Issue 197, page 2

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Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From Chay Bigger:

Do you know the origins of the word cleave and how it came to have two meanings that are direct opposites?

Indeed we do!  That's what we're here for, Chay.  These were originally two different words that evolved, perhaps with the influence of one upon the other, so that they have the same spelling but retained their different meanings.

A cleaverCleave "split" comes ultimately from Old English cliofan/cleofan.  There were cognates in Old Scandinavian, Old High German, and Old Norse.  The Old Teutonic root was *kleub-, and we even get a pre-Teutonic root with this one: *gleubh!  Both meant "split".  The pre-Teutonic root is thought to be the source of Greek gluph- "cut with a knife" and Latin glub- "peel, flay".  The Old English inflected forms became cleave, clove and cloven, though cleft appeared in the 14th century and has survived.

Cleave "cling" was clifian/cleofian in Old English.  It also had cognates in Old Scandinavian, Old High German, and Old Norse.  Its Old Teutonic root is *klibojan, from *kli- "to stick" (source of climb, clay and clam).  The Old English forms gave rise to clive (the given name Clive is not related; it comes from Old English clif "cliff") and cleve/cleeve in Middle English, and it was cleeve that survived, and it came to be spelled cleave, perhaps by influence of cleave "split".  

Clover the plant is not etymologically related to either of the cleave words, coming instead from an Old English word which simply meant "clover".  Clove the spice is the dried flower bud of the clove plant, and it is named clove because the dried bud looks like a nail (Latin clavus).  A clove of garlic is, however, related to cleave "split" as it is a part that has split from the main garlic bulb.  The Dutch word for garlic is knoflook or, literally, "clove leek".

From Jason Marsh:

I've heard a friend of mine describe receiving schwag when he attends auto-industry shows.  The term seems to refer to trinkets that have been branded with a manufacturer's trademark.  I'm having trouble finding any history for this term, and I was hoping you could help.

Help is here, Jason!  Indeed, the term is still found spelled swag in dictionaries, though many people do pronounce it "shwag".  It's not entirely clear whence that pronunciation arose, perhaps it is simply a playful mispronunciation.  In any event, it has been around for a while with several different meanings.

The first recorded meaning, though now obsolete, comes from the early 14th century and is "aSwag (or shwag or schwag) from Xigo bulgy bag".  It next turns up in the late 16th century meaning "a big blustering fellow".  Hmm.   By 1660 it is recorded with the meaning "a swaying or lurching movement".  All right, we can see where swagger came from.  Moving on, by the late 18th century it refers to a wreath or flowers, fastened to a wall or such at both ends but hanging down in the center.  We still use the word with that meaning today to refer to decorative curtains, and the curtain sense first appears in the written record in 1959 from the theatre.   The sense here is "sagging".  Fine, but what about goodies obtained from a car show or other commercial event?  Read on.

In the 17th century we find swag recorded as slang for a shop that sold cheap trinkets.  Then by the late 18th century we find it with the meaning "a thief's plunder or booty" - those same cheap trinkets?  But in the mid-19th century the word turns up in Australia and New Zealand with the meaning "the bundle of personal belongings carried by a traveller or tramp".  We seem to have gone back to the original meaning of "bulgy bag" here, but there is also the notion of something hanging or sagging - a hobo with his bag of belongings tied on a stick.  

The "cheap trinkets" sense reappears in the early 19th century when we find the meaning "trade in small, trifling, or trashy articles".  It is that meaning that seems to have begotten the current sense of swag.  In fact, Michael Quinion learned of a book from about 1921, called The Penny Showman, that mentions a "showman's swag", referring to the cheap prizes set out around a showman's stall.  Today's equivalent would be the plush toy animal prizes that line carnival game stalls.  So it appears that the cheap promotional items one gets at movie publicity parties and auto shows were equated with the cheap stuff given as prizes at carnival game booths or the trinkets sold at cheap stores, and so named.

Fine, we've talked about the change in meaning, so what about the word's actual etymology?  The "bulgy bag" and "big blustery man" meanings are thought to come from Norwegian svagg "big, strong, well-developed person".  The other senses of swag are thought to have derived from a Scandinavian source with a general meaning of "sway" or "sag": from a bag "sagging" on a stick to a bag of spoils, to the spoils themselves, cheap though they may have been, and then to cheap items in general.  Another possibility is that the original  "bulgy bag" meaning may have influenced the much later "bag" associations of swag.

Incidentally, in the pot-smoking subculture, schwag is a name given to weak or otherwise undesirable marijuana.

From Ramon Starr:

Why is the last letter of the English alphabet pronounced "zee" in the U.S.?

Or, as Americans would ask, why is the last letter of the alphabet pronounced "zed" in the U.K.? Explaining the "zed" pronunciation is easy.  It comes ultimately from Greek zeta, through Latin zeta and French zede.  There is another pronunciation of z in U.K. English, as well.  Have you heard of the transvestite comedian Eddie Izzard (he can be side-splittingly funny, by the way!)?  Izzard is that other pronunciation!  Most Americans don't realize that when they hear the comedian's name.  Even some British English speakers don't know it.  Izzard, and its other forms, uzzard, shard, and ezod, also come from zeta.  Note, however, that the surname Izzard does not come from the name of the letter.  It comes, instead, from the names Isolde or Ishard, or Old Provençal (and apparently pre-Roman) izar "mountain goat".  The surname may, of course, have been influenced by the letter name, however.

What about zee?  It's not a purely American phenomenon.  Ian, on the staff of The Straight Dope, tells us that zee did exist in Britain, albeit spoken by a minority, and it was taken to America during colonial times, where it may have been seized upon by the rebels there to help set themselves apart from the enemy Brits.  It is thought that zee originally arose based on the pattern established by other letters: bee, cee, dee, etc. The Straight Dope also suggests that the American zee is slowly taking over zed.  The ABC Song is apparently to blame for this.  Think about ending that song with zed - it falls flat because the rhyme is lost!  

From George:

Everyone knows what repair means, in the sense "to fix something that is broken".  What about the meaning "to move or go somewhere", usually applied to being indoors and going to another room?  How could the same word have reached two such different meanings? 

Ah, yes, after dinner the women might repair to the drawing room to talk and work on their needlepoint while the host and his gentlemen friends smoke cigars and tell bawdy jokes.  This is actually a different word from repair "mend".  It comes from Old French repeirer, which is a corruption of repadrer, from Late Latin repatriare "to repatriate", or to return to one's father country.  The specific sense was lost over the centuries so that only the notion of "going" remained, and that is what we have today.  In America the word is used with mock pomposity, or playfully.  It dates in English from the 14th century. 

Repair "mend, restore to a working state" comes ultimately, via Old French reparer, from Latin reparare "to make ready again", from re- "again" and parare "prepare".  It dates from the 14th century, also.

Incidentally, remember those women who left the dining room and repaired to the drawing room? This gives us the origin of drawing room. It was originally the withdrawing room; the room where the women went when they withdrew themselves from the dining table.

From Orr:

I have searched all over the Net for some history on the origin of the word before, but I have found nothing.

We use this word all the time, yet we probably don't often wonder about its etymology.  It is pretty straightforward, though: it comes from Old English beforan, formed from bi-/be- "by, about" and foran "from the front".  Foran derives from the hypothetical (remember the asterisk?) Old Teutonic *forana, from fora "fore".  So something that is before is "by the front".   Some other words that contain fore "front" are forehead  "front part of the head", forefront "in front of the front",  and forward "toward the front".

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