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Issue 96   

August 7, 2000
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Spotlight Words on our minds this week.
Words to the Wise Our world-famous question and answer column.
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Sez You . . . Wherein we graciously permit challenges to  our profound erudition.
NEW! Laughing Stock Funny stuff we occasionally stumble across.
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spotlight_1.GIF (2578 bytes) Spotlight on...

Mother of all tongues

In a recent Spotlight we had occasion to take a certain web-site to task for its assertion that English derives from Sanskrit.  This week we perform a similar task with another site.  This time, instead of Sanskrit, it is Hebrew which is alleged to be the Mother of All Tongues.  The site is devoted to the notions of one Professor Isaac Mozeson, author of "The Word: The Dictionary that reveals the Hebrew roots of the English Language", the book which is responsible for more enquiries to Take Our Word For It than any other.

Professor Mozeson is quite specific as to which English words derive from which Hebrew roots.  Let us examine some of these claims...

Even in the New World, the Continental College nearly voted in Hebrew as the official language of Americans, who saw themselves as the new Israelites in a Promised Land... 

We must have been sick the day they taught that aspect of American History.  We need a reference for this alleged event.  How close was the voting?  Did it happen on the same day that they nearly voted for German as the official language (another myth)?

When Noah Webster's original dictionary traced many English words beyond German, French, Latin and Greek to their "Shemitic" origin, no one raised an eyebrow.  Every learned person knew that Hebrew was the Mother Tongue.

At one time, every learned person "knew" that the Earth was flat.  Before the advent of scientific linguistics, most Christian linguists accepted the biblical stories as a matter of faith.

It has even been stated that, some time during the middle ages, a king had two children brought up so that they would not hear a word of any spoken language and then, a decade or so later, had them released.  It is said that the first sound they made resembled the Hebrew word for bread, thus "proving" that Hebrew was the original language of mankind.  There are many variants of this story which place it in various different countries under several different kings, suggesting that it is no more than a pious fiction.  Even if it were true, it raises more questions than it answers.  Why, for instance, do we not understand Hebrew from childhood?

However, piety and folk beliefs are not the reasons that Noah Webster went unchallenged on his notions of the "Shemitic" origins of our language.  More to the point is the fact that few people ever had a chance to read his opinions.  Webster was a notorious crank who arbitrarily changed the spelling of words if he thought them too complicated.  As the main reason people of his day bought dictionaries was to check their spelling, the original edition of Webster's moldered on the shelves.  After his death, the Merriam brothers bought the rights to Webster's dictionary from his daughter and changed all the funny spellings back to what they ought to be.  Well, not quite all of them.  They missed a certain metal which is known in Britain as aluminium.  The only reason that Americans call it aluminum is that Noah Webster preferred it that way.

Let's look at some more of Prof. Mozeson:

Before I convince some of you skeptics that words like Skeptic (Greek), Samurai (Japanese) and Taboo (Polynesian) are from Hebrew S[H]aKaP[H] (observe), S[H]oMeR (guardian) and ToAIB[H]ah (dreadful sin), let me prove to you how reluctant our dictionaries are to acknowledge simple Hebrew name borrowings which were mildly corrupted by bible readers.

We have read the rest of the article and, far from convincing us skeptics, he doesn't even mention skeptic, samurai or taboo again.  This is quite a disappointment as we would dearly love to read an explanation of how Hebrew influenced the development of Japanese and Polynesian.

The Jubilee year (Lev. 25: 8-17) is signalled by the blowing of the YoBHaiL or JoB[H]aiL (ram's horn) by the JUBILANT Israelites. Latin jubilare (to exult, raise a shout of joy) is clearly an echo of the older culture's custom.  In fact, there are so few J words in Latin, that the historic ties between judex (English "judge") and Judaea (home of law and famous judges) ought to be clear.

There is no conceivable reason for a connection between Hebrew JoB[H]aiL and Latin jubilare but Prof. Mozeson uses the phrases "clearly an echo" and "ought to be clear" as though we are to be blamed if we lack his preternatural insight.  This is mere arm-waving and indicates that Prof. Mozeson is at a complete loss to explain why (or even how) the Romans took these words from Hebrew.  Was ancient Judea actually famous for its judges?  Not really.  Perhaps it was to the Jews but it certainly was not to the Romans.  Most Romans had never even heard of Judaea and those who had called it  Palestina.

... a JORDAN (chamber pot) and a SCAM should come from the biblical Jordan and Shechem, while the most relevant and covered up English word from a Hebrew place name has to be BABBLE. The Oxford English Dictionary is so troubled by a biblical source for BABBLE (Babel), that it warns readers that "no direct connection with Babel can be traced" and declares the term to be of "unknown origin."

Is the Professor completely devoid of a sense of humor?  Of course a Jordan is named after the biblical Jordan - it is, after all, a body of water.  Someone acquainted with the Bible made it up as a joke.  But scam?  Give us a break!   Better still, provide the evidence.

The same goes for babble.  Our edition of the OED does not say "unknown origin" but it does say that "no direct connexion to Babel can be traced".  Prof. Mozeson is entitled to hold bizarre views about the origin of words but if he wishes to insist that a direct connection to Babel can be traced let him do it - trace the connection.  An assertion is not proof, no matter how boldly it is asserted.  

Check the given etymologies, for what they're worth, but [HI]JACK, JINX, JUDGE, JOVIAL, and VULCAN are really from the bible's Jacob, Jonah, Judah, Jehovah and [Tu]val-Cain (Gen. 4:22).

Are they really?  Well... no, they are not.  But that's as close as Professor Mozeson ever gets to a proof - an assurance that "really" he is correct.

Late Nineteenth Century German scholars [invented] modern linguistics.  Their racist ideas about the supremacy of Aryan tongues created barbed wire language barriers and even hung Mother Hebrew out on a limb of the language tree called West Semitic.

A layman, reading the above quotation, might be forgiven for thinking that 19th century linguistics was riddled with anti-Semitic sentiment.  After all, didn't these "racists" talk about "Aryan tongues".

Linguists tend not to use the term Aryan any more.  It was once used to mean the ancient language group which gave rise to most of the European, Iranian and North Indian languages.  Unfortunately, since the hideous atrocities of the Nazi regime, aryan has acquired grotesque implications of racial superiority.  For this reason, modern linguists have replaced Aryan with the term Indo-European

By not distinguishing clearly between Aryan, the 19th century linguistic term, and aryan, Hitler's term for the "master race", Professor Mozeson allows for confusion to creep in.   Is it possible that Professor Mozeson deliberately intended this confusion?   The implication of this (admittedly uncharitable) interpretation is that anyone who disagrees with Professor Mozeson may be dismissed as an anti-Semite.   And that's a lot easier than showing how the Japanese got samurai from Hebrew.

AG00003_.gif (10348 bytes) Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From Cecilia Holmes:

Where did revamp come from?  It seems like it is a combination of two words, maybe renovate and amplify?  I would appreciate you letting me know.

That's an interesting guess, but you'll have to revamp it.  Start with vamp, a noun meaning "the foot and ankle part of a stocking" (from the 14th century).  In the 16th century a verb was formed from the noun with the meaning, "to repair the vamp of a stocking".  It soon took on the more general meaning of "to repair or patch (just about anything)".  Then, in the 19th century, there apparently arose a need for a word which meant "repair or patch again", and that is where the re- comes in.  Revamp was originally applied to written works that were in need of rewriting.  It was in the first half of the 20th century that the word began to be applied to other repaired items.

Interestingly, in the 18th century, vamp also changed in meaning from "repair" to "improvise", in the sense of playing the piano. 

Where does vamp come from, anyway?  Its immediate antecedent was Anglo-French vampé, from Old French avanpié, constructed from avan(t) "before, in front of" + pié "foot", referring to the part of the foot that the vamp covered. 

Read about other words in our bookstore.

From Debby Bridge: 

I'm a graduate library student.  I've enjoyed searching on your site.  What did the word libraries mean when Wyclif wrote about them in 1382?  Apparently it did not mean rooms full of books back then.

La biblioteca!In honor of a librarian friend of ours who is in town for a conference at Stanford University, we'll root out the etymology of library.  Chaucer certainly can be thanked for recording the earliest known instance of the word in English, though the date is probably a bit earlier than you suggest, about 1374.  At that time the word referred simply to a room in a house where books were kept for reading.  It derived from the French librairie "bookseller's shop".  The French word came, via vulgar Latin libraria, from Latin librarius, an adjective meaning "concerned with books".  The root of librarius was liber "book", and that word came directly from liber "bark of a tree".  Some etymologists suggest that this was because bark was used as an early writing material, but others think that the Romans simply had a tradition that bark had been used for such a purpose.  Cognates are Russian lub "bark" and Lithuanian luba "board", and there are cognates in the Romance languages, as well, having the meaning "book shop".  Interestingly, the word never had that meaning in English.

Some English doublets of library are libel (from Latin libellus "little book", because libel was originally simply a plaintiff's claim in written form) and libretto (Italian for "little book").

By the way, unlike modern libraries, Roman libraries must have been quite noisy places, as books were read to the patrons by slaves.  In those days, most people could not read silently.  It was considered quite remarkable that St. Augustine of Hippo could read without uttering the words.

From Jake Paredes: 

What is the origin of the word colony?

It entered Middle English with the original meaning of Latin colonia, "a public settlement of Roman citizens in a hostile or new country".  It later came to be used more generally in the 16th century, partly by influence from Old French colonie.  The Latin word derives from colonus "tiller, farmer, cultivator" (from colere, "to inhabit, to cultivate"), implying that the first thing new settlers did in a region was work the land to provide food for themselves.  The Roman colonia was often populated by veteran soldiers, acting as a garrison and retaining their Roman citizenship.

The Indo-European root of Latin colere is *kwel- "to revolve, to move around".  Other words deriving from that root are cultivate, bucolic, cycle and even palindrome.

Cologne in Germany was once known as Colonia Agrippina, "the settlement of Agrippina", and so it, too, is cognate with colony.

From Will:

Someone has mentioned that he feels the term sorcerer, meaning "magician or necromancer", comes from the term source.  I disagree but cannot cite the actual etymology.  Can you assist me?

Sure, we can help, with a few newt's eyes and bat's wings.  The word first appears in English in the early 15th century in Tyndale's translation of the New Testament, of all places, to translate what today is called a magician.  It came from sorcer "magician", which derives from Old French sorcier, with cognates in Italian sortiere and Spanish sortero.  The ultimate Latin source of these words is sors "sort", which, in case you are not familiar with the black arts, means in this sense "destiny" or "fortune".   "Pronouncements from oracles" were known as sortes in Latin, and sortes means "lots" (as in "casting lots" or "drawing lots").  Sortarius was used to refer to "oracular priests" or those who cast/drew the lots.  The shift in meaning to "one who uses magic" is not difficult to imagine. The Indo-European root at work here is *ser- "to line up", source also of series, assert, and assortment.  The "line up" sense probably refers to lining up lots before drawing them.

Since we're on the subject, we think sorcerer is a perfectly good word, but we cannot understand why the publishers of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone had to change the title in the US to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (book one of the series)  If you're interested in trying to find out why, click either title for the option of buying the book.  Gee, and while we're being commercial, we might as well throw in a link to Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (the current book in that series).  (Hey, has anyone noticed how much this Potter kid resembles Neil Gaiman's Timothy Hunter character?)

From Jaideep:

What is the origin of ex as in ex-girlfriend?

Ex has several meanings and uses in English.  It can mean "out", "upward" or, taken a step further, "thoroughly", as in exclude, extol, and excruciate, respectively.  It can also mean "bring into a certain state", as in exacerbate.  Further, it can mean "to remove, expel, or relieve from [something]", as in expatriate "to remove from one's native land", where ex- means "remove" and patri- means "native land".  From that sense comes the meaning you reference, that of "former".  It was originally applied only to offices formerly held (the earliest example, from 1398, is ex-consul), but by the mid-19th century we find ex-beau, and by 1876 we find ex-wife.

The root of ex is eghs "out", also the source of Greek words such as exoteric and eschatology.

curmdgeon.GIF (1254 bytes) Curmudgeons' Corner

Resident curmudgeon Barb Dwyer asks wherefore

While driving this week, I noticed a car with an inscribed license plate bracket which read, "Romeo, Romeo, where the hell art thou, Romeo?"  Given the similarity to Juliet's soliloquy which begins "Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou, Romeo?", I assumed that the lady owner of this car intended it to be read as a parody of that speech.  But why?

The only way I can make sense of this is if...

  • The owner of this car is experiencing difficulty locating the love of her life
  • She thinks that wherefore means "where".

The real meaning of wherefore is not "where" but "why".  Juliet was not seeking Romeo's whereabouts but asking why he had to be called "Romeo".

Sez You...
From Pepijn:

The poem you discussed in [last] week's issue was written by a G. Nolst Trenité.  I have a copy of it in the booklet Engelse uitspraakoefeningen [Haarlem: H.D. Tjeenk Willik & Zoon N.V., 1957 (10th edition)].  Nolst Trenité is a Dutch author; this booklet contains English pronunciation exercises aimed at improving the pronunciation by natives of Dutch.   As far as I know, Nolst Trenité is the author of the poem.

A few additions: the title of the poem reads The Chaos, and for the line "Shoes, goes, does. Now first say finger", I have the following:

Shoes, goes, does*. Now first say finger, [...]

* No, you are wrong, This is the plural of doe.

Thanks for the information, Pepijn.  We love to have the complete story.

By the way, even we stumbled over does.

From Richard Aaron:

The poem in this week's Laughing Stock is listed by the title: English Is Tough Stuff on several web sites, where it is attributed to Dr. Gerald Nolst Trenite (1870-1946), who is described as "a Dutch observer of English." Whether he is the actual source of the poem,  I cannot say.  I used to share this torturous poem with my adult learners when I was teaching English as a Second Language at the advanced level.  I have another poem which you may also want to share with your readers.  It's not quite as difficult, but still challenging.  Sorry, I don't know its origin.  Keep Up The Good Work!


I take it you already know,
Of tough and bough and cough and dough.
Others may stumble, but not you,
On hiccough, thorough, laugh and through.
Well done! And now you wish, perhaps,
To learn of less familiar traps.

Beware of heard, a dreadful word,
That looks like beard and sounds like bird.
And dead - it's said like bed, not bead,
For goodness' sake, don't call it 'deed'!
Watch out for meat and great and threat,
(They rhyme with suite and straight and debt).

A moth is not a moth (in mother),
Nor both in bother, broth in brother.
And here is not a match for there,
Nor dear and fear for bear and pear.
And then there's dose and rose and lose -
Just look them up - and goose and choose.
And cork and work and card and ward,
And font and front and word and sword.

And do and go and thwart and cart -
Come, come, I've hardly made a start!

A dreadful language? Man alive!
Some master it when they are five

We have a few similar poems up our (collective) sleeve but we hadn't heard that one before.

From Brian Degnan:

This past issue, (I believe it's issue 95) wherein Dave Menashe sent in "English as she are spoke," reminded me of a poem regarding English pronunciation as difficult.  It comes from Steven Pinker's The Language Instinct, New York: Harper Perennial, 1994.  

"The complaint of the English language spelling, of course, is that it pretends to capture the sounds of words but does not. There is a long tradition of doggerel making this point, of which this stanza is a typical example: 

Beware of heard, a dreadful word 
That looks like beard and sounds like bird, 
And dead: it's said like bed, not bead - 
For goodness' sake don't call it "deed!" 
Watch out for meat, and great and threat
(They rhyme with suite and straight and debt).

Pinker, p. 188

There were also these "oronyms, strings of sound that can be carved into words into two different ways" (Pinker, 160) which I found very amusing.

The good can decay many ways.
The good candy came anyways.

The stuffy nose can lead to problems.
The stuff he knows can lead to problems.

Some others I've seen
Some mothers I've seen.

Oronyms are often used in songs and nursery rhymes:

I scream,
You scream,
We all scream
For ice cream.

Mairzey doats and dozey doats
And little lamsey divey,
A kiddly-divey doo,
Wouldn't you?

Fuzzy Wuzzy was a bear,
Fuzzy Wuzzy had no hair.
Fuzzy Wuzzy wasn't fuzzy,
Was he?

The penultimate one is "Mares eat oats, and goats eat oats, and little lambs eat ivy. A kid'll eat ivy, too. Wouldn't you?"  That one took me some time before I got it!  Thanks again for your site and excellent work.  Mike, hope the foot's getting better!

We have a recording of Mairzey doats... by Spike Jones and his City Slickers which we treasure for its anarchic loopiness.  Also, in the song It Had to be You, Harry Nillson clearly articulates "Some mothers I've seen...".   Presumably he intended "mother" to be understood as an aphetic contraction of a longer slang expression.

From Chris:

Just a quick word to say I'm fair gruntled at discovering your website.  I could not get my email address accepted but have subscribed through - hopefully. Looking forward to our future together.

Glad you managed to subscribe!  Let us know what kind of trouble you were having with subscribing and we'll see if we can't fix that.  We are pleased to have you aboard!

On the other hand, if you check our back issues, you will see that gruntled is not the opposite of disgruntled.  Strange to say, they both mean the same thing.

From Philip B. Henderson:

Regarding Issue 94:  Curmudgeon Barb Dwyer may have already lost the battle on compris[ed] of.  My Webster's New World Dictionary from 1986 lists as a third definition, "to make up, form or constitute" [a nation comprised of thirteen States].  Although it does state that this sense is regarded by some as a "loose usage." 

We think that Barb's quibble was not with the definition of comprise but whether it is followed by of.  It is not clear from your quotation whether the "nation comprised of thirteen states" is from Webster's.  If it is then... O tempora, o mores! 

Laughing Stock

This test try why not?

We found peculiar example of spam this in our inbox last week.  

Group "PSYCHO-LAN" offers to your attention the completely unusual psychological test find which you can to this address: [redacted] to your attention will be some questions having answered on which you are submitted receive the exactest and complete explanation yours problems in life and psychological frustration, as you receive the professional explanation as is possible further to avoid these problems. The test will not borrow from you more than 5 minutes. As you learn the latent opportunities of the brain. Than this test is unique you ask? And that that this test, to be exact explanations which you receive after passage of this test are unique for everyone, they show yours to charm and lacks (only yours and drawn games more). This test more than thirty millions the man from all light already have passed. Our test has received large quantity of the awards in medical and psychological areas. Come to this address: [redacted] also pass the test, you see who knows, that disappears in your  psychological opportunities... If you would not want that this message came to you again, go to this address: [redacted] and refuse from it. 

With the large respect 
R. Hofmand (group "PSYCHO-LAN")

On first read we thought, "What a great example of someone translating a letter word for word into English", but after another read we realized that someone probably deliberately wrote this e-mail to sound like that.  This was virtually confirmed when we clicked on the links provided in the e-mail and were taken to an x-rated, site.  Now you know why we did not supply you with those links! 

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