Thursday, May 11, 2006

Carnival of the Etymologies

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

This week's feature: Related or not? Here's a list of pairs of similar words. Make your guesses as to whether the pairs are etymologically related or not. Answers below.

1. history/histrionics

2. virtue/virtual

3. peddle/pedal

4. Slav/slave

5. numb/nimble

6. cheap/chap

7. ginger/gingerly

8. curry (n.)/curry (v.)

9. hero/heroin

10. costume/custom

Got your answers? OK, here we go:

1. Not related.

History comes into Middle English via Old French from Latin historia "narrative, account, tale, story," a word the Romans cribbed from Greek historia "a learning or knowing by inquiry, history, record, narrative." It's an abstract noun from the verb historein "to inquire," and it ultimately comes from the Proto-Indo-European *wid-tor-, from the base *weid- "to know," literally "to see."

Among the widespread descendants of this root are Sanskrit veda "I know;" Greek idein "to see;" Old Irish fis "vision;" Welsh gwyn, Gaulish vindos, Breton gwenn "white" (i.e. "clearly seen"); Gothic witan "to know;" English wise; German wissen "to know;" Lithuanian vysti "to see;" Polish widziec' "to see," and Russian videt' "to see," vest' "news."

Histrionic is from Latin histrionicus "pertaining to an actor," from histrio "actor," a word said to be of Etruscan origin.

2. Related.

Virtue and virtual have a common ancestor in Latin virtus, which had a forked meaning. The original was "manliness, manhood," and the word is closely related to vir "man" (source of virile). But by extension the Latin word came to represent values and qualities associated with proper male behavior in classical times, such as moral strength, valor, excellence, potency, and efficacy.

From the values-based virtus, then, comes virtue "moral life and conduct, moral excellence," via Old French vertu. The phrase by virtue of preserves an alternate Middle English sense of "efficacy," true to the Latin but otherwise lost in Modern English. The Wyclif Bible has virtue where the King James Version uses power.

Virtual, when it came into English in Chaucer's day, meant "influencing by physical virtues or capabilities," which connects it with the classical Latin sense. The meaning "being something in essence or fact, though not in name" is first recorded in 1654, probably via a sense of "capable of producing a certain effect" (1432).

The computer sense of "not physically existing but made to appear by software" is attested from 1959. Virtually (c.1430) originally meant "as far as essential qualities or facts are concerned;" its sense of "in effect, as good as" is recorded from c.1600.

3. Not related.

At least as far as anyone can tell. Peddler turns up in English in the 13th century as peoddere or peddere and its origin is unknown. It has the appearance of an agent noun, but no verb is attested in Middle English that would correspond to it. The -l-, then, is not original to the word but was added later.

Some suggest it is a diminutive of ped "panier, basket" (also a word of unknown origin), but this is only attested from c.1390.

Pedal is a straightforward borrowing from Latin pedalis "of the foot," from pes (genitive pedis) "foot."

4. Related.

In fact, the same word. Slav was passed through Medieval Latin and Byzantine Greek from Old Slavonic Sloveninu, the Slav's word for themselves, which probably is related to slovo "word, speech," which suggests the name originally meant member of a speech community. The old Slavic word for "Germans" was Nemici, which is related to nemu "dumb;" i.e. "can't speak the language."

Slave meaning "person who is the property of another" appears in English from c.1290, from Old French esclave, from Medieval Latin Sclavus "slave" (ancestor of Italian schiavo, French esclave, Spanish esclavo), originally simply "Slav," so called because of the many Slavs sold into slavery by conquering peoples.

According to etymologist Ernest Klein, "This sense development arose in the consequence of the wars waged by Otto the Great and his successors against the Slavs, a great number of whom they took captive and sold into slavery."

For a similar sense development, compare Old English Wealh "Briton" (ancestor of Welsh), which also began to be used in the sense of "serf, slave" c.850; and Sanskrit dasa-, which can mean "slave" and apparently is connected to dasyu- "pre-Aryan inhabitant of India."

More common Old English words for slave were þeow (related to þeowian "to serve") and þræl (ancestor of thrall).

What did the Slavs call their slaves? The Slavic words for "slave" (Russian rab, Serbo-Croatian rob) are from Old Slavic *orbu, from the Proto-Indo-European base *orbh-. The Slavic word is also the source of robot.

5. Related.

Via a root sense of "to take." To be numb literally is to "be taken" or "be seized" with cold, shock, palsy, etc. The word (Middle English nome) is the part participle of nimen "to take, seize," the usual Germanic verb for "to take" (cf. German nehmen "to take"). The extraneous -b (to conform to comb, limb, thumb, etc.) appeared in the 17th century.

Nimble is Old English næmel "quick to grasp," obviously related to niman "to take." The Proto-Indo-European base f these words is *nem- "to divide, distribute, allot" (source also of Greek nemein "to deal out," nemesis "just indignation," and Latin numerus "number"). Here, too, an excrescent -b- has crept into the word. In this case, it turns up as early as c.1500.

6. Related.

Old English ceap "a purchase" and ceapian "to trade" were the basic Anglo-Saxon commercial terms. They probably represent an early Germanic borrowing from Latin caupo "petty tradesman, huckster."

Cheap in the adjective sense of "that may be bought at small cost" is first attested 1509, shortened from phrases such as god chep "favorable bargain," a translation of French a bon marche. In Old English, the notion we now express by cheap would have been expressed by undeor (literally "un-dear").

Chap meaning "lad, fellow" was an early 18th century colloquial use of a word that before that had meant "customer." In fact customer itself has travelled this route, in slang phrases like a tough customer.

7. Not related.

Ginger the spice came a long way to get into Old English (as gingifer). It had passed through Latin and Greek and Prakrit from Sanskrit srngaveram, a compound of srngam "horn" and vera- "body." It was so called from the shape of its root. But this explanation may be a Sanskrit folk-etymology, and the word may be from an ancient Dravidian name that also produced the Malayalam name for the spice, inchi-ver, from inchi "root."

In neither case, however, is it related to gingerly, a word only attested in English from 1519, and apparently a descendant of Old French gensor, comparative of gent "dainty, delicate," from Latin gentius "(well)-born."

8. Not related.

Curry the spice is a word taken into English in the 17th century from Tamil kari "sauce, relish for rice."

Curry the verb is now used only in the sense in the expression to curry favor, but when it originally began to be used in English in the late 13th century it meant "to rub down a horse."

It comes from Old French correier "put in order, prepare, curry," which was built from the intensive prefix con- and reier "arrange," a verb from a Germanic source.

Curry favor (c.1510) was altered by folk etymology from curry favel (c.1400) from Old French correier fauvel "to be false, hypocritical," literally "to curry the chestnut ('fawn-colored') horse," which in medieval French allegories was a symbol of cunning and deceit.

9. Related.

Hero meaning "man of superhuman strength or courage" comes from Latin heros, which is from Greek heros "demi-god" (a variant singular of which was heroe), originally "defender, protector," from the Proto-Indo-European base *ser- "to watch over, protect."

In 1898, when Friedrich Bayer & Co. trademarked a name for their morphine substitute, they called it Heroin, a name traditionally said to have been derived from Greek heros because of the euphoric feeling the drug provides.

10. Related.

Custom "habitual practice" came into Middle English from Old French costume, a mangled and vulgarized form of classical Latin consuetudinem "habit or usage."

Costume first appeared in English in 1715, as an art term, borrowed from French and Italian descendants of consuetudinem. It is essentially the same word as custom but arriving by a different etymology. From "customary clothes of the particular period in which the scene is laid," the meaning broadened by 1818 to "any defined mode of dress."