Thursday, April 20, 2006

Carnival of the Etymologies

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

Special 420 edition.

Calendar dates are human inventions, but they can be useful insight-generators. You cut a slice of one-365th (and a fraction) of the big pie of history, and you see what oozes out of it. The events have no real connection. But the coincidental overlap has something of the quality of casting runestones or the I Ching, or peering into a kaleidoscope.

If you read the list of birthdays on the Wikipedia site, you'll see both Hitler and Muhammad listed for April 20. But that's wrong. Muhammad's real birthday, like that of Jesus, is unknown. Even the year of his birth is only a good guess. The Islamic feast celebrating Muhammad's birth, Mawlid al-Nabi, is a later innovation. Furthermore, since Muslims use a purely lunar calendar, even though it is a fixed date in the Islamic calendar the feast falls on a different date of the Western calendar each year.

In 2005, it was April 21 (for Sunnis, April 26 for Shi'ites); this year it was April 12 (April 17); and next year it will be March 31 (April 5). Wikipedia's article on Mawlid has the correct information. Fundamentalist Muslims, such as the Wahhabis, do not celebrate it at all and consider it idolatrous.

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Hitler, however, we can be sure of. (As well as another April 20 event planned to coincide with his birthday, the 1999 Columbine High School massacre.)

We call Hitler and his political fellow travellers Nazis, but that would not have been the word he preferred. German Nazi comes from an abbreviation of the German pronunciation of Nationalsozialist (based on earlier sozi, the popular abbreviaton of "socialist"), in full Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei, or "National Socialist German Workers' Party" -- often referred to in official Nazi publications by its acronym of NSDAP. This was the political party led by Hitler from 1920.

The 24th edition of Etymologisches Wörterbuch der deutschen Sprache (2002) says Nazi was the name for the party favored in southern Germany (supposedly from c.1924) among opponents of National Socialism because the nickname Nazi (from the masculine proper name Ignatz, the German form of Ignatius) was used colloquially to mean "a foolish person, clumsy or awkward person."

An older use of Nazi for national-sozial is attested in German from 1903, but EWdS does not think it contributed to the word as applied to Hitler and his followers.

The NSDAP for a time attempted to adopt the Nazi designation as what the Germans call a "despite-word," but they gave this up, and the NSDAP is said generally to have avoided the term. In English, before 1930, the German party and its members had been called National Socialists. The use of Nazi Germany, Nazi regime, etc., was popularized by German exiles. From them, it spread into other languages, and eventually was brought back to Germany after the war.

In the USSR, however, the terms national socialist and Nazi were said to have been forbidden after 1932, presumably to avoid any taint to the good word socialist. Soviet literature refers to fascists, a term Soviet authorities often extended to any non-Soviet movement.

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Also on the April 20 list: 1770 - Lieutenant James Cook's expedition (first voyage) makes first sighting of eastern Australian coastline, naming the spot Cape Hicks. His logbook recorded the date as April 19, but the 20th was the actual calendar date.

Australia comes from the Latin phrase Terra Australis "southern land," from australis "southern." The curious thing is, this word obviously comes from the Proto-Indo-European root for "east," *aus-, a "dawn" word that yielded English east and Easter as well as Greek aurion "morning," Latin aurora "dawn," and a whole range of similar words from India to Ireland.

How it got twisted to the south in Latin is anyone's guess. But the best guess has to do with the map of Italy. The country "feels" like it runs north-south. But if you look at it in the context of its geography, it actually has a strong eastward slant. When you're moving toward the bottom of the "boot," and you think you're going south, you're actually heading east as well.

Native Australian languages have yielded a few words that have become common in American English -- wombat and boomerang, for example. Some of these languages are long extinct, and it is difficult to reconstruct the original forms and meanings of these words. Kangaroo, too, a word first recorded in 1770 in the writings of Capt. Cook and botanist Joseph Banks, used to be written off as unknown now in any native language.

However, according to Australian linguist R.M.W. Dixon ("The Languages of Australia," Cambridge, 1980), the word probably is from Guugu Yimidhirr (Endeavour River-area Aborigine language) /gaNurru/ "large black kangaroo."

In 1898 the pioneer ethnologist W.E. Roth wrote a letter to the Australasian pointing out that gang-oo-roo did mean 'kangaroo' in Guugu Yimidhirr, but this newspaper correspondence went unnoticed by lexicographers. Finally the observations of Cook and Roth were confirmed when in 1972 the anthropologist John Haviland began intensive study of Guugu Yimidhirr and again recorded /gaNurru/. [Dixon]

The freestyle swimming stroke sometimes still is called the Australian crawl (attested since 1903) in homage to Frederick Cavill, well-known English swimmer who emigrated to Australia and modified the standard stroke of the day after observing South Seas islanders. It's called the crawl because the swimmer's motion in the water were thought to resemble crawling.

Some other words common in American English that come from Australia aren't so obvious, however. Granny Smith apples (1895) are named for Maria Ann Smith (d.1870) of Australia, who originated them. Melba toast (1925) is named in honor of Nellie Melba, the stage name (based on Melbourne, Australia) of Australian-born operatic soprano Helen Mitchell (1861-1931).

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Also on this date, in 1979, President Jimmy Carter is attacked by a Swamp Rabbit while on vacation in Plains, Georgia.

Rabbit is a curious word. It turns up in English in Chaucer's day, meaning "young of the cony," apparently from a northern French dialect (Walloon has robète). This is a diminutive of Flemish or Middle Dutch robbe "rabbit," a word of unknown origin.

Rabbits not being native to northern Europe (where the related hare prevails), there was no Germanic or Celtic word for them. The English name for the adult of the species until the 18th century, was cony.

Coney comes from Anglo-Norman conil "long-eared rabbit," from Latin cuniculus, the name given to the small, Spanish variant of the Italian hare (Latin lepus). The word perhaps ultimately is from Iberian Celtic (classical writers say it is Spanish).

Rabbit gradually pushed out the older word in the 19th century, after British slang picked up coney as a synonym for "cunt" (cf. connyfogle "to deceive in order to win a woman's sexual favors"). The genital term cunny is attested from c.1720, but it is certainly much earlier. It was good for a pun for naughty playwrights and poets while coney was still the common word for "rabbit":

"A pox upon your Christian cockatrices! They cry, like poulterers' wives, 'No money, no coney.' " [Massinger, 1622]

But the word coney already was enshrined in the King James Bible [Prov. xxx.26, etc.] by that time, so it couldn't be entirely dropped, and the solution was to change the pronunciation of the original short vowel (rhyming with honey, money) to rhyme with boney.

In terms of its Biblical use, in the Old Testament, coney translates Hebrew shaphan "rock-badger." Brooklyn's Coney Island so called for the rabbits once found there; the distinction between the rabbit and the hare having broken down in the New World.

Zoologically speaking, there are no native rabbits in the United States; they are all hares. But the early colonists, for some unknown reason, dropped the word hare out of their vocabulary, and it is rarely heard in American speech to this day. When it appears it is almost always applied to the so-called Belgian hare, which, curiously enough, is not a hare at all, but a true rabbit. [H.L. Mencken]

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Wikipedia also notes that "April 20 (4/20) is associated with 420 (cannabis culture)." According to Snopes:

'420' began its sub-rosa linguistic career in 1971 as a bit of slang casually used by a group of high school kids at San Rafael High School in California. '420' (always pronounced "four-twenty," never "four hundred and twenty") came to be an accepted part of the argot within that group of about a dozen pot smokers, beginning as a reminder of the time they planned to meet to light up, 4:20 p.m. ... These days '420' is used as a generic way of declaring one likes to use marijuana or just as a term for the substance itself. Its earliest connotation of having to do with the time a certain group of students congregated to smoke wacky tobaccy is unknown to the overwhelming majority of those who now employ the term.

Barbara Mikkelson's article goes on to stick the pin into a long list of spurious theories about the origin of the term. But it does note one that has a germ of truth at the core, though the connection is as coincidental as that between Hitler's birth and Carter's bunny:

Albert Hofmann took the first deliberate LSD trip at 4:20 on 19 April 1943. This was indeed the case — his lab notes back this up. But this wasn't the source of "420," just an oddball coincidence. (For the pedants out there, Hofmann's first LSD trip, which was accidental, took place on 16 April 1943.)

Mikkelson also notes the "420" references in movies and TV shows. "In Fast Times at Ridgemont High the score of the football game was 42-0. Most of the clocks in Pulp Fiction are set to 4:20 (but not all — when the kid receives the watch it's set at 9:00)."

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Finally, April 20 also is noted as National High Five Day. The high-five originally was U.S. basketball slang. Sources trace its origin to 1980 (as a noun, 1981 as a verb), but the greeting itself, and perhaps the term, certainly seems to be older (e.g. Dick Shawn does it in the original film version of "The Producers," 1968).

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Hitler and Muhammad probably don't share a birthday. But Hitler and Carmen Electra certainly do.