Issue 131, page 1

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Bad etymologist! No biscuit!

Regular readers of this magazine are familiar with the word etymology.  It's the study of word-histories and the subject of this entire site.  We obviously consider etymologizing a "good thing" but, spend a little time with a dictionary and it's not difficult to find remarks which seem to imply that etymologizing is an activity that should be avoided at all cost.  Remarks such as this:

carnelian [A variant of cornelian, altered under the influence of medieval Latin carneolus "carneol", or otherwise etymologized from Latin carn-em "flesh", with the notion of expressing "flesh-coloured".]

cornelian; a flesh-coloured, deep red, or reddish-white variety of chalcedony.

- Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd ed., 1994

You see... "etymologized from Latin carn-em".  In other words, the word was doing fine as cornelian until some know-it-all with a little Latin decided that it would make more sense etymologically if it were called carnelian ("flesh-colored").  Thus, in the terminology of dictionaries, etymologizing means "altering a word so that it conforms to a supposed etymology".   This deplorable process is much more prevalent than one might imagine, especially regarding words borrowed from another language.  

World War I saw many young English-speakers in France for the first time and they picked up such useful French phrases as toodle-oo and san-fairy-Ann.  They don't sound French to you?  Well, perhaps they'd look more acceptable as tout à l'heure ("so long") and ça ne faire rien ("it doesn't matter", "it makes no difference").

To these young soldiers, having no experience of French, the words faire rien sounded for all the world like fairy Ann.  In earlier centuries, English misheard other French words, too.  A kickshaw is an elaborate dessert and takes its name from quelque chose "something".  Although it spends its life in water, there is no -fish in the history of crayfish.  Instead, it comes from the French crévis.

The problem with these etymologized words is that they seem to make sense yet one is easily misled.  Americans tend to call the smallest finger a pinky.  This term mystifies Brits.  Aren't all the fingers equally pink?  In this case, the word comes from the Dutch pinkje "small".  Also from Dutch is forlorn hope.  It seems to make perfect sense in English and yet it is really verloren hoop ("lost troop"), a military term.  Another word that seems to make sense is nitwit.  It is only too natural to assume that a nitwit has the wit ("sense") of a nit ("louse egg") but it really comes from Dutch niet wit ("know nothing").

Ever wondered about the phrase in apple-pie order?  It doesn't seem to make much sense, does it?  The contents of an apple pie can hardly be said to be ordered.  The answer lies in the original French nap plié ("folded linen") which was heard as "apple-pie".  There is a bonus explanation here, as this also accounts for apple-pie bed, an old practical joke in which the bed linen was folded short.

An annoying, painful little tag of skin hanging near a nail may be called a hangnail but, historically, theA chaise longue.  Read an article on bedroom decorating (you never know - you might find it interesting!). word has no relation to either hanging or to fingernails.  The original Middle English word was agnail which meant "a thorn in the flesh".  Curiously, the -nail part of the word is related to the old Gothic nagl, meaning "nail" but the sort you hit with a hammer, not a fingernail.

To be shamefaced does not mean "to blush".  It has nothing to do with faces at all.  The Old English word shamfaest meant "modest" or "shy" and implied "restrained (held fast) by shame".

We see the same process going on today whenever U.S. furniture stores advertise a chaise lounge.  The word lounge converts the original longue (French longue, "long"; chaise longue, "long chair") to something more familiar to American ears. 

How do we know all this stuff?  Why not visit our bookstore and find out?


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