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Issue 42

June 1, 1999
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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.
Words to the Wise Our world-famous question and answer column in which we address your word-history queries.
curmdgeon.GIF (1254 bytes) Curmudgeons' Corner Oh, dear, what's bugging them this time?
Sez You . . . You dare to question our profound erudition?
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spotlight_1.GIF (2578 bytes) Spotlight on...

Names of nations, or...

Why can't foreigners give their countries the same names we do?

Last week we spoke of Indian words in English and it occurred to us that the Indian name for India is Bharata.  So, why India?   Because all Westerners before the opening of the Suez Canal reached it by crossing the River Indus.  In some languages Indus was pronounced Hindus, hence the name of the Indian religion, "Hinduism", and the Persian name for India, Hindustan ("land of the Hindus").

Come to think of it, there are quite a few countries which have local names at variance with the names we give them.  China, for instance, calls itself REGNUM CHINAE c1596 Chung Kuo, "the central country".  Of course, every country is central to those who live there so it's hardly surprising that we didn't just translate it.  Many authorities claim that China is derived from the Ts'in dynasty (221 - 206 BCE) but the Persians had already been calling it Tsinstan since at least 400 BCE.  The name probably comes from Shian, the ancient capital of the country which eventually became China.

An old Chinese story tells that the first  Japanese ambassadors were known as the "little hairy people" and Japan was called "land of the little hairy people".  The ambassadors petitioned the Chinese emperor that their country be given a more respectful name.  As Japan lies east of China (that is, in the direction of the dawn) the name it was given was Jih Pen, "sun's origin".  The Japanese were so in awe of Chinese culture that they adopted the Chinese name for their own country, translating Jih Pen first as Nichi hon, then Nihon.  That's why their flag shows a rising sun.  We get our version of their name from the Malay word Japang.  We just can't help wondering why Marco Polo had to call it Chipangu.

We have been getting the names of some Asian countries so wrong for so long that they just couldn't stand it any longer.  Recently, Ceylon became Sri Lanka and Burma became Myanmar.  In both cases the old name was just a mispronunciation of the real name.  That's right, some traveler heard Myanmar and repeated it as Burma.  Go figure!


AG00003_.gif (10348 bytes) Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From George Murphey:

We realize that this probably isn't an English word, but it's in use all over our part of California.   Do you know what the meaning/etymology of the word Calaveras is?

Actually, as this is a U.S. place name, it is now an English word!  Believe it or not, the word means "skulls" in Spanish.  (Isn't it amazing how certain Spanish words can sound lovely and musical and mean something potentially unpleasant?  Another example of such a word is basura, our favorite word for "trash"!)

Anyhow, back to the story:  the word calaveras was first applied to a river situated in north-central California because a number of skeletons were found near that river in about 1837.  The name was later applied to the county where that river flows.  The area became a little better known during the Gold Rush of the mid-19th century, and thereafter Mark Twain made Calaveras County almost a household word when he wrote the short story "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County" in 1867.  Interestingly, that work was published by him in 1865 as "Jim Smiley and his Jumping Frog" in the New York Saturday Press.  He was a miner and journalist in the American West, and he apparently liked the sound of Calaveras.

By the way, Spanish calavera also means "skull and crossbones"; yes, as in pirates and all that.  However, pirates have nothing to do with the place name.



From Imel Je'ar:

I am interested in the etymology of the words pray and prayer.

Before the 13th century, the word was preien "ask earnestly, beg".  By the late 13th century it had become praien "pray to a god, saint, etc.", and by the end of the century pray had taken on its current form.  The word entered English via Old French preier, which came from Latin precari "ask earnestly, beg, pray". An old word for "please" is prithee, a contraction of "I pray thee".

The ultimate Latin root is prex "prayer, request, entreaty".  Prayer too comes from Latin prex via an only slightly different route. The Indo-European root which gave Latin prex is *prek-. 

Some interesting related words which descended from precari are deprecate and precarious.  How can precarious be related?  Interestingly, it originally meant "obtained through asking".  The meaning shifted and was applied to items "held by another as a favor".  Later the idea arose that the "holding" was potentially tenuous as the "favor" could be withdrawn, and that is how the notion of "uncertainty" entered into the word's meaning.  By the 18th century it had acquired the "risky" meaning which it has today.  Precarious entered English in the 17th century.

Another word born of the Indo-European *prek- is postulate, having been formed by the shift of *prek- to *pork- and then *posk- and finally *post-.



From Armin Aulinger [among several others]:

Is it right that the word dollar originated from German immigrants?

Not exactly.  This word was daler in 1533, having come from Low German and being a form of German Taler or Thaler. Taler was short for the lengthier Joachimstaler, a term applied to a 16th century coin.  The coin was thus named as it was minted in Joachimsthal, a town in what was then Bohemia; the name meant "St. Joachim's Valley".  The coins were first minted in 1519.   By 1581 the term was dollar in English and referred to a Spanish piece of eight (peso), a coin common in the American Colonies during the Revolution.  It was Thomas Jefferson who nominated the word for application to the U.S. currency base in 1785.

A particularly fine example of the Taler was minted by the Austro-Hungarian Empress Maria-Theresa (mother of Queen Marie-Antoinette of France).  These were of such beauty and of such fine silver that some  Bedouin Arabs will accept no other coin, to this very day. 



From Peter Symons:

Just wondering about the origin of the term visa.

English acquired this word in 1831 from French visa.  The French got it from New Latin visa, as used in the term charta visa "paper that has been verified".  Visa comes from Latin videre "to see".  Of course the sense here is something which has been "seen" by an official and marked or stamped as such.  The Indo-European root giving rise to this lineage is *weid- "to see".  A few (among many) words of similar origin are visage, vision, vista, advise, and supervise.



From John Minot:

My family and I were wondering about the etymology of the word filibuster.   Our friend swore it was the word freebooter taken into Spanish and then back into English again. The Oxford English Dictionary says "The chronology and mutual relation of the various forms present difficulties".  Can you lead us on?

Actually, the "difficulties" referred to are somewhat inconsequential.  What we know is that filibuster and freebooter are doublets, both coming ultimately from Dutch vrijbuiter "pirate", formed from vrij "free" and buiter "plunderer" (booty is a related word).  This gave English freebooter in the mid-16th century.  The Dutch word was apparently very useful, for the French took it, as well, but they mangled it a bit more into flibustier (not to be confused with lingerie!).  English also used the French word, with various spellings, until the middle of the 19th century.  The Spanish, too, took the word from the French and turned it into filibustero, and English, perhaps not realizing it already had two forms of the word in flibustier and freebooter, took filibuster from the Spanish in the mid-19th century.

The only cloudy issue is how the word flibutor, yet another form of the word, entered English, i.e. directly from Dutch or via another source.  However, there is only one recorded instance of it, in the 16th century.  We'll put our money on the Portuguese simply by virtue of the fact that they always seem to turn up in the most unexpected places in word histories!


curmdgeon.GIF (1254 bytes) Curmudgeon's Corner

...our soapbox where we vent our spleen regarding abuses of the English language.

Enfeebled verbs

Has anyone else noticed how weak some verbs are getting lately?  They seem incapable of performing their customary tasks without leaning on a preposition.  A few short years ago something could be erased or deleted but now it has to be erased out or deleted out.  Similarly, that which was published is now published out.

Focus, a verb which once took one preposition now takes two.  Instead of focusing on something we must now focus in on it, instead.

Where will it all end up?


Sez You...

Carl Hutchinson wrote:

For the last 300 years my ancestors have been born in North America.  I believe this makes me as native an American as Sitting Bull or Chief Dan George.  Please find another word or phrase to describe the humans who inhabited this continent before the coming of the Europeans.

You don't need 300 years of ancestry to be a native of a place; you just have to be born there.

So you want little ol' us to think up a name for those Americans who were there before the white folks showed up and spoiled the party?   Wouldn't that be a little presumptuous of us?  Especially as one of us is a dang-blasted fur'ner.

Incidentally, the "Indians" we know prefer to be called just that - Indians.



Jack Haines wrote:

I'm concerned about the fact that you seem to have seconded Ms. Hogan's school-marmishly prescriptive rule [in last week's Sez You...] without accounting publicly for how English is actually used.  People DO place quantifiers and other modifiers pre-verbally, but there are functional motivations for doing so.  I think your contest [seeking other examples of "misplaced modifiers"] may provide some humorous examples of language usage that differs from what people learned about English grammar in the '40s and '50s, but I'm not sure why linguists would be interested in prolonging attitudes regarding language that haven't had any currency for the last 20 years.  It's not responsible behavior on your part, in view of Issue 36 in which you wrote "We detest senseless rules which have long outlived their original purpose..."  You say you don't like senseless rules, but from a functionalist standpoint, you and Ms. Hogan are endorsing the same senselessness that you yourselves deplored only five issues earlier.

Sure, stick your modifier wherever you like as long as you make your meaning clear.  The problem is the potential ambiguity which may arise.  If we were to say "The pawn shop only buys jewelry", would you understand that to mean that it buys nothing but jewelry or that it does not sell jewelry?

Admittedly, this problem is not so marked in speech when the appropriate word may be stressed.

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