Thursday, September 01, 2005

Carnival of the Etymologies

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

Warning: Profanity Below

The crushing force of Hurricane Katrina dominated this week's news. Spinning ashore, winds knifing through houses and piers, ripping levees apart, she resembled nothing so much as a Catherine wheel, the old torture device upon which victims were splayed, bones broken, and left in agony to die. It supposedly is named for St. Catherine of Alexandria, legendary virgin martyr from the time of Maximinus, who was tormented on one (a spiked version).

Katrina is the German form of English Catherine, both the names deriving from Medieval Latin Katerina, which was shortened from ancient Greek Aikaterina. The ultimate meaning of this is uncertain. One intriguing theory connects it with Greek aikia "torture," but that is not widely accepted. Another theory traces the name to Egyptian Coptic, but I have not yet seen what exact word is proposed as the source.

The -h- in the English form was introduced in the 16th century, a folk etymology from Greek katheros "pure." The initial Greek vowel is preserved in Russian Ekaterina.

Hurricane is a partially deformed word from the West Indies, via Spanish and Portuguese. The original language probably was Arawakan, and the word was picked up in Spanish as huracan (Gonzalo Fernandez de Oviedo y Valdés, "Historia General y Natural de las Indias," 1547-9) and furacan (in the works of Pedro Mártir De Anghiera, chaplain to the court of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella and historian of Spanish explorations).

Evidently there was some confusion of initial h- and f- in Spanish in these years. The great conquistador is known in contemporary records as both Hernando and Fernando Cortés. He seems to have mostly signed his name with an F-.

The Portuguese version of the word was furacão.

This word first appears in English in 1555 in Richard Eden's "Decades of the New World." He writes:

These tempestes of the ayer (which the Grecians caule Tiphones ...) they caule furacanes.

Eden also mentions "violent and furious furacanes that plucked vppe greate trees." And in the same book, here translating Oviedo and using his form of the word, Eden wrote, "Great tempestes which they caule Furacanas or Haurachanas .. overthrowe many howses and great trees."

In fact, the Oxford English Dictionary records some 39 different spellings of hurricane, mostly from the late 16th century, including forcane, herrycano, harrycain, and hurlecane. Some of these betray attempts to shape the word to fit existing English words. Hurricane became frequent from 1650, and was the established form after 1688.

Shakespeare used hurricano, with the standard English version of a Spanish word ending. But he used it ("King Lear," "Troilus and Cressida") in reference to waterspouts. Perhaps he was influenced in this by the Greek tiphon, which was associated with hurricane by Eden and others, but which in Greek often meant "whirlwind."

Meanwhile, as most American eyes were fixed on the tragedy in New Orleans and the Gulf coast, a typhoon was taking aim at Taiwan.

The Pacific equivalent of a hurricane, typhoon, presents a much more complicated etymological case. The modern word represents a coincidence and convergence of at least two unrelated words of similar sound and sense. Eden in 1555 mentioned Greek Tiphon as a synonym of hurricane. But the Greek typhon generally meant "whirlwind," and often was personified as a giant, father of the winds. Its source perhaps was typhein "to smoke."

Typhoon meaning "cyclone, violent hurricane of India or the China Seas" is first recorded 1588, in T. Hickock's translation of an account in Italian of a voyage to the East Indies by Cæsar Frederick, a merchant of Venice ["Wherein are contained very pleasant and rare matters, with the customes and rites of those countries. Also, heerein are discovered the merchandises and commodities of those countreyes, as well the aboundaunce of goulde and siluer, as spices, drugges, pearles, and other jewelles. Written at sea in the Hercules of London: comming from Turkie, the 25. of March. 1588. For the profitabvle instruction of merchants and all other trauellers for their better direction and knowledge of those countreyes."]

Hickock's translation contains this:

"I went a board of the Shippe of Bengala, at which time it was the yeere of Touffon."

It seems likely that Hickock, and probably Frederick, had the Greek word in mind. But the East Indian word they were transcribing probably was Chinese (Cantonese) tai fung "a great wind," from tu "big" and feng "wind;" this was the name given to violent cyclonic storms in the China seas.

A third possibility is that Frederick's word was from, or influenced by, tufan, a word in Arabic, Persian, and Hindi meaning "big cyclonic storm" (and the source of Portuguese tufao), which itself may be from Greek typhon but commonly is said to be a noun of action from Arabic tafa "to turn round."

Three unrelated languages independently may have arrived at the same two-syllable sound, to mean roughly the same thing.

"The 40 Year Old Virgin" was one of the most popular movies this past week.

The noun virgin is recorded in English from c.1200. Its original sense was a religious one, "unmarried or chaste woman noted for religious piety and having a position of reverence in the Church." Its source is Latin virginem (nominative virgo) which, in pre-Christian times merely meant "maiden, unwedded girl or woman," and also was used as an adjective, meaning "fresh, unused."

Thus the English word in its modern sense has recovered the meanings of the original Latin word. The meaning "young woman in a state of inviolate chastity" is recorded in English from from c.1310; and the adjective is about as old.

Virgin also has been applied since c.1330 to a chaste man.

The Latin word's origins are not entirely certain. Linguists believe the word probably is related to virga "young shoot." For sense evolution, they compare Greek talis "a marriageable girl," which is cognate with Latin talea "rod, stick, bar."

Ancient Greek parthenos "virgin" also is of unknown origin. It bequeathed its name to the famous temple of Athena on the Acropolis in Athens, the Parthenon, which is literally "the temple of the virgin (goddess)."

Virginia, the American state, was named as a colony for Elizabeth I, the Virgin Queen. But the female proper name Virginia is Roman, from the Latin feminine of Virginius, earlier Verginius, which is probably related to Vergilius "Virgil," and may not have anything to do with virginity at all.

Hamsters were in the news this week. According to this story, an enterprising teenager from Somerset, England, invented a hamster-powered mobile phone charger as a science project, attaching a generator to his hamster's exercise wheel and connecting it to his phone charger.

Hamster turns up first in English in 1607 as a new name for what had been called the German rat. The name comes from German Hamster, in Middle High German hamastra, which probably was borrowed from Old Church Slavonic chomestoru "hamster" -- the animal is native to southeastern Europe. The Slavic word is perhaps a blend of Russian chomiak and Lithuanian staras, both meaning "hamster."

Che Guevara's relatives want a cut of the merchandizing of the revolutionary "hero's" image.

To merchandize, as a verb, is recorded from 1382. Earlier it was a noun, meaning "commodities of commerce." It comes from Anglo-French marchaundise, from marchaunt (source of merchant; in French it has become marchand).

This come up through common Roman speech from the old Latin verb mercari "to trade," which also yielded market. This comes from an Italic root *merk-, which is possibly from Etruscan and seems to refer to various aspects of economics. Another likely descendant of this ancient root is Mercury, the name of the Roman god (Latin Mercurius), originally a god of tradesmen and thieves.

One of the great success stories to emerge from post-Saddam Iraq is the restoration of the southern marshes, whose destruction was a terrible ecological catastrophe. This bit of good news actually broke into the international news cycle, briefly, this week.

Marsh is Old English mersc or merisc, from a prehistoric West Germanic *marisko (source of Dutch mars, German Marsch). Linguists speculate that it ultimately is from a Germanic form of the common Proto-Indo-European root *mori-/*mari "sea" (source of Latin mare, Russian more, Welsh mor "sea," English mere, German Meer "sea").

When I read this article, I thought, maybe now is the time. Time to tackle the F-Word.

Fuck is a difficult word to trace, in part because it was taboo to the editors of the original Oxford English Dictionary when the "F" volume was compiled, 1893-97. OED hardly was alone in this. Johnson excluded the word, and fuck wasn't in a single English language dictionary from 1795 to 1965.

Its written form only attested from the early 16th century. The Oxford English Dictionary (2nd edition) cites 1503, in the past participle form fukkit; the earliest appearance of current spelling is from 1535: "Bischops ... may fuck thair fill and be vnmaryit" [Sir David Lyndesay, "Ane Satyre of the Thrie Estaits"].

But presumably it is a much more ancient word than that, simply one that wasn't likely to be written in the kind of texts that have survived from Old English and Middle English.

The etymologist Carl Darling Buck cites a proper name, John le Fucker, which turns up on a county roll from 1278. Fuck also apparently is hinted at in a scurrilous 15th century poem, titled "Flen flyys," written in bastard Latin and Middle English. The relevant line reads:

Non sunt in celi
quia fuccant uuiuys of heli

"They [the monks] are not in heaven because they fuck the wives of Ely." Fuccant is pseudo-Latin, and in the original it is written in cipher.

The earliest examples of fuck otherwise are from Scottish, which suggests a Scandinavian origin, perhaps from a word akin to (obsolete?) Norwegian dialect fukka "copulate," or Swedish dialect focka "copulate, strike, push," and fock "penis." Another theory traces it to Middle English fkye, fike "move restlessly, fidget," which also meant "dally, flirt," and probably is from a general North Sea Germanic word, cf. Middle Dutch fokken, German ficken "fuck," earlier "make quick movements to and fro, flick," still earlier "itch, scratch;" the vulgar sense attested from the 16th century.

This would parallel in sense the usual Middle English slang term for "have sexual intercourse," swive, from Old English swifan "to move lightly over, sweep" (related to swivel). This was Chaucer's word:

And hadde a wyf that heeld for contenance
A shoppe, and swyved for hir sustenance.

["The Cook's Tale"]

The formal Anglo-Saxon word was hæman, from ham "dwelling, home," with a sense of "take home, co-habit."

French foutre and Italian fottere look like the Eng. word but are unrelated, derived rather from Latin futuere, which perhaps is from the Proto-Indo-European base *bhau(t)- "knock, strike off," extended via a figurative use "from the sexual application of violent action" [Shipley; cf. the sexual slang use of bang, etc.].

Popular and Internet derivations of fuck from acronyms (and the "pluck yew" fable) are merely ingenious trifling. For the unkillable urban legend that this word is an acronym of some sort (an Internet fiction traceable to 1995) see here, and also here.

Fuck was outlawed in print in England (by the Obscene Publications Act, 1857) and the U.S. (by the Comstock Act, 1873). The word may have been shunned in print, but it continued in conversation, especially among soldiers during World War I.

"It became so common that an effective way for the soldier to express this emotion was to omit this word. Thus if a sergeant said, 'Get your ----ing rifles!' it was understood as a matter of routine. But if he said 'Get your rifles!' there was an immediate implication of urgency and danger." [John Brophy, "Songs and Slang of the British Soldier: 1914-1918," pub. 1930]

The legal barriers broke down in the 20th century, with the "Ulysses" decision (U.S., 1933) and "Lady Chatterley's Lover" (U.S., 1959; U.K., 1960). "The Penguin Dictionary" broke the dictionary taboo in the latter year. Houghton Mifflin followed, in 1969, with "The American Heritage Dictionary," but it also published a "Clean Green" edition without the word, to assure itself access to the lucrative public high school market.

The abbreviation F (or eff) probably began as euphemistic, but by 1943 it was being used as a cuss word, too. In 1948, the publishers of "The Naked and the Dead" persuaded Norman Mailer to use the euphemism fug instead. When Mailer later was introduced to Dorothy Parker, she greeted him with, "So you're the man who can't spell 'fuck' " [The quip sometimes is attributed to Tallulah Bankhead]. Hemingway used muck in "For whom the Bell Tolls" (1940).

The major breakthrough in publication was James Jones' "From Here to Eternity" (1950), with 50 fucks (down from 258 in the original manuscript).