Category Archives: language

A toe dipt into Etymologies

Nowadays many old reference works are, as they say, on line, either as downloadable page images (pdf, kindle, etc.) or in their own Web presentations (OED, etc.). Using them often requires some juggling, but that’s of course also true of the hard-copy paper, too. I’m not sure how best to set up a workflow for easy access to the just-discovered electronic form of A dictionary of English etymology (by Wedgwood, Hensleigh, 1803-1891; Atkinson, J. C. (John Christopher), 1814-1900), now that I’ve downloaded its 75 MB pdf form, but here’s an example of the richness:

…and compare with the much briefer entries in The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology:

…and, for the sheer fun of it, compare with the entry for *PIE beu; bhel, bhleu in Shipley:

…and, for full measure, the OED entry:

and a part of the detail of the first sense in the OED:

Each is its own sort of fun.

Two More on the Indo-European Account

I realize that I’ve blithely assumed that “everybody” knows the Proto-Indo-European backstory but just in case not: it’s conventional to begin with William Jones, a judge in British India in the latter part of the 18th century, who saw similarities between Sanskrit and European languages (the Wikipedia article on *PIE corrects the simple version of the story). In any case, in the 19th century European philologists became obsessed with figuring out the details, and speculatively reconstructing the totally-vanished (because unwritten) *PIE by positing regularities in sound- and grammatical/syntax-shifts (the ‘Laws’ mentioned below). See for much more.

Rooting around on the shelves of word books, I turned up two that I’d missed a few days ago, both strange enough to be worth pondering further. I bought N.E. Collinge’s The Laws of Indo-European because I was sure I’d never see it again (a silly reason to buy something, but one to which I’ve returned again and again…) and because it was one of the most recondite I’d ever encountered. The Amazon blurb: “This book collects all the named laws of Indo-European, presents each in its original form and rationale and then provides an evaluation of all major attacks, revisions and exploitations, along with a full bibliography and index. Complete – thorough – exhaustive.” One reviewer puts it thus:

sets out all the important rules of sound change that any student of comparative Indo-European linguistics should acquaint themselves with. Grimm’s law, Grassman’s law, the law of the palatals, they’re all here. Besides the general laws affecting the major Indo-European languages (Germanic, Sanskrit, and Greek), Collinge also addresses the laws of the Baltic and Slavonic accents. This field is a mess, and it seems that most of the laws covered in the book somehow relate to the accent. An appendix covers minor laws (although some, such as Watkin’s Law, have become major in their ramifications) and major tendencies.

One major downside to Collinge’s presentation is that he fails to give a simple algebraic form of each law suitable for making flashcards. Another complaint, somewhat frequent in the academy, is that Collinge is so attentive in presenting seeming exceptions that he makes certain well-fixed laws appear as if they are undependable when in fact few would dispute them.

Here’s the Table of Contents, which should strike fear into just about any heart:

The Introduction will provide a mild corrective to any overinflation of the reader’s idea of own erudition:

Joseph Shipley’s The Origins of English Words: A Discursive Dictionary of Indo-European Roots is much more approachable (Amazon says: “Anecdotal, eclectic, and always enthusiastic, The Origins of English Words is a diverting expedition beyond linguistics into literature, history, folklore, anthropology, philosophy, and science.”), and one reviewer says

This book is a must own if you have international friends or live in a multi lingual house hold. I satisfy both criteria and at dinners we will always talk etymology and meanings. The internet has nothing on the Red Book, as I call it. I invariably pop it out to settle a linguistic dispute. Very entertaining. I keep it in the kitchen with the cookbooks.

My kind of folk. The Red Book has 180-odd pages of “Index of English Words” which provides entrée to 450 pages of Indo-European roots, each with (as promised) a fascinating discursive entry. Consider the entries for abel and kerd:

The Joys of Anglo-Indian

I’ve had Yule and Burnell’s Hobson-Jobson: A glossary of colloquial Anglo-Indian words and phrases, and of kindred terms, etymological,historical geographical and discursive for 50 years, but its provenance extends back to the 1870s, in what Yule’s preface describes as “the portly double-columned edifice which now presents itself”. The title itself is marvelous, and as Yule says

If the reader will turn to Hobson-Jobson in the Glossary itself, he will find that phrase, though now rare and moribund, to be a typical and delightful example of that class of Anglo-Indian argot (“peculiar to the British soldier and his surroundings”) which consists of Oriental words highly assimilated, perhaps by vulgar lips, to the English vernacular.

And so :

The section below makes it clear that ‘caste’ is a term foisted upon Indian society by Europeans attempting to make sense of what they observed: “Distinguished by the different modes of binding their turbats…” “…reckoned by travellers to be 84…” “…from these 4 castes are derived 196…”

Ivor Lewis Sahibs, Nabobs, and Boxwallahs: A Dictionary of the Words of Anglo-India is a century after Yule & Burnell and represents “an attempt to fill in some measure certain lacunae in Hobson-Jobson in order to achieve a better balance between the words of the common sort and those in the learned registers of theology, indology, philosophy and the like.”

These two books document with an English that is pretty much gone, since the end of the British Empire with Indian Independence and the foundation of Pakistan and Bangladesh, but present-day “Indian English” is vibrant and continues to evolve. Braj Kachru’s The Indianization of English: The English Language in India contains eight scholarly studies of aspects of “the nativization of the English language in India” and is poised midway between 1947 and 2020; in search of something more contemporary, I can’t resist Lonely Planet’s Indian English: Language & Culture (“total timepast… ‘Indian English’ is India’s informal and colourful take on the English language, a mash up of American and British English poured over the Indian tongue. Bollywood jargon, Hinglish slang, you know you want to talk that talk! “). I’m tempted by Indian Accents: Brown Voice and Racial Performance in American Television and Film but can’t really justify the indulgence.

Wikipedia, no surprise, has a nice summary: Indian English, and YouTube offers lots of examples of Indian English (Hinglish, Manglish [Malayalam and English], Kanglish [Kannada and English], Tenglish [Telugu and English], and Tanglish or Tamglish [Tamil and English]). Here’s one:

consider also this Tamglish video:

I hear you ask: Tamglish? Soup song? Soup boy? If you happen to be among those not quite abreast of the latest internet trends, Tamglish is a conflation of the south-Indian language Tamil and English. For those who are up to speed, it is synonymous with Kolavari Di – a song of rejection hummed by an inebriated jilted lover… (Kolavari Di: how India’s ‘Tamglish soup song’ went viral (Priya Virmani)

Indo-European and Germanic

It’s such fun to go chasing after the narratives of language evolution and distribution, via books like Nicholas Ostler’s Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World (which is global in scope and well illustrated with maps, and has a fine ear for illustrative quotations from many languages), Kenneth Katzner’s The Languages of the World (which offers brief characterizations of about 200 languages, with exemplary texts), Merritt Ruhlen’s A Guide to the World’s Languages: Volume I, Classification (which is especially concerned with taxonomy of 17 major language families and their subgroupings), and Florian Coulmas’ The Writing Systems of the World (which takes on graphic representations of sound systems, mostly ignored by linguistics). I can’t claim to have assimilated any of these, but I’ve been in and out of all of them quite a bit in the last 40-odd years.

Thinking back through a few thousand years of linguistic history is a rainy-day delight:
Robert Claiborne’s The Roots of English: A Reader’s Handbook of Word Origins is mostly concerned with Indo-European roots in English words (“…two thousand or so basic Indo-European roots have been reconstructed… (which) begot at least ten times that number of actual words…”). Germanic, Latin, French and Greek (all in the Indo-European family) are the primary contributors to the English we use.

Another fascinating resorce for IE: The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots “enlarges upon the history of 13,000 English words, spanning over 5000 years from Indo-European to Modern English” (cover blurb)

Two pages suggest the riches of Watkins:

The historical epic of the development of modern English (its Anglo-Saxon roots, Norman additions, Latin and Greek ecclesiastical and scholarly elements) are recent enough and well attested in sources like the always-interesting History of English Podcast, but the Indo-European and Germanic background to English is further back in the mists of time, and less well-known. English is, after all, a Germanic language in its grammatical and syntactical organization (“English sentences are organized with GERMANIC grammar. Subject first, verb after. Prepositional phrases, pronouns, and verb tenses are all used in the Germanic style. English sentences use, the same rules that are used for sentence construction in German and Dutch, Swedish and Icelandic, Norwegian and Danish…”), and in the majority of its high-frequency words, so it’s worthwhile to include explanatory videos like


(though the accompanying music is turnable-off…)

See also Wikipedia’s list of Germanic and Latinate equivalents, and note Poul Anderson’s essay “Uncleftish Beholding” (“Atomic Theory”), which “shows what English would look like if it
were purged of its non-Germanic words, and used German-style compounds instead of borrowings to express new concepts”:

For most of its being, mankind did not know what things are made
of, but could only guess. With the growth of worldken, we began
to learn, and today we have a beholding of stuff and work that
watching bears out, both in the workstead and in daily life.

The underlying kinds of stuff are the *firststuffs*, which link
together in sundry ways to give rise to the rest. Formerly we
knew of ninety-two firststuffs, from waterstuff, the lightest and
barest, to ymirstuff, the heaviest. Now we have made more, such
as aegirstuff and helstuff.

The firststuffs have their being as motes called *unclefts*.
These are mightly small; one seedweight of waterstuff holds a
tale of them like unto two followed by twenty-two naughts. Most
unclefts link together to make what are called *bulkbits*. Thus,
the waterstuff bulkbit bestands of two waterstuff unclefts, the
sourstuff bulkbit of two sourstuff unclefts, and so on. (Some
kinds, such as sunstuff, keep alone; others, such as iron, cling
together in ices when in the fast standing; and there are yet
more yokeways.) When unlike clefts link in a bulkbit, they make
*bindings*. Thus, water is a binding of two waterstuff unclefts
with one sourstuff uncleft, while a bulkbit of one of the
forestuffs making up flesh may have a thousand thousand or more
unclefts of these two firststuffs together with coalstuff and

At first is was thought that the uncleft was a hard thing that
could be split no further; hence the name. Now we know it is made
up of lesser motes. There is a heavy *kernel* with a forward
bernstonish lading, and around it one or more light motes with
backward ladings. The least uncleft is that of ordinary
waterstuff. Its kernel is a lone forwardladen mote called a
*firstbit*. Outside it is a backwardladen mote called a
*bernstonebit*. The firstbit has a heaviness about 1840-fold that
of the bernstonebit. Early worldken folk thought bernstonebits
swing around the kernel like the earth around the sun, but now we
understand they are more like waves or clouds.

In all other unclefts are found other motes as well, about as
heavy as the firstbit but with no lading, known as *neitherbits*.
We know a kind of waterstuff with one neitherbit in the kernel
along with the firstbit; another kind has two neitherbits. Both
kinds are seldom…

…and see this venture into Anglish:

…and this, just in, about grammatical case.

Greek and Latin

Among the facets of the ‘foreign’ in English are the substructure of Latin and Greek in syntax and in vocabularies and lexicons. These three books take very different approaches to the challenge of learning one’s way around the complexities, and each makes a distinctive contribution to the young pedant’s verbal armamentarium.

English Words from Latin and Greek Elements by Donald M. Ayers [1965] (a textbook, with lessons [26 from Latin; 25 from Greek] and assignments to accompany each lesson)

Greek And Latin In Scientific Terminology
by Oscar Edward Nybakken [1959] (more than half the pages are word lists, with the prefixes, suffixes, and numerals that vivify the roots)

Three-Language List of Botanical Name Components by A Radcliffe-Smith [1998] (tables of terms alphabetised by each of the three languages)

Ayers’ approach is paradigmatic and based on “word elements”: the student is to learn bases, learn suffixes, do Assignments for each lesson:

and List of Bases (Greek)

Nybakken’s method is vocabulary-based, and specifically oriented toward science:

Most of the technical words used in medicine and dentistry have their origins in the Greek and Latin languages, and over two-thirds of present-day medical English is derived from Greek alone… The traditional source for names of plants and animals has long been the classical languages. The more technical and highly specialized the terms are, the higher is the percentage of those which have their origins in Greek and Latin, especially in Greek… Word coinages, necessitated by the perennial advances in scientific fields, find their most suitable and frequent origins in the ancient languages of the Greeks and the Romans…

Radcliffe-Smith offers parallel Greek-Latin-English, Latin-English-Greek, and English-Latin-Greek:

This delicious compendium is published by the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, and includes this marvelous bit of British prose:

Foreign kickshaws

Reconsidering the books on the shelves spawns lots of unexpected thoughts and realizations, and the occasional Grand Scheme surfaces too. Today I’m considering these two, which are perfect “bathroom books” for short-term browsing:

Dictionary of foreign terms by Christopher Orlando Sylvester Mawson [originally 1934, mine the 1975 Second Edition]

The Dictionary of Foreign Terms in the English Language by David Carroll [1973]

Many of the words and phrases in these dictionaries are mots justes, perfect/pithy expressions of a thought: in Carroll:

The proper word; the exact appropriate word or saying for the situation.

and in Mawson:

The precise (or exact) word.

Their use in text or speech marks the writer or speaker as a sophisticate [OED: Of a person: free of naïvety, experienced, worldly-wise; subtle, discriminating, refined, cultured; aware of, versed in, the complexities of a subject or pursuit], of the cognoscente: [OED Etymology: < Italian cognoscente, Latinized form of conoscente knowing man, connoisseur < Latin cognōscent-em , present participle of cognōscěre to know, etc.]. The sort of person who refers to self as “One” …
and reading through a page or two at a time is an excellent way to enlarge one’s sense of what languages do with their basic building blocks. I mean:

muscae volitantes [L.] Flying flies, i.e., strange floating spots and lines that play across the field of vision due to clusters of cellular material that collects in the vitreous humor of the eyes.

mortuo leoni et lepores insultant [L.] Even the rabbits insult a dead lion.

interdum vulgus rectum videt [L.] Occasionally even the vulgar crowd sees things clearly.

cave quid dicis, quando, et cui Beware what you say, when, and to whom.

Somewhere along the line I picked up the phrase “natty Latinism”, referring to examples of the propensity of the over-educated to add bits of Latin as decorations in speech and writing. Strangely, Google has no instances of that delicious phrase.

Here’s part of the Preface to Mawson:

and two pages of entries, the first providing an education in the flexibility of faire, and the latter offering a run around the block with qui and quod:

One is somehow a Better Person for the time spent with these dictionaries, but perhaps is more insuffereable to subsequent interlocutors.

‘Committed to Breakfast’

chili fries at HKC this morning

The phrase came up this morning among a dozen or so habituées as we awaited the 8AM opening at Home Kitchen Cafe, so (according to Google Translate):

sitoutunut aamiaiseen (Finnish)

elkötelezett a reggelire (Hungarian)

scelus est prandium (Latin)

komited untuk sarapan pagi (Malay)

kahvaltıya adanmış (Turkish)

skuldbundinn til morgunverðar (Icelandic)

dealasach airson bracaist (Scots Gaelic)

gosaltzeko konpromisoa (Basque)

toegewijd aan het ontbijt (Dutch)

engagerad i frukost (Swedish)

wedi ymrwymo i frecwast (Welsh)

on the Harmless Drudge account

another passage from Jonathon Green’s Odd Job Man

The slang lexicographer is by very nature a voyeur. The lexis undoubtedly leans toward pimping and prostitution, crime and imprisonment, violence and cruelty, drugged and drunken debauches, but the lexicographer is neither whore nor thief, thug nor prisoner, addict nor drunkard. Or not professionally. They are linguistic reporters, except that unlike the tabloids’ traditional formula they make no excuses and they do not leave. The job is to collect knowledge, to explicate it, and to disseminate the information that emerges. As I say, a voyeur, but ideally an informed one. (pg 38)

Green’s Dictionary of Slang

A week or two ago I saw the announcement for Green’s Dictionary of Slang in its online version, and almost bit (at about $60/year). Intrigued, I looked on Amazon and (1) found that the 3-volume print version could be had for a bit less than $600 via Prime, and in used form for around $300; and (2) that Jonathon Green’s Odd Job Man: Some Confessions of a Slang Lexicographer (2014) was about $4, plus shipping. I ordered the latter, and started reading it when it arrived. Fantastic so far, and I’m only 20-odd pages in. His first substantive chapter (‘Beginning’) is a fascinating and utterly unique take on autobiography, raggedy bits of wry memory:

This is in no way a conventional memoir, but some things must be said. Or so it seems to me, whose working life is so committed to searching the past for origins and roots. It is a beginning that, without the memories that those from more settled lineages have on tap, has always seemed abrupt. Perhaps, like newly arrived immigrants looking forward to their future and rushing to move beyond the past, the young have no interest in asking questions about ‘before’? Perhaps that was merely me? I failed to ask and remain in ignorance. And since the past was quite literally another country, and that country no longer exists remotely as it was, I am not going to find out. I have been trying to make up for it, by proxy, ever since. (pg 15)

A quick calculation tells me that $60/year is not all that much more than $1 a week, cheap at twice the price for a subscription. So I bit. And it looks like a real winner, now that I’ve browsed a bit and tried out the various features.

argybargy du jour

All those years ago I was drawn to Anthropology because I thought it was a comprehensive and comprehensible way to MAKE SENSE of the world around me; and in my years as a prof I approached teaching Anthro in the same spirit, looking at the great variety of solutions to the practical problems of living that people had developed over the vastnesses of time and space (well, 10,000 years or so; and terrestrial space, but still…), returning again and again to the observed Fact that the Emperor was Naked. And now I find myself looking to one particular/peculiar strain of the discipline to, once again, [try to] make sense of the contemporary world.

Lately I’ve been reading a number of things that have fundamentally the same message. Much seems to emanate from David Graeber, and is concerned with bamboozlement in many forms:

…a kind of strategic pivot of the upper echelons of US corporate bureaucracy — away from the workers, and towards shareholders, and eventually, towards the financial structure as a whole… corporate management became more financialized, but at the same time, the financial sector became corporatized with investment banks, hedge funds, and the like largely replacing individual investors. As a result the investor class and the executive class became almost indistinguishable… (19)

…the last two centuries have seen an explosion of bureaucracy, and the last 30 or 40 years in particular have seen bureaucratic principles extended to every aspect of our existence… (27)

What was being talked about in terms of “free trade” and the “free market” really entailed the self-conscious completion of the world’s first effective planetary-scale administrative bureaucratic system. (30)

…public and private bureaucracies finally merged together in a mass of paperwork designed to facilitate the direct extraction of wealth. (35)

If one gives sufficient social power to a class of people holding even the most outlandish ideas, they will, consciously or not, eventually contrive to produce a world organized in such a way that living in it will, in a thousand subtle ways, reinforce the impression that those ideas are self-evidently true. (37)

…what we call “the public” is created, produced through specific institutions that allow specific forms of action — taking polls, watching television, voting, signing petitions or writing letters to elected officials or attending public hearings — and not others. (98)

(The above from The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy. There’s much more I’d transcribe from Graeber’s writings, including Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology and of course Debt.

A similarly resonant voice: Tariq Ali in the latest London Review of Books:
The New World Disorder (Vol. 37 No. 7 · 9 April 2015)

But social democratic reforms have become intolerable for the neoliberal economic system imposed by global capital. If you argue, as those in power do (if not explicitly, implicitly), that it’s necessary to have a political structure in which no challenge to the system is permitted, then we’re living in dangerous times. Elevating terrorism into a threat that is held to be the equivalent of the communist threat of old is bizarre. The use of the very word ‘terrorism’, the bills pushed through Parliament and Congress to stop people speaking up, the vetting of people invited to give talks at universities, the idea that outside speakers have to be asked what they are going to say before they are allowed into the country: all these seem minor things, but they are emblematic of the age in which we live. And the ease with which it’s all accepted is frightening. If what we’re being told is that change isn’t possible, that the only conceivable system is the present one, we’re going to be in trouble. Ultimately, it won’t be accepted. And if you prevent people from speaking or thinking or developing political alternatives, it won’t just be Marx’s work that is relegated to the graveyard. Karl Polanyi, the most gifted of the social democratic theorists, has suffered the same fate.

and this announcement by William Arkin, via Gizmodo, of a Twitter feed covering a lot of the same dolorous but important ground:

o here’s what I plan to do: Expose. Explain. Secrecy and euphemisms are carpet-bombing us into submission. I’m sick of the parameters of the sanctioned debate. So instead I will try to treat the secret world like a sports league: There are coaches, players, commentators, bookies, and marketing geniuses. We’ll have something to say about all of them, something to reveal every week. The teams are the NSA, the CIA, FBI, Army, Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps, Department of Homeland Security, TSA, ICE; and that’s just Division I. There’s a Division II playing somewhere else, far more obscure but nevertheless influential and odious, populated by billion-dollar institutions like the Counter-Narcoterrorism Program Office or the Defense Threat Reduction Agency or U.S. Army North, real parasites on the American spirit, survivors because what they do festers in the dark. Each has a history and personality, a lineup, a budget cap, a general manager, a narrative to sell.
(much more and very worth reading)