Archive for the ‘Etymology’ Category

Morning names: naked mole rat, Penn Palestra

July 25, 2015

A double-header this morning. I have no idea where the naked mole rat came from. The Palestra at Penn was undoubtedly prompted by the music of Palestrina, which was playing on WQXR when I woke — though it turns out that palaestras and Palestrina have nothing to do with one another etymologically, nor has either of them anything to do with palisades.

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It’s the glue, Ruthie

July 7, 2015

Today’s One Big Happy, with one of Ruthie’s word confusions:

Collage, collagen: etymological cousins.

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Sunday Pun

April 12, 2015

Today’s Bizarro, with an outrageous play on The Mummy’s Curse (the movie):

(#1)

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Boobies

March 29, 2015

Annals of remarkable birds (like the hoatzin, here): an image passed on to me by Chris Hansen:

(#1)

Two blue-footed boobies. Yes, that’s their real color. But why boobies?

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cumin

March 20, 2015

On the NPR blog on the 11th, “From Ancient Sumeria To Chipotle Tacos, Cumin Has Spiced Up The World” by Adam Maskevich, with this striking claim:

In English, … cumin has a singular distinction – it is the only word that can be traced directly back to Sumerian, the first written language. So when we talk about cumin, we are harkening back to the Sumerian word gamun, first written in the cuneiform script more than 4,000 years ago. [hearken back is a variant of hark back, recognized by NOAD2]

This is extravagantly phrased. There’s a connection to Sumerian, but it’s far from direct.

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gormless

February 23, 2015

Today’s One Big Happy, in which it turns out that Ruthie isn’t the only character who’s unsure about word meanings:

NOAD2 identifies gormless as informal and specifically British, so it’s no surprise that the adults don’t know what it means (though the appalling Avis takes it back to a putative noun stem gorm, which she treats as a mass noun (gormless ‘without gorm, lacking gorm’), though it could be a count noun (gormless ‘without gorms, lacking gorms’)).

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Lexicographer, unchained

January 15, 2015

From lexicographer Kory Stamper on her blog (“harm∙less drudg∙ery: life from inside the dictionary”) of December 19th: “Answers I Wish I Could Send: Etymology Edition”, with comments from readers (edited some for clarity) and sharp-tongued answers she wishes she could give. Making points on my blog, Language Log, Ben Zimmer’s blogs, etc. Hilarious stuff. Some highlights below.

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Annals of etymythology: to pass for

November 26, 2014

In a Harper’s Magazine review (Dec. 2014, pp. 84-6) of Allyson Hobbs, A Chosen Exile: A History of Racial Passing in American Life (Harvard) by Joshua Cohen, we read about the sad history of “black” people passing as “white”, with a story about the origin of the usage:

The term “passing” seems to come from the passes that slaves had to carry, which allowed them to visit their relatives on other plantations or when they were rented out for day labor.

Lexicographers and linguists will immediately smell a rat: the story is detailed and grounded in a very specific piece of history (and so is attractive to many people). But it’s only too specific: in fact, the usage is quite general, not restricted to blacks passing for whites, or to situations where some sort of pass is involved. Cohen’s account looks like an etymythology (aka mythetymology).

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Quarantine

October 19, 2014

As the dreadful story of the Ebola virus in Africa unfolds, and with it the parallel story of the panicked response to Ebola in the U.S., the word quarantine is much in the news. The stories explain that the quarantine for Ebola is 21 days. But now look at NOAD2 on the word:

quarantine noun  a state, period, or place of isolation in which people or animals that have arrived from elsewhere or been exposed to infectious or contagious disease are placed: many animals die in quarantine.

verb [with obj.] impose such isolation on (a person, animal, or place); put in quarantine.

ORIGIN mid 17th cent.: from Italian quarantina ‘forty days,’ from quaranta ‘forty.’

and note the origin, involving the Italian word for ‘forty’. We have here a straightforward case in which morphological material from the etymological source is still visible in the word, yet its current use no longer respects the semantics of the source. I’ll call such words decimators, after one famous English example that has led peevers to seethe in word rage at an offense to etymology.

If you take etymology dead seriously, then referring to a 21-day isolation period as a quarantine is just wrong.

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The uses of etymology

September 18, 2014

From The Economist, 9/13/14, a letter, p. 22, from Mark Watson of Galway, Ireland:

I have lived in France for the past three months and each day I heard François Hollande in the media talking about “croissance”. I assumed he was invoking citizens to support their local bakery, until I realized he was speaking about growth. My observation is that in France croissance can happen between 10am and 12 noon, and again after 2pm but no later than 7 pm…

That is, Watson understands the noun croissance to mean something like ‘supplying croissants‘, those yummy rolls. There’s a nice etymological story here.

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