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Word origin of CALIBER
Posted: 02 November 2010 04:31 PM   [ Ignore ]
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This is my first post at wordorigins.org. Most of today’s English dictionaries say “CALIBER” | “CALIBRE” is surely from Arabic, and the remainder say it’s likely. I don’t believe it. The attestation details I’ve been able to find on the Net, particularly at CNRTL.fr/etymologie/calibre, say the word is first seen in the West in 1478 in the interior of Northern France (Rouen), a place with no contact with the Arabic language. The word next appears on the record in mid-16th century French and English, late 16th century Spanish, and early 17th century Italian. Italian was the ‘’lingua franca’’ around the Mediterranean rim in the 15th and 16th centuries, and today we can acknowledge that Italian had a realistic capability of transfering an Arabic word to the West at the time. The fact that the word Caliber is not on record in Italian until the 17th century leaves the Arabic-origin story without an historically plausible transfer route. If an Arabic word were useful enough to enter French in the mid-16th century, then it should have been useful enough to enter the Mediterranean “lingua franca” at the same time, or earlier, in all likelihood.

The Arabic word ‘’qālib’’ means “mold” or “template” in the broad, generic sense. Caliber’s “original Western meaning, ‘diameter of a bullet or cannon-ball’, derives from the Arabic sense ‘mould for casting metal’ “, says one English etymology dictionary (quoted at Wikipedia). In Arabic documents that survive from around the 15th century, the word was used for a mold for shoe-making. Records exist of its use as a mold for casting metal back in the 9th century, but I can see no one citing a use of the word in the metal-casting sense at a *required* later date, such as in the 15th century.

I suggest—though I wouldn’t bet my life on it—that caliber actually comes from the medieval Latin word “Calibe” meaning steel. Here for example is Bartholomaeus Anglicus in his Latin book “De proprietatibus rerum”, written in 1240 and quoted here as it was printed in 1483: “nec calibe, nec ferro, nec etiam ferra”, which translates as “not steel, not iron, not other ferrous material”. The book was one of the most popular and widely read books in late medieval Europe. The Latin is on the Net at Archive.org at (zoom at upperleft) archive.org/stream/deproprietatibu00anglgoog#page/n306/mode/1up/search/necferroy

Du Cange’s Glossary of Medieval Latin at ducange.enc.sorbonne.fr/CALIBEUS has an example of use of Latin “calibeus” = steel, dated 1361.

Here’s an example of the use of “calibe” meaning steel at an English abbey in 1368: “In reparacione et posicione 9 securium et 8 ponsons, cum calibe.” A “punson”—was also spelled “ponchon”—was a pointed punching tool (bit like a chisel), and “punsons cum calibe” means steel coated punching tools. The whole sentence translates as “for repairing and fitting 9 hatchets and 8 punches, with steel.” Here is a more inscrutable example from England, this dated 1400: “ij di. bar. calib. iij bar. wyspstrele.... Pro iij bar. sungm., xv wysp. calab.” There, the word “wysp” is English “wisp” and in context it appears to be some sort of a thin rod of steel. These examples are from the Middle English Dictionary, a huge and terrific dictionary of Middle English (1100-1500) that is free and searchable online at quod.lib.umich.edu/m/med/

The Middle English Dictionary, under its entry for “shef”, quotes the phrase “in uno schaf calibis”, where “calibis” = steel, and “schaf” is a Middle English spelling of sheaf. That’s not Latin. More quotations can be found under its entries for “gadde”, “stele” (adj.), “stele” (n.(3)), “steled”, and punchoun and wispe. The Middle English Dictionary’s quotations include the following two items from a Latin-to-English Dictionary dated 1500:
[Latin] Calibeus = [English] stele [i.e. steel, in modern spelling]
[Latin] Calibatus = [English] stelyd [steeled in modern spelling]

As one last example, an English-to-Latin dictionary dated about 1475 translated the English word for steel as the Latin “calebs”. That’s in the UMich Middle English Dictionary too, under its entry for “stele” (n.(3)), and by the way a slightly different 1483 version of that English-to-Latin dictionary is at Archive.org with the relevant page viewable online at (zoom upperleft) archive.org/stream/catholiconanglic00herrrich#page/360/mode/2up/search/calebs

The late medieval Latin “calibe” / “calibeus” / “calab.” / “calibis” / “calebs” came from the classical Latin “chalybs”, which also meant steel.

Cannon barrels were made of steel. The above citations are saying “calibe” (& the other wordforms) was in pretty extensive circulation shortly before the emergence of the word “caliber” meaning diameter of a cannon barrel. I think the early “caliber” referred to the barrel, and not the cannon-ball, on the basis of interpreting what’s said at CNRTL.fr about the meaning of the early French. No matter what the true origin of “caliber” might be, the fact that “calibe” = steel was a longstanding known word to the people of the time is bound to have affected the interpretation and adoption of the new word.

The Arabic ‘’qālib’’ is phonetically and semantically fine as a proposed progenitor of “caliber”, but it has a deadly lack of historical supportive context for the transfer of the word both on the Arabic side and on the Western side. The Latin “calibe” is phonetically impeccable, semantically not too far off target, and has powerful historical supportive context. I’ve not read the OED’s treatment of CALIBER, because the OED is not free online and I don’t live near a library. If you have any info that I appear to be blind about, either from the OED or elsewhere, I’d like to hear it.

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Posted: 02 November 2010 05:01 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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Welcome.

The OED etymology says

a. F. calibre (qualibre in Cotgr. 1611) = It. calibro, Sp. calibre (OSp. also calibo, Diez) of uncertain origin; the Arab. qālib ‘mould for casting metal’, or some cognate derivative of qalaba to turn, has been suggested as the source.

The Spanish connection provides an obvious route of transmission from Arabic.

I’m not a military historian, but my impression was that steel cannon weren’t introduced until the 19th century, and at the etymologically relevant time, they would have been made of bronze (often called brass) or wrought iron.

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Posted: 02 November 2010 06:06 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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One thing I think I didn’t make totally clear in my first post is that Arabic ‘’qālib’’ is not attested in the sense of “caliber”; it is only attested in the sense of mold or template, and we’ve no explanation for how that word was adopted and changed to caliber.

Regarding an Arabic-->Spanish-->French route, the first point is that the Spanish is not attested until well after the French. Namely the French is on record in 1478, 1548, 1571 and then records become abundant. The Spanish is only attested once in the form ‘’calibio’’ in 1583. Then it’s ‘’calibre’’ in 1594, and records don’t become abundant until the next century. Second point is that the era we’re talking about is well past the era when Spanish was borrowing of words from Arabic, so borrowing CALIBER i’s statistically unlikely in that sense. Third point is that the man who is still the king of the experts on Spanish borrowings from Arabic, namely Reinhart Dozy (1820-1883), believes the Spanish word is from French and is not Arabic. His 400-page book “Glossaire des mots espagnols et portugais dérivés de l’arabe”, published in 1869 is downloadable at Archive.org at archive.org/details/glossairedesmot00englgoog

Mais quant à calibre, je crois avec H. Hahn {Etym. Unters., p. S, 6) qu’il faut en chercher l’origine, non pas dans l’arabe, mais dans le latin. L’accent ne permet pas de le dériver de câlab [i.e. Arabic ‘’qālib’’], et la signification de ce dernier mot ne convient pas non plus. Aux arguments donnés par le savant que je viens de nommer, on peut ajouter que, selon M. Jal (Glossaire nautique), le français du XVIe siècle avait équalibre pour calibre.

As for the question about what “steel” meant in the late middle ages, it was harder than iron and somewhat comparable to modern steel though not stainless steel. I just did a quick lookup at Wikipedia, and found the article en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cannon_in_the_Middle_Ages which says “by the end of the 15th century [cannon] were more often cast in bronze, rather than banding iron sections together.... Another small-bore cannon of the 14th century was the culverin… The culverin was forged of iron.” The point that cannon were often cast in bronze is a very good point, thank you. Today’s Wikipedia author used the word “iron” because late medieval steel was more akin to today’s iron than today’s steel. I’d say that where the Wikipedia author uses the word “iron” it would’ve been called “steel” in the middle ages, or often so, because the middle ages’s steel was preferable to iron for the purpose.

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Posted: 02 November 2010 11:19 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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The late medieval Latin “calibe” / “calibeus” / “calab.” / “calibis” / “calebs” came from the classical Latin “chalybs”, which also meant steel.

Hence the term “chalybeate waters”, for waters containing dissolved salts of iron (e.g. Harrogate, Tunbridge Wells), supposed to do the humours no end of good (presumably on the principle “if it tastes foul it must be good for you"). Ferrous sulphide is not everybody’s favourite flavour......

Welcome, o learned vizier. Your erudite posting promises added enrichment for this forum.

[ Edited: 02 November 2010 11:25 PM by lionello ]
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Posted: 03 November 2010 02:40 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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Remember, as Dr. T. points out, that portions Spain were held by the Arabs until 1492 and a large number of Arabic words made their way into European languages via this route.

I don’t know the nature of the Rouen document that has the early use in French, but you can’t read too much into the location. Trade routes were extensive. The paucity of surviving documents means that the first extant recorded use of a term is often decades after it had been widely established. And certain documents, like those held in monastic or cathedral libraries, had a way of making the rounds of European cities before settling into permanent residence somewhere far from their point of origin (e.g., The Vercelli Manuscript of Old English prose and verse is in northern Italy).

The leap from a mold for casting metal to the metal balls cast with that mold is not a big one.

I’d say that where the Wikipedia author uses the word “iron” it would’ve been called “steel” in the middle ages, or often so, because the middle ages’s steel was preferable to iron for the purpose.

This is a case where I wouldn’t rely heavily on Wikipedia. Medieval metallurgy is a really specialized and arcane field. Close reading of the Wikipedia article isn’t going to be very productive. And medieval steel could be extremely hard and rival modern steel for quality—notably in sword production. It was the ability to produce high-quality steel in large quantities was the difference between then and now.

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Posted: 03 November 2010 06:28 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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Since yesterday I’ve done some reading about gun and cannon barrels in 15th century England. It is clear—don’t look at my red ears—in terms of the use of words, and regardlesss of the technicalities of the metalworking, that “brass” was usual, and “iron” second. I didn’t find any instances of a “steel” gun at quod.lib.umich.edu/m/med/. I also verified that Dave Wilton’s comments about metallurgy are correct. Thanks for the feedback.

The Arabic-origin story for CALIBER remains very flimsy, imho. Online dictionaries that say it’s the true story with no such qualifier as “probably” or “perhaps” include Merriam-Webster, Webster’s New World, American Heritage, Random House, and Collins English Dictionary. The Concise OED and Chambers 21st Century Dictionary say it’s “probably” true. Etymonline says “perhaps”.

Another instance of this sort is the word CORK. This word is totally absent from Arabic writings. Dictionaries that say the word is of Arabic origin with no such qualifier as “probably” or “perhaps” include Merriam-Webster, Random House, and Chambers. Those saying cork is “probably” from Arabic include American Heritage, Collins, Concise OED, and Etymonline. Webster’s New World says “pehaps”.

The basis for supposing CORK to be from Arabic is that the earliest occurrences are in Spanish in the form ‘’alcorque’’ at a time when Spanish was borrowing Arabic words (13th century) and the ‘’al’’ part of the word looks Arabic. In Spanish today ‘’alcornoque’’ = cork tree, and ‘’corcho’’ = cork material. The ancient Romans used cork. It is generally agreed that regardless of whether the word is of Arabic intermediation or not, it’s eventually from the classical Latin quercus = oak & cork oak tree; or the classical Latin cortex = bark & cork bark material; or a melding of the two. The Arabic for cork is unrelated to either of those. Repeating myself, the cork word is unattested in Arabic both before and after it emerged in Spanish.

Classical Latin ‘’larix’’ is the source for the tree-name in English larch, German Lärche, Italian larice, Portuguese lariço, and Spanish alerce. The Spanish is of late medieval provenance, and while the prepended ‘a’ on the Spanish form may perhaps reflect an Arabic influence it is not by itself enough to establish that Spanish ‘’alerce’’ comes from an Arabic source. The Larch word is unattested in medieval Arabic writings, and the Larch genus of trees does not grow natively in Arabic-speaking lands. Larches are cold-climate conifers. They loose their needle-like leaves over the winter; and they like cold winters. They grow natively in Siberia and at higher altitudes in central Europe.

The Random House Dictionary says:  ME cork ( e ) < Ar qurq < L quercus oak (dictionary.reference.com/browse/cork)
Merriam-Webster says: ...from Old Spanish alcorque, ultimately from dial. Arabic qurq, from Latin quercus oak (merriam-webster.com/dictionary/cork)
Chambers Dictionary says: from Arabic qurq, from Latin quercus oak. (chambersharrap.co.uk)

But that ‘’qurq’’ is theoretically retrofitted from the Spanish ‘’alcorque’’; it’s not a real word.

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Posted: 03 November 2010 11:05 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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Again, it seems to be a bit more complicated. The OED has this:

The Sp. corche represents (directly or indirectly) L. corticem bark (in which sense Sp. now uses corteza:—L. corticea). Alcorque, known in Sp. of date 1458, was immediately from Sp. Arabic (Covarrubias 1611 has ‘dicho en Arabigo corque’); but its origin is uncertain; Dozy thinks it represents L. quercus. If this be so, then corque, and by implication cork, has no connexion [sic] with Sp. corcha, corche, or L. cortex.

So it does seem to appear in the dialect of Arabic spoken in Spain, but later than the thirteenth century. It seems likely that the Moors picked it up from Latin. The OED also does not say the English word is from the Spanish:

Cf. Sp. corcha, corche in same sense; but 15th c. corke, with 16th c. Du. kork, kurk, Ger. kork, appears to represent OSp. alcorque “a corke shooe, a pantofle” (Minsheu), in which sense corke is cited in 1463 (sense 2); cf. also Ger. korke slipper (1595 in Grimm).

So it is the shoe connection that gives the etymologists confidence to link the Northern European words to the Spanish. The cite noted in the OED etymology is:

1463-4 Act 2-3 Edw. IV, c. 4 Botes, shoen, galoches or corkes.

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Posted: 03 November 2010 01:52 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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The Portuguese word for ”cork” (the material) is corteça, certainly from the Latin. The Portuguese word given by my dictionary for Sp. alcornoque (the cork-oak, quercus suber) is sobreiro (cf. Italian sughero = cork material). I gather, from what reezawaJ (sorry, best I can do) writes, that there are no mediaeval Western Arabic references to cork; what is cork called in West African (Morocco, Tunisia) Arabic today?
The RAE says that alcornoque is from the Spanish Arabic alcurnuq, derived from Low Latin quernus, derived in its turn from Latin quercus.
Suber obviously comes in somewhere (cf. the chemical term, suberin), but I don’t know where - my Latin stops at amo amas amat

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Posted: 03 November 2010 02:21 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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lionello - 03 November 2010 01:52 PM

reezawaJ (sorry, best I can do)

reezawaF, or Fawazeer, which means a collection of traditional Arabic riddles, each riddle being called a fazzoura.

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Posted: 04 November 2010 12:15 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
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Thanks Dave Wilton for the info from the OED. Here’s some critique of what the OED says.

The OED says: ”Alcorque, known in Sp. of date 1458, was immediately from Sp. Arabic (Covarrubias 1611 has ‘dicho en Arabigo corque’)”

(1) Citing somebody writing in Spanish in the 17th century is in no way an attestation for a word in Arabic in much earlier centuries. Covarrubias is probably making the same unsupported inference, i.e. that the word’d be in Arabic because it’s in Spanish with “al-”. The OED baldly asserts here that the Spanish was immediately from Arabic yet can deliver zero attestion for the word in Arabic. (2) In the Middle English Dictionary at quod.lib.umich.edu/cgi/m/ the earliest attestion of ‘’cork’’ in English is year 1303. Therefore the Spanish ‘’alcorque’’ of a date of 1458 looks beside the point because it’s more than 150 years too late. Covarrubias is more than 300 years to late!

The OED says: “15th c. [English] corke, with 16th c. Du. kork, kurk, Ger. kork, appears to represent OSp. alcorque “a corke shooe, a pantofle” (Minsheu), in which sense corke is cited in [English] 1463 (sense 2);”

In the Middle English Dictionary (MED) the earliest citation of cork meaning a shoe or shoe-sole is 1391 as “Pro j pare corkes” (interpret: “for a pair of cork sandals"). The MED also has the item dated 1463 that’s cited by the OED. I infer that the OED author hadn’t seen the earlier, 1391, item that MED has. Dave Wilton hasn’t given us the complete OED entry, but it’s looking to me like the OED hasn’t seen the attestations of the *unworked* cork material in English in 1303, 1342 and 1397. Here they are:
(1303) in Gras Eng.Cust.Syst.  296:  De Arnaldo Blanc pro bord et cork’. [lumber boards and cork] [Eng.Cust.Syst. is the English import tariff records ("Customs")]
(1342) Chancery Inquis.file 148(22) [OD col.] :  Navis carcata erat in eisdem partibus [Lisbon] cum sale et cork. [ship from Lisbon with salt and cork]
(1397) in Gras Eng.Cust.Syst.  439:  i barello di. cork’ val. iii s. [barrel of cork] [Eng.Cust.Syst. is the English import tariff records ("Customs")]

Dave Wilton tells us the OED does not say the English word is directly from the Spanish. The problem is, as you can see above, the word in English has its earliest attestations in imports of *unworked* cork from Spain and Portugal *directly* (assuming Arnaldo Blanc is an Iberian name—it doesn’t look English or Dutch). The shoe sense does not appear until nearly a century afterwards—i.e., 1303 versus 1391.

BTW and although it’s beside the point, the OED says of Spanish ‘’alcorque’’: “Dozy thinks it represents L. quercus. If this be so, then corque, and by implication cork, has no connexion [sic] with Sp. corcha, corche, or L. cortex.” An Etymological Dictionary of the Romance Languages by F. Diez as translated to Englsh by Donkin (1864) is downloadable at archive.org/stream/etymologicaldict00diezuoft#page/16/mode/2up. Its etymology for alcornoque = “cork tree” is different from its etymology from alcorque = “cork material”, the first from Latin quercus = oak and the other from Latin cortex = bark. (In neither case can it say that those Spanish ‘’al” words are from Arabic, and that’s my point. But the following is off on a tangent). Some of today’s dictionaries say English “cork” is ultimately from “quercus” and others say ultimately from “cortex”, and I suppose a blend of the two by Spanish-speakers might also be possible. Etymonline.com admits both when it says “… ultimately from L. quercus “oak” (see fir) or perhaps cortex (gen. corticis) “bark."” Although the “cork” word was new, the cork material was used by the ancient Romans and seems to have been in pretty common use by them. You could probably solve this question by finding out what word the Iberians used in the centuries just before they started using corcho/alcorque/alcornoque.

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Posted: 04 November 2010 12:23 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]
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lionello - 03 November 2010 01:52 PM

The Portuguese word for ”cork” (the material) is corteça, certainly from the Latin..... what is cork called in West African (Morocco, Tunisia) Arabic today?

Sorry I don’t know the answer to that question. The Modern Standard Arabic for cork can be easily looked up at translate.google.com/#en|ar|cork

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Posted: 04 November 2010 01:16 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]
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There’s a comedian in Los Angeles who has a syndicated radio program called “Le Show”. The “Le” bit is almost certainly from French, which implies the “Show” bit is probably from French too. The “Show” bit is unattested in French writings, but we can easily infer that the term was part of oral dialectical French, where it would have been pronounced “Le Cheau”.

American Heritage Dictionary @ YourDictionary.com: CORK: Origin: Middle English, from Dutch kurk or Low German korck, both from Spanish alcorque, cork-soled shoe, probably from Arabic dialectal al-qūrq : al-, the + qūrq (from Latin quercus, oak; see perkwu- in Indo-European roots).

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Posted: 04 November 2010 02:52 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]
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BTW, welcome to the forum, ᴚǝǝƶɐʍɐɈ. Solid first thread.

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Posted: 04 November 2010 03:47 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]
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In the Middle English Dictionary (MED) the earliest citation of cork meaning a shoe or shoe-sole is 1391 as “Pro j pare corkes” (interpret: “for a pair of cork sandals"). The MED also has the item dated 1463 that’s cited by the OED. I infer that the OED author hadn’t seen the earlier, 1391, item that MED has. Dave Wilton hasn’t given us the complete OED entry, but it’s looking to me like the OED hasn’t seen the attestations of the *unworked* cork material in English in 1303, 1342 and 1397.

Note two of these are Latin, not English, citations and the third may be—the 1303 citation is macaronic; it’s mostly Latin, but there is bord in there, which makes me want to see the fuller context before passing judgment. That’s why they’re not cited in the OED, which generally doesn’t include cites in other languages. I’m actually a bit surprised these are in the MED.

Two of the other MED citations are relevant and antedate the OED first cite. There is this one from Guy de Chauliac’s Grande Chirurgie, a.1425:

Medicyne cicatrizatiue & sigillatif...drieþ þe superficite of a wounde so þat þer be made a corke [L cortex] i. bark or rinde vpon it.

The MED defines this usage as a “scab on a wound;” this is the only cite for this sense. I don’t see this as evidence for the word being used in this sense, but rather de Chauliac is using it metaphorically—the scab is like cork bark. I’d also like to know if the Latin gloss is in the manuscript or has been inserted by the MED editors.

The other is a Latin gloss in Promptorium Parvulorum from 1440.

Based on all these, I’d have to agree that the Spanish-Arabic connection is problematic. The English word is most likely taken directly from Latin.

[ Edited: 04 November 2010 03:49 AM by Dave Wilton ]
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Posted: 04 November 2010 06:48 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 14 ]
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Dave Wilton is right that not everything in the Middle English Dictionary is English; and I should have spoken of England instead of English in a couple of spots earlier. I haven’t seen the full OED “cork” entry, but still I’ll bet its author never saw the 1303 “bord et cork” fact. One ground for so betting is that the OED author uses the spelling ‘’connexion’’ [sic], a spelling not used by British newspapers for a long time. It suggests the OED article is old. Older than the MED. The MED dates from the 2nd half of the 20th century. Another gound I have is that a few days ago I came across another instance of this, I believe. Namely, the Concise OED and most other online dictionaries say the container word “Jar” entered English in the late 16th century, whereas the MED has this attestation in 1421:  “pro ii pipis vinegre, i barello, iii jarris olei.”. That is genuine English for “2 pipes of vineger, 1 barrel, 3 jars of oil.” A “pipe” in the context is “a large storage container” as detailed here and “ii pipis” is genuine English for 2 pipes. Likewise “iii jarris” is English for “3 jars” (and it is not the dative/ablative plural of the Latin ‘’jarra’’). I haven’t seen the OED’s entry for Jar, but the dictionaries on Net that I know are drawing from it are telling me that this 1421 fact isn’t in the OED.

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Posted: 04 November 2010 09:01 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 15 ]
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The cork oak is indigenous to the Western Mediterranean, and seems to have been an industrial crop there from Roman times. If the Arabs had any acquaintance at all with cork, prior to their conquest of Africa and Spain in the 7th-8th centuries, it would have been as an exotic material, already having a name.  It seems to me reasonably likely that on settling in Spain, the Arabs would have adopted the names for cork, and for the cork oak, which were already in local use - just as they did with other novelties (when the Arabs began to issue coins of their own, for instance, they gave them Roman-derived names: dinar (denarius) and dirham (drachma).

I think that any origin other than a Latin one for the Arabic word (or words) for cork and the cork-oak, is exceedingly unlikely. And the same goes for European languages. 

According to Google ( thanks, reezawaF) the modern Arabic word for cork is transliterated as kwrk

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