Thursday, March 03, 2005

Carnival of the Etymologies

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

Today's list of words (except one) to be dissected was dragged, writhing and begging for mercy, from phrases that appeared in the Google "Zeitgeist" and the top 50 searches on Lycos for the week ending Feb. 28.

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One of the hot search words last week was the masculine proper name Constantine, either in reference to the over the top "American Idol" contestant, or the underwhelming horror flick.

In the U.S., Constantine seems to me to be most popular among Greek-Americans. It's not etymologically Greek, however. It became Greek during the period when Roman rule of the Western world fractured, and the Helenes began their medieval revival. Roman emperor Flavius Valerius Aurelius Constantinus rebuilt the ancient Greek city of Byzantium and called it "New Rome." He gave it a Senate and civic offices like those of old Rome, and he kick-started the second (or fourth, or fifth) flowering of Greek culture.

His name is derived from Latin constans "steadfast, resolute," which literally means "standing firm." It's a compound of com- "together" and stare "to stand." If you were to render the components of Latin constans directly into modern English, you might get withstand, except that doesn't mean "standing firm." That's because the meaning of with has changed in English. In Old English, when withstand was formed (as wiðstandan), with meant "against," and mid meant "alongside, together." With later took over the job of mid and drove it out, except in a few compounds, such as midwife (a "woman" who stays "with" the mother during birth -- preserving also the older sense of wife).

When the Anglo-Saxons put together the word withstand, they weren't thinking of Latin constans. More likely they were translating Latin resistere "to resist," which later, of course, came into English in its own clothes.

Constantine, the Roman emperor, not the American Idol, may have called his capital "New Rome," but everyone else seems to have called it "Constantine's City" -- in Greek Konstantinou polis -- and for 1,600 years, until 1930, the city at the edge of Europe was Constantinople, until it officially took its modern Turkish name of Istanbul.

The Turks, who had conquered it in 1453, had been calling it this informally for some time -- at least since the 16th century. But ultimately Istanbul, too, seems to be a Greek word dressed up in Turkish clothes. It looks like a Turkish corruption of the Greek phrase eis tan (ten) polin "into the city," which is how the local Greek population referred to Constantinople (people who live around any big city still tend to refer to it that way). The Greek polis "city" is regularly adopted into Turkish as a place-name suffix as -bolu.

Turkish folk etymology, however, traces the name to Islam bol "plenty of Islam."

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Instalanche is a blog-word; it may never get into a dictionary anywhere, but for those of us in the center-to-center-right quadrant of the blogosphere, it resonates deeply. Instapundit is the blog written by an celestial army of readers, thinkers, and commentators who possess the body of one Glenn Reynolds, a mild-mannered law professor from Tennessee.

Here is a picture of Glenn:

His readership is vast, and deservedly so. In addition to his own writings, he brings together worthy items from all over the Web, linking to them, usually with a few words of comment. Usually these are "Heh," "This looks like good news," or "What a festering hemmorhoid." No, I made up that last one.

And as his readers follow those links, the keeper of a two-bit ski lodge of a blog nestled in the foothills around mighty mount Instapundit can find himself suddenly buried in a flood of readers for a day or two.

I had my first Instalanche last week. ["First?" Feeling cocky, are we? -ed. Well, yes, I -- hey, what are you doing over here? Go pick on Roger L. Simon, where you belong.]

Here's a seismographic record of it:

That's my stat counter for February. You can see me poking along at 250 or 300 a day, then all of a sudden, kablooey. Instalanche. "Like a sheet lightning enema," as Red Meat would say.

Instalanche, obviously, is based on avalanche, which is a curious word. It comes from the Alps, which is not surprising. Specifically, it comes to English via French from the Alpine dialect of Romansch, where its form is avalantze. So far so good, and the form of that looks like it points right back to Old French avaler "to descend, to go down," which would be sensible.

Except words sometimes wear masks, and this is one of them. This word seems to have been deformed by the pressure of the French term -- that is, the people who used it around 1500 changed a strange word into the form of a word they knew, in part because the word they knew seemed to fit the meaning.

But if you trace it back further, the word looks like lavanca, which doesn't come from the French word after all.

By the same process, English-speakers in the 17th century turned asparagus into sparrowgrass, and the Old English suffix -lac meaning "actions or proceedings," as used in wedlac "marriage," was forgotten and then became -lock in this word for reasons that, to some, will be obvious.

The habit is not limited to English, of course. Istanbul is an example from Turkish. When the Spanish in the New World encountered a delicious oily tropical fruit the Aztecs called ahuakatl, they called it by the word they knew that sounded closest to that, avocado, which means "lawyer" (literally "advocate"). It hardly redounds to the credit of lawyers, however, that the Aztecs had named the fruit for its shape, and their name for it is the Nahuatl word for "testicle."

As for lavanca, some linguists think it is a survival, perhaps the sole survival, from a pre-Latin Alpine language. The suffix -anca suggests Ligurian, but those languages mostly are lost in the darkness. But perhaps this would have been a word the Ice Man would have known.

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The NHL season died -- twice -- at the end of last month. Somehow, life will go on. Hockey -- the word, not the sport -- has an interesting history. There's an isolated reference from Ireland, dated 1527 ("The horlinge of the litill balle with hockie stickes or staves ..."), and then the word vanishes from the records, next turning up in 1838 in Sussex. It's ultimate origin is unknown. IT is perhaps related to Middle French hoquet "shepherd's staff, crook," which is a diminutive form of Old French hoc "hook." And in fact the hooked clubs with which the game of field hockey (older than ice hockey) is played do resemble shepherds' staves.

A surprising (to me, anyhow) number of words associated with ice hockey are of obscure origin. Puck, for instance, may be from the obscure 19th century verb puck "to hit, strike," which perhaps is related to poke. But another suggestion traces the noun to Irish poc "bag."

shinny, a primitive form of hockey, is attested from 1672, perhaps from Gaelic sinteag "a bound, a leap."

When I was a young teen living on the edge of Philadelphia in the early 1970s, I hung my sports fandom on the Philadelphia Flyers. I'd sit up at night doing my homework with the radio on, listening to the games as called by the late Gene Hart -- a man of operatic proportions and sensibilities. He could get carried away, and once dropped the "F"-bomb on the air after a dramatic moment on ice.

His color-man in those days was an amiable Cree Indian named Bobby Taylor, who had had an NHL career as a second-string goalie. [Memorable exchange: Taylor: "When a goalie loses sight of the puck, his first instinct is to look for it in the net." Hart: "Yes, and you usually found it there."]

One of the words I used to hear Taylor use all the time was deke, which was how he described a nice move a skater made to get around an opponent, faking one way and moving another. We kids picked it up and used it in reference to our street hockey games in the Methodist church parking lot. [None of us had a watch, so we'd get one of the Little Kids to stands on the grass and count backwards for penalties.]

It wasn't until many years later that I learned deke is just a slang shortening of decoy. Duh. Should have been obvious. Didn't I feel like a stupid avocado. But it's interesting to note how this bit of Western Canada hockey jargon made its way into the lingo of Philly suburban kids.