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Issue 13

October 19, 1998
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Spotlight We spotlight an etymological curiosity and provide an in-depth examination of the word(s) and the etymological theories associated with it.
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Snout, Snort, Sniff, Snuff, Sniffle, Snuffle, Snore, Snitch, Sneeze, Snot...

What do all of these words have in common?  Apart from beginning with sn-, they are all connected with the nose.  It seems that all Indo-European languages share this property, so it makes sense to assume that there was an ancient Indo-European root *sna "nose".  Even in Tibet sNa means nose.  The word nose itself, along with its nasal relatives, may be part of this same complex, the n and s having changed places by a process which linguists call metathesis (see our Glossary).


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Your Etymological Queries Answered

From Patrick Salsbury:

What is the origin of the term sucker?

This word, which has several meanings today, was formed as a noun from the verb suckSuck comes ultimately from the Indo-European root sug-/suk-.  The Old English version was sucan, and there was a Latin parallel sugereSucker was souker in around 1384 with the meaning "young mammal before it is weaned".  By 1577 another meaning, "shoot growing from a plant", had arisen, and in the late 17th century we find the additional meaning "organ for holding fast".  It is not until 1836 that sucker is first recorded in reference to "a person easily deceived", and in 1907 it was used to describe a "lollipop".  Finally, the verb form sucker arose in about 1948 to mean "hoodwink" (a word with an interesting etymology in its own right; we'll examine it some time).

All of the above meanings derive directly from the Indo-European root's meaning except for "person easily deceived".  This one likely arose indirectly, by likening a naive person to a newborn mammal, which is blind and defenseless.


From Bernd Wechner:

What's the origin of the word hitch-hike?   The earliest citation is a 1923 article in The Nation.  It is erroneously attributed on occasion to a practice from Victorian England where two people travel with one horse by alternating walking and riding.

You are correct in that it first appears in print in 1923.   Hitch is a much older word, first coming on the English scene in the late 12th or early 13th century as icchen "to move, stir".  It developed into hetchyn (late 14th century), hytchen "move with a jerk" (15th century), and hitch (late 16th century) "fasten by a hook".  By 1880 it was used to mean "fasten a sled to a moving vehicle".  Interestingly, there are no cognates in any other languages, so its earlier origins are not known.

Hike is a little more mysterious.  In the early 19th century it was hyke/heik and it meant "to walk vigorously".   Beyond that no one seems to know where it came from.

With this information in mind, one can see why someone joined the two words, as, when hitchhiking, one is "hooking up" with a vehicle in order to cover ground that one would have had to "hike" across.


From Maralyn Olsen:

Could you tell me the origin of codswallop and toerag?

One might imagine from these two words that you are studying English literature of the 1960s. The BBC would not permit real expletives in the radio show "Hancock's Half Hour" so writers Galton and Simpson invented codswallop.  It means, approximately, "nonsense".

Literally speaking, a toerag is a cloth wound around the foot in place of a stocking.  This mode of footwear must have been prevalent among the mendicant poor as around 1900 it came to mean "a beggar".  It was used as a pungent term of abuse in Harold Pinter's play The Caretaker but it should not be confused with toe-ragger, a completely different word of opprobrium used by South Sea whalers (1890's) when they really (really) didn't like each other.   The latter word comes from tua rika rika, the ultimate expression of contempt in the Maori language. Literally, it means "slave".  In case you didn't know, the Maoris are the indigenous inhabitants of New Zealand.


From Andy Lango:

Could you tell me the origin of -ish as in English, Polish and Danish. And why don't we say Chinish and Japanish?

Not just languages, but many English adjectives are formed by adding -ish. This is yet another trait which English shares with the other Germanic languages. In Middle English it was -ish, -issh, or -isch and before that, in Old Engflish, it was-isc. It is equivalent to the German and Dutch -isch, Old Frisian and Old Saxon -isc, Old Icelandic -iskr, Gothic -isks and Teutonic -iscus.

The -ese ending came to us via Old French -eis which, in turn, came from the Latin -ensis with influence from Teutonic -iscus. So, essentially, -ish and -ese are the same suffix.


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