Thursday, February 23, 2006

Carnival of the Etymologies

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

Ports, and who ought and ought not to own them in America, sailed into the headlines this week.

Port meaning "harbor" was one of the earliest words (and one of the few non-ecclesiastical words) to make its way from Latin into English, having arived in the Anglo-Saxon period.

The source is Latin portus "port, harbor," but originally "entrance, passage." The reconstructed Proto-Indo-European root of this is *prtu- "a going, a passage," from the base *per- "to lead, to pass over." Among its relatives are Sanskrit parayati "carries over;" Greek poros "journey, passage" (preserved in English in emporium and the noun pore ); Avestan peretush "passage, ford, bridge;" Armenian hordan "go forward;" Welsh rhyd "ford;" and Old Church Slavonic pariti "fly."

In Germanic, by a regular phonetic evolution known as Grimm's Law, the initial "p" sound became an "f," so the word group is represented by the likes of Old Norse fjörðr "inlet, estuary" (source of fjord), and English ford. It forms the common word for "to travel" in many Germanic languages (Gothic faran, German fahren), and it did so in English, too, in the Anglo-Saxon period.

Old English faran meant "to go, to journey, to make one's way," but for some reason it was replaced in the 14th century by the French word that has come down as travel (from the same root as travail). The old verb survives in the verb and noun fare and their compounds.

All the other ports in English ultimately are from the same stock of words. The most obvious is the one that means "left side of a ship" (attested from 1543), which is from the notion of "the side facing the harbor" (when a ship is docked). It replaced larboard in common usage to avoid confusion with starboard when shouting commands in the wind at sea; the change was made official by an Admiralty order of 1844 in Britain and by a U.S. Navy Department notice of 1846.

Port meaning "gateway" also was an Old English word borrowed from Latin portus, in this case retaining the Latin word's older sense of "gate, door." It now mainly has the specific meaning "porthole, opening in the side of a ship."

Port as the name of a kind of sweet dark-red wine is a shortening of Oporto, the name of a city in northwest Portugal from which the wine was originally shipped to England. The city's name, however, in Latin-derived Portuguese, is from O Porto, "the port." Portugal itself is named for this city, from Medieval Latin Portus Cale (the Roman name of modern Oporto). Alfonso, Count of Portucale, became the first king of Portugal.

Finally, the port that means "bearing, mien" is a 14th century use of a French word, from the Latin verb portare "to carry." It literally means "how one carries oneself." It is not much used today in English, but we still have its derived adjective portly which in the early 16th century meant "stately, dignified" before it came to mean "stout."

Other English words in this family come from one or the other of the Latin senses of portus/portare. Portico and portal both come from the "gate" sense, as does porter "doorkeeper, janitor."

From the "carrying" sense come portage, portable, and portfolio (originally "a case for carrying loose papers"). Also finding its roots here is the other porter, the one that means "person who carries." Since porters and other laborers in old England prefered cheap, strong, dark beer, the type of ale brewed for them came to be called porter. Restaurants where porter ws a house specialty were called porterhouses, and a particular one in New York City in the 1830s gave its name to a type of steak that also was a specialty there.

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For the rest of this week's list, I've collected some of the odder words from the Winter Olympics.

Slalom is from Norwegian slalam "skiing race," literally "sloping track," from sla "slope" and lam "track" (related to laan "a row of houses," which is itself related to English lane).

Luge is a French word meaning "small coasting sled," originally from the Savoy dialect of the French Alps, which has been traced to a 9th century sludia "sled," which is perhaps from a Gaulish word from the same root as English sled and slide.

Ski is relatively recent in English, the word not appearing before 1885 (except for an isolated instance from 1755). The source is Norwegian ski, which is related to Old Norse skið "snowshoe," literally "stick of wood." The ancient root is Proto-Germanic *skid- "to divide, split," from the Proto-Indo-European base *skei- "to cut, split."

Skate is attested in English from 1662. The custom was brought to England after the Restoration by exiled followers of Charles II who had taken refuge in Holland. The source of the word is Dutch schaats (singular, mistaken in English as a plural), which linguists think came up through Flanders from Old French eschace "stilt" (modern French échasse), from a Germanic source that perhaps literally meant "thing that shakes or moves fast." But another theory is that the Dutch word is connected to Middle Low German schenke and Old English scanca "leg" (source of shank). In either case, the sense evolution presents problems.

The type of fish called a skate is not connected. It is 1 4th century borrowing from Old Norse skata, a word of unknown origin.

Mogul "elevation on a ski slope," probably is from a Scandinavian (cf. dialectal Norwegian mugje "a heap, a mound"), or from southern German dialect mugel in the same sense. It is not related to the mogul that means "powerful person." That word was taken from the title of the Great Mogul, the Mongol emperor of India after the conquest of 1526, which is from Persian and Arabic mughal, mughul, an alteration of Mongol, the name of the Asiatic people.