Jeremy Butterfield Editorial

Making words work for you


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Pancake Day and Shrovetide: a pancake recipe linguistick


It was the day whereon both rich and poor
Are chiefly feasted with the self same dish,
Where every paunch, till it can hold no more,
Is fritter-filled, as well as heart can wish;
And every man and maid do take their turn,
And toss their pancakes up for fear they burn;
And all the kitchen doth with laughter sound,
To see the pancakes fall upon the ground.

From Pasquils Palinodia, 1619, by William Pasquil


 

pancakes_olney

Olney Pancake Race. With maids and a man pretending to be a maid.

Shrovetide

Nowadays, if they think of Lent at all, most people in our post-Christian society will associate it with what is known in Britain and elsewhere as Pancake Day [aka Shrove Tuesday], the day before Ash Wednesday that ushers in Lent.

In the past, in different parts of Britain, the three days up to and including Shrove Tuesday were called Shrovetide, a time for letting off steam and letting one’s hair down before the enforced rigours of Lent. Stephen Roud’s fascinating The English Year tells me that it was the season of the year when, in a sort of Mary Whitehouse avant la lettre rampage, apprentices traditionally wrecked any bordellos (from Italian) in their neighbourhood:


It was the day, of all days in the year,
That unto Bacchus hath his dedication,
When mad brained prentices, that no men fear,
O’rethrow the dens of bawdy recreation. 

Pasquils Palinodia


And a jolly good thing, too, say I!
Someone more cynical than I might say a) ‘this is merely cutting off your nose to spite your face‘ or b) ‘they do protest too much, methinks.’

(Btw, note that that clause in the third line ‘that no men fear’ might trip you up. It does not mean that ‘no men fear the apprentices’, but rather that the apprentices fear no men: it tinkers with the normal SVO order of English for the sake of rhyme.)

All manner of weird and wonderful pastimes and ‘entertainments’ used to take place at Shrovetide. Fortunately, the ‘sport’ (Ha!) of cock-throwing (gentle US readers, read ‘cockerel’) was banned long ago.

However, the general nasty and brutish hurly-burly that was football before FA rules neutered its joyful testosteronic orgy was a favourite, and still lingers on, for example, in the ‘football’ played for example at Alnwick in Northumberland or Ashbourne in Derbyshire, which the millionaire ponces of modern Premier League football would no doubt despise.

What is the Shrove of Shrove Tuesday and Shrovetide?

The OED shows the first quotation for Shrovetide from c.1425 as Schroftyde. The -tide part just means ‘time’ or ‘season’, as in eventide, noontide, Eastertide, etc. The first part is undoubtedly related to the verb to shrive, past tense shrove, past participle shriven, which goes back to Old English scrífan,  meaning ‘to allot, assign, decree, adjudge, impose as a sentence, impose penance’. That word is an early borrowing into English of the Latin scrībere, ‘to write’, which is the ancestor also of modern German schreiben, ‘to write’.
To shrive can mean to hear someone’s confession or, more often, and in the passive, to make one’s confession and receive absolution, which is what traditionally happened before the Reformation in the three days leading up to Ash Wednesday: so Shrovetide is literally ‘the season for confessing’.

In Romeo and Juliet (ii. iii. 172 ), Romeo instructs the Nurse:

Bid her [Juliet] devise
Some means to come to shrift this afternoon;

And there she shall at Friar Laurence’ cell
Be shriv’d and married. Here is for thy pains.

Note the word shrift, which is the noun related to shrive, and in Romeo’s phrase to come to shrift means ‘to go to confession’. If you give someone short shrift, you are using this same word; originally, the shrift was short because it was the limited space of time given to a criminal to confess before being executed. In R & J, Shakespeare makes the verb regular, rather than using the past form shrove.


Meanwhile…, back at Pancake Day, there are pancake races, the most famous being the one at Olney, in Buckinghamshire, which, as you will see if you follow the link, has its own website.

I’ve been digressing bigly, so let’s get to the point, shall we? Words to do with pancakes.

Butter…eggs…milk…flour…water…sugar…lemon. Those are the basic ingredients of and garnish for a pancake (thanks Delia!) — the water is unusual, though.

To me, from the glum faces and the averted eyes, this looks like the morning after a domestic. But, hey, this is Dutch, so there must be an edifying moral allegory lurking somewhere. ‘Cooking pancakes’, c.1560 Pieter Aertsen (1507 or 1508-1575). Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen. Oil on panel 33.86 in x 66.93 in.

Simple, everyday words, but ones with complex histories that illustrate why English is such a succulent concoction of so many other languages.

If we look at where those words ultimately come from–simplifying considerably–what do we discover?
butter (Greek)
eggs (Old Norse)
milk, water (Germanic)
sugar, lemon (Arabic)

And if you also use syrup, that’s another word from Arabic.

Each has a curious story to tell.

(Flour has too, but it’s a different tale: it’s a specialized spelling of flower.)

Let’s look at a couple of these words in more detail.

Fine words butter no parsnips

…but butter is essential. if not to make the pancake batter (from French, btw), at least to cook your pancakes with (I don’t recommend lard [Old French] or goose fat).

How on earth did ‘butter’ come all the way from Ancient Greece?

Like this. The Ancient Greeks seem not to have used butter for cooking, but they knew of its existence. The fifth-century (BCE) historian Herodotus wrote the earliest account, describing how “the Scythians poured the milk of mares into wooden vessels, caused it to be violently stirred or shaken churning-butterby their blind slaves, and thus separated the part that arose to the surface, which they considered more valuable and more delicious than that which was collected below it”.

Hippocrates, the ‘father of medicine’, he of the Hippocratic oath, also mentioned butter several times, and prescribed it externally as a medicine. He too described the Scythians making it, and wrote that they called it βούτυρον (bouturon).

Folk etymology or loanword?

The 1888 OED entry states that this ‘Greek [word] is usually supposed to be βοῦς [bous] ox or cow + τυρός [turos] cheese, but is perhaps of Scythian or other barbarous origin.’ In other words, the derivation from Greek might be a folk etymology, and the Greek word might in fact be a loanword.


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What the Romans did with butter

roman_baths

Alma-Tadema’s soft porn masquerading as classicism. Exquisitely painted, though!

Greek βούτυρον was borrowed by the Romans as butyrum. They, like the Greeks, did not use it in cooking either, but as an ointment in baths (yuck!) or for medicinal purposes, such as mixing it with honey to rub on mouth ulcers or to ease the pain suffered by teething infants.

Finally, the word reaches Britain

Old English had borrowed it at least by the year 1000 CE, when it appears in Anglo-Saxon medicine in the form butere as a remedy for swellings or boils.

English is technically a ‘West Germanic‘ language, and its cousins German, Frisian and Dutch all also borrowed the word for ‘butter’ from Latin, which is why the modern German is butter, and the Dutch boter.

Beware of Vikings bearing eggs

Another of the ingredients of current English is Old Norse words brought over by the Vikings during their incursions into the British Isles and Ireland from the late eighth century onwards.

Many of them are basic to our vocabulary: words to do with the body, such as ankle, calf, freckle, scab and skin; or basic verbs such as get, give, take and want. These words often replaced earlier Old English words, and **egg is a Norse interloper (the -loper part of which is from Dutch).

The older word was **ey, (plural eyren) derived from Old English ǣg. It seems that the two different words were used concurrently, but by people from different parts of Britain.

egg

One of the best-known illustrations (or “iconic moments“, if you want to be kitschy) of the history of English concerns these lexical twins.

In his prologue to his translation of The boke yf Eneydos… translated oute of latyne in to frenshe, and oute of frenshe reduced in to Englysshe by me Wyllm Caxton (i.e. a paraphrase of what we know as Virgil’s Aeneid), Caxton wrote:

Loo, what sholde a man in thyse dayes now wryte, egges or eyren? Certaynly it is harde to playse every man by cause of dyversite & chaunge of langage.

(What should a man in these days now write, egges or eyren? Certainly it is hard to please every man because of the diversity of and change in language.)
caxton_texxt

Caxton was echoing the uncertainty about how to write words at a time when English spelling was becoming a very pressing issue because of the spread of printed books. Dialects within Britain varied far more than they do today, and for Caxton it was important to choose words and spellings that would be understood by as many people as possible.

His remark follows a piquant story

Some merchants—presumably from the north of England, since one is called Sheffield—being becalmed on the Thames and unable to set sail for Holland, want to have something to eat and try to buy eggs from a woman dahn sahf (down south).

The merchants use the Norse and northern English version egges; she uses the southern version eyren. She either was unable to understand, or, like many a south-easterner even today (‘The North begins at Luton’), decided to wind up the northerner by pretending not to, ;-). She added insult to injury by taking him for that worst of all things…a Frenchman!

And that comyn Englysshe that is spoken in one shyre varyeth from a nother…and specyally he axyd after eggys. And the goode wyf answerde that she coude speke no frenshe. And the marchaunt was angry for he also coude speke no frenshe but wold haue hadde egges and she understode hym not. And thenne at laste a nother sayd that he wolde haue eyren. Then the good wyf sayd that she understood hym wel.

(Modern English version at the end of the blog.)

What about pancake?

Simples! It’s a straightforward, Middle English combination of pan (related to German Pfanne, and perhaps also ultimately from Latin) + cake (again, like egg, from Scandinavia).


**The Old Norse is echoed in the modern Scandinavian languages: Icelandic & Norwegian egg, Swedish ägg, Danish æg; the Middle English ey(e) in modern German and Dutch ei.


In present day English:
‘And that common English that is spoken on one shire differs from another…And he asked specifically for eggs, and the good woman said that she spoke no French, and the merchant got angry for he could not speak French either, but he wanted eggs and she could not understand him. And then at last another person said that he wanted “eyren”. Then the good woman said that she understood him well.’

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Like lemmings to the slaughter? Like lemmings to the sea? A Norwegian word in English.

tiny_lemming
One of the curiosities of English is why this diminutive creature has become a byword for impulsive herdlike behaviour, even mass hysteria. These appealing northern rodents are the victims of a bad press—or at least a very inaccurate one.

A computer game and a TVad

For many people the word will bring to mind an unstoppably addictive computer game created in 1991. Lemmings’ supposed suicidal urges were also the inspiration for a 1985 TV advertisement launching Apple Macintosh’s Office. Suited businesspeople were shown walking blindfolded and in single file up to a cliff edge, from which they hurled themselves into the abyss, until the last in the line took off his blindfold to the voiceover, “You can look into it. Or you can go on with business as usual.”

A potent urban myth

urban-legend-rumor
That lemmings deliberately self-destruct en masse is a complete myth, but one that has a powerful hold on the popular imagination. It is one of those many mistaken things that we all “know” (in the same way that we “know” that Eskimos have dozens of words for snow). And it is a myth firmly embedded in English as a way of symbolizing people who unthinkingly follow what the crowd are doing, often with dangerous, if not downright fatal, consequences.

Where did the myth originate?

A compelling sequence from a 1958 Walt Disney short nature film entitled White Wilderness has  a lot to do with it. It purported to show wave after wave of lemmings plummeting over precipitous cliffs into the Arctic Ocean. Accompanied by portentous commentary and melodramatic music, that film helped sear the idea of rodents with a death wish into the public’s consciousness. It was, however, a cruel fake. Clever camera angles and good editing made it look real, but the (actually rather few) lemmings were cascading into a river, not into the sea, and they were, it seems, being launched from a rotating turntable. If you watch that footage—which now looks very much of its era—you will understand how the use of  lemmings as a powerful metaphor for unthinking, self-destructive mass behaviour took off.

“The science bit”

lemming_cute
Lemming describes twenty species subdivided into six genera and belonging to the same superfamily as rats, mice, gerbils and hamsters. They are widespread in the cooler north of Eurasia and North America and range from three to six inches in length. Far from succumbing to suicidal groupthink, these creatures live solitary, hermitic lives, only associating with others, as they must, for mating purposes. Unlike other rodents, which have inconspicuous coats, their pelts are variegated. They are also aggressive towards predators. The Norwegian lemming, Lemmus lemmus, travels considerable distances in its migrations.

Populations fluctuate wildly

Lemming populations fluctuate wildly for reasons not fully understood, and when population density reaches a critical level, they migrate collectively. Since they can swim, they may attempt to cross stretches of water that are beyond their abilities and consequently drown.

History of a simile

dv560039
The OED gives the first example of the metaphorical use from a 1959 book (“Home-going office workers…potent in mass as a lemming migration“), but Google Ngrams throws up an example from the 1930s: “…logicians fling themselves headlong in hordes, like lemmings; and suicidally discuss the import of ‘propositions’ such as ‘The King of Utopia died last Sunday…,” from The Principles of Art by the British philosopher R.G. Collingwood.

On a more pedestrian level, but more dramatically, Life of 5 January 1942 reported that “Men and Women are swarming out of the Navy Building, the War Department, Labor, Interior, Commerce, not with the orderliness of ants but like lemmings swarming blindly toward the Baltic.”

These examples predate the Disney film and suggest that the myth was current well before the film appeared.

How the simile works

Typically, an explicit comparison is made using the preposition like. Tendentiously, as in:

At present, all countries of the world are marching like lemmings over the philosophical precipice to collectivism.

Financial Sense Online, Editorials 2005.

Or slightly naughtily, as in:

…the run of articles about how being tall and good looking and banging Playmates who line up like lemmings ready to fall over his penis made Michael Bay…

The Hot Button, 2002.

In the first the reference to cliffs is explicit, in the second it is punningly implicit. In a minority of examples with like, the word cliff actually appears in the context:

Sky One’s audience has been deserting it, disappearing like lemmings over a cliff, according to Dawn Airey, the managing director of Sky Networks.

Sunday Times, 19 September 2004.

The set phrase “like lemmings to the sea” seems to have emerged in the 1950s. The first Ngrams example I can find is from 1952:

He walked from Grand Central to Eighth Street, kids hitting New York go downtown like lemmings to the sea, and he was a confirmed New Yorker by Thirty-fourth.

The Time and the Place, (a novel), Robert Paul Smith, 1952.

The comparison is also lexicalized in the adjective lemming-like:

After the Diana nonsense, when complete strangers lemming-like threw themselves into publicity-driven grief, through Charles and Camilla’s redemption, we are now spoon-fed the William and Kate Show.

Daily Telegraph, 2012, quoting MSP Christine Grahame.

Like lemmings to the slaughter

As I was writing this, I wondered, “Has anyone changed ‘like lambs to the slaughter’ to ‘like lemmings to the slaughter’”. And, sure enough, they have, but the phrase is not terribly common. A google for those exact phrases throws up under 3,000 for the rodent one, but over 650,000 for the ovine one. The one with lemmings seems slightly odd, since they are not exactly slaughtered by another agent, but it’s an interesting example of a blend of two phrases. Pedants might consider it a sort of malapropism (or it might be a sort of phrasal eggcorn). However, the examples seem to suggest that it is different from “lambs to the slaughter”. Whereas the latter emphasizes that the victims go meekly into a situation of whose dangers they are unaware, the lemmings simile foregrounds the idea of people blindly rushing to do something foolish or dangerous.

In one example it’s the heading to a blog (spamdalot) that continues as shown: “Like Lemmings To The Slaughter. One thing I’ve noticed about Portland is that the pedestrians here have a deathwish…“. In another it’s also a heading, this time in a post on an investment website (Stanford Brown): “Like lemmings to the slaughter………at our April Insight we highlighted that individuals make such poor investors principally because of our insatiable appetite to buy high and sell low. The exact same pattern is happening again“.

Not the only myth

But the suicide myth is not the only one that has attached to lemmings. For a long time they were thought to fall from the sky. In 1555 the Swedish Catholic cleric Olaus Magnus, then exiled in Rome, published in Latin his History of the Northern Peoples (Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus), detailing Swedish history and customs.
scandia

About lemmings he wrote: “Quod…in Noruegia…euenit, scilicet vt bestiolæ quadrupedes, Lemmar, vel Lemmus dictæ, magnitudine soricis, pelle varia, per tempestates & repentinos imbres è cœlo decidant“.
(Translation) “Which…happens in Norway, namely that little four-footed creatures, called Lemmar or Lemmus, of the size of shrewmice, with variegated hide, fall from the sky through storms and sudden showers.”

This account was repeated almost verbatim at the word’s first appearance in English, in The historie of four-footed beastes, by Edward Topsell, who was, it seems, much given to plagiarism:

There are certaine little Foure-footed-beastes called Lemmar, or Lemmus, which in tempestuous and rainy weather, do seeme to fall downe from the cloudes.

So, where does the word come from?

The word lemming is, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, borrowed straight from Norwegian, and has not been modified in English. Swedish and Lapp have similar words — lemmel and luomek — and it is possible that the word is related to words meaning “to bark”, such as Latin lātrāre and Lithuanian lōti. Certainly, when they are angry one of the noises they make sounds not dissimilar to the bark of a small dog.

Other Norwegian loanwords

Lemming is not the most common word English has borrowed from Norwegian. Leaving aside the obvious fjord, that honour must surely go to ski, first recorded as a noun in 1755, and as a verb only as late as 1893.

Norwegian_ski
It is interesting that in Norwegian the sk is pronounced sh, the pronunciation reflected in Italian sciare. It was also the English pronunciation Fowler recommended in his 1926 Dictionary of Modern English Usage. Norwegian has also given the skiing world the term slalom, the downhill race, from slalåm, (from sla sloping + låm track).

The Kraken Wakes

kraken-03
The lemming myth mixes fact and fiction, but another Norwegian loanword (1775) plunges us into the world of entirely mythical and terrifying sea creatures: the kraken. This creature was reputedly so enormous that when it dived it created a whirlpool big enough to engulf even the largest ship. Its most famous English incarnation is probably in the title of the 1953 sci-fi novel The Kraken Wakes, by John Wyndham.

It also found its place in 19th century poetry in a sonnet by Tennyson that is somewhat unusual in having fifteen lines rather than the normal fourteen.

Below the thunders of the upper deep;
Far, far beneath in the abysmal sea,
His ancient, dreamless, uninvaded sleep
The Kraken sleepeth: faintest sunlights flee
About his shadowy sides: above him swell
Huge sponges of millennial growth and height;
And far away into the sickly light,
From many a wondrous grot and secret cell
Unnumbered and enormous polypi
Winnow with giant arms the slumbering green.
There hath he lain for ages and will lie
Battening upon huge sea-worms in his sleep,
Until the latter fire shall heat the deep;
Then once by man and angels to be seen,
In roaring he shall rise and on the surface die.

Ouch!

Finally, those who in Scotland are bitten by vicious clegs (i.e. horseflies) will be gratified to know that they have been wounded by an Old Norse beast, kleggi, or klegg in Modern Norwegian.


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Portuguese words in English: marmalade, mangoes, and maracas

There’s something so very very English (or British) about marmalade.

It’s not on the list of 100 English icons voted for by the public, but a full English Breakfast is.

And without marmalade, a full English Breakfast would, to my mind, be, um, well, half empty.

It turns out that even D. H. Lawrence — that writer of that “not very British” lubricious poem about figs — made it, as can be deduced from what sounds like a WI motivational quote (“I got the blues thinking of the future, so I left off and made some marmalade. It’s amazing how it cheers one up to shred oranges and scrub the floor.”)

marmalade_marmalades

Naturalized Brit Ruby Wax said, “I once did an on-line interview where I had to write the answers to the questions. I never speak that slowly. It was like having sex in marmalade.”

Noel Coward opined that

“Wit ought to be a glorious treat like caviar; never spread it about like marmalade.”

Virginia Woolf’s husband listed it as one of the ingredients of, presumably, a highly nourishing tea:

A spread of boiled haddock, apple tart, tea, toast, butter, marmalade, & cake in front of a huge fire awaited us.

L. Woolf , Let. 30 Nov., 1917

Yes, all in all, it’s a very British institution, but it’s also one of those thousands of words English has borrowed from other languages – Portuguese in this instance.

So British is it, in fact, that it first appeared in English (1480, in the form marmelate) a full sixty years before its appearance in any other European language, besides Portuguese.

Words from Portuguese

Portuguese loanwords in English cannot compete numerically with those from the other Western Romance languages (French, Spanish, Italian). Nevertheless, the OED lists 398 (compared, for instance, to more than four times that number for Spanish, at 1748).

English borrowed them from Portuguese, but Portuguese borrowed them too.

A handful of these 398 words derive(d) from existing Portuguese words, e.g. lambada (from lambar, “to beat, to whip”). But most draw on the many languages with which Portuguese merchants, explorers and seamen came into contact during Portugal’s history as a seafaring and colonizing power. (In fact, Portugal was the last European colonizer to relinquish a colony, when East Timor achieved independence in 2002.)

'Vasco da Gama' (circa 1460-1524), oil on canvass by antonio Manuel da Fonseca, 1838. In the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich.

‘Vasco da Gama’ (circa 1460-1524), oil on canvass by Antonio Manuel da Fonseca, 1838. In the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich.

Because of this rich colonial history, Portuguese has one of the highest number of mother-tongue speakers in the world: ranking sixth, according to the Ethnologue, below Arabic and above Bengali.

An exotic cornucopia

In their search for the fabled spices of the East and other precious commodities, the Portuguese traded in much of the known world, particularly Africa and the Far East, and, of course, Brazil (now the country with the largest number of Portuguese speakers). Many of the words Portuguese has given to English reflect encounters with local flora and fauna, e.g. cougar, jaguar, macaw, mongoose, and mango. Others describe artefacts encountered in indigenous cultures, e.g. fetish, marimba, and maracas.

We first encounter many of these Portuguese loanwords in late-sixteenth- or seventeenth-century English translations of foreign explorers’ descriptions of the lands they visited, translations that vividly convey contemporary fascination with the “new worlds” being opened up to Europeans.

Varied origins of Portuguese loanwords

As varied as the meanings of those words are their origins. While Portuguese was the immediate vehicle for transmission into English, the Portuguese language itself often “borrowed” them from other languages, including Arabic, Indian subcontinent languages such as Malayalam and Marathi, and African and South American languages. Mango and maraca illustrate that; the first is probably immediately either from Malayalam māṅṅa, a Dravidian Indian language related to Tamil, or from Malay mangga, and before that in either case from Tamil mankay, from man “mango tree” + kay “fruit”; the second is from Tupi or Guaraní, both South American languages.


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But marmalade has a longer, European history

…if you go back far enough.

The immediate source is the Portuguese word for “quince”, marmelo + the suffix -ada (= -ade).

By Brigitte E.M. Daniel, 2000.

By Brigitte E.M. Daniel, 2000.

As the OED explains, originally marmalade referred to “a preserve consisting of a sweet, solid, quince jelly resembling chare de quince [= “quince flesh”] but with the spices replaced by flavourings of rose water and musk or ambergris, and cut into squares for eating”.

It must therefore have been similar to the luscious, toothsome quince jelly that is now fashionable as an accompaniment to cheese. Often, it is the imported Spanish delicacy dulce de membrillo (literally, “sweet of quince”, the Spanish word membrillo deriving, like the Portuguese, from Latin.)

marmalade_Quince-Jelly-And-Paste-hero

That quince jelly (chare de quince) is mentioned in the Paston Letters:

I pray yow that ye wol send me a booke wyth chardeqweyns that I may have of in the mo[r]nyngges, for the eyeres be not holsom in this town.

1451, M. Paston in Paston Lett. & Papers (2004) I. 247,

(I assume that “booke” here reflects this OED meaning:  “A packet of some other commodity bound together for ease of handling or dispensing”.)

Later, as the OED explains: “Subsequently: a conserve made by boiling fruits (now usually oranges and other citrus fruits) in water…typically containing embedded shreds of rind…Often with the name of the fruit or other dominant ingredient prefixed, as apricotonionquince When none is specified, orange marmalade is now usually meant.”

Which explains why onion marmalade is so called, though it seems a long way from jentacular marmalade.

[I wanted an adjective relating to breakfast that isn’t breakfast used attributively , and jentacular is it — such a shame it is obsolete.]

Where does the word marmelo come from?

It didn’t descend angelically out of thin air.

In etymology, the “less than” < symbol is used to show the source language on the right, and the receiving language on the left, e.g. English < French. But, as we read from left to right, I think it’s easier to reverse the direction and the symbols, which gives us this for the long road marmalade has travelled.

Classical Greek  μῆλον mēlon (= apple), μέλι meli = (honey)

> Hellenistic Greek μελίμηλον melímēlon (summer-apple, apple grafted on quince)

> classical Latin mēlomeli (honey flavoured with quinces) + melimēla (plural) (a variety of sweet apple)

> post-classical Latin malomellum (quince or sweet apple).

> Portuguese marmelo (1527) but marmeleira (quince orchard, 973).

As the OED suggests, “Close medieval trading relations between England and Portugal may account for the very early borrowing of the Portuguese word in English.”

So there we have it: a word for a quintessentially British preserve whose roots can ultimately be traced back, if you like, to Homer and beyond.

many a tall tree did he uproot and cast upon the ground,
aye, root and apple blossom therewith.

πολλὰ δ᾽ ὅ γε προθέλυμνα χαμαὶ βάλε δένδρεα μακρὰ
αὐτῇσιν ῥίζῃσι καὶ αὐτοῖς ἄνθεσι μήλων.
Homer, Iliad, Bk 9, l. 542.

I don’t have a sweet tooth, really. I think I’ll go and have some Marmite on toast.


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National umbrella day 2016: a Latin word borrowed by English

Happy National Umbrella Day, a tutti quanti!

frog-with-an-umbrella

Every February 10 marks this “national day” that probably passes most people by. But it’s a useful opportunity for umbrella manufacturers, wholesalers and retailers (umbrellists?) to market their wares and trumpet their amazing usefulness.


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In Britain, and even more so in Scotland, where I live, an umbrella is an absolute necessity–preferably a golf umbrella, or one of the same size. But even they often buckle or blow inside out when the cruel Scottish wind gets into a temper.

Never mind. It’s remarkable how the word for this everyday object, to which we probably don’t give too much thought as long as it functions effectively, goes all the way back to one of the languages from which, more than almost any other, English has “borrowed”, namely Latin.

How so?

As concisely and accurately as I can tell it, the story goes something like this:

  • The Latin word for “shade” or “shadow” is umbra.

(That’s the word, incidentally, from which ultimately we also get the expression “to take umbrage”. Not to mention the botanical umbels, the shadowy penumbra, and the highly formal verb to adumbrate.)

Allium-cernuum-2-DE

Allium umbels

But, lest I’m tempted to digress further, let’s get back to the main plot.

    • The diminutive form of umbra in Latin was umbella, meaning a parasol or sunshade, and the word was already in existence in the 1st century CE. (It’s only our dreich climate that makes us inevitably associate umbrellas with rain rather than sun; think magnificent Indian rajahs riding an elephant and protected by a sunshade).rajah
    • In Late Latin, the letter r of the base word umbra was reinserted into um[]bella to give umbrella.
    • Meanwhile, Latin umbra became **ombra in Italian, which, together with the diminutive suffix, became ombrella or ombrello.
    • From there it passed into French, which is, apparently, the language from which we most immediately borrowed it, in the early 17th century.
      (Which leaves me wondering what people did before then; life must have been so utterly miserable when it rained).

(I’ve also blogged about English words borrowed from Spanish, Norwegian, Afrikaans and Egyptian.)

Some delightful early quotes

The OED lists several spellings, as almost invariably happens with loanwords. The main variants are the one that has become standard, umbrella (1609), umbrello (1611) and ombrella (before 1630).

I’ve put below some quotes in the OED that caught my eye:

From an early bilingual lexicographer, Randle Cotgrave, in his dictionarie of the French and English tongues (1611):

Ombrelle, an Vmbrello; a (fashion of) round and broad fanne, wherwith the Indians (and from them our great ones) preserue themselues from the heat of a scorching Sunne.

From the remarkable Somersetian writer and traveller Thomas Coryate, responsible, according to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, for the first use of the word in English literature, here describing how Italians shielded themselves from the sun in his Crudities (which means here “undigested snippets”; 1611):

Many of them doe carry other fine things…, which they commonly call in the Italian tongue vmbrellaes…These are made of leather something answerable to the forme of a little cannopy & hooped in the inside with diuers little wooden hoopes that extend the vmbrella in a prety large compasse.

And John Donne, using the word as a metaphor, written in 1609, but not published until 1633:

We have an earthly cave, our bodies to go into by consideration, & coole our selves: and…wee have within us a torch, a soule, lighter and warmer then any without: we are therefore our owne umbrellas, and our owne Suns.

Then poet John Gay, he of The Beggar’s Opera, from Trivia (1716):

Good houswives…underneath th’Umbrella’s oily Shed,
Safe thro’ the wet on clinking Pattens tread.

Finally, from the “Sage of Concord”, Emerson, commenting on those strange people, the English, in English Traits (1856):

An Englishman walks in a pouring rain, swinging his closed umbrella like a walking-stick.

parapluies

 

Keeping dry in other languages

The modern French for umbrella is parapluie, the first part being borrowed from Italian words, and conveying the idea of protection, the second being the word for…rain. A similar combination of ideas gives German Regenschirm (literally “rain screen” ). The modern Greek is simply ομπρέλα, (transliterated letter by letter = omprela).

From Mary Poppins to Rihanna

mary-poppins

(or should that read from innocence to sexperience?)
Squeaky clean Mary Poppins’ miraculous flying umbrella had a parrot-head handle. Rihanna’s does not, but what she does with the umbrella could certainly make your head spin.

It’s noticeable, by the way, how she gives the word four syllables – um-buh-rel-luh – for the sake of the rhyme, in a linguistic process that goes by the name of anaptyxis.

Happy umbrella day!  I hope nobody rains on your parade. Or, that if they do, you have an umbrella to hand.

(If you’d prefer something a bit more melodic on the theme of shade, you might like Handel’s celebrated and sublime aria Ombra mai fu, sung by the sublime Janet Baker.)


 

** Early in Canto I of the Inferno, as he starts on his journey, Dante asks Virgil who he is, using the word ombra:
Quando vidi costui nel gran diserto,
«Miserere di me», gridai a lui,
«qual che tu sii, od ombra od omo certo!».
Rispuosemi: «Non omo, omo già fui,
e li parenti miei furon lombardi,
mantoani per patrïa ambedui.»

When I beheld him in the desert vast,
“Have pity on me,” unto him I cried,
“Whiche’er thou art, or shade or real man!”
He answered me: “Not man; man once I was,
And both my parents were of Lombardy,
And Mantuans by country both of them.”

(I don’t know who this translation is by so can’t credit is as I should.)


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Spanish words borrowed by English: alligators and cockroaches

 

Alligator-Bag-79831


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BOTH ARE LOANWORDS

What is a loanword? It sort of does what it says on the tin. It is a word one language loans or lends to another (though the lender doesn’t usually get it back, and no interest is paid). And the word loanword is itself a loan translation, purloined from German Lehnwort.

English is full of loanwords, as are most, if not all, European languages.

BOTH ARE FROM SPANISH

Our alligator combines the Spanish word for “lizard” lagarto, and the Spanish definite article el “the”. So, if you run the two together you get elligarto, which eventually was standardized as alligator, though previously spelt in at least a dozen different ways.

The word first appeared in its Spanish form lagarto in translations into English in the second half of the 16th century. It made an early appearance in Romeo and Juliet, when Ballet ArizonaRomeo is describing an impecunious apothecary’s shop:

And in his needie shop a tortoyes hung, An allegater stuft, and other skins Of ill shapte fishes, and about his shelves…

That is the spelling in the 1599 Quarto; in the 1597 Quarto it is Aligarta, which illustrates just how indeterminate the spelling originally was.

In the first half of the 17th century we find Sir Walter Raleigh raleigh and Ben Jonson still using the more Spanish spelling: Alegartos and Alligarta respectively. So why did the letters rt of that final -arto or -arta get swapped round to -ator? The OED suggests that it was by association with the agent suffix -ator, found in administrator, imitator, and so on.

This change of form suggests the influence of folk etymology: the process by which people change the shape of a strange, unfamiliar word to make it fit in with a more familiar word or pattern.

A CACAROOTCH

The ultimate shape of the word alligator suggests the influence of folk etymology on a mere suffix. With cockroach, the process transformed both elements of another Spanish word, cucaracha, into recognizable English ones: cock + roach. Many people will know the original word from the popular Mexican song:

La cucaracha, la cucaracha,
ya no puede caminar
porque no tiene,
porque le falta
las dos patitas de atrás.

(The cockroach, the cockroach
Can’t walk anymore
Because it hasn’t
Because it’s missing
Its two rear leglets.)

The unpleasant bug first appeared in print in 1624 in The Generall Historie of Virginia, New-England, and the Summer Isles by John Smith, a picaresque character, soldier, and Virginia’s first colonial governor:

A certaine India Bug, called by the Spaniards a Cacarootch, the which creeping into Chests they eat and defile with their ill-sented dung.

Its spelling, like that of alligator, inevitably went through several mutations, before folk etymology pinned it down to its modern shape. For a long time it was hyphenated, and appears as Cock-roach in Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859).

CHAISE LOUNGES

A more recent example of folk etymology in action is chaise lounge, adapted from the French chaise longue. The word longue looks odd in English (a rare parallel is tongue), but a chaise longue is ideal for lounging; the alteration therefore seems quite logical. (Some are more for show than serious lounging, like Le Corbusier’s iconic creation.) le-corbusier-chaise-longue While chaise lounge is predominantly American, and not recognized as a British spelling, the OED shows it first in an impeccably British source: an edition of The Times of 1807.


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An Egyptian word borrowed by English: Chewing gum and pharaohs

gum


 

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One of life’s minor irritations is having to prise a half-solidified wad of chewing gum off the sole of your shoe because some unthinking slob spat it onto the pavement. This scourge of the street could be avoided if other governments were as draconian as the Singaporean authorities: they allow the import solely of medicinal gum, which has to be prescribed by a doctor, and impose a hefty ban for spitting gum out on the street.

But the habit of chewing resin or gum of some kind goes back several millennia. In 1993 archaeologists in Sweden found three gobbets of 9,000-year-old sweetened birch resin that had clearly been chewed by a human—in fact, by a teenager. And the word gum itself can be traced all the way back to ancient Egypt.

mummy-coffins

It started its journey to English in the form we would write as kemai.

(That first syllable kem– already shows a connection with the modern masticatory habit: the g of our gum and the k of kemai can be considered phonetically two sides of the same coin: g is the “voiced” counterpart of k. Try saying the /k/sound of came on its own and then the /g/ sound of game to appreciate their connectedness.)

But before it knuckled down to its role in modern English, kemai did a lot of travelling: its gap year turned into several centuries.

First, the Greeks adopted it in the form kommi (κόμμι), retaining the k sound of the Egyptian. Pre-classical Greeks were profoundly influenced by Egyptian civilization, borrowing, among other things, some of their sculptural conventions in the “Archaic” period, before they achieved the extraordinary naturalism that we associate with their greatest sculptures.

The historian Herodotus mentions kommi in his description of how the Egyptians embalmed bodies: “and when the seventy days have passed, they wash the body and wrap the whole of it in bandages of fine linen cloth, anointed with gum, which the Egyptians mostly use instead of glue”.

embalming

This is how the pharaohs would have been embalmed too.

From Greek it passed into Latin in the form cummi or gummi (classical Latin spelling, it seems, generally avoided the letter k). In late Latin the word changed to gumma, and was taken into Old French in the form gome. Thence it came into Middle English, in the prologue to Chaucer’s c1385 Legend of Good Women: “As for to speke of gomme or erbe or tre”. It makes another 14th century appearance, in the Wycliffite translation (before 1382) of the biblical Book of Jeremiah “Whether gumme is not in Galaad, or a leche is not there?

That passage is better known nowadays in the King James wording: “Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there?”, balm being a resin with medicinal properties, and thus an image for something that heals spiritually.

That image found powerful expression in the African American spiritual, the chorus of which is:

There is a balm in Gilead, To make the wounded whole;
There is a balm in Gilead, To heal the sin-sick soul.

balm_of_gilead

Gum in English referred originally to “a viscous secretion of some trees and shrubs that hardens on drying but is soluble in water, and from which adhesives and other products are made”. (In that sense, it contrasts with resin, which is insoluble in water).

From the 15th century onwards, it developed several meanings as a verb, including the modern one of “fastening with gum or glue”, which led to the further image in the phrasal verb gum up of clogging something up.

That meaning seems first to have developed in the US: the OED’s first quote is from an 1874 report by an American mining engineer. Nearly 50 years later, another US quote encloses it in quotation marks to indicate the writer’s doubts about its uncertain status, as novelty or slang.

The US has also given us two words for different kinds of footwear incorporating gum in the sense of “India rubber”. Gumboots (1850) are rubber boots or wellington boots; the word seems to be rarely used in British and US English nowadays, but is still going strong in Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa.

Much more evocative is the word gumshoes (1863), meaning galoshes. It first appeared in 1906 in relation to detective work in A.H. Lewis’s Confessions of a Detective: “You’re d’gum-shoe guy I was waitin’ fer… It was Inspector Val tells me to lay for you“.

gumshoe-movie-poster-1972-1010243132

Nowadays of course, gum generally means chewing gum, an industry apparently worth 19 billion dollars a year. That shorthand use goes back as far as 1842: “[She] asked me if I didn’t want A piece of gum to chaw”. At that time the gum would have been spruce gum.

It was not until 1871 that gum developed in its modern form, using chicle, a natural gum from various types of Central-American trees. (Chicle is the Spanish the word for chewing gum.) In Argentine Spanish the English chewing gum has been phonetically adapted as chuenga (pronounced chwenga) to mean a kind of sweet that stuck like a limpet to your teeth.


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The legendary aardvark. First word in the dictionary?

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az_aardvark

Everyone knows the word, but how many have ever seen the animal? The definition

medium-sized, nocturnal African mammal, Orycteropus afer, which has sparse hair, long ears, an elongated snout, strong burrowing limbs, and a thick tail, feeding solely on ants and termites

does not make the beast sound immediately prepossessing, yet some people find this Cyrano de Bergerac of the animal kingdom cute. (The wording of that Oxford English Dictionary definition could also suggest, somewhat surreally, that it is the critter’s tail which feeds solely on ants and termites).

The aardvark is not mythical, like the phoenix, since it really exists, but it has its own urban myth. Ask anyone which word comes first in an English dictionary, and they will assuredly answer “aardvark“. But it generally is not the first word in “the dictionary”.

And the first word in an English dictionary is…

That honour usually goes to the letter A, as in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). You might think a simple letter would be child’s play to define. In fact, the OED divides it into no fewer than 33 senses, including everyday meanings such as the musical note, and more technical ones such as A denoting a socio-economic grouping and A for Ångström.

Dozens of abbreviations follow before the next entry, the humble but indispensable indefinite article (aka “general determiner”) a. It is followed by numerous entries for a in different guises, such as in Bob Dylan’s “The times they are a-changin“, as a prefix (asexual), and as a Latin or Greek suffix (idea, data).

Finally, we strike gold with the first truly lexical entry. And it is? (A very muffled drumroll for) aa, meaning a stream or watercourse, last spotted in 1430 and marked as not only obsolete but rare. Several more curiosities, including some that may be useful for Scrabblists, intervene (aal, from Hindi, the Indian mulberry tree, aapa, from Urdu, meaning older sister) before we get back to our ant-eating, ground-digging mammal with its thirty-centimetre-long tongue.

Why “aardvark”?

South African Dutch, which became Afrikaans, is the language from which English borrowed aardvark, originally written as aardvarken. The aard- part is the Dutch word aarde, which means “earth” and comes from the same Germanic stock as the English word. (The connection between the two is easier to see in the medieval Dutch form of the word, which was ertha.) The -varken part means “pig”. And the animal is also called earth-hog and earth-pig in a loan translation.

Another sign of how English and Afrikaans are ultimately related can be seen in the word Apartheid. It meant literally “apart-ness”, and the -heid element matches the -hood of childhood, priesthood, and other “-hoods“.

Other Afrikaans words in World English

south_african_flagAfrikaans is an offshoot of Dutch, and is one of the most widely spoken of South Africa’s eleven official languages. Its gifts to World English include trek as a noun and verb, and commandeer. Commandeer is multiply borrowed, a bit like a parent’s car, in that it was borrowed from Afrikaans kommandeer, which borrowed it from Dutch commanderen, which borrowed it from French commander. Phew!

It rose to prominence in British English during the First Boer War of 1880-1881. It was originally used to mean “to force into military service”, as The Times reported on 5 February 1881:

The night previously the Boers had commandeered the natives…and compelled them to fight.

Its more metaphorical meaning of taking arbitrary possession of something came later:

The naïve claims put forward by the Boers to some special Providence—a process which a friendly German critic described as “commandeering the Almighty”.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, 1900.

Rather more colourful is scoff, the informal noun for food. It is from Afrikaans schoff, representing Dutch schoft “quarter of a day”, hence the four meals in a day. The OED’s first quotation comes from the 1846 Swell’s Night Guide; or, a peep through The Great Metropolis, a rather louche guide for the man about town in search of interesting nightlife, including casual sex (plus ça change):

It vas hout-and-hout good scoff, and no flies.

(The spelling is not a mistake. It presumably mimics the speaker’s accent.)

And a word which demands a wider airing is stompie, a cigarette butt, or a partially-smoked cigarette, especially one stubbed out and kept for relighting later, as in South African playwright Athol Fugard’s

The whiteman stopped the bulldozer and smoked a cigarette… He threw me the stompie.

.

'Keep Britain Tidy' Drops 30ft Drop 30ft Cigarette Butt On Trafaler Square