Author Topic: Lord J's Completely Self-Indulgent Etymology Thread  (Read 434 times)

Lord J Esq

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Lord J's Completely Self-Indulgent Etymology Thread
« on: June 30, 2018, 06:13:04 am »
 :!:

Etymology, the study of the origin of words and the history of their meaning, is my favorite hobby. In the course of reading, writing, or just going about my daily business, I often find myself coming across a word that I'd like to look up. I love looking up words, even ones I know. There is such clarity simply in reviewing definitions. Dictionary.com and Wiktionary, together, are an outstanding resource that between them (plus the occasional Urban Dictionary visit for new slang) cover basically everything in English, and cover it well.

But there's more to words than just their definitions, and oftentimes I find even greater insight by looking at their etymologies. Dictionaries list this information too. Etymology not only clarifies words for me; it often sheds light on entire subjects.

For instance, the etymological root of the word happiness means "luck." In contrast, the word gladness has its roots in the concept of "smooth," and, even farther back, "shine." So, once upon a time, one who had encountered favor and good fortune might be called "happy." And "glad" might be said of someone positively shining with good emotion. Today we use these two words as synonyms (and there's nothing wrong with that), but, once upon a time, they referred to distinct ideas.

How about the word mana? That stuff we use to cast magic spells in video games. Where does that come from? In fact it's a very new addition to English, having come into usage via academia in the 20th century, where it was soon taken up in fantasy. But originally it comes from Polynesia:

Quote
Mana is a foundation of the Polynesian worldview, a spiritual quality with a supernatural origin and a sacred, impersonal force. To have mana implies influence, authority, and efficacy—the ability to perform in a given situation. The quality of mana is not limited to individuals: Peoples, governments, places and inanimate objects may also possess mana, and its possessors are accorded respect.

When I discovered this, just a few months ago actually, it was like digging up buried treasure. It was an incredibly exciting find! In fantasy, mana is rather degenerate: It's just a green bar that lets you cast certain spells. It doesn't mean anything. Occasionally there's some hand-wavy line about "the energy of the planet" or "the favor of the gods," but really it means nothing. So if you're someone who likes digging a little deeper, imagine how fascinating it can be to start connecting the idea of spellcasting to the idea of efficacy and influence. When you stop and think about what magic actually is, a discovery like this is pay dirt!

We even got a taste of the power of etymology in Chrono Trigger:

Quote
Ayla's word. "La" mean fire. "Vos" mean big.

Now, there's nothing particularly sophisticated about that, the way mana originally referred to a highly developed concept. But this is the deepest explanation we get of Lavos until near the end of the game, and there's a certain profundity to its simplicity.

Some people don't get it. There's even a GameFAQs thread of people being angry at Ayla for making up such a "dumb" name. And that's okay. Etymological insight isn't mandatory. You don't need to know the full family history of a word to get the gist of it, or to use it in daily conversation. And, if you don't understand what you're really seeing, there's no value in looking at "happy" and knowing that it once meant "lucky."

For me, however, it's deeply enlightening to understand we came to use a word the way we use it here in the present day. If I asked you to think of the meaning of the word city, you'd probably imagine an assemblage of buildings and bustle. Ironically, the original meaning was almost opposite to that: It ultimately comes from a proto-Indoeuropean root kei, meaning, as a verb, "to lie" or "to rest," and, as a noun, "bed" or "couch." So the earliest concept of a city was that of a homestead or a resting place.

This brings us to one of my favorite subtopics in etymology: cognates. Cognates are etymological cousins: They may have very different meanings, but they share the same root. For instance, happiness is a cognate of hapless (which better retains the original meaning). Glad counts among its cognates the word glass, which very much fits the descriptions of "smooth" and "shine." And city has, for one of its many cognates, the word cemetery. A different kind of resting place!

Cognates aren't just about shining light on a given word by contrasting it with another word whose contemporary meaning is closer to the etymological root. They also of course don't come only in pairs. I like to think of them as insights into themselves and each other, and to the etymological roots bearing them. They can be fascinating, like pray and precarious, both with a root meaning "made by entreaty." And cognates can be incredibly amusing, like peace and pectin (the gelatin), with a root referring to the idea of binding and holding fast.

You don't have to look very far to find cognates. Most words have several cognates in English alone, let alone in other languages. They're one of the great bonuses of etymological research.

Getting back to etymology, I'll close by saying that etymologies are diverse, and endlessly fascinating.

Some etymologies are very rich and fruitful, with many words always changing. (Change isn't one of them; its etymology has been the same throughout its known history, coming from a root kambos meaning the same thing.)

Some etymologies are infuriating, like harem, whose root means "to bar the door."

Some etymologies are hilarious, like preposterous, which means "pulled out of one's ass."

Some etymologies are not especially straightforward, like noon. It comes from nones, which originally meant “nine,” as in the ninth hour of the day. But that’s according to the seven canonical hours, of which nones was fifth. In modern time, that’s three o’clock in the afternoon. In other words, 12 used to be 9 in that it was 5 out of 7, which was actually 3.

Some etymologies are judgmental. The word muse comes from a root meaning "snout," as in "to stand with one's nose turned up in the air" (i.e., wasting time by pondering). It's a cognate to muzzle and possibly to nose.

Some etymologies are uncertain. The root of religious is a very old one and a definitive etymology is uncertain, but the modern consensus is that it is cognate to words such as ligament, with the original meaning being “to tie down” or “fasten” in the sense of obligating humans to the authority of the gods. Yet, we don't know for sure.

And some etymologies are completely unknown, lost to history.


Mauron

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Re: Lord J's Completely Self-Indulgent Etymology Thread
« Reply #1 on: June 30, 2018, 12:40:18 pm »
I occasionally look up phrases. It's interesting how we have no idea what we're saying sometimes.

xcalibur

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Re: Lord J's Completely Self-Indulgent Etymology Thread
« Reply #2 on: July 01, 2018, 12:53:47 pm »
I too look up etymologies, especially with etymonline.com. There's a whole web of meaning to be discovered underneath the words we use.

According to this chart https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Origins_of_English_PieChart.svg
English vocabulary is a mix of latin, french, old english, norse, greek, and a variety of other sources.

Language is shaped by history, and you can see that in etymology. For example, the Norman conquest introduced many French words to English, but only in certain contexts relating to the conquerors. Words such as government, crown, etc are from French. The word 'beef' comes from French, while 'cow' comes from Old English; this is because the native English would raise the cows, while the Normans would eat the beef. The plural -s comes from French, and became dominant, with a few exceptions: children, oxen, brethren. These words, closely related to peasant life and family, retained the -en plural from Old English.

To give an example of Greek influence, the Hellenic city-state was known as a 'polis'. From this root, we get: politics, policy, police, metropolitan, and so on.

As for the word religion, I believe it comes from the latin roots 're-' (backwards, again) and 'ligare' (to bind). Thus, religion binds you to past tradition.

Of course, other languages contain layers of meaning too. From studying Japanese and learning kanji, I've become familiar with how Chinese characters work. Each character is made out of radicals, or components. There are 216 radicals in total (although less than half of those are common) which are used to construct all the thousands of characters. The radicals also provide you with meaning and pronunciation in an intuitive manner. In this way, the cumbersome task of learning the characters becomes somewhat easier by identifying radicals and taking their cues. For example, the character for language/go has the 'speech' radical (consisting of a mouth with lines coming out), and another 'mouth' radical. Thus, speech from multiple mouths is a language (it also has the number 5 as a radical, which is pronounced the same way: go). Another example is the character for autumn/aki, which has the 'two-branch tree' radical and the 'fire' radical. So when leaves turn red, orange, and yellow, when trees are the color of fire, it's autumn; downright poetic imo. Then there's the character for teaching/doctrine, which has radicals for old, young, and strike/whip; invoking the imagery of a teacher smacking a kid with a ruler. The 'foolishness' character combines the 'wisdom' and 'sickness' radicals. There are many other examples.

Human languages are fascinating to delve into.

Lord J Esq

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Re: Lord J's Completely Self-Indulgent Etymology Thread
« Reply #3 on: July 03, 2018, 01:46:19 am »
Well said, xcalibur!


I occasionally look up phrases. It's interesting how we have no idea what we're saying sometimes.

Strewth!

I find it so fascinating how there comes a certain point (more of a diffuse zone, really), where a word stops being a literal reference to something else and takes on its own shape. That's the split that allows etymology to be so incredibly fascinating.


Today, on my "On This Day" page on Facebook, there came a little puzzle. Which of these doesn't belong?

Consent
Dissent
Resent
Present
Assent

While there are a number of legitimate answers, the answer I was looking for is that "present" comes from a different etymology. The others all use "sent" to mean "feel," as in "sentient." The "sent" in "present" derives from the verb meaning "to be."

<3

ZeaLitY

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Re: Lord J's Completely Self-Indulgent Etymology Thread
« Reply #4 on: July 03, 2018, 03:47:44 am »
Using this to call attention to "revolving trainwreck". I can't figure out if that phrase is a bastardization of something else, but I swear I heard it as a kid, and there are preciously few examples of it on the Internet. I know it had a real-life origin, but how incredibly rare! I submitted it to Oxford for consideration in hopes of research, but I have no other clues.

And yeah, it's a synonym for clusterfuck.

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Re: Lord J's Completely Self-Indulgent Etymology Thread
« Reply #5 on: July 03, 2018, 11:46:58 am »
I too indulge in defining unknown words (and yes known ones too) just to satisfy my own curiosity of what exactly I'm saying.

I find great satisfaction in looking up common phrases that, typically, make no sense in the situation. "pissing like a racehorse" is one of my favourites. Most think it has to do with the fact that you are running really fast to get to the nearest toilet, but that's not even close to the truth. Here's a basic description for anyone curious:
http://thomasthoughts.blogspot.com/2011/04/i-have-to-pee-like-racehorse-where-does.html

Lord J Esq

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Re: Lord J's Completely Self-Indulgent Etymology Thread
« Reply #6 on: July 03, 2018, 05:18:41 pm »
Hah, yeah! Having seen a horse pee, in person, I can attest that it's...impressive.

Z, I'd swear I've heard a phrase very similar to "revolving trainwreck," but not quite exactly that. I did some cursory The Googles, but no luck. My favorite phrase site, https://www.phrases.org.uk/, also had no results.

Mauron, I thought of another one this morning: lousy! That's a great example of a word evolving to take on its own shape and creating etymological variety.