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very little

We have little to discuss this week.  Perhaps we should re-phrase that... This week, we are going to look at words that evolved from the Indo-European root *pau- which meant "little".  

To many ears, the pronunciation of the letter P is very similar to an F (hence the use of PH) and often, when a word passes from one language to another, Fs become Ps and vice versa.  With this in mind it is easy to see that the Old English feawe "few" and our Modern English few are direct descendants of *pau-.

The Latin paucus, "little, few" is more obviously descended from *pau-.  This Latin word has given paucity to English and poco "little" to Spanish. There is an Afro-Caribbean religion called Pocomania, the name of which is usually interpreted as "a little madness" though it is probable that its true origin is an African word.

The IE root *pau- shows up in other Latin words such as parvum, "little" and pauper (pronounced pow-pair) which means... well... "pauper".  Parvum is the source of the par- in paraffin.  Reichenbach, the chemist who discovered paraffin in 1830, was struck by the fact that it showed very little affinity for other substances.  He therefore named it paraffin to signify "little affinity".

We mentioned that an F may become a P  (and vice versa), but the story doesn't end there - the P may become a B, the B a V and the V may turn into a U or a W.  These shifts may be seen in the changes that pauper[em] underwent as Latin devolved into the various Romance languages.  Thus, in Old French and Middle English it was povre which became pauvre in Modern French.  Spanish and Portuguese have pobre and Provencal has paubre and paure. In Middle English the V in povre was sometimes softened to a U and the resulting word poure became our poor, but the V remained in poverty.

It may not come as a surprise to learn that pony, foal and filly are related (after all they all mean a kind of horse) but they are all linguistically related, too, as they are all derived from *pau-. The ancient Germanic word *fulon- meant a "small animal [of any species]" which gave rise to the Old English word fola, "young horse" (hence our foal) and to the Old Norse word fylja "female colt" (hence our filly).  Pony is a Scottish word (they spelled it powney) and is one of the many words that the Scottish borrowed from French during the "auld alliance" (against the English). In Old French, the word was poulenet and meant a  "young foal" rather than a "small horse". Looking further back still, we find that poulenet was a form of the Latin pullus, "a young animal".  Pullus also gave us our pullet and the somewhat obscure poulard, both being words for a young hen. [Odd to think that pony and pullet have the same origin, isn't it?]  In Middle English, any petty official or  tax-collector was known as a catchpole, where the -pole means "hen" or "chicken". Presumably, they took their taxes in portable livestock.

Latin had yet more *pau- words in puer, "child" and pusus "boy". Puer has given us puerile ("childish"), and pusus is the origin of that splendid mouthful pusillanimous which literally means "having the spirit (or courage) of a small boy". In Greek, "a small child" was pais (or paid- when inflected), whence paideia, "education". This latter word became part of the Greek phrase for "a well-rounded education": enkuklios paideia which, in English, is encyclopedia.

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Last Updated 08/09/02 10:55 PM