From Morgiana P. Halley, Ph.D.:
I'd rather like to know why, since monkshood/wolfbane is such a toxic
plant, lupine (also, presumably named for wolves) is harmless and grows wild in many North American pasturelands.
For an American in England, I believe one of the real eye-openers is
getting on the M1 and seeing signs indicating merely "The North" and "The South". But, what I want to know is, how did the place shown on the
highway signs as "Pity Me" get its name?
Neither of us has been to the U.K. in a while so we can't for the life of us imagine
what that might be and we haven't been able to find it. Are you pulling our collective leg?
[Regarding the last NOE (Newsletter Only Etymology - sign up!):]
An "assafetiddy bag" worn around the neck was, for some generations, considered to be efficacious in warding off airborne diseases. As the
practice was beginning to die out in the early 20th C., the pandemic Spanish influenza caused a revival. There seemed to be nothing to do to
prevent the disease, so people grasped at any hope of fending it off. It was believed that no noxious vapours could pass the vile presence of
asafoetida to attack the wearer. My family background was from New England through Ohio and Iowa to California, but I knew about "assafetiddy bags"
from an early age. I believe no one in my family had employed one since my *great*-grandmother's era, however. Since the distaff side of my mother's
family consisted of six generations of schoolteachers, one assumes that they had found it necessary to deal with this practice amongst their
students, rather than employing it within the family, although it was sometimes mentioned in a joking manner when some epidemic of childhood
diseases hit the schools I attended or those in which the active family members were still teaching.
From Delia Gorman:
"And even MORE interesting is that Greek for "daddy" is spelled mu pi alpha mu pi alpha
When I visited Greece in 1997, I was surprised to find that the Greek alphabet has no letter representing the "B" sound. The obvious candidate, beta, is pronounced "veeta" and carries the "V" sound. So, to represent the "B" sound, they use MP.
Several readers wrote in to tell us this. Thank you all!
From Fritz Keppler:
I enjoy your column very much. Etymology is singularly fascinating.
The word Maghreb, which in Roman letters may be transliterated in many ways indeed, is from Arabic meaning "West". Morocco was the farthest western region known to the classical Muslim world. A somewhat more complete name traditionally used for Morocco is
al-Maghreb al-Aksa, meaning "the farthest west".
Indeed. We were wondering if Moor had any
"western" connotations, as Maghreb does.
From Joseph Chiaravalloti:
But surely, the word pit must have been influenced by the British
pip, which is short for pippin (pipen, pepin), a fleshy fruit and the seed thereof? Then there is the Conan Doyle
story, The Five Orange Pips. I rather assumed that pit was an Americanization of pip (rather like arse to ass).
The OED says nope. It doesn't even know where, exactly, pip
came from (other than it is a shortened form of pippin). There is no obvious connection between pip
and pit, though pip may have influenced the adoption of pit from Dutch, certainly.
From Daniel H. Schechner:
I enjoyed the explanation from Brad Daniels about the pronunciation shifts of Chinese words from Cantonese to the official Mandarin dialect, as well as the resulting changes in some of our English phonetic spellings. But if we can switch from Peking to Peiping to Beijing, for example, shouldn't we spell
feng shui more like fung shway, or perhaps fong shooway?
Concerning Gene Fuller's comments on the etymology of gollywog, I found the following additional information at Merriam-Webster's Online:
* Golliwogg (with double g) was an animated doll in children's fiction by Bertha Upton, circa 1895.
* Gollywog is also described as a grotesque black doll.
* It makes chronological sense, at least, that gollywog was derived from pollywog, since the latter word for
"tadpole" (literally, "toadhead") dates from 1832. It's odd that while many of us would characterize a pollywog's swimming technique by the apparent oscillation of its tail, the Middle English spelling, polwygle, clearly describes the wiggling of this creature's head.
Incidentally, the French composer Claude Debussy composed a suite of children's piano pieces between 1906 and 1908, one of which is a charming little number he called "Gollywog's Cakewalk". Since
cakewalk is defined as a dance of American Blacks, after which a cake was sometimes awarded to the participant with the most intricate walk or pattern of steps, the picture of the dancing black doll is complete, if politically incorrect.
Ken Hardy's contribution regarding the adoption of French words by Russians reminded me of my college years in Philadelphia, during which I studied both French and Italian. In a French class, we learned that
le dansing meant dancehall, rather than the physical activity itself. Similarly, le chewing signified gum, instead of the process of masticating it. And an Italian professor informed us that the Italian-Americans of South Philly spoke a dialect that their European relatives would never understand. His best example was the phrase,
checkare le pipe di stima, which is pronounced something like "checkAh'ray lay PEE'pay dee STEE'ma" and is translated as "to check the steam pipes".
Checkare is, naturally, an English infinitive with an Italian suffix tacked onto the end. Le pipe refers not to plumbing, but to the kinds of pipes one might use for smoking tobacco (more political incorrectness!). And
stima has nothing whatsoever to do with steam, but rather esteem.
Finally, I share your readers' lamentations about the frequent misuses of subjunctive verb forms. Highest on my list would be the atrocious, "If I would have studied harder, I would have gotten better grades." The correct usage is, of course, "If I had studied harder, I would have used the proper tenses!" And this is one example, I believe, that should not be reserved for formal writing. If one still fears appearing affected, however, there's always, "If I'd studied harder, I'd have used..." or another colloquial alternative, "If I'd studied harder, I would've used...."
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From Peter McEntee:
In modern Greek, mp (mu pi) is the standard way of representing the sound we
know as "B" as in "bottle." The Greek letter b (beta, pronounced "vee-tah") denotes our sound "V" as in "vessel." This can make for some
interesting tranliterations of western names, e.g. "Mpomp Mparker" (Bob Barker).
Even though someone already explained this, we had to print your letter for the Bob
Barker transliteration! HA!
From Brendan Donnison:
The very first issue of NOE that I received (NOE No 11) mentions
the village in which I grew up. Totley lies 7 miles south-west of Sheffield, on the Yorkshire/Derbyshire border.
It’s claim to fame is the Totley tunnel – said to be the longest railway tunnel in Britain (3 miles 950 yds).
When I was 12 years of age, I moved up the hill to DORE. The two villages are often referred to together. The
local railway station was Dore and Totley station. Dore is said to be the site of the battle that united all
England in 829 AD under King Ecgbert.
My question is – what is the origin of the name Dore? I
have often wondered. Sounds French, doesn’t it?
Thanks! Believe it or not, it is cognate with door! There must
have been a gate, or even a narrow pass, in or near the present day village.
From Dennis S. Rybicki:
What's all this about strange place names? Can any of them hold a candle to
* Cle Elum
* Puyallup (pronounced "pew AL up"
* Tenino (Named after railroad engine 1090)
* Pee Ell
Most of those are Indian (Native American), aren't they?
Maybe we'll discuss some of those in the future. In the meantime, what about your great surname? That
prompts us to ask readers who know the etymology of their surname to write us with such information for a special
For example, Melanie's maiden name, Jeanes,
was De Genez in the Domesday Book, and it is thought to mean "of Genoa [Italy]". This makes
her surname cognate with jeans "denim pants". So all of those grade school jokes were
pretty much on the mark!
From Dick Mackin:
FYI Your northern neighbours also celebrate Labor day except ours is
slightly longer - i.e. Labour Day.
Good to know for our next Labo(u)r Day excursion. We've been eyeing Canada for
From S.K. Tamanaha:
Pablo [A. Rajczyk]'s recent criticism of the phrase, "I thought to myself" hardly seems fair in the light that
it is an old idiom and is fairly common in German as in "Ich denke mich" (I think myself)or "Ich saß mich" (I sat myself).
Perhaps, but curmudgeons don't necessarily let a word or phrase's
venerability stop them from complaining about it!
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