Thursday, June 15, 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. light (n.)/light (adj.)

2. entrance (n.)/entrance (v.)

3. fame/phony

4. spruce (n.)/spruce (v.)

5. hieroglyphic/ire

6. mogul "powerful person"/Mongol

7. facile/faculty

8. umbrella/umbrage

9. naive/native


The light that means "brightness" is from Old English leht, which is related to German Licht. Both come from the Proto-Indo-European root *leuk- meaning "light, brightness" that also yielded Greek leukos "bright, shining, white;" and Latin lucere "to shine," lux "light," and lucidus "clear."

The English word acquired a medial -gh- after 1066 as part of an Anglo-French scribal attempt to render the Old English hard -h- sound, which was not in French. The sound since has disappeared from the word (though it remains in its German cousin Licht), but the spelling persists.

The adjective light meaning "not heavy" is from Old English leoht, from the Proto-Indo-European base *le(n)gwh- "light, easy, agile, nimble." Its Latin cognate is levis.

The alternate spelling lite, preferred by advertisers, is first recorded in 1962. The notion in make light of (1526) is of "unimportance." Light-skirts was late 16th century slang for "a woman of easy virtue."

[The verb light meaning "touch down" also was in Old English and is etymologically related to the "not heavy" word. Apparently the ground sense is "to dismount a horse, etc., and thus relieve it of one's weight." The phrase to light out "leave hastily" is attested from 1870, from a nautical meaning "move out, move heavy objects," of unknown origin but also perhaps belonging to this word.]

But the pugilistic phrase to knock (someone's) lights out is a reference to knocking the breath out of one's opponent, from an obsolete lights
"the lungs," literally "the light (in weight) organs," from light (adj.).


Entrance (accent on the first syllable) comes via French from Latin intrare, from intra "within," which is related to inter "among, between."

And entrance, accent on the second syllable, is literally "to throw into a trance." It's a compound of en- "put in" and trance.

Technically, the first elements are related. Inter- is descended from the Proto-Indo-European comparative of *en- "in," the source of Latin en-.

But what about trance? Its meaning "a dazed, half-conscious or insensible condition" is a slight evolution from the meaning the word had when it came into English in the 14th century. At first, it meant "state of extreme dread or suspense."

It comes from Old French transe "fear of coming evil," originally "passage from life to death." It comes from a verb, transir "to die, to pass on," which descended into Old French from Latin transire, a euphemism for "to die" (the Romans were terribly superstitious) that literally means "to cross over."

The Romans aren't the only ones superstitious about "death" words, of course. Since my newspaper switched to paid obituaries, with wording chosen by the families, died has vielded in many cases to "passed away," "entered into rest," and "went home to be with her Lord." Even "cross over" -- transire is used. When my great-aunt died unexpectedly, the nursing home supervisor called me, her nearest relative, at 3:30 a.m. to say, "your aunt crossed over." I had no idea what he was talking about, and almost answered, "So what?" Which would have been wrong.

Latin transire is a compound of trans- "across" and ire "to go."


Fame is from Latin fama "talk, rumor, report, reputation," from the Proto-Indo-European base *bha- "to speak, tell, say." This enormously productive root also yielded Latin fari "to say;" Old English ben "prayer, request;" Greek pheme "talk" and phone "voice, sound;" and Old Irish bann "law." The goddess Fama was the personification of rumor in Roman mythology. The Latin derivative fabulare was the colloquial word for "speak, talk" since the time of Plautus, and descended into Spanish as the verb hablar.

Phony "not genuine" is only attested from 1900, but it seems to be an alteration of fawney "gilt brass ring used by swindlers" (1781), from Irish fainne "ring."


And the connection is Prussia.

In the high Middle Ages, merchants from the Hanseatic League of northern German cities traded extensively across the North Sea with England. Though Prussia was just one region of the League's turf, the English seem to have been in the habit of regarding all the goods the Hanseatic ships brought -- beer, boards, and leather -- as from Pruce -- "Prussia."

But for some reason in the 14th century they added an excrescent S- to it and made it Spruce. This was applied first to the imported boards (1412) and eventually to the kind of evergreen tree they were made from (1670).

Meanwhile, Spruce leather was used in the 15th century to make a kind of popular, smart-looking jerkin, which led to spruce becoming an adjective meaning "trim, neat," and later (1594) a verb meaning "to make trim or neat."


Ire is from Latin ira "anger, wrath, rage," from the Proto-Indo-European base *eis-, forming various words denoting "passion," such as Greek oistros "gadfly," originally "thing causing madness" (the source of oestrus and estrogen), Sanskrit esati "drives on" and yasati "boils;" and Avestan aesma "anger."

Another descendant is Greek hieros "filled with the divine, holy," which is the first element in the compound hieroglyphic.

The sublime interplay of "mad, mentally excited," and "touched by the gods" percolates up through the languages of old Europe. Mania, from a Greek word for "madness," is close kin to mantis, a Greek word for "seer." The obsolete English adjective wood "violently insane" is etymologically related to Latin vates "seer, poet;" Old Irish faith "poet;" and the god-name Odin.


Mogul "powerful person" is a 17th century reference to the Great Mogul, the Mongol emperor of India after the conquest of 1526. The title comes from Persian or Arabic mughal, mughul, the alteration in those languages of Mongol, the name of the Asiatic people.

Mongol (which didn't turn up in English until the 1730s) is said to be from the native word mong "brave."

The mogul that means "elevation on a ski slope" is an entirely different word, probably from a Scandinavian source such as dialectal Norwegian mugje "a heap, a mound;" or from southern German dialectal mugel, which means the same thing.

The Mongol Empire also gave us nabob, which originally was the title of the deputy governors in the Mogul Empire. It's from Arabic nuwwab, the honorific plural of na'ib "viceroy, deputy."


Latin facilis, source of facile, meant "easy to do" and, in reference to persons, "pliant, courteous." It comes from facere "to do."

Faculty in its academic sense goes back to the 12th century in English, but Latin facultatem, its ancestor, meant "power, ability, wealth." The sense evolution is from the notion of "ability in knowledge." It, too, is a derivative of facilis.


Six thousand or so years ago, the Proto-Indo-European root *andho- meant "blind, dark." By the time one group of Indo-Europeans had moved into the Italian peninsula, this had evolved in their speech into umbra and it meant "shade, shadow." By the time of the late Roman Empire, they were using the word umbrella to mean "sunshade, parasol." It literally means, in Latin, "little shade."

The original umbrellas, then, shielded their users from the sun, not the rain, which is logical in a Mediterranean climate. The first appearance of the word in English is in a letter of John Donne, dated 1609. But the thing itself is said to have made its first appearance in England circa 1700.

There it was used as a shelter from the rain, which makes sense climatologically but not etymologically. The tightly-rolled black umbrella is a necessary accessory of the conservative English professional man, but at first in England it was exclusively used by women; the first rain-umbrella carried by a man there traditionally was circa 1760, by Jonas Hathaway, noted traveler and philanthropist.

Umbrage, then, literally means "shadow, shade," and that's what it meant when it first appeared in English in the early 1400s. The word took on many figurative uses in the 17th century; the main remaining one is that of "suspicion that one has been slighted," first recorded 1620.

Another descendant of Latin umbra is sombrero, from a Spaniush word that originally meant "umbrella or parasol" and derives from Late Latin sub-umbrare. The same Latin compound word came into English via French as somber.


Naive comes from French naïve, the feminine form of naïf, which is Latin nativus worn down by French tongues. The Latin word could mean "not artificial," but also "native, rustic," and it is this sense that has been preserved in English in the French form of the word.

But its literal meaning is "born, innate, natural." And that sense has tended to stick with the less-deformed native.