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Issue 49

August 9, 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.
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spotlight_1.GIF (2578 bytes) Spotlight on...

Celtic words in English

After the Romans left Britain the country reverted to a patchwork quilt of tiny Celtic chiefdoms. It didn't take long for the isles' neighbors to solve the equation "prosperous ex-colony" minus "Roman protection" equals "prime invasion prospect". In poured the Angles, Saxons, Jutes and Danes, pushing the original, Celtic Britons to the periphery: Wales, Cornwall and Cumbria. The languages of the Germanic invaders coalesced into a new, hybrid language known to us as Old English (it used to be called Anglo-Saxon). And how much of the original Celtic language was absorbed into Old English? None. Nada. Zilch. Seriously, not a word. That's not to say that English doesn't have any words of Celtic origin but the few which it does have were all acquired much later. So, as the latest in our occasional series on languages which have contributed to English, we now turn to its nearest neighbors: the Celtic tongues, Gaelic and Welsh.

Bug, bugaboo, bogey and bogey-man all derive from the Welsh bwga, "spirit", "hobgoblin". The Gaelic equivalent, puca, gave us the name Puck, the spirit of the forest who appears in Shakespeare's "Midsummer Night's Dream". Those who are familiar with the foibles of forest spirits realize how dangerous it is to mention their real names. Thus, just as fairies are called "the good folk", Puck is also known as "Robin Goodfellow".  (Hey kids, can you say "apotropaic nomenclature"?)penguin1.jpg (7870 bytes)

Ever hear of the great auk? No, it's not the leader of an exotic religion; it was a large, flightless, black bird with a white head. It used to be plentiful in the North Atlantic but, like the dodo, the great auk had no fear of humans and hungry Welsh mariners used it as a ready source of food. Not surprisingly, just like the dodo, it is now extinct. Those Welsh sailors called it pen gwyn, "white head". When other black and white flightless birds were discovered in the South Atlantic, they were called penguin, too.

The ancient Celts must have been fond of animals as they gave us pet, from the Gaelic peata.

The word clan (Scottish Gaelic clann, "family", "race") was not originally a Celtic word but ultimately comes from the Latin planta, pie.jpg (6959 bytes)"sprout", "shoot". This leap from planta to clann seems highly unlikely but around 500 B.C. the Gaelic language group lost the letter p and substituted k instead. Thus the Latin pascha, ("Easter") became the Irish caisg, and purpur ("purple") became corcur. Kilt is another Scottish word which is not, in fact, Celtic in origin. It comes from the Old Norse kjalta "skirt".

That quintessentially Scottish dish, haggis, was an English dish until the 18th century and, some believe, takes its name from the French hachis, "hash". While haggis isn't particularly Scottish, pie is as it comes from the Gaelic pighe, "pie".

Well, that's enough for now. Time for a glass of a fine, old single malt whisky (Gaelic uisgebeatha, literally "water of life").


AG00003_.gif (10348 bytes) Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From Lil Rosie:

I'm writing a paper about the origin of the word spinster for my English class.  Can you please get back to me as soon as you can?  Thank you!

Tsk tsk!  You did not read our submission rules, now did you?  You should research spinster yourself for your paper.  That does not mean writing Spinster and spinning wheel, late 19th a pair of etymology columnists like us, but it instead entails going to the library and looking up spinster.  Several weeks have passed since we received your query, so we shall answer it now for the benefit of our other readers.  You've probably looked up the etymology of spinster by now.  Well, we hope you have, anyhow.

As might seem obvious, this word derives from spin.  It is a reference to the spinning of yarn from wool.  Any woman who spun wool for a living was known as a spinster beginning in about the 13th century.  Eventually, the word came to be appended to a woman's name as an indication of her occupation.  By the 17th century the term was used to signify any unmarried woman, and it was used in legal documents for that purpose.  Later, however, spinster came to apply to older, unmarried women.  This association likely occurred because the older a single woman was, the longer she had been known as so-and-so spinster.

Spin itself has very old roots; it derives from the Indo-European base *spen-/*pen- "stretch".  Some of spin's relatives are English span and Old Church Slavonic peti "stretch".  Some of its near relatives are spider and spindle.

In genealogy, the spindle-side of the family is the female line, as opposed to the spear-side, which is the male line.  The spindle-side is also known as the distaff-side, distaff being an older word for spindle.



From Teacia Babb :

I am curious about what the phrase beyond the pale means and how it originated.

A pale is a wooden stake or a fence made from such wooden stakes.  The word comes from Latin palus "stake" by way of French pal.  The fence meaning dates from the early 14th century.  By the turn of the 15th century we find pale being used in a figurative sense, such as to break or leap the pale meaning "to go beyond (certain) limits in one's actions or thinking".  This was influenced by the term English Pale, which referred to a territory under English jurisdiction within another land.  There were districts in France, Scotland, and most importantly in this discussion, Ireland, which were known as the English Pale.   That area in Ireland, which existed in the 14th century, was also known more simply as the Pale.   To go beyond the pale was to venture outside of English law (and safety).

We also hear of pales with respect to certain districts and provinces where Jews in Russia were required to live between 1791 and 1917.  This usage is a translation of chertá osédlosti "pale (boundary) of settlement".


UPDATED 12/2005

From Ori Rosen:

I was wondering, what's the etymology of hot dog? Why dog and not another animal name?

We admit that we fell prey to the story about hot dog's origin that is repeated in almost every source on etymology that is currently in print.  However, a few readers questioned us over the years, and then the excellent Michael Quinion did a good bit of research on the word.  The story that is repeated the world over, yet is incorrect, is the account that hot dog arose from a drawing by T.A. "Tad" Dorgan of a dachshund in a bun.  There is even further detail - he called the dachshund in a bun a hot dog because he could not spell frankfurter!  Why an inability to spell would cause him to call a dachshund in a bun a hot dog is beyond us.  Anyhow, this tale is fairly old, dating back to an obituary of 1934, eulogizing one Harry Stevens.  Stevens supposedly sold the first hot dogs ever, in the early 1900s at the Polo Grounds in New York, where the New York Giants baseball team played.  Note that we say "supposedly".  Quinion cites other sources which claim the hot dog was first sold on Coney Island in 1916 or at the St. Louis World's Fair in 1904.

The real story is not as tidy. Dorgan did draw dachshunds in buns, but that was in 1906.  Quinion tells us that the first appearance of hot dog in the written record was in 1895.  There are 11 years to account for there.  The answer to where the name hot dog originated comes from Barry Popik, of the American Dialect Society (via Quinion).  It seems that dog was not a new term for a sausage.  It arose in the middle of the 19th century.  One never knew what might be in sausage, including dog (there was even a song of 1860 which made reference to dog and horse meats being in sausage)!  With this in mind, university students took up the term and used it to refer to wagons selling hot sausages in buns (these wagons were, perhaps, the forerunners of today's "roach coaches"), calling them dog wagons.  By 1895 the Yale Record published a story in which it was noted that, "They contentedly munched hot dogs during the whole service".  The word gained popularity from there.

The spurious etymology of hot dog has become what we like to call a netymology: a spurious etymology widely promulgated on the Internet.



From Salvador Ramirez :

I have been looking for the word hobbit in about five English dictionaries and I cannot find it. Do please, if you know something about this word, let me know.

The etymology of hobbit is very interesting, despite the fact that it is a recently invented word. It was coined by J.R.R. Tolkien, author of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings,   in 1937 and refers to "an imaginary creature resembling a diminutive human being and being naturally peace-loving, domestic and sociable".  Tolkien created the word from the pseudo-Old English holbytla "hole-builder".  This he put together from Old English hol "hole" and bytla "builder, hammerer".  For more information on hobbits visit The Hobbit Page.



From Mike Miller:

I am a graduate student and need to find the origins of the word hoosegow. I know it has a Spanish origin, but I need to know what the original word was and how it is pronounced.

This word does indeed have its origins in a Spanish word, juzgado (pronounced hooz-GAWD-oh), which is the past participle of juzgar, "to judge".  Someone in the hoosegow was likely "judged" in court before being sent there. The word doesn't actually appear in writing before the 20th century, but one source suspects it was around long before then, spoken by people near the United States' border with Mexico.


curmdgeon.GIF (1254 bytes) Curmudgeon's Corner

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

Lose the "t" or eltse

What is it with folks who say "I thought you were someone eltse"  or "That assertion is faltse"?   Much pronunciation in English is influenced by the "lazy tongue" (e.g., it's easier to pronounce knight as "nite" than as "kuNICHT").   So why are some of you adding an extra t where it does not belong when the addition of such does not really aid that much in pronouncing the words?  (<--- rhetorical question, don't answer)  Could it be, perhaps, that this pronunciation is influenced by such words as waltz and faults?


Sez You...

Kevin Robinson writes:

Although I am not a flatterer by nature, and if you haven't read what Dante's Inferno does to flatterers, you should, but here it goes.

The magnificence of your web site cannot be contained in the paltry vocabulary of the English language. Praises of the two of you should be sung in a thousand languages from the sandy south sea islands to the highest mountains. Your benevolence, for having provided such an enlightened web page to entertain and educate the masses, will surely win you a spot among heaven's faithful, or to continue my Dante illusion, at least in the circle of the virtuous pagans. Thousands of years from now people will still speak of the great Melanie and Mike or M-squared. Your knowledge is never surpassed; your wit is merciless; and your phrasing eloquent. Long may you live in wisdom.

Now, on to the matter at hand.  [Last week] D. Rench said that he enjoys using "whence" whenever he can. If that is so he might like to know that although some very authoritative writers have used the construction "from whence", many people, I for one, consider it to be redundant. Since "whence" means "from where" there is little need to add a "from" when using "whence."

Normally we would have published your letter in the Curmudgeons' Corner column of this webzine.  However, your wonderfully effusive praise has elevated you to another category.  We agree with you regarding whence - excellent point!  We also have to wonder if you have read our minds, because you are ever so close to our superhero secret identity: MC²!   We stamp out spurious etymologies with a single tap on the DEL key.  We repudiate solecisms faster than a speeding high school English teacher!  And, as far as we're concerned, flattery will get you almost anywhere.

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