Thursday, June 30, 2005

Carnival of the Etymologies

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

This week's words were dragged, kicking and screaming, from the Google Zeitgeist for the week ending June 27.

Lohan upset is an odd sort of search term. I gather it has something to do with this story.

But then upset is an odd sort of word. How do up "from a lower to a higher place" and set "to place in a sitting position" come together to mean "have a hissy-fit?"

No surprise that when upset first appeared in English around 1440 it meant "to set up, fix," which would be what I'd expect it to mean. The German equivalent aufsetzen retains that sense. Then around 1803 the English verb began to take on the sense of "to overturn, to capsize," which formerly belonged to the now-obsolete verb overset.

The figurative meaning "to throw into mental discomposure" is attested from 1805, and it seems to be an outgrowth of the "capsize" sense upset acquired when it muscled in on the turf of overset.

The root of set is Old English settan (the causative of sittan "to sit"). It goes back to Proto-Indo-European *sed- "to sit," which has descendants all over the map. Among them are Sanskrit sidati "sits;" Old Persian hadis "abode;" Greek ezesthai "to sit" and hedra "seat, chair," also "face of a geometric solid;" Old Irish suide "seat, sitting;" Welsh sedd "seat," eistedd "sitting;" Old Church Slavonic sezda, sedeti "to sit;" and Lithuanian sedmi "to sit."

In some Balto-Slavic languages, this word has come to be associated with gardening, for instance Russian sad "garden," Lithuanian soditi "to plant." English bed shows a similar development from "place where one lies down" to "place where plants are set."

Folks were online this week looking for fireworks.

The noun fire is the English representative of one of the most enduring and stable root words in the whole Indo-European family. Not only is it the common Germanic word (Old Frisian fiur, Old Norse fürr, German Feuer), but it has recognizable cognates (allowing for the usual p- to f- shift in Germanic) in Armenian hur "fire, torch," Czech pyr "hot ashes," Greek pyr, Umbrian pir, Sanskrit pu, and Hittite pahhur "fire."

The reconstructed source of all this is Proto-Indo-European *perjos, from the root *paewr-. But our ancient ancestors apparently had two root words for fire: *paewr- and *egni- (the source of Latin ignis). Linguists speculate that the former root was "inanimate," referring to fire as a substance, while the latter was "animate," referring to fire as a living force.

I'm really out of it. Two of the most-searched terms this week ("Lohan upset" being the other) didn't register with me at all. Battlefield 2, I learn, seems to be a realistic video game.

Battle came to English before 1300, from Old French bataille, from Late Latin battualia, which meant "exercise of soldiers and gladiators in fighting and fencing."

This comes from Latin battuere "to beat," an old word in Latin but one almost certainly borrowed from Gaulish. Its Proto-Indo-European base is *bhau- "to strike," and among its relatives are Welsh bathu "beat;" Old English beadu "battle," beatan "to beat," and bytl "hammer, mallet."

Web surfers also wanted to know about shark attacks, which got back into the headlines this week. Wasn't that what we all talked about before we talked about 9/11 and what came after?

Shark is a word of uncertain origin. Apparently the word and the first specimen of the fish were brought to London in the same ship, by Capt. John Hawkins, returning from his second expedition in 1565. The composer of a 1569 handbill advertising an exhibition of the specimen wrote:

"There is no proper name for it that I knowe, but that sertayne men of Captayne Haukinses doth call it a 'sharke' "

The meaning "dishonest person who preys on others," though only attested from 1599 (sharker in this sense is known from 1594), may be the original sense of the word. It would be a natural stretch of meaning to apply the same word to a large, voracious marine fish.

That means shark may derive from German Schorck, a variant of Schurke "scoundrel, villain," literally an agent noun of Middle High German schürgen (German schüren) "to poke, to stir."

The NBA draft was held this week. Basketball as a word first appeared in 1892, a year after the game was invented by J.A. Naismith, a physical education instructor in Springfield, Massachusetts.

Basket is a word that was in use (as bascat) by the early 13th century among French-speakers in England, but its origin remains obscure, despite much speculation. It was said by the Roman poet Martial to be from Celtic British and perhaps cognate with Latin fascis "bundle, faggot," in which case it probably originally meant "wicker basket." But there is no evidence of such a word in Celtic. Still the possible connection of basketball with the root of fascism could be suggestive to some politicians who see everything that offends them as "worse than Hitler."

I had prided myself on maintaining a Tom Cruise-free zone until today. But Scientology made the list and I'm bound to etymologize it. The word is attested from 1951, and refers, of course, to the system of beliefs founded by L. Ron Hubbard. He created it (or perhaps borrowed it from German scientologie, which was used by Anastasius Nordenholz as early as 1934), from Latin scientia, the root of science, and a word that the Romans used to mean "knowledge."

The modern sense of "non-arts studies" is attested from 1678. The distinction is commonly understood as between theoretical truth (Greek episteme) and methods for effecting practical results (tekhne), but science sometimes is used for practical applications and art for applications of skill. The main modern (restricted) sense of science "body of regular or methodical observations or propositions ... concerning any subject or speculation" is attested from 1725; in the 17th and 18th centuries this concept commonly was called philosophy.

Latin sciens is the past participle of scire, which means "to know" but probably originally meant "to separate one thing from another, to distinguish," and is a relative of scindere "to cut, divide."

The Proto-Indo-European root of that is *skei-. Other relatives of this include Greek skhizein "to split, rend, cleave," German scheiden "to divide, separate," Latin scindere "to split," Old Irish scian "knife," and Old English scitan which means to, er, "defecate." Old English sc- becomes modern English sh-. The notion is of that which "separates" from the body.

I'll let the observation pass without comment that Scientology shares a root with schizophrenia and with an Anglo-Saxon scatological word.