Issue 122, page 1

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Skirt, shirt, skit and shinola

Once acquainted with a little etymology, the mind tends to make strange associations.  Someone says shirt and we may think skirt but this is no Freudian slip - shirt and skirt are merely different ways of pronouncing the same ancient word for "a short garment".  The Teutonic root word is *skurto- ("short-") from which we get Old Norse skyrta "shirt", Dutch schorte "apron" and German schürze "apron".  

Other examples of this sk-, sh- equivalence abound.  A shell on a nut or a scale on a fish, they "So  there I am, lying in bed, when I get pulled up into this alien craft...both must be separated from their edible parts.  Both derive from the Indo-European root *skel- "to cut" or "separate.  This sense of cutting and division is also apparent in their cousin shale, a kind of stone which easily splits into layers.  Scale originally meant "husk" or "shell", both of which objects were used as drinking vessels.  That is why scale also came to mean "bowl" and what do you get if you hang a pair of bowls on either end of a balanced rod?  A pair of scales.

Other cutting words from this root are scalpel, sculpture and, surprisingly school.  Ever wondered why we say a shoal of fish but a school of dolphin?  To an etymologist they are both the same word.  In medieval German schöle meant a "troop" (that is, a division of the army).  A schism is a division of a religion  or school of thought.  Both science and skill are the application of discrimination or, to put it another way, "separating [mentally] one thing from another".

Shin is also related, being a piece of meat which is cut off the boneBreaking stones and leaping out to bite your ankle....  Similarly, the butcher cuts away the chine from the backbone.

Now that you know about relation between sk- and sh- words one might expect skin to be related to shin and chine.  Well, skin is a kind of "second-cousin once removed" as it comes from *sek-, another, related, Indo-European root  which also means "to cut" .  Other words derived from *sek- are sector, section, intersect, saw and sedge, a grass-like plant with three-cornered, cutting leaves.  

Let us consider the humble saxifrage, a small alpine plant which is credited with the ability to split the rocks it grows on.  Its name means "rock-breaker" from the Latin words saxa "stone" (literally "a broken-off piece") and frangere "to break".   So, etymologically interpreted, saxifrage means "breaker of broken-off pieces".

Oh, skit, is that the time...!?

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