Thursday, June 01, 2006

Carnival of the Etymologies

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

Guess if these modern English words are related. Click to see the answers.

1. mob/mobile

2. frank/frankincense

3. germane/German

4. ghost/ghastly

5. seersucker/sugar

6. dumb (stupid)/dumb (silent)

7. grizzled/grisly

8. people/popular

9. tooth/dentist

10. god/good


Mob is simply short for mobile. The short form turns up first in 1688, about 12 years after the first appearance of mobile or mobility in the sense "common people, populace, rabble."

The source of this is a phrase coined in Latin about 1600, mobile vulgus "fickle common people."

I am told that in Australia and New Zealand, mob has been used without disparagement for "a crowd." The specific sense of "gang of criminals working together" arose by 1839, originally in reference to thieves or pick-pockets. The American English sense of "organized crime in general" is attested from 1927.

The adjective mobile turns up in English about 1490, from Middle French mobile, from Latin mobilis "movable," from movere "to move."

The Proto-Indo-European base of all this is *meue-, also at the root of Sanskrit kama-muta "moved by love" and probably mivati "pushes, moves;" Lithuanian mauti "push on;" and Greek ameusasthai "to surpass," and amyno "push away."


The adjective frank is ultimately the tribal name *Frank, used by the Germanic people who conquered Celtic Gaul from the Romans c.500 C.E. and called it France.

The origin of the ethnic name is uncertain; it traditionally is said to be from the old Germanic word *frankon "javelin, lance" (attested in Old English as franca). Other Germanic tribal names may come from their characteristic weapons; Saxon, traditionally is derived from the root of Old English seax "knife" (related to saw). But the opposite may be the case, and the weapon words may derive from the names of the peoples who prefered them.

At any rate, Franc "a Frankish person" came to be used in France for "free, sincere, genuine," and it was in that sense the word passed into Middle English c.1300. The connection is that only Franks, as the conquering class, had the status of freemen.

The sense of "outspoken" was first recorded in English in 1548 (frankly in this sense dates from c.1540).

In the Levant in the Middle Ages, every Westerner was a "Franc." Thence comes the term lingua franca (which was not especially French) and Feringhee, the name used in India for "European," which comes from 10th century Arabic Faranji, a mutilated form of Franc (the fr- sound is not possible in Arabic) and the Arabic ethnic suffix -i.

Frankincense (c.1387) is just what it looks like: "franc incense." In this case, franc probably signifies "of the highest quality."


German as a name for a person of Teutonic origin, comes from Latin Germanus, which first is attested in the writings of Julius Caesar, who used Germani to designate a group of tribes in northeastern Gaul.

The origin is unknown, but it probably was the name of an individual tribe. It is perhaps of Gaulish (Celtic) origin; one suggestion is that it originally meant "noisy" (cf. Old Irish garim "to shout") or "neighbor" (cf. Old Irish gair "neighbor").

Germane is a figurative use of german "of the same parents or grandparents," which comes from Latin germanus "of brothers and sisters," related to germen (genitive germinis) "sprout, bud," from the PRoto-Indo-European base *gene- "to give birth, beget."


Ghost is Old English gast "soul, spirit, life, breath," from Proto-Germanic *ghoizdoz (cf. Old Saxon gest, Old Frisian jest, Middle Dutch gheest, German Geist "spirit, ghost").

This in turn developed from the Proto-Indo-European base *ghois- "to be excited, frightened" (cf. Sanskrit hedah "wrath;" Avestan zaesha- "horrible, frightful;" Gothic usgaisjan).

*Ghoizdoz became the usual West Germanic word for "supernatural being." The surviving Old English senses, however, are from Christian writing, where it is used to render Latin spiritus, a sense preserved in Holy Ghost. The modern sense of "disembodied spirit of a dead person" is attested from c.1385 and returns the word toward its ancient meaning.

Most Indo-European words for "soul, spirit" also double with reference to supernatural spirits. Many have a base sense of "appearance." Examples of that include Greek phantasma; French spectre; Polish widmo, from Old Church Slavonic videti "to see;" Old English scin, Old High German giskin, originally "appearance, apparition," related to Old English scinan, Old High German skinan "to shine."

Other concepts are preserved in French revenant, literally "returning" (from the other world), Old Norse aptr-ganga, literally "back-comer." Breton bugelnoz is literally "night-child." Latin manes means "the good ones" and is a euphemism.

Ghastly, meanwhile, is directly from Old English gæstan "to torment, frighten," a cousin of gast.

The gh- spelling of ghost appeared in the mid-15th century in works published by the first English printer William Caxton, who had lived for a time in Flanders and was influenced by Flemish and Middle Dutch forms gheest. This in turn influenced ghastly, which acquired its gh- spelling in the 16th century.


Seersucker (1722) was anglicized from Hindi sirsakar, an East Indian corruption of Persian shir o shakkar "striped cloth," literally "milk and sugar," an allusion to the alternately smooth and puckered surfaces of the stripes.

Persian shakar "sugar" itself was borrowed from an Indian language, and its ancestor is Sanskrit sharkara "ground or candied sugar," originally "grit, gravel."

Long before the British picked up seersucker in India, the Persian word made its way to England on its own. The Arabs borrowed it from the Persians as sukkar, and passed it on to medieval Latin-speakers as succarum. From there it passed to the French in the 12th century as sucre, and by 1290 it was being used in English, but with a -g- that cannot be accounted for. The pronunciation shift from s- to sh- is probably from the initial long vowel sound syu- (as in sure).

The Arabic word got into most of the European languages (Italian zucchero; Spanish azucar, with the Arabic artiel still attached; Old High German zucura, German Zucker; Serbian cukar, Polish cukier, Russian sakhar).

As the language history suggests, the Old World home of sugar was India (Alexander the Great's companions marveled at the "honey without bees") and it remained exotic in Europe until the Arabs began to cultivate it in Sicily and Spain; not until after the Crusades did it begin to rival honey as the West's sweetener.


In fact, sad to say, the same. The ultimate source is the Proto-Indo-European root *dheubh- "confusion, stupefaction, dizziness." In Germanic languages, this mostly meant "silent, muste, speechless, unable to speak," as in Old English dumb, Gothic thumb, and Old Norse dumbr.

The equivalent in Old High German (thumb) meant both this and "stupid," and in Modern German this latter became the only sense. The meaning "foolish, ignorant" occasionally turns up in English, but the main modern use in this sense only dates to the 1820s and comes from the influence of German dumm.


Grizzled originally (1319) meant "gray," and it comes from Old French grisel, a diminutive of gris "gray," from a Frankish source related to English gray. The -zz- spelling is recorded from c.1425.

Grizzly is attested from 1594, but the grizzly bear (ursus horribilis), first recorded 1807, belongs rather to grisly.

Grisly is straight from Old English grislic "horrible, dreadful," from grisan "to shudder, fear" (related to German grausen "to shudder, fear").


Representing the same Latin word, populus "people," but people (c.1275) came up through Old French peupel while popular (1490) came directly from Latin popularis "belonging to the people."

Popular originally meant "public;" the sense of "well-liked, admired by the people" is attested from 1608.

The native word was folk. The origin of populus is unknown; some linguists think it may be from Etruscan.


Both come from the Proto-Indo-European base *dont- meaning "tooth." This developed into Sanskrit danta, Greek odontos, Latin dens (genitive dentis), Lithuanian dantis, Old Irish det, and Welsh dent, among others.

From the Latin word the French coined dentiste in the 18th century, which the English borrowed by 1759. At first it was a euphemistic term, replacing the more prosaic and descriptive native one:

"Dentist figures it now in our newspapers, and may do well enough for a French puffer, but we fancy Rutter is content with being called a tooth-drawer" ["Edinburgh Chronicle," Sept. 15, 1759]

Via a regular sound change, the initial sound of the Indo-European root hardened to a -t- in Germanic (as in ten/decem, etc.) and became Old English toð, the direct ancestor of tooth.


Even though both words looked the same in Old English -- god. Yet their pronunciation was essentially the same as today, with a long vowel in one word and a short vowel in the other.

God "supreme being, deity" is from Proto-Germanic *guthan (cf. Dutch god, German Gott, Old Norse guð, Gothic guþ).

The Proto-Indo-European source apparently is *ghut- "that which is invoked" (cf. Sanskrit huta- "invoked," an epithet of Indra), from the root *gheu(e)- "to call, invoke."

But some trace it instead to Proto-Indo-European *ghu-to- "poured," from the root *gheu- "to pour, pour a libation" (source of Greek khein "to pour," khoane "funnel" and khymos "juice;" also in the phrase khute gaia "poured earth," referring to a burial mound).

"Given the Greek facts, the Germanic form may have referred in the first instance to the spirit immanent in a burial mound" [Calvert Watkins].

Originally a neuter word in Germanic, the gender shifted to masculine after the coming of Christianity. Old English god was probably closer in sense to Latin numen.

A better word to translate deus might have been Proto-Germanic *ansuz, but this was only used of the highest deities in the Germanic religion, and not of foreign gods, and it was never used of the Christian God. It survives in English mainly in the personal names beginning in Os-.

"I want my lawyer, my tailor, my servants, even my wife to believe in God, because it means that I shall be cheated and robbed and cuckolded less often. ... If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him." [Voltaire]

Good (adj.) "having the right or desirable quality" is from Proto-Germanic *gothaz (cf. Old Norse goðr, Dutch goed, German gut, Gothic goþs).

The original sense is "fit, adequate, belonging together," and the Proto-Indo-European base is *ghedh- "to unite, be associated, suitable" (cf. Old Church Slavonic godu "pleasing time," Russian godnyi "fit, suitable," Old English gædrian "to gather, to take up together").

To further the confusion, good in Middle English acquired a sense of "holy," still preserved in Good Book (the Bible) and Good Friday. Meanwhile, good-bye really belongs to God. It's a 16th century contraction of God be with ye, influenced in pronunciation by good day, good evening, etc.