Thursday, December 15, 2005

Carnival of the Etymologies

A regular Thursday feature of "Done With Mirrors"

As the Democrats attempt to sort out a common position on the Iraq project, they keep getting tangled in their own words (with help from their political opponents).

"I believe before the Iraqi elections, scheduled for mid-December, the Iraqi people and the emerging government must be put on notice: The United States will immediately redeploy — immediately redeploy." [Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., at a news conference, Nov. 17, 2005]

House Republicans the next day introduced a resolution "expressing the sense of the House of Representatives that the deployment of United States forces in Iraq be terminated immediately." The measure was defeated, 403-3, with the Republican sponsor and Murtha among those voting against it. Democrats called it a cheap shot, twisting Murtha's words.

"I believe that a precipitous withdrawal of American forces in Iraq could lead to disaster." [Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., in a media statement Nov. 30, 2005]

Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean also says he is against an "immediate" or "precipitous" withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. But Dean supports an immediate "redeployment" -- that would be completed over two years.

Immediate is from Late Latin immediatus "without anything between." It's a compound of in- "not" and mediatus, the past participle of mediare "be in the middle," from Latin medius "middle."

Precipitous means literally "headlong." Its root is the Latin verb præcipitare "fall, be hasty," from præceps (genitive præcipitis) "steep, headlong, headfirst." This is a compound of præ- "forth" and caput "head."

Deploy is a comparatively recent (1786) military word imported from French déployer, which meant literally "to unroll, unfold." So, etymologically, redeploy makes no sense: "re-unfold." If the military sense is "to spread out (troops, etc.) to form a broader front," the opposite ought to be *undeploy, which would be to draw them back into bases, which seems to be what Murtha was suggesting.

Redeploy, however, generally means taking troops from one position and deploying them in another. That's more like what Dean is suggesting: moving the troops to Jordan or back to Saudi Arabia (sorry, Osama).

Some not-so-anti-war folks, meanwhile, are suggesting a redeployment of the U.S. troops from Iraq to Syria.

The root of French déployer is Latin displicare "unfold, scatter," a compound of dis- and plicare "to lay, twist, fold," which is from the productive Proto-Indo-European root *plek- "to plait, twist" (cf. Greek plekein "to plait," Latin plectere "to plait, braid, intertwine," Old Church Slavonic plesti "to braid, plait, twist," Gothic flahta "braid."

Among the modern English descendants of this root are the verb and noun ply, and via Latin compounds apply, comply, imply, multiply, reply, and supply.

Terminate, meanwhile, comes from Latin terminare "to limit, end," from the Proto-Indo-European base *ter-, which is at the root of many words meaning "peg, post, boundary, marker goal" (cf. Sanskrit tarati "passes over, crosses over," Hittite tarmaizzi "he limits," Greek terma "boundary, end, limit."

And finally, Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., recently wrote in the "Wall Street Journal":

"What a colossal mistake it would be for America's bipartisan leadership to choose this moment in history to lose its will."

He didn't actually come out and use the word defeatism, but it was all over the commentaries on his position.

Defeatism and defeatist entered the language in 1918, from French défaitiste, which was coined in reference to the Russians dropping out of World War I. Defeat itself is much older, of course. It comes from Old French defait, from a common Latin compound of dis- "un-, not" and facere "to do, perform." The original sense of defeat in English was "bring ruination, cause destruction." The military sense of "conquer" dates from c.1600.

Latin facere (source of French faire, Spanish hacer) is from the Proto-Indo-European base *dhe- "to put, to do" (cf. Sanskrit dadhati "puts, places;" Avestan dadaiti "he puts;" Old Persian ada "he made;" Hittite dai- "to place;" Greek tithenai "to put, set, place;" Lithuanian deti "to put;" Czech diti, Polish dziac', Russian det' "to hide," delat' "to do;" Old High German tuon, German tun, Old English don "to do;" and modern English do.

Pity the student of English as a second language. After he or she has mastered the basic weirdness of our spelling and grammar, he still must go out on the streets and hear people talk. What will he think when he encounters a common phrase like so long, colloquial for "good-bye," and wonders what business the words so and long have in forming a parting salutation.

H.L. Mencken, in "The American Language" (1936) wrote that the phrase commonly was traced to German so lange or Yiddish sholom, "but it is actually of English origin, and does not appear to be an Americanism." By the time he published his 1945 supplement, however, he was hedging on that pronouncement, noting that the English, in fact, considered so long to be an Americanism, but the Dictionary of American English was not yet ready to claim it as one of ours.

"Efforts have been made to connect it with the Arabic salaam and the Hebrew sholom," he wrote in his second stab at the phrase, "but without plausibility."

But that doesn't stop people from trying. The only modern etymologist who seems to have given this any credence was Weekley, back in the early 20th century, who suggested the word was a corruption of salaam, but he added a doubtful "?" beside the entry. He compares it to the noun compound "group of buildings," which is a corruption of Malay kampong.

Wikipedia boldly asserts that, "From the Malay derivation (of the Arabic greeting Assalamu_alaikum) selang English took the salute so long. No serious etymologist would propose that.

Malay words do sometimes enter English, but usually via Portuguese or Dutch, and there is no equivalent of so long in those tongues.

The "Dictionary of American Slang" also says "origin unknown," and mentions German, Hebrew, and Arabic candidates, and adds Irish slan "health," which, it says, is used as a toast and a salutation.

Partridge, regrettably, is silent on the topic.

The likely German source preferred by etymologists is the phrase adieu so lange (with the "Farewell" word borrowed from French). In German, solange is used as a conjunction meaning "so long as, whilst." The sense of adieu so lange probably would be something like "farewell, whilst (we're apart)." That makes more sense to me than the other proposed sense of "(it will seem) so long (till we meet again)." Parting words, perhaps superstitiously, tend to emphasize seeing one another again (cf. French au revoir, German auf Wiedersehen), not the long time expected between.

Mencken's doubt about whether the phrase is English or American is understandable, since it turns up in both places at about the same time, the early 1860s. The English citation is from 1865: "Will wish you 'ta ta' -- gentle reader, -- So long!" But the Oxford English Dictionary, that repository of the obscure, has outdone itself on this one. The source is abbreviated as "F.H. Nixon, P. Perfume," for which I can find not a jot of information anywhere, be it book, poem, or play.

The earliest American use found thus far is Walt Whitman, who used so long as the title of the last poem in "Leaves of Grass" in the 1860 edition.

The text of the poem is here. It rises to this conclusion:

An unknown sphere, more real than I dream’d, more direct, darts awakening rays about me—So long!
Remember my words—I may again return,
I love you—I depart from materials;
I am as one disembodied, triumphant, dead.

The Oxford English Dictionary, however, for some unknown reason assigns Whitman's use of the term to 1868. OED also ducks the question of the term's origin, but it does note the German so lange, which suggest the editors are inclined in that direction.

But there is another solid theory, unnoticed by the etymology dictionaries. One of my correspondents has directed me to Scandinavian, and I notice in this article on "farewell" words by Joachim Grzega in the journal "Onomasiology Online" 6 (2005) that the Scandinavian connection also gets support from a book by Whitman's friend and fan William Sloane Kennedy, who wrote in 1923:

The salutation of parting—‘So long!’—was, I believe, until recent years, unintelligible to the majority of persons in America, especially in the interior, and to members of the middle and professional classes. I had never heard of it until I read it in Leaves of Grass, but since then have quite often heard it used by the laboring class and other classes in New England cities. Walt wrote to me, defining ‘so long’ thus: ‘A salutation of departure, greatly used among sailors, sports, & prostitutes—the sense of it is ‘Till we meet again,’— conveying an inference that somehow they will doubtless so meet, sooner or later.” This is interesting as comment on his use of the phrase in his Songs of Parting, conveying an intimation of his belief in personal immortality. The phrase is said by the etymologists to be probably a corruption by sailors of the Oriental ‘Salaam’ (‘saluting,’ ‘wishing you peace’). It is evidently about equivalent to our ‘See you later.’ The phrase is reported as used by farm laborers near Banff, Scotland. In Canada it is frequently heard; ‘and its use is not entirely confined to the vulgar.’ It is in common use among the working classes of Liverpool and among sailors at Newcastle-upon-Tyne, and in Dorsetshire. [...]. The London Globe suggests that the expression is derived from the Norwegian ‘Saa laenge,’ a common form of ‘farewell,’ au revoir. If so, the phrase was picked up from the Norwegians in America, where ‘So long’ first was heard. The expression is now (1923) often used by the literary and artistic classes.

Grzega notes Norwegian leave-taking phrases such as Adjø så lenge! Farvel så lenge! Mor’n så lenge!, literally "Bye so long! Farewell so long! Morning so long!" My correspondent suggested Swedish Hej så länge "good-bye for now," with så länge "for now" attested since 1850 according to Swedish sources.