Welcome to Wordorigins.org

Wordorigins.org is devoted to the origins of words and phrases, or as a linguist would put it, to etymology. Etymology is the study of word origins. (It is not the study of insects; that is entomology.) Where words come from is a fascinating subject, full of folklore and historical lessons. Often, popular tales of a word’s origin arise. Sometimes these are true; more often they are not. While it can be disappointing when a neat little tale turns out to be untrue, almost invariably the true origin is just as interesting.

anaconda

The name of the giant constrictor snake of South America is most likely from the Sinhalese henakaňdayā, a Sri Lankan name for a whip snake (from hena = lightning + kaňda = stem). How the name shifted from a snake in South Asia to one in South America is the story of a series of errors and misappellations.

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poutine, pudding

Poutine is a contender for the Canadian national dish, although whether or not it can unseat Kraft Dinner (i.e., Kraft macaroni and cheese) in overall popularity is questionable. But the origins of both the dish and its name are shrouded in mystery, and its pedigree is not that long.

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pudding, poutine

See poutine, pudding

Internet/Web vs. internet/web

I like fivethirtyeight.com. Nate Silver and his crew have pioneered a new form of journalism, one based on data rather than punditry, but like anyone else, they get into trouble when they stray outside their wheelhouse. Most recently, a blog post on their website took on the announcement that the Associate Press (AP) has changed their stylebook to use lowercase letters when writing internet and web. Formerly, the news organization had advocated for Internet and Web. In so doing, they not only demonstrated a misunderstanding of how language works, but they also screwed up their analysis of the data.

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Etruscan Tablet Found

Seventy letters and punctuation marks make this find one of the longest surviving examples of the Etruscan language. Little is known about the language, and every single find has the potential to vastly increase our knowledge about the language, the Etruscan people, and their culture. This particular find is not a gravestone, which makes it especially valuable since most of the other examples of the language that we have are from graves; it has the possibility of providing evidence about things other than the dead.

Etruscan is not related to any living language, or so most historical linguists believe.

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Iffy Gifs

One of the hot trends in academia is digital humanities. Like many trending topics it is ill defined, but it generally encompasses the study of “texts” in our digital age, as well as the use of digital tools to interrogate more traditional print and manuscript texts. Mark Liberman over at Language Log highlights one such text, a press release from the US House of Representatives Judiciary Committee, which uses animated gifs to express its points. A quote from the release:

“House Republicans have introduced a bill that prevents the President from unilaterally shutting down the enforcement of our immigration laws. It does so by allowing state and local governments to enforce federal immigration law.

Using animated gifs to augment prose text is hardly new, but their use in a press release, especially a release from a government body, is highly unusual. I suppose such use of new media is inevitable, but one must question the wisdom of such use. The gifs certainly convey the conservative outrage at the alleged acts of the Obama administration, but their use also transforms the medium of press release from pronouncement from an august body worthy of journalistic coverage to that of a Facebook post by your crazy cousin Walter. It’s not just what you say, but how you say it that is important.

Liberman’s discussion of the gifs in the release also uses a word that is new to me when he writes, “seriously, this press release was no doubt put together by a couple of sub-millennial staffers.” Sub-millennial refers to those born after the year 2000. While I get his point, I seriously doubt that the committee actually employs teenagers on its staff. It’s more like the staffers were acting like sub-millennials. Or maybe Liberman is using the word to mean those born before the millennial generation, in other words, older people trying desperately to be hip and to rap with the youth today.

Anyhoo, I’ll leave you with this philosophical meditation on the new medium:

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What The Digamma!

Jay Dillon found what may possibly be the earliest known use of what the fuck, which he has posted to Facebook. Dillon discovered the following poem, which was written by Joseph Dunn Lester and appeared in the 1881 Prize Translations, Poems, and Parodies. Jesse Sheidlower’s The F Word, the go-to resource for all fucking things, has the earliest use of what the fuck in Henry Miller’s 1942 Roofs of Paris. Who the fuck and where the fuck appear in the 1930s. And there is a 1903 citation of what the puck. The abbreviation WTF is recorded in 1985. So this poem, if it is indeed a use of the phrase, would be a significant antedating.

But the phrase is not clearly spelled out. Like many early uses of fuck, it’s encoded. The poem reads:

Διος Ομηρος (The God Homer)

Polyphloisboisteros Homer of old
Threw all his augments into the sea,
Though he’d been firmly but courteously told,
Perfect imperfects begin with an E.

“What the digamma, does any one care!”
The Poet replied with a haughty stare,
And he sat him down by the wine-dark sea,
To write a fresh book of the Odyssey.

A digamma is an archaic letter of the Greek alphabet that resembles the modern Latin letter F. (It had a sound value of /w/.) So the relevant the line could be read as “What the F, does any one care!” It seems likely the poem is a bit of an inside joke. Lester slipped a vulgar expression past the editors knowing that only those who knew Homeric Greek would get the joke. But this would mean that the phrase what the fuck was in use in 1881. That stretches credulity a bit, but not to the breaking point. Fuck was such a taboo word that there are very few printed uses of it in the nineteenth century, so its absence from the printed record is not evidence of its absence in spoken language.

If it is indeed an instance of what the fuck, it was hiding in plain sight. The poem was once well known, at least in certain rarefied circles. The word polyphloisboisteros even has an entry in the OED, with a first citation being from this poem. (It means noisy, boisterous.)

Ben Zimmer has a longer explanation, including a juicy tidbit about Charles Dodgson’s (a.k.a. Lewis Carroll) reaction to the poem, in the Strong Language blog.

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English Time Machine

This video isn’t terrible, but it’s really too simplistic to be useful:

It’s got some problems. It conflates poetic language and everyday speech. It’s focused on the London dialect, as if all English speakers spoke the same way. Some of the unknown words are hardly unknown today (abbess, anyone?) The discussion of the Great Vowel Shift is on the wrong in the timeline; it was pretty much over well before Shakespeare’s day. They don’t attempt to replicate pronunciation until they hit Chaucer; I’m pretty sure that Defoe didn’t sound like the actor who is reading from Robinson Crusoe.

And, while this really isn’t a mistake, you don’t have to go back in time to find hard-to-understand English. There’s a wealth of diversity in English spoken around the world today.

It’s a shame really. The video is very well produced, so why didn’t they take the time to get the subtleties right? It wouldn’t have been difficult.

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Origin Unknown: Profile of Anatoly Liberman

Lapham’s Quarterly has a nice profile of etymologist Anatoly Liberman.

I don’t have much to say about the piece, except to highlight a couple of quotes. On why he pursues etymologies:

“Love is the wrong word,” he says. “Etymology is not a child or a woman. So there is nothing to love it for. It’s the excitement of discovery. Whether you discover a new particle in physics or the origin of a word, it’s really the same thing. It’s the excitement of the chase, the hunter’s feeling that you had your prey, and that you succeeded!”

And on the utility of Google:

“Can you do any searching with computers?” Liberman repeats the question in a resigned tone. “That’s what everybody asks. And, unfortunately, this answer is no. If you want to know the origin of a word, you will open the computer and Google the world heifer. Google will give you the titles of twenty etymological dictionaries, which is a waste to me. I have them all on my shelf. I know much more than a Google search, because I have every edition of every dictionary. I don’t need that. Sometimes Google Books will highlight a page, including Notes and Queries, that will show me something I may not know. But this is not even for dessert. These are crumbs.”

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