Thursday, December 08, 2005

Carnival of the Etymologies

A regular Thursday feature of "Done With Mirrors."

With Michael Yon back in the States, some of the best boots-on-the-ground reporting coming out of Iraq is being done by Kevin Sites. I'm talking about reporting that's focused on Iraqi living rooms, not Green Zone media feeds; treats the Americans in Iraq as fully human beings, not cardboard caricatures; and is not written to fit the pre-placed headline "U.S. Fails."

Sites' report linked above tells what's going on in the Kurdish zone of Iraq, and mentions the Peshmerga, the Kurdish insurgent forces that fought against Saddam and continue to work alongside the Americans in Iraq. Surely Peshmerga has a claim to be the first Kurdish word to enter common use in English. But what does it mean? The usual translation I've seen is "those who face death."

I wrote to Iraqi Kurdish blogger Kurdo and asked him about this. Here's what he was kind enough to write in reply:

The word Pesh-merga is composed of two words. Pesh which means (before) and Merg which means (death). It is like a composed word. When it is all said together (Peshmerga) it refers to those who are "in front of death" or in the Kurdish translation those who "face death" meaing that (who stand in front of death and are not scared). The word is beleived to have been created in 1946 during the establishment of the first Kurdish state in Iran (Mahabad Republic) in which Kurds from Iraqi Kurdistan joined the newly established state.

Presumably, then, the terminal -a is a plural affix.

Kurdish (unlike Arabic and Turkish, but in common with Persian) is a member of the great Indo-European family of languages, which means it and English are descended from the same ancestral tongue, and built from the same stock of root words. But because I lack the kind of big Indo-European dictionary that would include Kurdish cognates, I can only speculate on the roots of these two elements.

The second one clearly is from the Irainian form of *mor-/*mr-, the common Indo-European root for "to die" (cf. Persian marg- "to die"). The native form of this root is represented by murder, which in Old English was morðor (plural morþras). This obviously means not "death" in general, but a specific kind of death. That distinction goes well back into Anglo-Saxon times, and the Old English word had the specific sense of "secret killing of a person, unlawful killing," as well as secondary meanings "mortal sin, crime, punishment, torment, misery."

The ancient Germanic peoples, including the Vikings and the Anglo-Saxons, distinguished "murder" from "slaying." These concepts had distinct words, as represented by Old Norse morð "secret slaughter" and vig "slaying." The former involved concealment, or slaying a man by night or when asleep, and was a heinous crime. The latter was not a disgrace if the killer acknowledged his deed, but he was subject to vengeance or demand for compensation.

Other Germanic cognates of murder include Gothic maurþr, Old Frisian morth, Middle Dutch moort, and German Mord.

The English spelling with -d- probably reflects influence of Anglo-French murdre, a word what would have come over with William the Conqueror's legal system. Ultimately, though, the French word came from one of the West Germanic languages, and it is the same word as Old English morðor, but the French difficulty with -th- reduced the middle consonant to a -d-.

The Latin form of the ancient root is represented in mortal which came into English in the 14th century meaning both "deadly" and "doomed to die." The source, via French, is Latin mortalis "subject to death," from mors (genitive mortis) "death."

Other descendants of *mor-/*mr- spread across the map of Indo-European include Sanskrit mrtih "death," Avestan miryeite "dies," Old Church Slavonic mrutvu "dead," and Old Irish marb, Welsh marw "died."

The definition of human beings as "those subject to death" (as opposed to deathless gods) is preserved in Old Persian martiya- "man" and Lithuanian mirtis "mortal man," both from the root meaning "death."

Add a negating prefix to the root, meanwhile, and you get Greek ambrotos "immortal," source of ambrosia, the name of the food of the deathless gods. The identical process gave the Sanskrit name for the food or drink that conferred immortality in Hindu religion, amrita.

An unexpected family member here is mortgage, a medieval import from Old French mort gaige, which literally means "dead pledge" (replaced in modern Fr. by hypothèque). This type of financial arrangement was so called because the deal "dies" either when the debt is paid or when payment fails. Old French mort is from Latin mortuus, the past participle of mori "to die."

Some linguists believe the Indo-European "death" root word is related to the root *mer- meaning "to rub away, harm" (source of morsel, mortar, morbid). If so, the gangland slang phrase to rub (someone) out, meaning "to kill (someone)" revives a very ancient image.

The more usual word in English, death, also is very ancient, represented by Old English deað. It's been traced to a Proto-Indo-European base *dheu- that is widely represented in Germanic, but its ultimate history and other connections are unclear.

It's not surprising that the ancient languages had many words for "death" (Old English had more besides these two), as there likely was a superstitious taboo against uttering the "real" word. Just so the ancient Romans used obitus (source of our obituary) as a euphemism for "death." It literally means "a departure, a going to meet, an encounter." The Greek thanatos "death," meanwhile, seems to be from a root meaning "dark, cloudy," and it may have been a euphemism at first, too.

A new exhibit showcases the risque world of vaudeville. The entertainment style grew out of the 19th century's variety shows, minstrel acts, dime museums, circuses and burlesque houses. The typical vaudeville show was a melange of Irish melodies, magicians, animal acts, acrobats, blackface songs, ventriloquists, and male and female impersonators.

The shows became enormously popular in middle America in the first decade of the 20th century. Vaudeville palaces were deliberately glamorous, with elegant stairway and columns that might have stood in a colonial mansion. They strove to create a world of light and color to make patrons forget the factories and street markets where they spent their workdays.

At the same time they affected elegance, the theaters tried to keep their prices down, knowing the heart of their business was a working class that could pay little more than 10 or 20 cents to see a show. They also ran contests to give away hats, candy, Christmas turkeys and cash.

The word vaudeville is much older in English than this, however. The meaning "theatrical entertainment interspersed with songs" first is attested in 1827. But when it first was recorded, in 1739, vaudeville meant "light, popular song," especially one sung on the stage.

It comes from French vaudeville, an alteration (by influence of ville "town") of Middle French vaudevire, which is said to be from (chanson du) Vau de Vire "(song of the) valley of Vire," a place in the Calvados region of Normandy. This name first was applied to the popular satirical songs of Olivier Basselin, a 15th century poet who lived in Vire.

The other alternative is that vaudevire derives from Middle French dialectal vauder "to go" and virer "to turn."

Vaudeville patrons were unsophisticated, and the managers had to teach them how to be an audience. They signaled applause with boldly printed signs and walked the aisles to calm boisterous patrons. The crowds learned quickly and perfected the trick of clapping to signal approval and using deadly silence for the opposite effect. Like television 50 years later, vaudeville taught a rural nation to ape slang and fashions.

Among the vaudeville slang terms that became general and still survive in English are number for "musical selection," which comes from vaudeville theater programs, where acts were marked by a number, and bird for "middle finger held up in a rude gesture."

This is actually a transferred sense. To give (someone) the bird is an expression at least from the 1860s that meant "to hiss someone like a goose." This was kept alive in vaudeville slang with a sense of "to greet someone with boos, hisses, and catcalls" (1922), but the term was transferred by the 1960s to the "up yours" hand gesture (the rigid finger representing the hypothetical object to be inserted) on the common notion of "defiance and contempt."

The gesture itself seems to be much older; the human anatomy section of a 12th century Latin bestiary in Cambridge describes the middle finger as that "by means of which the pursuit of dishonour is indicated."

Vaudeville signed its own death warrant, however, when it introduced America to the movies. Vaudeville houses began adding motion pictures to their live performances. At first, movies were "chasers," used to drive customers out between the evening's two live shows. As one local theater manager explained, in an article I dug up while doing research, "The pictures were so flickery that the eyestrain was unbearable."

But as the decade wore on, the theaters ran more and more all-movie nights. The flickering, low-budget curiosities that once filled up the space between vaudeville acts like the Dunbar Goat Circus, would put vaudeville road shows, goats and all, out of business in most of America within a decade.

Corruption is in the news. Corruption always is in the news.

Corrupt appears in English about 1300, from Latin corruptus, the past participle of corrumpere "to destroy, spoil, bribe." This is a compound of com-, used here as an intensitive prefix, and the past participle stem of rumpere "to break."

The Latin sense of corruption, then is to "break up," but the modern politico-financial sense of the term probably is closer to that of the Old English relative of rumpere, which would be reafian "to seize, rob, plunder."