Thursday, January 19, 2006

Carnival of the Etymologies

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

This quote from Sen. Hilary Clinton (D-NY) generated a fair share of outrage this week: "When you look at the way the House of Representatives has been run, it has been run like a plantation - and you know what I mean."

Call me naive, but I don't know what she means. Then again, she wasn't addressing me.

I do know that a plantation originally meant simply "the action of planting." So maybe she meant the House is a place where good ideas get jammed into the dirt and left there.

The word came into English about 1450, via French, from Latin plantationem "a planting," from the verb plantare "to plant." The English word historically was used in the early 17th century to refer to the colonies or settlements (originally agricultural) planted by the English in the newly discovered lands. The meaning "large farm on which tobacco or cotton is grown" didn't come along until 1706.

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The rest of this week's list of words was pulled from the Zeitgeist Top 15 Search Queries for the week ending January 16.

The Golden Globes were a big hit, it seems. Prolly mostly with guys searching for pics of Scarlett Johansson in all her pneumatic pulchritude. Golden globes, indeed.

Golden replaced Middle English gilden, from Old English gyldan. Gold is one of the English nouns that form adjectives meaning "made of ______" by adding -en. This old suffix also persists in wooden, leaden, waxen, olden and a very few others, largely obscure or archaic. Old English had more of these, e.g. silfren "made of silver," and stænen "made of stone."

Gold is the same word in Old English, gold, and is easily recognizable in English's brothers and sisters in the Germanic language family: Old Frisian gold, German Gold, Middle Dutch gout, Old Norse gull, Gothic gulþ.

The reconstructed Proto-Indo-European root is *ghel-, a color-word that seems to have been used both for "yellow" and "green."

Among the "yellow" words are modern English yellow (Old English geolu, geolwe, but the color name most associated with the mineral gold in Old English poetry was "red"); German gelb; Latin helvus "yellowish, bay," Avestan zari-, Lithuanian geltonas, Polish zolty, Russian zeltyj; and Sanskrit harih "yellow, tawny yellow," hiranyam "gold."

Among the "green" words are Irish glass, Welsh and Breton glas Lithuanian zalias, Old Church Slavonic zelenu, Polish zielony, and Russian zelenyj.

In some Celtic languages, these words shade into words for "blue" or "gray." Old Irish glass and Welsh glas, in addition to "green" also can mean "gray, blue." Perhaps this is from the color of the sea. Other Indo-European languages seem to have had specific "sea-color" words, which of course would shift in exact meaning as the color of the surface of the sea shifts, encompasing blue and green and gray. Among such words are or were Old English hæwen, Serbo-Croatian sinji, and Lithuanian šyvas.

In Latin and Greek, the ancient root yielded words that meant neither one color nor the other, but "greenish-yellow." Latin galbus "greenish-yellow" is the source of Old French jalne, later jaune, source of the disease name jaundice, which literally means "yellowness."

From the Greek form of the root come a range of modern words in English whose connection is not always apparent. They stem from Greek khloros "greenish-yellow color, pale green," khloe "young green shoot," and kholos "bile."

From khloros comes chlorine, coined in 1810 by Sir Humphry Davy and named for its color; chlorophyll, coined in French (1818) from khloros and phyllon "a leaf."

Chloe, the feminine proper name, is from ancient Greek Khloe, literally "young green shoot." Cloris, the feminine proper name, is the Latin form of Greek Khloros, goddess of flowers, later identified with Roman Flora.

From kholos comes melancholy, from Greek melankholia "sadness," literally "black bile." Medieval physiology attributed depression to excess of "black bile," a secretion of the spleen and one of the body's four "humors."

The linguist Carl Darling Buck speculated that this interchange of words for yellow and green is "perhaps because they were applied to vegetation like grass, cereals, etc., which changed from green to yellow." But something both simpler and more complicated may be at work.

Many surviving color words from Old English -- dun, wan, sallow, bleak, dusky, swarthy, bright, murky, dark -- refer to colors which are not hues. These words have more to do with chroma (reflectivity, brightness, quality of light) than with hue (wavelength). We tend to think of color only as hue.

Look aound you and subtract all the artificial, man-made pigments from your world. Then look at what is left, and you may see why glitter and dark mattered more than pink and purple in naming what you see. Northern Europe through most of the seasons is a landscape of brown, gray, and dull green. The eruptions of color in spring and fall must have been brief and amazing, with an almost hallucinogenic intensity.

It is possible that this whole group of yellow-green (and sometimes blue-gray) words is related to the Proto-Indo-European root that means "gleaming, bright," and which underlays a whole group of Germanic gl- words, such as English gleam, glitter, glimmer, glisten, glimpse, glare, glance, glad and glow.

On a global scale, the more usual conflation of colors is not green and yellow, but green and blue (some linguists working in English call this grue).

A March 2004 article in "Scientific American," titled "Draining the Language out of Color," summarized some of the ongoing research (and battles) over color-words in human languages and what they mean.

English has 11 basic terms, Russian and Hungarian have 12, yet the New Guinean language Dani has just two. One of the two encompasses black, green, blue and other "cool" colors; the other encompasses white, red, yellow and other "warm" colors. Those languages with only three terms almost always have "black-cool," "white-light" and "red-yellow-warm." Those having a fourth usually carve out "grue" from the "black-cool" term.

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The number five search was angelina jolie pregnant. Wonderful news for all concerned, I'm sure.

Pregnant in the sense of "with child" is recorded in English from 1545, from Latin prægnantem, a compound literally meaning "before birth," probably from præ- "before" and the root of gnasci "be born."

The word itself was used in English much earlier in figurative senses (1413); its late appearance in a literal sense probably reflects its status as a taboo word, suggestive of sexual behavior. Pregnant retained something of a naughty quality up to about 1950; modern euphemisms include anticipating, enceinte, expecting, in a family way, and in a delicate (or interesting) condition.

The Old English term often was mid-bearne, literally "with child," which also survived as a euphemism. Another Anglo-Saxon word for "pregnant" was bearn-eaca, literally "child-adding" or "child-increasing." Sometimes this was simply called geacnod "increased."

Among the slang terms for "pregnant" long-since passed from use but known in Wordsworth's day were poisoned (from the swelling).

The pregnant that means "convincing, weighty, pithy," is an entirely different word, carried into Middle English from Old French preignant, the present participle of preindre, from earlier priembre, from Latin premere "to press."

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Martin Luther King made the list, naturally, since it was the week of the holiday commemorating his birth. His most famous speech is the "I Have a Dream" speech, which often is invoked for a variety of purposes. I invoke it here for the opportunity to riff on the highly mysterious word dream.

Dream in the sense of "sleeping vision" is known from c.1250. There are similar words with similar meanings in the other Germanic languages (e.g. Old Norse draumr, Danish drøm, Swedish drom, Old Saxon drom, Dutch droom, Old High German troum, and German traum. So far it all looks easy.

But there was no dream with this sense in Old English. Instead, in Old English dream meant "joy, mirth," and also "music."

Much study has failed to prove that the Anglo-Saxons' dream "noisy merriment" is the root of the modern word for "sleeping vision," despite being identical in spelling. Either the meaning of the word changed dramatically or "vision" was an unrecorded secondary Old English meaning of dream.

Words for "sleeping vision" in Old English were mæting and swefn (the latter from the same root as Greek hypnos "sleep").

It seems the "sleeping vision" sense of the dream-like words in Germanic is connected to words like Old Saxon bidriogan, Old High German triogan (German trügen) "to deceive," Old Norse draugr "ghost, apparition." Apparently the ancient Germans did not have as high an opinion of dreams as did the Celts, say.

Possible cognates outside Germanic are Sanskrit druh- "seek to harm, injure," and Avestan druz- "lie, deceive."

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Denver Broncos was the 10th most popular search term, according to Technorati. What did they do? All I seem to hear about here are the Steelers.

Bronco came into American English about 1850 in the sense "untamed or half-tamed horse," from the older Spanish meaning "rough, rude." Originally in Spanish it was a noun meaning "a knot in wood," and it perhaps comes from a Vulgar Latin *bruncus "a knot, projection," apparently from a cross of Latin broccus "projecting" and truncus "trunk of a tree."

It's one of many words in the American cowboy lexicon that were borrowed from American Spanish, attesting to the confluence of cultures in the Old West. Among the other are ranch "large cattle-breeding estate" (1831), from American Spanish rancho "small farm, group of farm huts," from Spanish rancho, which originally meant "group of people who eat together."

This comes from a verb ranchear, "to lodge or station," borrowed by the Spanish in medieval times from Old French ranger "install in position," from the same Latin root that produced English rank.

Also on the list is the noun jerky (1850), from American Spanish charqui "jerked meat," from Quechua (Inca) ch'arki "dried flesh." The verb jerk meaning "to cure meat by cutting into long thin slices and drying in the sun" is recorded in English much earlier, from 1707.

Speaking of color names, two other Spanish words in the Old West lexicon are palomino "cream-colored horse," which in Spanish literally means "young dove" -- the horse so called because of its dove-like coloring (light brown or cream with a pale mane and tail) -- and pinto "marked black and white," in Spanish literally "painted, spotted," from Latin pictus "painted," past participle of pingere "to paint."