Tag Archives: Etymology

Euphemisms

Euphemism 1Language is a fluid concept, constantly changing, adapting, creating, compensating and inventing itself.  Euphemisms are a prime example of that fluctuation and adaptation; successive generations come to know only the euphemism which in turn ceases to be one by that very definition, and which means that new ones will be invented to skirt the issue once again. For instance, there are hundreds of words for smell or stink, yet only a handful of satisfactory synonyms for words like fragrance, simply because hiding the ugly requires far more creativity than hiding the lovely.  For that reason alone, writers who fall back on expletives like the highly offensive F-word (a euphemism for, well, you know) are simply lazy in my book; they’re missing a great opportunity for creativity!  Interestingly, that word’s meaning has never shifted over time – it’s been in the English language since before the fifteenth century, and even then it was only written in cipher because it was too offensive to record in ink.  In my opinion it still is, and one should consider very carefully before offending unknown numbers of readers from continuing to read your book or blog; more than once have I ended reading a book when they used the word several times in the course of the first few chapters, because honestly it says something about the extent of their language abilities and their spectrum (or lack thereof) of creativity.

As a society’s norms shift, so do the euphemisms that they use to communicate.  In the Renaissance, corpulent women were considered the height of beauty; curvy, curvaceous, and shapely were instances of positive euphemisms; today they might be used by some idiot in the media to insult a Hollywood starlet who (by any other standard would be considered normal if not a little thin) gained a pound or two. Now idiot might be too strong a word; I could say brain cell-deficient, or someone who has delusions of adequacy.  I would like to point out the obvious here:  If you’re going to insult someone, at least spell it right… more often than not, you see people calling someone “dumn” or “dumm”, which smacks of the pot calling the kettle black…

For an extensive list of euphemisms, please click on the image.  That website also has lists of anagrams, clichés, metaphors, oxymorons, palindrome and pleonasms, so it’s worth bookmarking for writers!

For an interesting TED Talk (13:00) on the topic of euphemisms, please click here.

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Vague Exactitude

Grammer Flunkies 5Recently I asked my Facebook connections if they could help me with a Latin phrase; the phrase has to do with the computation of days in the Julian calendar (calends, ides, nones, etc.).  Here is my exact post:

“Calling all Romance Language speakers (French, Italian, Spanish, etc.): Does the following phrase (any of its words) render something similar in your language, and if so, what do those words mean? The phrase is in Latin, “Principium mensis cujusque vocato kalendas” I understand the first and last words, but am curious about the three middle words… Thanks for any help.”

Quite a discussion ensued; but I still don’t know if there is an etymological equivalent or relative to “cujusque.”  One person suggested the connection of mensis (month) with the medical term – which I should have thought of as the German slang term is “Mens” for women’s monthly cycle.  But all other entries tried to help me with the first and last word, and I spent more time explaining my request than I saved by asking in the first place.

This is a trend I’ve noticed on the rise on Facebook in particular, but I am aware that it’s also happening across Cyberland; too often people skim over a text and assume they’ve understood it well enough to make an informed contribution to a discussion.  It’s harmless when it only has to do with topics of grammar and language; but when it also enters the formation process of people’s opinions in the political or social arenas, society beware.  I usually ignore such discussions with a healthy dose of eye-rolling; but sometimes I have to intervene in the propagation of half-baked ignorance, or I won’t be able to sleep at night.

The illustration is a perfect example of this vague exactitude; people took the time to reply, but they did not take the time to properly read, to inform themselves of the actual task at hand.  I have only two words to add:  STOP IT!

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Toe the Line vs. Tow the Line

Toe the LineRecently I used the title’s idiom, and to be honest I don’t know if I’d ever used it before in writing; I’ve heard it said onk-times, but never had much use for it so far in written form.  Then came the question, is it “toe” or “tow”?  Actually the original phrase is nautical; but that could still be either spelling.  I did a bit of research, in both etymology dictionaries and a book of naval slang, online and in my library.  The consensus, I present here.

“Toe the line,”  according to Naval History & Heritage, comes from the practice of waterproofing between deck boards with a layer of oakum, pitch and tar, thus creating a striped deck; when the crew was ordered to fall in at quarters they would line up at their designated area of the deck, toes to the line to ensure a neat line for inspection.  Toeing the line was also used as a form of punishment for lighter misdemeanours aboard a ship, such as younger crew members talking at the wrong time; they were made to stand at the line for a specified amount of time to remind them to behave.  A logical leap later and we have our idiom, because the young lads were warned to “toe the line” – they were to mentally toe the line to avoid getting in trouble.

Tow the LineHowever, “Tow the line” could be seen as a malapropism, a mondegreen, or an eggcorn.  A malapropism (also called Dogberryism) is the substitution of an inappropriate word or expression in place of the correct and similarly-sounding word.  Example:  “Officer Dogberry said, “Our watch, sir, have indeed comprehended two auspicious persons” (apprehended two suspicious persons).  A mondegreen is an error arising from  understanding a spoken word or song text incorrectly.  Example:  “The ants are my friends, blowin’ in the wind” (the answer my friends) – Bob Dylan.  An eggcorn is an idiosyncratic (but semantically motivated) substitution of a word or phrase for a word or phrase that sound identical, or nearly so, at least in the dialect the speaker uses.  Example:  “for all intensive purposes” instead of “for all intents and purposes”.  Depending on your view of things, “tow the line could fall into any of those categories.  But it has so often been misused that it has begun to develop its own connotation independent of the original idiom:  While “toe the line” indicates a passive agreement or adherence to a particular regulation or ideology, “tow the line” implies more of an active participation in the enforcement or propagation of that “line” whether political, social, or business policy, as towing an object is not passive, but participative.

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Obscurities: Darkling

The use of Darkling over time.  Source:  Google

The use of Darkling over time. Source: Google

Darkling comes from Middle English derkelyng, and the verb darkle is a back formation thereof.  As a noun it means either darkness or a (fantasy) creature that lives in the dark.  It can also appear as an adjective meaning dark or darkening, or something that is obscure, unseen, or happening in the cover of darkness.  As an adverb it means in the dark or obscurity.

There is a Darkling Beetle, and a poem by Thomas Hardy called The Darkling Thrush, though the more usual use of the word is to be found in Science Fiction, e.g. in Star Trek Voyager, Marvel Comics, and a wide range of fantasy characters on the dark side of the fence.

According to the Urban Dictionary, you are a darkling if you are more sarcastic than charming, or if you are a geek, but a cool one.  Another application might be a portmanteau word from dark and darling.

Obscure 2

 

 

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The Jabberwocky and the Totemügerli

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, chances are you’ve heard of Alice in Wonderland; at the least your curiosity might have been piqued enough to read it after seeing The Matrix, or be mistaken in thinking that you don’t need to read the book if you saw Tim Burton’s film with Johnnie Depp.  The sequel to Lewis Carroll’s most famous work (mentioned above), called “Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There“, written in 1871, contains the famous nonsensical poem called the Jabberwocky, which I present here:

“Jabberwocky”

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves

Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;

All mimsy were the borogoves,

And the mome raths outgrabe.

“Beware the Jabberwock, my son!

The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!

Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun

The frumious Bandersnatch!”

He took his vorpal sword in hand:

Long time the manxome foe he sought—

So rested he by the Tumtum tree,

And stood awhile in thought.

And as in uffish thought he stood,

The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,

Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,

And burbled as it came!

One, two! One, two! and through and through

The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!

He left it dead, and with its head

He went galumphing back.

“And hast thou slain the Jabberwock?

Come to my arms, my beamish boy!

O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!”

He chortled in his joy.

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves

Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;

All mimsy were the borogoves,

And the mome raths outgrabe.

Many of the nonsensical words are what Lewis Carroll (aka Charles Lutwidge Dodgson) coined Jabberwockyas “portmanteau words” meaning the combination of both sound and meaning of two words into one; e.g. frumious being “fuming” and “furious”.  Some of the words have since made it into the English language, such as galumph or chortle, while some were words he revived, such as gyre and beamish.  And personally I think some of his words deserve wider use, such as brilling, slithy, snicker-snack and Bandersnatch!  Click on the photo to the right to hear the poem read.

 

Now… “what is the Totemügerli,” I hear you ask?  It is the Swiss-German version – not a translation, but an original story by Franz Hohler, a Swiss cabaret performer; Bernese German, to be more precise.  Bern is the political capital of Switzerland, and historically has one of the richest, most colourful dialects of all the Swiss German dialects; I am fluent in the Zürich dialect, and can understand all the other Swiss-German dialects, including Walliserdïïtsch, which is the oldest of all Swiss dialects; and I can guarantee you that the Totemügerli story is 90% nonsense, and yet tells a clear tale!  For those of you interested in the text, here it is:

Ds Totemügerli

von Franz Hohler

Gäuit, wemer da grad eso schön binanger sitze, hani däicht, chönntech

vilicht es bärndütsches Gschichtli erzelle. Es isch zwar es bsungers

uganteligs Gschichtli, wo aber no gar nid eso lang im Mittlere

Schattegibeleggtäli passiert isch:

Der Schöppelimunggi u der Houderebäseler si einischt schpät am Abe,

wo scho der Schibützu durs Gochlimoos pfoderet het, über s Batzmättere

Heigisch im Erpfetli zueglüffe u hei nang na gschtigelet u gschigöggelet,

das me z Gotts Bäri hätt chönne meine, si sige nanger scheich.

«Na ei so schlöözige Blotzbänggu am Fläre, u i verminggle der s Bätzi,

dass d Oschterpföteler ghörsch zawanggle!»

«Drby wärsch froh, hättsch en einzige nuesige Schiggeler uf em Lugipfupf!»

U so isch das hin u härgange wie nes Färegschäderli amene Milchgröözi,

da seit plötzlech Houderebäseler zu Schöppelimunggi:

«Schtill! Was ziberlet dert näbem Tobelöhli z grachtige n uuf u aab?»

Schöppelimunggi het gschläfzet wie ne Gitzeler u hets du o gseh. Es

Totemügerli! U nid numen eis, nei, zwöi, drü, vier, füüf, es ganzes

Schoossinjong voll si da desumegschläberlet u hei zäng pinggerlet u

globofzgerlet u gschanghangizigerlifisionööggelet, das es eim richtig agschnäggelet het.

Schöppelimunggi u Houderebäseler hei nang nume zuegmutzet u hei ganz

hingerbyggelig wöllen abschöberle. Aber chuum hei si der Awang ytröölet,

gröözet es Totemügerli:

«Heee, dir zweee!»

U denen isch i d Chnöde glöötet wie bschüttigs Chrüzimääl dure Chätschäbertrog.

Düpfelig u gnütelig si si blybe schtah wie zwöi gripseti Mischtschwibeli,

u scho isch das Totemügerli was tschigerlisch was

pfigerlisch binene zueche gsi. Äs het se zersch es Rüngli chyblig u

gschiferlig aagnöttelet u het se de möögglige gfraget:

«Chöit dir is hälfe, ds Blindeli der Schtotzgrotzen ueche z graagge?»

Wo der Schöppelimunggi das Wort «Blindeli» ghört het, het em fasch

wölle ds Härzgätterli zum Hosegschingg uspföderle,

aber der Houderebäseler het em zueggaschplet:

«Du weisch doch, das men imene Totemügerli nid darf nei säge!»

U du si si halt mitgschnarpflet.

«Sooo, dir zweee!» het ds Totemügerli gseit, wo si zum Blindeli cho si,

u die angere Totemügerli si ganz rüeiig daaggalzlet u hei numen ugschynig ychegschwärzelet.

Da hei die beide gwüsst, was es Scheieli Gschlychets ds Gloubige

choschtet u hei das Blindeli aagroupet, der eint am schörpfu, der anger a de Gängertalpli.

Uuuh, isch das e botterepfloorigi Schtrüpfete gsi!

Die zwee hei gschwouderet u ghetzpacheret, das si z näbis meh gwüsst hei,

wo se der Gürchu zwurglet.

Daa, z eis Dapf, wo si scho halber der Schtotzgrotzen

uecheghaschpaaperet si, faht sech das Blindeli afah ziirgge u bäärgglet mit

schychem Schtimmli:

«Ooh, wie buuchet mi der Glutz!»

Jetz hets aber im Schöppelimunggi böös im Schyssächerli gguugget.

Är het das Blindeli la glootsche u isch der Schtotzgrotz abdotzeret,

wie wenn em der Hurligwaagg mit em Flarzyse der Schtirps vermöcklet hätt.

«Häb dure, Münggu!» het em der Houderebäseler na naagräätschet;

u de het er nüt meh gwüsst.

Am angere Morge het ne ds Schtötzgrötzeler Eisi gfunge, chäfu u tunggig

wien en Öiu, u es isch meh weder e Monet gange,

bis er wider het chönne s Gräppli im Hotschmägeli bleike.

Totemügerli u Blindeli het er keis meh gseh sis Läbe lang, aber o der

Schöppelimunggi isch vo da a verschwunde gsi.

S git Lüt, wo säge, dass sider am Schtotzgrotzen es Totemügerli meh desumeschirggelet.

If you’d like to hear it read out by Franz Hohler himself, in a cabaret show recorded during the ’80s, just click on the image below.

 

Totemürgeli, by Willy Vogelsang

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The Separate Language

Having lived on both sides of the Puddle (that’s the Atlantic, for you Americans), I can confirm that English truly is a language that separates the Old World from the New.  While the American language seems to be simplifying through the school system and mass media (and don’t even get me started on the spelling!), I doubt that will ever happen in the UK… the language is far too entertaining to let it get boring.  Click on the image below for a few gems like “Donkey’s Years”, “it’s monkeys”, “to have a butcher’s”, and “up the wooden hill to Bedfordshire”.

Anglophenia

 

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The Etymology of February and Wednesday

 

February & Wednesday

We can blame both spellings on the Romans!  February is fairly clear:  Februa is thought to be a Sabine word (maybe we could blame them for italics, too), meaning “purifications”; Februarius mensis was the month of purification.  Before 450 BC this was actually the last month in the ancient calendar and referred to the feast of purification celebrated on the ides of that month throughout the Roman Empire.  Ides was the term used for approximately mid-month, being the 13th or 15th, depending on whether that particular month had 29 or 31 days.  Interestingly, in English it replaced the Old English solmonað (“mud month”… very appropriate, that) sometime in the 12th century when they began using the Old French term Feverier.

Wednesday accumulated slightly more pedigree before landing in our agendas:  It started off as the “day of (the god) Mercury,” the Latin dies Mercurii.  It was confiscated by the Scandinavians for their own religious version for Odin, Oðinsdagr (Old Norse) or Onsdag in Swedish.  This came with them over the Channel and was adopted by their English counterparts as wodnesdæg, or “Woden’s day.”  Old Frisian came fairly close to modern English with Wonsdei (I’ve probably seen that spelling on Facebook from people who can’t type with their i-phones properly…).  By the mid- 400 AD period, the Germanic Goths had been converted from Paganism to Christianity by Greek missionaries, and their language began to reflect the changes:  The astrological or religious terms gave way to ecclesiastical (or at least neutral) ones.  This difference is reflected in words like Mittwoch (German for Wednesday, meaning literally “mid-week”), sreda (Russian), or środa (Polish), both meaning literally “middle.”

So there you have it:  Blame it on the Romans, or the Vikings; but whoever you blame, just remember to spell them in correct modern English.

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Obsoletus vocabularium, or: Up with Archaism!

Comic from xkcd used under a Creative Commons licenseEnglish is a relatively young language, as languages go; like a parasitic sponge, it absorbs words and meanings from other languages, soaks them in until it’s bursting to explode, and then – well perhaps I should use a more romantic notion for such a popular, diverse and divisive tongue:  English is a survivor.  It as survived attempts at destroying by the Danish Vikings, the French, and the Germans (and thus gives me high hopes that it will survive the age of the Cell Phone).  And with each encounter it came out stronger, more versatile and flexible.  Then the Pilgrims crated it off in their minds and hearts to the New World, locked as it were in a time capsule; British English absorbed a few bad habits from the French before they thought better of it and distanced themselves during the French Revolution, but in the meantime contentious pronunciation differences had crept in that persist to this day, e.g.:  American pronunciation of schedule (/skedju(e)l/) is from the original Greek pronunciation which was used in Britain for onk-years, until they took on the fancier French-ified pronunciation of /shedju(e)l/.  But I digress.

Words have been lost along the way:  Some words are known to us in one form, but not the other, while other words have been lost altogether due to a more convenient absorption or form arising.  You know of disgruntled (adj.), but what about gruntle (v.) or disgruntle (v.)?  And dis– in this particular case is not used to form the antonym of gruntle, but meaning very gruntled.  And I don’t know about you, but conject as a verb makes more sense than conjecture to me.  And shall we vote to bring back oliphant, as JRR Tolkien saved it from extinction through his use of it in Lord of the Rings?  What about pash (n.), contex (v.), or spelunk (n.)?  We know of fiddle-faddle, but what about plain ol’ “faddle” (to trifle)?  Some, admittedly, are not missed; toforan is better served with heretofore, in my humble opinion (IMHO).  Needsways is a Scottish word, obsolete in England and America perhaps, but alive and well north of the Borders.  There are some deliciously eccentric words that deserve surviving, such as loblolly, bric-a-brac, sulter, pill (v., to plunder, pillage – ought to come in handy, that), quib, bugbear (though I think children would rather see that one die out), uptake (as a verb), wist (intent), or sluggy.  If Sir Walter Scott can save words such as doff and don from extinction, so can we.

Oh, and if you’re wondering about the word archaism, it means “retention of what is old and obsolete.”  So twinge your language to include these mobile words and their meanings, and revelate your intelligence!

To find out what any of the above words mean and where they come from, check out one of my favourite go-to websites:  The Online Etymology Dictionary.

[Comic from xkcd, used under a Creative Commons license.]

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