Thursday, February 09, 2006

Carnival of the Etymologies

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

"Cartoon row" seems to be the term headline writers have settled on, from BBC to al Jazeera to UPI (yes, Virginia, there still is a UPI) to Reuters to CNN to the Socialist Worker (yes, Virginia ...) to describe the latest flare-up in the clash of civilizations.

It's an odd word, this row which is not pronounced like the other two rows in English -- a clue that it may have a weird history. It first appeared in the mid-18th century as student slang from Cambridge University. Though most linguists write it off as "of uncertain origin," student slang in those days (and now) tends to form by clipping longer words and making shorter ones (e.g. chum from chambermate, crony from chronological).

So some speculate that this row is a very much reduced form of carousal (there was a rousel meaning "drinking bout" in Shakespeare's day). The etymologist Ernest Klein, meanwhile, suggests a back-formation from rouse, mistaken as a plural (cf. pea from pease). Whatever their other deficiencies, both theories do account for the odd pronunciation.

Row is not much used nowadays in the United States except by headline writers, who cling to it because it is short and useful. But it probably is the source of rowdy, which fist appeared as a noun, in American slang, meaning "lawless backwoodsman" (1808), later extended to any rough, quarrelsome person. The adjective is first recorded in 1819.

The other two rows are unrelated to one another. The one meaning "line of people or things" is from Old English ræw "a row, line," a general Germanic word (related to German Reihe "row, line, series") possibly from the Proto-Indo-European base *rei- meaning "to scratch, tear, cut." The image, then, might be fingernail marks, or else a tally of things made by incisions on a stick or bark.

The verb row meaning "propel with oars" is from Old English rowan, from the Proto-Indo-European root *ere- "to row," which also is the source of Latin remus "oar" and Old English roðor, ancestor of rudder.

Cartoon meaning "comical drawing in a newspaper or magazine" first is recorded June 24, 1843, in the English humor magazine "Punch":

"Punch has the benevolence to announce, that in an early number of his ensuing Volume he will astonish the Parliamentary Committee by the publication of several exquisite designs, to be called Punch's Cartoons!"

Before that specific meaning emerged, the word meant merely "preliminary sketch by an artist," a sense recorded since the 17th century. The sketches were named for the sort of strong, heavy paper (or pasteboard) on which they were made, which was called carton in French and cartone in Italian. Both words are augmentive forms of Medieval Latin carta "paper," from Latin charta "leaf of paper, tablet," from Greek khartes "layer of papyrus," which probably is from ancient Egyptian.

Cartoon thus is a relative of card and chart. It's a twin of carton, which reflects the other use of pasteboard besides serving as the medium for artists' sketches: making paper boxes. Carton was extended circa 1906 from the paper to the boxes themselves.

The cartoon row boils down to blasphemy, a word little heard in the West today, but still on the statute books in America in the late 19th century and very much a living thing in Islam.

The word comes via French and Late Latin from Greek blasphemia "profane, speech, slander" and the verb blasphemein "to speak evil of." The first element of this compound word is of uncertain origin. Some suggest a relationship to blaptikos "hurtful," though blax "slack (in body and mind), stupid" also has been suggested.

The second element is plainly pheme "utterance, speaking." Which also is the second element in euphemism, from Greek euphemizein "speak with fair words," from eu- "good" and pheme "speaking." In ancient Greece, this referred to the superstitious avoidance of words of ill-omen during religious ceremonies, or substitutions such as Eumenides "the Gracious Ones" for the Furies or Pontos Euxenios "the hospitable sea" for the Black Sea, which was notoriously dangerous to sail on and whose real name was Pontos Axeinos, "the inhospitable sea."

The Proto-Indo-European root of the Greek word is *bha- "to speak, tell, say." It's also found in Sanskrit bhanati "speaks," Armenian ban, bay "word, term," Old Church Slavonic bajati "to talk, tell," and Old Irish bann "law" (with sense evolution, presumably, from "speak" to "proclaim as law").

Which related blasphemy to the whole gang of modern English words derived from Greek phone "voice, sound," such as phonics, telephone, megaphone (coined in 1878, perhaps by Thomas Edison, who invented it), xylophone (lit. "wood-voice"), microphone, polyphony, phonetic, antiphon, euphony, cacophony.

In Latin, the root became fari "to speak," from which come nefarious, affable (literally "can be easily spoken to"), preface (from præfatus, past participle of præfari "to say beforehand").

Another Latin cousin was fama "talk, rumor, report, reputation," source of English fame. The goddess Fama was the personification of rumor in Roman mythology, and the Latin derivative fabulare was the colloquial word for "speak, talk" since the time of Plautus, whence the Spanish verb hablar.

Fabulare is related to Latin fabula "story, play, fable," literally "that which is told," the source of fable.

A less obvious relative of blasphemy is infant, from Latin infantem, which really is a noun use of the adjective meaning "not able to speak" (from in- "not" and fans, present participle of fari "speak").

The Germanic branch of this family has substituted -b- for the initial -f- sound. The root here is represented by words like Old English boian "to boast," ben "prayer, request," bannan "to summon by proclamation" (source of the verb ban and the banns of marriage, which retains the original sense).

The Germanic *ban got into French, too, and emerged into English as banal. This means "trite, commonplace," but it literally is the adjective form of ban "decree, legal control," which seems at first glance to suggest something about the French attitude toward their laws. But in fact the word originally designated things like ovens or mills that belonged to feudal serfs, or else compulsory military service; in either case it was generalized through "open to everyone" to "commonplace, ordinary," to "trite, petty."

In the Mother of All Ironies, blasphemy also is related to prophet. As in "the Prophet Muhammad." Prophet comes from Greek prophetes "an interpreter, spokesman," especially of the gods, which is a compound of pro- "before" and the root of phanai "to speak," which comes from the Proto-Indo-European *bha- "speak" base that forms the second element of blasphemy.

The Greek word was used in the Septuagint to translate Hebrew nabj "soothsayer." Early writers in Rome translated Greek prophetes into Latin vates, which is pretty accurate, but in post-classical times they simply took the Greek word into Latin directly as propheta, probably due to Christian avoidance of the pagan overtones of vates. The Latin word was glossed in Old English by witga, but later the Latin word crossed the Channel in its own garb.

Prophet was used in English in reference to Muhammad from 1615, translating Arabic al-nabiy and sometimes also al-rasul, properly "the messenger."

In non-cartoon news this week, President Bush got an earful at the funeral of Coretta Scott King. Some people considered it bad taste.

Funeral comes from Middle French funérailles (plural) "funeral rites," from Medieval Latin funeralia, which originally was the neuter plural of Late Latin funeralis "having to do with a funeral," from Latin funus "funeral, death, corpse," a word of origin unknown, perhaps ultimately from the Proto-Indo-European base *dheu- "to die."