Issue 182, page 2

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Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From Andy:

I'm a history teacher and have gotten sick of seeing the word seperate on my students' civil rights assignments.  I've tried to get them to relate the words sePARate and aPARt but I'd love to know if the words have  more in common than these three letters.  Is there an etymological link? 

Well, let's find out.  Separate the verb comes from Latin separat-, the past participle of separare, which is formed from the prefix se- "without, apart" and parare "make ready".  The sense is "prepare something by parting it from something else" - pretty much what we mean by the verb to pare.  We first encounter separate in written English in the early 15th century.  The Indo-European root of parare is *pere- "to produce, procure", which also gave us the words parade, parlay, parry, apparel, disparate, parachute, parasol, pare, and prepare.

The Indo-European root of the prefix se- is s(w)e- "pronoun of the third person", and the etymological sense in the Latin se- is "on one's own" and therefore "apart" from everyone else.  Some derivatives of that root are self, gossip, suicide, secede, seclude, secret, segregate, and sever.

Apart, on the other hand, comes from a different source.  English borrowed it from French part where means "to" and part means "place, side", so that apart is etymologically "to the side".  It dates from the late 14th century in English.  Calvert Watkins, who put together the American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots, believes that part comes from a similar yet different Indo-European root than parare (though he does note that the two roots may be related to one another).  He feels it comes from *pere-(2) "to grant, allot".

Perhaps in a very broad sense you can think of separate and apart as related, and if that serves as a mnemonic device for your students, all the better!

From Joseph Chiaravalloti:

The French claim to have created the bouledogue breed and named the dog from the shape of its head.  [French boule means "ball" - M&M] Yet, whenever English language sources discuss bulldogs, pit bulls, and the like, the reference is always to bull baiting and it is stated or implied that this is the origin of the name.  Is this another case of the English appropriating a French word and then claiming it was English via folk etymology?  

Dear oh dear, this is a tricky one.  We may end up being sorry for sticking our paws into it.  First we'll tell you that the OED (Oxford English Dictionary for you new readers out there) isn't quite sure whether the dog was named because it was used in bull baiting or because of the shape of its head.  [Shaped like a bull's head? Or like a ball (boule)? -M&M] However, the OED editors believe that an occurrence of the term bold-dogges from about 1500 is the earliest recorded version of bulldog (albeit plural).  And they certainly think that bulldog derives from bull + dog.  No mention of French anywhere.

We did chance on a fascinating article about the history of the breed, written byClick to follow the link for more great dog (and other) photos by Dan Heller. Carl Semencic with Don Fiorino and published in Dog World magazine (March, 1984).  These gentlemen state that the bulldog conformation we are familiar with today is not necessarily the conformation of the earliest bulldogs, which suggests a possibility that bulldogs were not originally named for the shape of their heads.  They also cite a reference to a certain type of dog that was used in bull baiting, and that reference comes from the early 15th century (though it was known as the alaunt veutreres* and dog historians seem to agree that this was not our bulldog).  However, the earliest English "book of dogs", written by Johannes Caius in 1576, does not specifically mention a bulldog, suggesting that the bulldog as a breed had not made its appearance yet.  The authors of the article suggest that the first appearance of bulldog in writing occurred in 1631, in a letter from Prestwich Eaton to George Willingham of London.  Eaton apparently asks that Willingham "procuer mee two good Bulldogges and let them be sent by ye first shipp".  (This quotation does not appear in the OED.)  

Semencic and Fiorino believe that the bulldog is descended from a cross of the Chinese pug, introduced into Europe by the Portuguese in the mid- to late-16th century,  with the English alaunt, mentioned above.  This jibes with the date of the Eaton quotation and the absence of the breed in the Caius book.  Furthermore, the authors of the Dog World article also believe that bulldogs were so named because they were specifically used in bull baiting, which was very popular throughout much of Europe at the time that the breed first appeared.  Besides, we think the notion that a bulldog head looks like a bull's is a bit of a stretch (if that is what is being suggested).

The French connection, as another bulldog historian (Lee Weston) notes, seems to come from the Industrial Revolution, when workers from England went to France for work and took with them the English bulldogs that had caught their fancies in England. 

The verdict?  Still not definitive, but we found no evidence for a French derivation of the English dog breed name, and we also found additional information that we had not quite expected.

*Further interesting information: the alaunt was known as a vicious dog that was difficult to control or, as the Second Duke of York said in the early 15th century, "men have seen Alaunts slay their masters. In all manner of ways Alauntes are treacherous and evil."  The alaunt became extinct, and that is not surprising!

From Linda Graham:

If oak trees produce acorns, then why aren't they called acorn trees?  Or why not call acorns oak seeds or oak fruits?  Does it have to do with the etymology of acorn?

The source of the mighty oak!If we were to guess, we'd say "probably".  In Old English it was cern, and there were cognates in many of the Germanic languages: Old Norse akarn (Danish agern, Norwegian aakorn), Dutch aker "acorn", Old High German ackeran (modern German ecker, pl. eckern) "oak or beech mast", Gothic akran "fruit".  The latter is thought to come from Gothic akr-s (the equivalent in Old English was cer which gave us today's "acre") "field", with an earlier meaning of "open unenclosed country".  This would indicate that the Gothic akran originally meant "fruit of the unenclosed land", that is, fruit of the major trees: oak, beech, etc.  The Gothic term was further extended to mean generally "fruit", but in English, Low German, and Scandinavian it was restricted to what the OED characterizes as "the most important forest produce", the fruit of the oak: the acorn.

Oak is a very old Germanic word, too: it is eiche in German, eik in Dutch, ek in Swedish and eg in Danish.  These all derive from the proto-Germanic root *aiks.  Because oaks were among the most common trees in ancient Europe, the Indo-European word for "oak", *deru- or *doru- became the English word "tree". That hypothetical root also produced Greek drus (which gave English dryad), Welsh derwen (possible source of English druid), Swedish trd and Danish tr, both meaning "tree".

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From Dan Hunting:

A college professor of mine claims that the term redskin refers to "Indian scalps that bounty hunters would exchange for money".  I can find no support for this statement.  The professor is standing by her statement even though she has not been able to prove her claim.  Can you enlighten me on the true origins of this term?

We like facts here at TOWFI, not revisionist history with no evidence to back it up.  So far we have no evidence that redskin meant anything other than "person with red skin" just as black when used to describe a person means "person with black skin" or white means "person with white skin".  The earliest recorded example of the term redskin is contained in the following quotation from 1699: "Ye firste Meetinge House was solid mayde to withstande ye wicked onsaults of ye Red Skins."  Why would a meeting house be built to withstand Indian scalps that were exchanged for money?  That's absurd.  Clearly the earliest use of the term refers to people, not scalps.  All of the examples cited by the OED again refer to people and not the scalps of those people.  We are fairly certain that the OED editors are not willing to hide a word's history just to preserve the image of their putative ancestors.

Is your professor someone with an agenda that would benefit from the word redskin deriving from "scalps"?  Sure sounds that way, especially if she is standing by her derivation without a scrap of evidence.  Doesn't sound like she deserves to be a professor, and she certainly shouldn't be teaching students, unless this is all some sort of trick she's playing on you!

Please note that we are not suggesting that scalping was not practiced by non-American Indians.  It just has nothing to do with the etymology of redskin.  Please also note that most American Indians (Melanie is among them) do not take kindly to the term.  So while we have discussed its etymology here, we do not suggest that you use it in conversation.


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2003 TIERE
Last Updated 06/29/05 07:07 PM