Issue 185, page 2

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Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From A Reader:The brown recluse

Does a spider spide?

That's a very good question!  Yes, a spider does spide, sort of.  Spider actually derives from the Old English word spinnan "to spin".  But where did that d come from, you ask?  Well, the hypothetical Old English noun formed from spinnan was *spinthron "spinner" (reconstructed based on typical Old English formations), and the known Old English form was spinthra.  It shouldn't be difficult to see how, over time, the n before the thra was elided and the thra mutated to der by way of methathesis.  (Well, it shouldn't be difficult...)

Other Germanic words for spider show their relation to spin more clearly: German spinne, Dutch spinner, Swedish spindel, and Danish spinder.  The Proto-Germanic root is presumed to be  *spenwanan "to spin".

From Ms. Zammataro:

I am an ESL teacher and was asked where the word corny came from.

Something that is corny is ridiculously sentimental.  This is supposedly a reference to the lack of sophistication of people in the country, where corn is grown.  It dates from the 20th century in the U.S. Melody Maker magazine enclosed corny in quotation marks to suggest that it was still a slang or new term in 1932: "The 'bounce' of the brass section... has degenerated into a definitely 'corny' and staccato style of playing."

From Randy Kaplan:

Does anyone have insights or citations as to the use of the word sham in the sense of fake or counterfeit, other than the possible derivation from shame?

Well, here's the quotation that most etymologists look to for sham's origin:  

The word Sham is true Cant of the Newmarket Breed. It is contracted of ashamed. The native Signification is a Town Lady of Diversion, in Country Maid's Cloaths, who to make good her Disguise, pretends to be so sham'd! Thence it became proverbial, when a maimed Lover was laid up, or looked meager, to say he had met with a Sham.

That explanation comes from 1734, quite a few years after the first appearance of sham in the written record in 1677, but the OED concedes that such a derivation is possible.  What is known is that the word first appeared as slang and then entered fairly common usage, and that it is probably somehow connected with sham, a northern (England) dialectical form of shame (noun and verb). 

From Sarabeth Flach:

First of all, I want to thank you for your great site. Although I am not yet officially a linguist, I hope to be in another three years or so. TOWFI is giving me a great introduction to the world of linguistics. 

As a native Texan serving as a missionary in Romania, I love to observe the similarities and differences between Romanian and English. The other day I was thinking of the Romanian expression sarut mana, which literally refers to kissing someone's hand, but is used as a very polite way to say hello or goodbye. I wondered if this could be at all related to the English word ceremony. I have no access to the OED, and nobody I have talked to has any idea. So what do you say? Does the etymology of ceremony have anything to do with kissing someone's hand? Thanks again for a wonderful resource. Keep up the good work!

That is a very interesting notion.  First, however, one must consider whether the Romanian expression had an opportunity to be adopted into English.  There are not many words of Romanian extraction in English - a quick search of the OED turned up 43 hits, some of those are cognates (versus sources) and others are from the names of famous (or perhaps infamous) Romanian people.

An ancient Welsh ceremonyPerhaps you are suggesting, however, not that ceremony came from Romanian, but that the Romanian expression is cognate with English ceremony.  That is a possibility as Romanian is a Romance language (i.e. derived from Latin) and English has adopted many words of Latin origin.  The final test is in researching the word's actual derivation.  The OED (and other sources) tells us that ceremony came to English from Old French in the 14th century.  The French got it from Latin crimonia "sacredness, sanctity, awe, reverence; exhibition of reverence or veneration; religious rite; ceremony". 

William Skeat suggests that the Latin word is related to Sanskrit karman "action, rite" (a.k.a. karma, the subject of much Hindu, Buddhist and "New Age" philosophizing), the Indo-European root being *kar- "to cry out, exclaim" or "to praise loudly".  This does not appear to support a connection with the Romanian, but Skeat's derivation is by no means gospel.

Thanks for the kind words, Sarabeth, and we hope y'all are finding Romania as hospitable as Texas.

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From Monique Abadilla:

I'm reading a book called "On Blondes" and was wondering where the word blonde came from.

This word first appears in print in English in the work of William Caxton, writer, translator, and printer, in 1481.  It came to English from French blond, blonde "yellow haired".  There are cognates in Spanish blondo and Italian biondo.  It was blondus or blundus "yellow" in medieval Latin.  Beyond that the word's origin is somewhat unclear, though some etymologists favor a derivation from a Germanic source, especially given the existence of Old English words like blanden-feax and blonden-feax "having mixed or grizzled hair, gray-haired".  One suggestion is that the original sense of the root word (Proto- Germanic *blandan "to mix", origin of blend) was "dyed", as the ancient Germans dyed their hair yellow.  Calvert Watkins, on the other hand, suggests that it derives from Frankish *blund-, ultimately from Germanic *blunda-.  Both blandan and blunda- are said, by Watkins, to derive from the Indo-European root *bhel- "to shine, flash, burn; shining white".

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