Thursday, May 18, 2006

Carnival of the Etymologies

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

People seemed to like last week's "Related or Not?" feature, so let's do it again. Here are 10 pairs of modern English words. Is one etymologically related to the other? Make your guesses; answers below:

1. gray/greyhound

2. gross/crass

3. cutlet/cutlery

4. quiet/quit

5. salmon/Salmonella

6. cliche/clique

7. asparagus/aspire

8. lavender/laundry

9. panther/Panzer

10. mate/matrimony

Ready for answers?

1. Not related.

Gray is from Old English græg (Mercian grei) and represents the common Germanic word for this shade: Old Norse grar, Dutch graw, German grau. But there are no certain cognates for these words beyond Germanic (Latin ravus, though, is a good candidate). In our sister languages south of the Alps the "gray" word tends to emerge from those for sea-colors, or silver, or be used especially of the eyes. Latin has caesius; Greek used glaukos. Gray there is bright; in the north it is the shade of fogs and winter days. (The spelling distinction between British grey and American gray developed in the 20th century.)

Greyhound also is a Germanic formation, but the first element has nothing to do with color, and in fact most of the dogs are not gray. The first element of Old English grighund is grig "bitch."

The Old Norse form of this word is preserved in Hjalti's couplet that almost sparked war between pagans and Christians in early Iceland:

Vilkat goð geyja
grey þykkjumk Freyja

Which translates as:

"I will not blaspheme the gods,
but I think Freyja is a bitch"

2. Not related.

The adjective gross comes into Middle English via Old French from Late Latin grossus "thick, coarse (of food or mind)," a word of obscure origin not found in classical Latin.

Linguists say it is unrelated to Latin crassus, which meant the same thing, or to German gross "large," but they suspect it is cognate with Old Irish bres "big" and perhaps distantly related to Latin grandis "great, large."

The meaning of gross forked in Middle English, to "glaring, flagrant, monstrous" on the one hand and "entire, total, whole" on the other. The meaning "disgusting" is first recorded 1958 in U.S. student slang, from the word's earlier use as an intensifier of unpleasant things (gross stupidity). A grocer (1255) originally was "one who buys and sells in gross."

Crass, on the other hand, is taken from Latin crassus "solid, thick, dense." The word in its literal sense always has been rare in English.

3. Not related.

Cutlet as a culinary term is first recorded in English in 1706, a borrowing of French côtelette, from Old French costelette "little rib," from coste "rib, side," from Latin costa "a rib."

In Medieval Latin, costa developed a sense of "shore, coast," on the notion of the shore as the "side" of the land. As such, it came into English as the noun coast. The French also used this word for "hillside, slope," which led to verb coast meaning "to sled downhill," first attested in American English in 1775.

The form of cutlet was influenced in English by cut, to which it is not related. So cutlet is related to coast. But not to cutlery.

Cutlery came into English (by 1340) from Old French coutelerie "cutting utensils," from coutel "knife," from Latin cultellus "small knife," a diminutive of culter "knife, plowshare."

The Proto-Indo-European base of this is *(s)kel- "to cut, cleave, split," a root also preserved in Latin scalpere "to cut, scrape;" Greek skalis "hoe;" and Russian skala "rind, bark" (that which is scraped off).

In Old English the root was represented by both scealu "shell, husk," and scell "bivalve shell, mussel shell," via a notion of "divided," or else because shells were early scraping instruments. Both these have survived, and merged in form as shell.

4. Related.

Quiet is the direct descendant in English of Latin quies (genitive quietis) "rest, quiet." The family is represented in English by the native word while.

Quit came into English circa 1225, meaning "free, clear," from Old French quite, from Latin quietus "calm, resting," which also had a secondary sense of "free." In Medieval Latin this took on a more specific focus to "free from war, debts, etc."

Quit's verbal sense of "to leave (a place)" is recorded from 1603; that of "stop" (doing something) is from 1641. Meaning "to give up" is from 1440.

5. Not related.

Salmon is the Middle English name for what the Anglo-Saxons called læx. The Anglo-Saxon word was the usual one in Indo-European languages for this fish (cf. Lithuanian laszisza, Russian losos "salmon"), and it is still in use in English (via Yiddish and German) as lox.

Salmon came from French, specifically Old French salmun, from Latin salmonem. Where this word came from, and how it managed to oust the ancestor of lox in Latin, is a linguistic mystery. One guess is that its original sense is "leaper" and that it is derived from Latin salire "to leap." But others dismiss this as folk etymology and trace salmonem to some lost word in continental Celtic.

Salmonella, the genus name of the bacteria responsible for typhoid and many cases of food poisoning, was coined in 1900 in reference to U.S. veterinary surgeon Daniel E. Salmon (1850-1914), who had isolated a type of the bacteria in 1885.

Salmon is an old family name in England, attested from the Middle Ages. It ultimately represents the Hebrew name Solomon, though this was being used as a given name by Christians in medieval England and Daniel Salmon himself was not Jewish. His name is a vowel-weakened form of Salomon, which was the standard form of Solomon in Middle English (Tyndale's bible uses it; Solomon, the Greek form, was restored in the Geneva Bible and the King James Version).

Solomon, the Biblical name of David's son, king of Judah and Israel and wisest of all men, is from Hebrew Sh'lomoh, from shelomo "peaceful," from shalom "peace."

6. Related.

And both are related to click, which is the native form; all are words meant to immitate the sound of metal objects coming into contact. The two French words as we use them are both metaphors.

cliche is from French cliché, a technical term in printer's jargon for "stereotype," supposedly echoic of mould dropping into molten metal. It is the past participle of clicher "to click." The figurative extension is first attested in English in 1888, following the course of stereotype.

Clique came into English earlier (1711) from an older French form of the echoic word. Apparently this word at one time was treated in French as the equivalent of claque, from claquer "to clap," yet another echoic word. The modern sense of "political followers" thus is transferred from that of "organized applause at the theater."

7. Not related.

Asparagus comes via Latin from Greek asparagos, which probably comes from the Proto-Indo-European base *sp(h)er(e)g- "to spring up," though a lost non-Greek source also has been suggested.

From the 17th century to the 19th, the word was folk-etymologized in English as sparrowgrass, during which time asparagus had "an air of stiffness and pedantry" [John Walker, "Critical Pronouncing Dictionary," 1791].

Aspire is from Latin aspirare "to breathe upon," also "to seek to reach," a straight compound of ad- "to" and spirare "to breathe." Aspiration, in the sense of "earnest desire for something above one" first is recorded in 1606. The metaphoric notion is not quite clear nowadays; perhaps "panting with desire," or perhaps am image of rising smoke.

8. Not related.

But there seems to be some influence. Lavender "fragrant plant of the mint family" comes from Medieval Latin lavendula but back beyond the 10th century the trail goes cold. It is perhaps from Latin lividus "bluish, livid." The form, however, has been associated with French lavande "a washing" because the plant was used to scent washed fabrics and as a bath perfume. The meaning "pale purple color" (the color of the flowers) is recorded only from 1840.

Laundry came into English about 1530, via French, ultimately from Latin lavendaria, plural of lavandarium "things to be washed," from lavare "to wash." The Proto-Indo-European root of this also yielded Greek louein "to wash, bathe," Old Irish loathar "basin," Breton laouer "trough," and Old English leaþor "lather."

Since French lavande is from Latin lavandarium, there is a connection of influence between the two words, but most etymologists have not proposed a direct relationship.

9. Not related.

Panther is from Greek panther, a word probably of Oriental origin. It likely has a connection to Sanskrit pundarikam "tiger," which probably is literally "the yellowish animal," from pandarah "whitish-yellow."

In medieval Europe, however, folk etymology derived the Greek word from pan- "all" and ther "beast," which led to many curious fables.

Panzer is a word that exploded into English in 1940 with the German Blitzkrieg in France. It was the German word for "military tank," and it literally means "armor." (Tanks are referred to as armor in military jargon in English, too).

This is a word specific to German; from Middle High German panzier, a medieval borrowing from Old French panciere in the mixed armies of the Middle Ages.

The French word literally meant "armor for the belly," from pance "belly," from Latin pantex (source of Spanish panza and Italian pancia). The French word came directly into English in the 12th century as paunch.

The confusion of panther and Panzer is compounded because the Germans in World War II fielded a powerful modification of the Panzer, the Panzer V, meant to meet the challenge of Russian tanks, and called it a panther. (An earlier version was called a "Tiger").

10. Not related.

Mate "companion, associate, fellow, comrade" came into English in the 14th century from Middle Low German mate, gemate "one eating at the same table, messmate," from Proto-Germanic *ga-maton "having food (*matiz) together (*ga-)." The compound is thus structurally identical with one formed in Latin which has arrived in English as companion.

The meaning "one of a wedded pair" is attested from 1549. But mate has been used as a form of address by sailors, laborers, etc., since at least 1450, and this use is closer to the original and etymological sense.

The verb, of animals, "to pair for the purpose of breeding" is first recorded in 1601. The verb, as used in chess, is an entirely different word.

Matrimony comes from Latin matrimonium "wedlock, marriage," a compound formed from mater "mother" and -monium, a suffix signifying "action, state, condition." It thus, etymologically, ought to be applied only to women.