Irish, it also has a relative, talam, that means "earth," but its relatives in other languages mean things like "flat" (Lithuanian), "plain" (Sanskrit), "floor" (Old Slavic), "game board" (Greek), "plank" (Old Norse).

An even more confused word is world, which already by Anglo-Saxon times had a sense of "human existence, the affairs of life," as well as "the human race, mankind." By the early Middle Ages, it had been extended to "the physical world in the broadest sense, the universe." And subsequently it, too, came to be used of any planet.

World and its cousins (Dutch wereld, German Welt, etc.) are a group peculiar to the Germanic languages. They're actually a very ancient compound, meaning something like "the age of man." The first element in Proto-Germanic *wer "man" (also found in werewolf, and related to the Latin root of virile) and *ald "age," the root of old.

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The U.S. Department of Agriculture released its revised food pyramid last week. Food is a good old Germanic word from a root that gave us, via Latin, pabulum, pastor ("shepherd," literally "feeder"), and pasture.

Pyramid, however, is an import. It comes from Latin pyramides, the plural of pyramis "one of the pyramids of Egypt," which is from Greek pyramis, apparently an alteration of Egyptian pimar "pyramid."