Thursday, November 24, 2005

Carnival of the Etymologies

[Special Thanksgiving edition]


If Thanksgiving had been a holiday we inherited from the Church, we might be preparing this week for *Gratimas.

The first Thanksgiving in America supposedly was held October 1621 by Plymouth Colony Pilgrims in appreciation of assistance from members of the Massasoit tribe and celebration of the first harvest. But Thanksgiving Day as the name of a New England fall harvest holiday that grew from this event is not attested until 1674.

The generic use of thanksgiving for "the giving of thanks" goes back to about 1533; in the specific sense of "public celebration acknowledging divine favors" thanksgiving dates from 1632.

The noun thanks is attested from 1340, from the verb thank, which goes back to Old English þancian "to give thanks." This is a general Germanic word (cf. Old Saxon thancon, Old Norse þakka, Danish takke, Old Frisian thankia, Middle Dutch and German danken).

The reconstructed Proto-Germanic root is *thankojan, from the noun *thankoz meaning "gratitude," but also, and probably originally, "thought." The sense evolution likely is from "thought" to "good thought" to "gratitude." The related Old English noun þonc underwent just this evolution in historical times; it originally meant "thought," but by c.1000 it had come to mean "good thoughts, gratitude."

The whole group thus is from the same root as think, from the Proto-Indo-European base *tong- "to think, feel."

Ever wonder what they call a turkey in Turkey? It's a hindi. This is complicated, so hold on to your hats.

The first use of the word turkey to refer to a bird in English is from 1541, but the reference was not to the North American bird. Rather, it was to the "guinea fowl" (Numida meleagris), an African fowl imported from Madagascar via Turkey, by Near East traders known as turkey merchants, because they traded with the Turks. This was an important trade route for England in those years, and the only conduit for exotic goods to enter the island until a trade route was established through Russia. England came late to New World exploration, and the French and Spanish -- with whom England was as often as not at war -- monopolized it. This explains why the English devoted so much time to searching for a Northwest Passage (to get to Asia without crossing Spanish sealanes) and how the big North American bird (Meleagris gallopavo) came to be called a turkey.

It was domesticated by the Aztecs, and introduced to Spain by returning Conquistadors (1523) and thence to wider Europe. But because of wars that interupted trading between the majpr European Christian powers, it arrived in most places beyond Spain by way of North Africa (then under Ottoman rule) and Turkey.

The New World bird itself reputedly reached England by 1524 (when Henry VIII is said to have dined on it at court). The word turkey was first applied to it in English circa 1555, either because it was identified with or treated as a species of the guinea fowl that already had that name, or because it was imported from turkey, or a bit of both.

The Turkish name for it, hindi, literally means "Indian," and probably was picked up by the Turks from French dinde, contracted from poulet d'inde, literally "chicken from India." The French, at least, recognized that this big bird came from the New World. But they gave it an incorrect name based on the common misconception that the New World was eastern Asia.

The meat soon became popular fare, and by 1575, turkey was becoming the usual main course at an English Christmas. The turkeys raised by the Pilgrims in Plymouth Colony probably were stock brought from England.

Pilgrim is Middle English pilegrim (c.1200), a word borrowed from Old French pelegrin. Its original sense in English was the general religious one of "one who travels to holy shrines as a religious duty," and the meaning of the Latin source of the French word, peregrinus, is "foreigner." It comes from the adverb peregre "from abroad," a compound of per- "beyond" and agri, the locative case of ager "country."

And this ager, in turn comes from Proto-Indo-European *agros "field," source of English acre (Old English æcer "tilled field, open land"), Greek agros (common in English compound words referring to farming), and Sanskrit ajras "plain, open country."

The change of the first -r- to an -l- in the Romance languages happened by a process linguists call dissimilation. It seems people don't like to have to pronounce the same consonant twice in a row in a word, especially if its an -r- or an -l-, so they tend to either drop one or turn it to another letter. Since -r- and -l- sound something alike (think of the common confusion of Chinese and Japanese speakers of English), they tend to turn into one another through dissimilation.

Among the other modern English words that show evidence of this sort of dissimilation are purple (Latin purpura), marble (Old French marbre), turtle (Latin turtur), flair (Late Latin fragrare), laurel (Middle English lorrer, from Old French laurier), and marmalade (Latin melimelum, literally "sweet apple").

The pronunciation of colonel retains the dissimilated spelling that the word had when it first was borrowed into English from French in the 16th century, but the English spelling was modified in Shakespeare's day to conform to the original Italian word.

The English religious sect who founded Plymouth Colony had called themselves Pilgrims from c.1630, in allusion to Heb. xi.13:

These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off, and were persuaded of them, and embraced them, and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth.

The most obvious difference between the Pilgrims and the Puritans (with whom they often are confused) is that the Puritans arrived in New England about a decade after the Pilgrims, came in larger numbers, and formed the backbone of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, which absorbed the Pilgrim settlements.

Theologically, the Puritans wanted to reform the Anglican church, while the Pilgrims had gone one step further and left it altogether to form their own sect. They sharted an insistence on the authority of the revealed word. But the Pilgrims were more spiritual, the Puritans more intellectual, in their living faith.

It's the Puritans who got the bad reputation, on both sides of the Atlantic. Puritanism famously was defined by H.L. Mencken as "the haunting fear that someone, somewhere may be happy" [1920] and Thomas Babington Macaulay wrote in his "History of England" [1849] that, "The Puritan hated bear-baiting, not because it gave pain to the bear, but because it gave pleasure to the spectators."

The name Indian was applied to the native inhabitants of the Americas since at least 1553, on the mistaken notion that America was the eastern end of Asia. More than 500 modern English phrases include Indian, most of them originating in the U.S. and most impugning honesty or intelligence.

Indian giver, for instance, first was attested in, 1765, but it originally meant one who gives "a present for which an equivalent return is expected." [Thomas Hutchinson, "History of Massachusetts Bay"]. The meaning "one who gives a gift and then asks for it back" is first attested only in 1892.

The exact signification of the word in Indian summer "spell of warm weather after the first frost" (1778) is unclear. Perhaps such a spell was so called because it was first noted in regions inhabited by Indians, or because the Indians first described it to the Europeans. No evidence connects it with the color of fall leaves or a season of Indian attacks on settlements (two popular myths).

It is the American English version of British All-Hallows summer and French été de la Saint-Martin (feast day Nov. 11). Also colloquial in England was St. Luke's summer (or little summer), a period of warm weather occurring about St. Luke's day (Oct. 18).

Thanksgiving is the harvest celebration in our secular calendar. Harvest -- Old English hærfest -- is the original English word for "autumn." The borrowing of autumn and the evolution of fall gradually focused its meaning after the 14th century from "the time of gathering crops" to the action itself and the product of the action.

German retains the world in its older sense, as Herbst "autumn." The Proto-Indo-European root of all this is *kerp-, which, not surprisingly, means "to gather, pluck, harvest" (cf. Sanskrit krpana- "sword," krpani "shears;" Greek karpos "fruit," karpizomai "make harvest of;" Latin carpere "to cut, divide, pluck;" Lithuanian kerpu "cut;" and Middle Irish cerbaim "cut").

Among the traditional Thanksgiving foods is squash, which is a shortened borrowing from Algonquian (Narraganset) askutasquash, which literally means "the green things that may be eaten raw." The elements in the compound are askut "green, raw" and asquash "eaten," in which the -ash is a plural affix (as it also is in that scandalous crime against corn, succotash).

The corn that is a staple of Thanksgiving tables originally was Indian corn, but the adjective was dropped. It also was known at first as turkey corn or turkey wheat in England for the same reason the turkey first was so called (see above).

Corn by itself originally meant merely "grain." The word itself virtually is unchanged from Old English, and is recognizable in Proto-Germanic *kurnam, from the Proto-Indo-European base *ger- "to wear away" (source also of Old Church Slavonic zruno "grain" and Latin granum).

The sense of the Old English word was "grain with the seed still in" rather than a particular plant. It was locally understood to denote the leading crop of a district. Though the word is restricted to "corn on the cob" in America, it now usually means "wheat" in England and "oats" in Scotland and Ireland, while korn means "rye" in parts of Germany.

I'm blessed now to have a wife who is a witch in the kitchen and loves to cook. It wasn't like that when I was growing up. At home, in West Chester, in the '60s, the idea of "Thanksgiving delicacy" for my brother and me was the end piece of the cranberry sauce, which bore the imprint stamp of the canning company.

Cranberry (1647) is the American English adaptation of Low German kraanbere, which was the name of a type of berry (Vaccinium oxycoccos) that grew in Europe. In England, they were known as marshwhort or fenberries. In Germany, they were kraanberen, a compound that means "crane-berries," perhaps from a fancied resemblance between the plants' stamens and the beaks of cranes.

It was the name brought over by German and Dutch settlers that took hold in the New World, where a larger but recognizably related form of the berries (V. macrocarpum) was found growing. The North American berries, and the name, were introduced in England in the late 17th century.