Thursday, May 12, 2005

Carnival of the 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 May 11.

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Mother's Day came and went in a flurry of hothouse flowers and Hallmark verse. Mother, as you might expect, is one of the core words of the language, recognizable across the history of English. In fact, it's one of the 100 or so most conservative words in any language. Your equipment may be a codpiece in once century and a jock strap in another, but mother is mother is mother.

You can instantly recognize its affinity with the reconstructed 5,000 year-old Proto-Indo-European root, *mater-, and in overseas relations such as Danish moder, German Mutter, Latin mater, Old Irish mathir, and Sanskrit matar-. Some linguists think the word represents the natural noises made by infants as they reflexively suckle.

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The calendar brought Mother's Day early this year, when a few sons and daughters (and some mothers) were still recovering from Cinco de Mayo, the holiday that celebrates the victory of the Mexican Army over the French. It's fitting that Americans celebrate this, too, for without the Mexican triumph at the Battle of Puebla we'd have the French just across the backyard fence, and we can barely tolerate them with a whole ocean in between.

Cinco is the Spanish equivalent of five and they're actually modern variations of the same ancient word. Like mother, the cardinal numbers are very conservative, and are essentially the same across the spectrum of Indo-European languages, from Ireland to India. But unlike mother, they've morphed a good deal. Some forms (like Latin quinque, the immediate ancestor of cinco) seem to have been influenced by the form of the word for "four" (Latin quattuor). But the f- formation of the Germanic words (German fünf, Gothic fimf) is something of a mystery to linguists.

The original word began with a p- sound, which is preserved in Sanskrit panca, Greek pente, Old Slavic peti, Old Welsh pimp, etc. The shift away from p- in Germanic makes some of the more distant relatives of five harder to recognize. Among them are Punjab, the region on the Indian subcontinent, from Persian panj "five" + ab "water" (so called for its five rivers) and, probably, the noun punch meaning "mixed drink," which the British picked up in India and which traditionally is said to derive from Hindi panch "five," in allusion to the number of ingredients in the original recipe (spirits, water, lemon juice, sugar, spice).

Another relative is the Mickey Spillane slang fin for "$5 bill," which dates to the 1920s and is from Yiddish finif "five," from German fünf. The same word had been used in England by 1868 to mean "five pound note."

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Jennifer Wilbanks, the runaway bride was in the news this week. The poor woman is in some sort of rehab now, and I hope she gets the help she needs. She needs it not for running away (probably the sanest thing she did in the previous year), but for thinking she needs more bridesmaids than Princess Di and Jackie Kennedy combined.

Bride is a good Germanic word (Old English bryd, Old Frisian breid, German Braut) that means "woman being married."

The Gothic cognate bruþs, however, meant "daughter-in-law." And that's a clue to the origins of the word. Gothic, the language of a Germanic people who in Roman times lived in what is now eastern Germany and Poland, is known chiefly through the writings of Wulfila (c.311-c.383), a Goth who went to Constantinople with an embassy, stayed there to study, came home a Christian, and attempted to evangelize his people. He translated the Bible into Gothic, and much of it has survived.

This is by far the earliest surviving extensive literary record of any Germanic language. Comparable records in other Germanic tongues aren't found for another 400 to 900 years. Since all the Germanic languages are like branches on the same bush, the words we have in Gothic are closest to the source. So if the ancestor of bride meant "daughter-in-law" in Gothic, chances are that was its original sense in Germanic.

Or maybe the Goths just gave the word a different sense than the other Germanic people. But the Germanic word was borrowed into Medieval Latin (bruta) and Old French (bruy), and those words only have the sense of "daughter-in-law." The medieval French wouldn't have gotten the word directly from the Goths; they would have picked it up from their neighbors in Germany. And though the word only means "bride" in Modern German, the evidence suggests it once meant "daughter-in-law" there, too.

So how did "daughter-in-law" come to mean "bride?" In ancient Indo-European cultures, the married woman went to live with her husband's family. So the only "newlywed female" in such a household would be the daughter-in-law. Naturally the word flowed from one meaning to the other.

On the same notion, some linguists trace the word itself to the Proto-Indo-European verbal root *bru-, meaning "to cook, to brew, to make broth," as this was the daughter-in-law's job.

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But here a small boy says, "Hey, wiseguy, so how did 'goth' get to mean 'black-clad and pasty-faced clique for high school kids who look down on cliques?' "

Good question, Alphonso. Gothic was used by 17th century scholars to mean "Germanic, Teutonic," probably to avoid confusion with other Germanic people-names (like "German") that had specific modern senses. Since the Goths were extinct, as a people, their name was appropriated for the whole class.

Hence the word began to be used to describe the style of art and architecture that emerged in northern Europe in the Middle Ages. In the early 19th century, a popular literary style that used medieval settings to suggest horror and mystery (think "Fall of the House of Usher," or "Frankenstein") naturally began to be called Gothic. The word revived circa 1983 as the name for a style of music and the associated youth culture that looked back to Gothic literature as an inspiration.

The abbreviated form goth in the modern sense is attested from 1986, as far as I can tell. It's a back-formation from gothic, not a direct appropriation of the ancient Germanic people-name.