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Issue 95   

July 31, 2000
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Spotlight Words on our minds this week.
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Sez You . . . Wherein we graciously permit challenges to  our profound erudition.
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Edible Words

Last week we pointed out certain words which bore ablaut relations to each other.  There were some examples of this which we failed to point out: food, feed and fodder.  Now, do any of you dislike food?  We thought not.  Here is some food for thought...

Do you feel invigorated and refreshed after a visit to a restaurant,  You should, for restaurant is French for "restoring".  The first of these health-giving establishments was founded in Paris in 1765 by a Monsieur A. Boulanger, a soup vendor who became the first restaurateur.  Note the absence of the letter n from that word.  The proprietor of a restaurant is a "restorer", not a "restaurant-er".

On the face of it, one might assume that an aperitif and an appetizer share a common ancestor, after all they are both consumed at the beginning of a meal and they do sound similar.   However, an aperitif is an "opener" (from Latin aperire, "to open") and an appetizer is... a lot more complicated.

British readers will know that Tizer is short for APPE-Tizer.It is believed that the ancient Indo-European language had a word *pter meaning "wing".  This is the source of the Greek pteron which is the origin of such words as pterodactyl ("finger wing"),  archaeopteryx ("ancient wing") and helicopter ("spiral wing").  *Pter is also the source of the English feather - this is quite obvious once you swap the p for an f, the t for th and insert a few vowels.  What is not so obvious is that it is also the origin of the Latin verb petere, "to seek out" - presumably, one "flies" to that which is sought.  With the prefix ad- it became adpetere, "to strive toward [something]" and, after passing through Old French, became the English word appetite some time in the late 14th century.

Pâté is a perennially popular appetizer.  Notice the "tin hat" over the a.  The proper name for this accent is a circumflex and when this occurs in French it usually indicates a missing s.  Thus, we may deduce that the original form was pasté, meaning "pastry-ed".   This is because pâtés were originally cooked in a pastry crust but nowadays this is called a pâté en croûte.  Note that the u in croûte also has a circumflex.  This means that the original word was crouste.  Yes, you've got it - it's the English word crust in disguise.  Pasté is the Old French form of the Italian pasta which literally means "dough" or "paste" and ultimately derives from the Greek paste (pronounced past-ay) meaning "barley porridge".  So, etymologically speaking, pasta, a pâté and a Cornish pasty are the same thing. 

We happen to be especially fond of truffle-flavored pâté and, improbable as it sounds, truffle isA basket of fresh truffles.  Mmmmmmmmmm! derived from the Latin tubera, "a tuber".  These pungent, subterranean fungi are not tubers in the modern sense, of course, but when the new, exotic root-tuber which we now call potato appeared in Europe several languages named it after the truffle.  This is why Italian for potato is tartuffo (from Latin terrae tuber, "tuber of the earth") and German is kartoffel, though why the t changed to k in German we cannot fathom. 

Truffles, like almost all expensive foods, are considered to be an aphrodisiac.  There is no evidence to support this belief but we've never heard a truffle merchant deny it.  For centuries, chocolate shared this dubious reputation.  Despite recent speculation regarding its phenethylamine content, its reputation was probably based on its extreme rarity and expense.  Back in the 18th century, someone had what they must have considered a stroke of genius and combined these two notorious aphrodisiacs into one irresistible morsel.  We can't imagine that the addition of a pungent, garlicky fungus could have improved the flavor of the chocolate but, as ever, expense was the true aphrodisiac here.

These days, these delightful confections are still made but, mercifully, without the addition of truffles.  We still call them chocolate truffles, though.

AG00003_.gif (10348 bytes) Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From James McCrudden:

I can't believe that I've been on the web for yonks and only just found your site.  I haven't had time to go through it all right now because I have to make the dinner.  I hope that you will have written up my favorite piece of dud etymology - curmudgeon.  Congratulations on a great site.

For those of you American and other readers who aren't familiar with yonks, it means "a long time." You'd think that Melanie, having been married to Brit Mike for yonks, would have known that!

We are curmudgeons so it is about time that we discuss curmudgeon's origins. However, no one knows where it came from! End of discussion?  Why, of course not.  We have to provide you with some spurious etymologies first.

There is a work from 1600, on Livy's History, by Philemon Holland, where the term cornmudgin appears. Etymologists were briefly excited by this because they thought that it suggested "one who hoards or conceals corn", mudgin having come from Middle English muchen "to steal".  However, an earlier instance of the word curmudgeon came to light (1577), so the cornmudgin theory was thrown to the dogs.  More about dogs later.  Another erroneous etymology was provided by Samuel Johnson, logophile extraordinaire. He said that he was told that the word derived from cœur méchant, from méchant cœur "evil or malicious heart", but that explanation has no scientific support whatsoever.  Instead, etymologists think that the cur- in curmudgeon might be related to cur "dog", perhaps denoting something similar to cynic, which etymologically is thought to mean "sneering like a dog". 

Read about other words in our bookstore.

From Punita: 

I was in a fix about the many meanings of fix. Where did this word originate?

Fix in the sense you employ - "in a tight place" - derives from the verb form, though exactly how is not clear. However, the verb's etymology is known.  It comes from the past participle of Latin figere "fasten", which was fixus.  Something that is "fixed in place" is "fastened".  Perhaps the notion of "being in a fix" was one of being "fastened" in a figurative sense and unable to move, metaphorically.  As for fix meaning "repair", this is a broad usage of the "fasten" sense, the meaning progressing from "fasten" to "arrange" to "put in order" to "make tidy" to "rig up" and then "repair".  The notion of fixing a meal followed that same line of meaning change.

Fix is first recorded in English in the early 15th century as fixeth.

From Peter Draper: 

Hootenanny is such a great sounding word!  Where did it come from?

It is a great word!  There's even a silly form of it purposefully misspelled as Hootin' Annie!  So what is it, a noisy female goat?  Well, strangely enough, it was originally another word for a "thingamajig".  In that sense it dates from about 1929 in the U.S.  It wasn't until about 1940 that the word was used to refer to "an informal session or concert of folk music and singing".  No one has any idea where this word comes from!

From Steven Steinbock:

Everything I read about soul suggests that its origin is unknown. Its Old English relative was sawol, soule, or saule. But what do these words mean? And how did we come to associate it with African American music of the 60s and 70s?

Click to visit the Soul Train site.  Melanie used to watch Soul Train every Saturday as a kid!Yes, beyond the fact that this word seems to be of Germanic origin, not a great deal is known about its roots.  It first appears in Beowulf, which is a very early Old English text (though there are several different manuscripts of differing ages): "Him of hrethre gewat sawol secean sothfaestra dom."  It is not until Wyclif's Bible is published in 1382 that we find the word looking more familiar: "Lord, we bisechen, that we perishe not in the soule of this man."  By Dryden's time, the final e has been dropped: "The thriven Calves...render their sweet Souls before the plentous Rack" (1697).

All of the cognates in the other Germanic languages mean the same thing, "The spiritual part of man in contrast to the purely physical".  So how did that meaning come to apply to a bluesy style of African-American music?  Well, since very early on the word soul has also referred to the center of emotions and feelings in man.  In the 1940's soul came to be applied to an emotional or spiritual aspect of African-Americans and their culture, embodied especially in music.  Then, by the 1950's, the term had come to be applied to the music itself and, originally the term soul music applied to a genre of Gospel-tinged jazz, usually in 6/8 time.  (The pianist Bobby Timmons was an outstanding exponent of this style.)  The exact style of music to which the label applies has changed over the years, but it is interesting that the term itself remains.

From Patrick:

What is the origin of milquetoast?

This word started life as an eponym, being the name of a cartoon character from the mind of cartoonist H.T. Webster.  He created Caspar Milquetoast in 1924, and it was obviously a reference to the bland dish milk-toast which is made by soaking toast in milk and was usually prepared for invalids.

By 1938 milquetoast was being used figuratively to describe anyone who was similar to Caspar: timid and shy.  We especially like this quotation: "What is it makes a man with brains so milquetoast when he gets away from the blackboard?"  [From Kitty Foyle by C. Morley, 1939]

By the way, the name of Webster's comic strip, starring Milquetoast, was The Timid Soul.

curmdgeon.GIF (1254 bytes) Curmudgeons' Corner

Resident curmudgeon Barb Dwyer defends crescendo against misuse.

A few days ago, an ostensibly intelligent young lady told me of things that were "rising to a crescendo".  I think we all understand what she meant but the expression shows that she has not had a musical education.

If you cast your eye over a musical score you are likely to see a sign above the stave in the shape of an elongated "less than" sign (<).  This is called a crescendo, the Italian for "increasing".  We have a related word in English and that is crescent (the crescent moon appears  to be increasing in size).

So, a crescendo is a passage of music which increases in volume.  It is not, as my young interlocutrix imagined, the point at which the music is loudest but, rather, the process of arriving at that climax. 

Sez You...
From Jim McCrudden:

An examination of the text where Mary is told she will have a child clearly states her saying, "how can that be?" If parthenos means 'young woman',  Mary's is a ridiculous question... And Isaiah says, 'the lord will give you a sign, a virgin will have birth'.  If you interpret that as "the lord will give you a sign, a young woman will give birth" you would be rightly bemused.  It's not exactly a hell of a sign that a young woman has a baby...  

From Joshua Daniels:

Math. 1:23 contains reference to Isaiah's prophecy of a virgin giving birth to Messiah, Hebrew word unknown to me; is there a reason to suspect that the translators slanted it? In English, for a LONG time "maid" meant "virgin" as well as "young woman," context-dependent, so why not the Greek as well?...

We have abbreviated both of these rather long letters as we are not at all concerned with matters of theology (well, not in these pages, at least).  We just pointed out the meaning of a Greek word and that's about as far as we wish to take it.  (No letters, please.)

From Melanie Shearman:

Please correct me if I am wrong, but I was taught in elementary school that fish referred to a single fish or group of such creatures.  I was taught that fishes was used to describe two or more of many different fish (i.e. two trout would  be fish, but a trout and a smelt would be two fishes.)  My desktop OED is of little help, neither supporting nor disputing this argument, but instead says that the plural of fish is "same or fishes".  Thanks for being a thought invoking site:-)

Fowler says that the plural form is usually fish but that fishes is allowed, but we were taught just as you were.  But there is that story of the "loaves and fishes".  (No letters, please.)

From Chuck Miller:

I enjoyed your discourse on the use of dinner vs supper.  Having been raised in the North (New York and Wisconsin), then spending 25 years in the Air Force, followed by 20 years in Texas, I don't know what to call which meal.  I do have one comment to throw out, to further muddy the waters. You mention that in some regions of Britain the large meal eaten early in the evening is called tea.  I would suggest that you further differentiate between tea and high tea.  It was my understanding, having been associated with "Brits" for a number of years, and having become an unabashed Anglophile, the tea is an afternoon snack (as in "tea and crumpets"), and high tea is, in fact, the main evening meal. 

From Tony Swartz Lloyd:

In your tasty discussion about meal-terms, you satisfied my appetite for dinner, lunchsupper and tea and it's now high time to serve up a little more about high tea.  Why high

As we said last week, there is considerable regional variation in these terms, so don't expect all Brits to agree on definitions of tea and high tea.  The general rule, though, is that meat is served at a high tea.

Why high?  The word simply indicates the tea is somewhat more important than usual, as in High street and high mass.  (No letters, please.)

From Georg Trimborn:

You might try a different approach to "washer." Consider alternative meanings of "wash", especially variation meanings.  See if there is a link between wash and wipe, since the function of the washer is to provide a wiping interface between two other pieces of metal. 

You might also look in Basque, German, Swedish, Lithuanian, or other modern languages for "imported" words.  For example, the Lithuanian vasas, where the first s has a mark that makes it pronounced with a sh, means "hook."  Since some forms of washers are of an open-ended nature instead of a disk (a hook that you can slide in between the bolt), it is possible that such  a word could be imported and used.  Anyhow, if I were looking for this, I would look for old catalogs where washers were sold, and see which culture was being sold the washers. Then I'd go back to the native language of that culture and look for words that were phonetically similar.  Finally, I would look for catalogs from the same era in the homeland, which advertised washers with a similar name.  You might, in that manner, be able to track down the origins of the word washer.

The steps you suggest comprise one manner of finding the etymology of a word, especially one of obscure origin.  It is typical to compare the English word one is researching with the word's equivalent in other languages.  However, one has also to find a clear link, in the written record, of the English word's connection to any foreign one.  

In this case, it is unlikely that many Lithuanian words (or words from neighboring languages, either) were making their way into England in the 14th century.  No one has been able to find any evidence of washer's origin, to date,

From Mel Moyer:

What?  Mike dropped a car on his foot?  Is he really Samson reincarnated to be able to lift a car to drop it on his foot? :)  Sorry, Mike. Hope you are healing well.  Say, I noticed on the last issue of TOWFI that it was issued at 9:36 PM.  You folks work late, but thanks for doing it for us.  I find it difficult to describe how delicious your etymological feast is to me, and how it feeds my voracious appetite for words.  It is so nourishing to the human spirit. Your recent Spotlights on language ancestry were awesome main courses. You set such a delectable table, and I enjoy each invitation to dinner. So much, in fact, that I can't wait for dessert, so I'm off to the library.  Thanks again, and, Mike, be kinder to yourself.

Thanks, Mel.  Yes, Mike did have a bit of an accident, requiring for a few days the assistance of some  pain pills.  He'll soon be back in working order, but he can't be held responsible for anything he's written in the past two weeks!

From: Harry Coleman:

I was disappointed that you did not mention Pali in your discourse on Sanskrit. Pali must be the only language to have definitive words for definitive states of consciousness like samadhi, siddhi and nibbana (nirvana) etc.  Pali surely must qualify for a very special category in your lexicon of languages.  I study Buddhist sutras (in English of course) and am amazed at the definitive certainty of the original Pali using one word which can only be translated to English, probably through the German, using at least two sentences!  What gives?  Not worth a mention ? 

German?!  Where does German come into this?  We'll have you know that the first translations of Pali into English were carried out by a Welsh couple - Mr. and Mrs. Rhys Davids. 

Anyway, as our original column was intended to refute the allegation that English was derived from Sanskrit, Pali was not in the forefront of our minds. But, as you have brought it up, here goes...

Pali is classified as a Prakrit language, that is, one of the Indian vernacular languages which evolved from Sanskrit. Since c. 100 B.C. it has been used by some schools of Buddhism (notably the Theravada or southern school) as the language in which some of the Buddhist scriptures are recorded. 

We can't say that we agree with your analysis of Pali as being "the only language" with this remarkable quality of defining mental states. As you have shown by citing nirvana as an alternative for nibbana, there is at least one other language (Sanskrit) which has very similar terms with the same meanings. 

Furthermore, it is not Pali which is responsible for this linguistic precision but Buddhism. The Pali language had no special regard for "definitive states of consciousness" but Buddhism did and it just happened to record its teachings in Pali. Try this by way of illustration... If we were to write an essay on the musical ornaments used in traditional Irish piping, we would use terms such as roll, cut, tap and cran.  Now, imagine translating that essay into Japanese.  We would probably need a page or two to explain each term (maybe a whole chapter for cran).  Conversely, in the vocabulary of the average Irishman-in-the-street, a roll is something which comes with ham or cheese.

If we were to ignore their use as technical terms within Buddhism, we could very easily translate samadhi, siddhi and nibbana with the English words "trance", "accomplishment" and "extinction".  You may object that, in your experience, these words deserve much longer explanations but that is only because you have encountered them in a highly technical context.  Let's take nibbana as an example. Gautama Siddhartha (a.k.a. the Buddha) employed this term to describe a state of mind which is free of desire.  By the way, Gautama did not speak Pali, he spoke a dialect of Sanskrit called Magadhi and, in Magadhi, the word was nirvana.  Literally, nirvana meant "extinction" and was used to describe a fire which had died or a lamp which had gone out.  This was merely its literal meaning but it was also used figuratively in a medical sense.  When someone was suffering from a fever they were said to be "burning" as if with a fire.  Then, when the fever subsided and the "fire" had died, they were said to have achieved nirvana.  When the Buddha introduced the notion of nirvana in his first sutra (lecture) at the Deer Park near Benares, he knew that his listeners were familiar with this medical meaning.  Later, at the hands of philosophers, nirvana came to imply a lot of things which were beyond the ken of ordinary speakers of Magadhi.

By the way, to those of us who have a little Sanskrit, Pali sounds very odd.  It is almost as if it were Sanskrit spoken by someone with a speech impediment.  How else can one explain why one of the Buddha's disciples is called Maudgalyayana in Sanskrit but Mogallana in Pali?

Laughing Stock

English as she are spoke

We are told that this little poem came about as an exercise for multi-national  translation personnel at the NATO headquarters in Paris. English  wasn't so hard to learn, they found, but English pronunciation is a  killer.  We haven't had time to check the provenance of this poem, but that really doesn't matter, as the poem is interesting, amusing and insightful despite its origin.

We were also told that, after trying the poem, a native French interpreter said he'd prefer to spend six months at hard labor than reading six of the lines loud.

 English is Tough Stuff

 Dearest creature in creation
 Study English pronunciation.
 I will teach you in my verse
 Sounds like corpse, corps, horse, and worse.
 I will keep you, Suzy, busy,
 Make your head with heat grow dizzy.
 Tear in eye, your dress will tear.
 So shall I Oh hear my prayer.

 Just compare heart, beard, and heard,
 Dies and diet, lord and word,
 Sword and sward, retain and Britain.
 (Mind the latter, how it's written.)
 Now I surely will not plague you
 With such words as plaque and ague.
 But be careful how you speak
 Say break and steak, but bleak and streak;
 Cloven, oven, how and low,
 Script, receipt, show, poem, and toe.

 Hear me say, devoid of trickery,
 Daughter, laughter, and Terpsichore,
 Typhoid, measles, topsails, aisles,
 Exiles, similes and reviles;
 Scholar, vicar, and cigar.
 Solar, mica, war and far;
 One, anemone, Balmoral
 Kitchen, lichen, laundry, laurel;
 Gertrude, German, wind and mind,
 Scene, Melpomene, mankind.

 Billet does not rhyme with ballet,
 Bouquet, wallet, mallet, chalet.
 Blood and flood are not like food,
 Nor is mould like should and would.
 Viscous, viscount, load and broad,
 Toward, to forward, to reward.
 And your pronunciation's OK
 When you correctly say croquet,
 Rounded, wounded, grieve and sieve,
 Friend and fiend, alive and live.

 Ivy, privy, famous; clamor
 And enamour rhyme with hammer.
 River, rival, tomb, bomb, comb,
 Doll and droll and some and home.
 Stranger does not rhyme with anger,
 Neither does devour with clangor.
 Soul but foul, haunt but aunt,

 Font, front, wont, want, grand, and grant,
 Shoes, goes, does. Now first say finger,
 And then singer, ginger, linger,
 Real, zeal, mauve, gauze, gouge and gauge,
 Marriage, foliage, mirage, and age.

 Query does not rhyme with very,
 Nor does fury sound like bury.
 Dost, lost, post and doth, cloth, loth.
 Job, knob, bosom, transom, oath.
 Through the differences seem little,
 We say actual, but also victual.
 Refer does not rhyme with deafer.
 Foeffer does, and zephyr, heifer.
 Mint, pint, senate and sedate;
 Dull, bull, and George ate late.
 Scenic, Arabic, Pacific,
 Science, Conscience, scientific.

 Liberty, library, heave and heaven,
 Rachel, ache, moustache, eleven.
 We say hallowed, but allowed,
 People, leopard, towed, but vowed.
 Mark the differences, moreover,
 Between mover, cover, clover;
 Leeches, breeches, wise, precise,
 Chalice, but police and lice;
 Camel, constable, unstable,
 Principle, disciple, label.

 Petal, panel, and canal,
 Wait, surprise, plait, promise, pal.
 Worm and storm, chaise, chaos, chair,
 Senator, spectator, mayor.
 Tour, but our and succor, four.
 Gas, alas, and Arkansas.
 Sea, idea, Korea, area,
 Psalm, Maria, but malaria.
 Youth, south, southern, cleanse and clean.
 Doctrine, turpentine, marine.

 Compare alien with Italian,
 Dandelion and battalion.
 Sally with ally, yea, ye.
 Eye, I, ay, aye, whey, and key.
 Say aver, but ever, fever,
 Neither, leisure, skein, deceiver.
 Heron, granary, canary.
 Crevice and device and aerie.

 Face, but preface, not efface. 
 Phlegm, phlegmatic, brass, glass, bass.
 Large, but target, gin, give, verging.
 Ought, out, joust and scour, scourging.
 Ear, but earn and wear and tear
 Do not rhyme with here, but ere.
 Seven is right, but so is even,
 Hyphen, roughen, nephew Stephen,
 Monkey, donkey, Turk and jerk,
 Ask, grasp, wasp, and cork and work.

 Pronunciation - think of Psyche!
 Is it paling, stout and spiky?
 Won't it make you lose your wits,
 Writing groats and saying grits?
 It's a dark abyss or tunnel
 Strewn with stones, stowed, solace, gunwale,
 Islington and Isle of Wight,
 Housewife, verdict and indict.

 Finally, which rhymes with enough -
 Though, through, plough, or dough, or cough?
 Hiccough has the sound of cup.
 My advice is to give it up!!! 

Thanks to Dave Menashe for forwarding this to us

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