Thursday, January 12, 2006

Carnival of the Etymologies

A regular Thursday feature of "Done With Mirrors"

Belated Happy New Year. I made a New Year's resolution to procrastinate more, but I'm having a hard time getting started.

Welcome to January. The month-name first turns up in England c.1120, in Anglo-French documents, from Latin Januarius (mensis) "(the month) of Janus," the ancient diety to whom the month was sacred as the beginning of the year.

In common use in Middle English, the month-name generally took the Frenchified form Ieneuer, from Old North French Genever.

This is closer to the form the month-name still has in the Romance languages, such as modern French (Janvier), Italian (Gennajo), and Portuguese Janeiro. Yes, Rio de Janeiro literally means "the mouth of January." The region was so-named because it was discovered in January of 1502 by Portuguese explorers led by Gaspar de Lemos. The Europeans mistook Guanabara Bay for a river mouth.

In English, the form of the month-name gradually was Latinized to its modern spelling by c.1400.

Janus was an ancient Italic deity, guardian god of portals, patron of beginnings and endings. He is shown as having two faces, one in front the other in back, and his old wooden temple in Rome, on Argiletum street, an important road between the Forum and the residential neighborhoods in the northeast, was closed only in times of peace. The Romans themselves were confused as to whether this was meant to keep War trapped inside, or to keep Peace secure inside.

His name in Latin literally means "gate, arched passageway," and the word perhaps is from the Proto-Indo-European base *ei- "to go" (source of Sanskrit yanah "path," Old Church Slavonic jado "to travel").

As a month, January replaced the Anglo-Saxon geola se æfterra "Later Yule." The Anglo-Saxons seem to have reckoned the start of the new year at or near the winter solstice, but when they settled in Britain, and soon were converted to Christianity, they would have encountered dueling Roman calendar customs. The Romans, for all their practical skill, were among the worst calendar-keepers in history.

The Julian calendar began on January 1, but the Christian Church frowned on pagan celebrations of this and had chosen the Feast of the Annunciation (March 25) as its New Year's Day. The secular year seems to have been the one that stuck with the English -- naturally, perhaps since it corresponded most closely with what they had been doing as pagans.

The civic year in England continued to begin January 1 until the late 12th century, and even though legal documents then shifted to a year beginning March 25, popular calendars and almanacs continued to begin on January 1. Certainly the revelry and drinking associated with New Year's Eve (the Anglo-Saxon new day began at nightfall) are as ancient as that, as attested in this line from c.1300:

"þer þay dronken & dalten ... on nwe gerez euen."

The calendar reform of 1751 restored the Julian New Year.

New Year's was the main midwinter festival in Scotland from the 17th century, when Puritan authorities banned Christmas, and it continued so after England reverted to Christmas as the winter holiday, hence the Scottish flavor ("Auld Lang Syne," etc.) to New Year's. New Year's gathering in public places began in 1878 in London, after new bells were installed in St. Paul's.

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Year words across the Indo-European language family point to a generic ancient word meaning "year," with a root something like *wet- or *wetes-.

Traces of it can bee seen in Sanskrit vatsara-, Greek etos, and Hittite witish, all meaning "year," and Old Church Slavonic vetuchu "old," Old Lithuanian vetušas "old, aged," Albanian vjet, and Latin vetus (genitive veteris) "old."

This last is the source of modern English veteran (1509), an "old, experienced soldier," which derives from Latin veteranus, which simply means "old." Latin vetus also is the ultimate source of Italian vecchio, French vieux, and Spanish viejo.

In addition to *wetes-, another word came to be used in ancient times for "year." This was Proto-Indo-European *ye-ro-, and originally it was a more generic word denoting "passing time, period of time." It later specialized to "year" in many places, but in others to "season," or "spring," or even "hour."

It probably comes from a root meaning "to go" (on the notion of "period gone through"); perhaps the same root that lies behind January.

For the range of meanings this root word has taken on, consider that among its descendants, Avestan yare meant "year," Greek hora meant "period of time, hour," Old Church Slavonic jaru and Bohemian jaro mean the season "spring," Latin hornus means "of this year," and Old Persian dušiyaram means "famine" (literally "bad year").

This root, too, of course, is the source of the Germanic "year" words: Old English gear (modern year), Old High German jar, Old Norse ar, Danish aar, Dutch jaar, German Jahr, Gothic jer, and so forth.

The Greek hora was a very generic term that could be used for any period of delimited time -- a day, an hour, a season, a year. The Romans, who borrowed from the Greeks the habit of dividing the daylight period into twelve parts, also borrowed the word hora for the twelve parts (night was not so divided until much later). This passed into Old French as hore and English as hour. The h- has persisted in this word despite not being pronounced since Roman times.

Hour replaced Old English tid, literally "time," and stund "period of time."

Latin annus "year" represents yet another ancient cluster of year-words, perhaps from a different Proto-Indo-European root meaning "to go."

* * *

One of the words English doesn't have is a single word that means "of last year." This would be useful, and once upon a time there was such a word, fyrn. This has been a long time gone, though. The only trace of it is the obscure geological noun firn "consolidated snow," which was borrowed in the 19th century from the Swiss dialect word for "last year's snow." This was descended (via Middle High German virne "old") from the same source as Old English fyrn, and all are connected to the root of first. Also in the family are Lithuanian pernai "last year," Greek perysi "a year ago, last year," and Sanskrit parut "of last year."

* * *

The ancient Anglo-Saxon calendar apparently took cognizance of only two seasons, which could be described as "winter" and "not-winter." This agrees with what linguists have reconstructed for the earliest division of the year across the Indo-European family, based on the evidence that no other season name shows such consistency across the map as that for "winter."

The reconstructed Proto-Indo-European root is *gheim- "snow, winter." It can be traced in Greek kheima, Hittite gimmanza, Avestan zyam-, Old Church Slavonic zima, Russian zima, Lithuanian ziema, Old Irish gam, Welsh gaeaf "winter;" and Sanskrit heman "in winter."

The Latin form was hiems, source of French hiver, Spanish invierno, which come from the more usual Roman way of refering to the season, hibernum (temps) "winter (time)" with the adjectival form of the word, hibernus.

When the Romans sailed to Ireland, they encountered a people who apparently told them the name of the island was *Iveriu, a form of the Old Celtic word which is the also the root of Irish Eriu (accusative Eirinn) and the Ira- in Old English Irland. But in Latin, the name was mangled into Hibernia, as though it meant "land of winter," and so it may have seemed to the Romans.

Latin hibernus also clearly lies at the root of hibernation. But among the less obvious descendants of this ancient word group is chimera, which before it took on the meaning "wild fantasy" in the 16th century was a specific kind of fabulous monster, usually said to have a lion's head, a goat's body, and a serpent's tail. The source is Greek chimaira.

It is sometimes said the animal was so called because it was a personification of winter. But perhaps rather the reference is to the goat part of it, since Greek chimaira also could mean "year-old she-goat." The Greeks, like the Anglo-
Saxons and many others, reckoned years in winters, so the word would mean "one-winter-old."

Yet practically the only modern Indo-European family that doesn't use this ancestral word for "winter" is the Germanic group, including English. Here, we use winter, a word unchanged since Old English times and recognizable in Dutch and German winter, Danish and Swedish vinter, Gothic wintrus, Old Norse vetr.

It's possible that this word group derives from the Proto-Indo-European root *wed- "wet" (source of water), in which case winter is the "wet season." Or it may come from the root *wind- "white."

* * *

Ariel Sharon suffered a terrible stroke, and it seems to have ended his career, if not his life.

The stroke that means "apoplectic seizure" is attested from 1599, and the original term was the Stroke of God's Hand, so Pat Robertson was, at least in some obscure sense, accurate. The noun stroke meaning simply "act of striking" probably is from an unrecorded Old English *strac, related to the verb stracian and the root of strike.