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Issue 25

January 25, 1999
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Spotlight We spotlight an etymological curiosity and provide an in-depth examination of the word(s) and the etymological theories associated with it.
Words to the Wise Our world-famous question and answer column in which we address your word-history queries.
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Sez You . . . You dare to question our profound erudition?
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spotlight_1.GIF (2578 bytes) Spotlight on...

Continuing to maintain tenure

What do you suppose the following words have in common?

Obtain (15th century), attain (14th century), contain (13th century), continent (14th century), continue (14th century), tenor (13th century), maintain (13th century), detain (15th century), retain (14th century), tenable (16th century), tenacious (16th century), tenant (14th century), tenet (17th century), tennis (14th century), tenon (15th century), tense (17th century), tenure (15th century), thin (Old English), tend (14th century), tenuous (16th century), countenance (13th century), content (14th century), and tenement (14th century), among others.

You probably see a commonality among these words: they all contain some form of the syllable -ten or -tain.  Yes, all of these words come ultimately from the Indo-European root *ten- "stretch, extend", which produced Latin tenere "hold" and tendere "stretch".  Latin gave different forms of these words to French and, in most cases, English obtained them from French.

Let's look at how some of these words were formed.  Obtain: its Latin form is obtinere, composed of ob-, which is an intensive, plus tenere, so that the meaning goes from simply "hold" to "get possession of".

Contain: this one comes from continere, which is con- "together" plus tenere -- "to hold together", and that is exactly what a container does!

Continue: Latin continere also had a slightly different meaning, "hang together".  That meaning resulted in the noun continuus "uninterrupted" and the verb continuare "to be uninterrupted".  The latter is where English got continue.

Continere did not stop there!  Its present participle, continens, gave Latin the phrase terra continens, literally "continuing land" or any large land mass, and it was eventually truncated in English to 1861 map of the United Statescontinent.  There is another use of this word, though we would probably recognize it better as incontinent.  This basically means "incapable of containing [or holding] excrement".  You may be surprised to learn that prior to that it meant "exercising self-restraint" and then "chaste" before settling on the more scatological meaning in the 19th century.

The word tennis, believe it or not, came to English fromVenus Williams, photo by Tom Szlukovenyi Latin tenere via Old French tenez, the imperative plural form of tenir "hold".  We know this because some of the earlier forms of tennis were tenetz,teneys, and tenes.  What does "hold" have to do with the game?  Apparently the server would shout tenez to his opponent to alert him to the imminent approach of the ball, perhaps akin to shouting fore in golf.

Interestingly, attain is not related to the *ten- words.  It comes instead from Latin tangere "touch" (source of tangible) plus the prefix ad- "to/toward".


AG00003_.gif (10348 bytes) Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From Mrs. T2001:

Please give me the history of the word inculcate.

If you thought that this word might be related to words like calcium and calculus, you're wrong but not that wrong (hmm, I wonder if Mike's going to punish me for qualifying what could be construed as an absolute!).  You see, inculcate (about 1550) comes from Latin inculcatus, the past participle of inculcare "force upon, stamp in".  Inculcare was formed from in- "in" + calcere "tread, press in".  It is here that confusion with calciferous words arises, for calcere derives from the Latin word calxCalx is thought to mean "limestone", and it is from it that we get such words as calcium and calculus.  However, calx also means "heel".  You can probably picture a Roman pressing something into the ground with his heel.  Take that image a step further and you can see how a metaphoric sense gave rise to today's meaning.


From Anthony Martin:

Your page is excellent.  Anyway, recently in an archaeology class we studied the ancient Indian city of Mohenjo Daro.  Apparently its name means something like "mound of the gods".  I couldn't help but notice that mound and henge seem to fit nicely into Mohenjo.  I'm presuming that Mohenjo is of Indo-European origin but I do not know that for certain.  I looked up mound and henge in an etymological dictionary and both were of unknown origin.  Is there any connection here?

Thanks for your kind words, but despite them, we are unable to find a connection.  Henge entered English as a distinct word in the mid-18th century, having been back-formed from Stonehenge.  The Middle English form of Stonehenge was Stanenges, which breaks down to stan "stone" + -heng.  The Seals from Mohenjo Daro latter is thought to have meant "hanging" (referring to the "lintel" stones of Stonehenge which hang above the ground) and is perhaps related to hinge and hang, both of Old English derivation and not well-linked to any Indo-European root.

Mound, according to one school, is related to mund, an Old English word for hand (which is ultimately related to Latin manu) in the sense of "an earthen enclosure built up by hand".  This would be along the same lines as manure, which got its name because it was worked "by hand" (for fertilizer, etc.).  Mound's Indo-European root would therefore be *man- "hand".

We should point out that the name Mohenjo-Daro is a modern one and we have no way of knowing what the original inhabitants called it. The only record we have of their language is the inscriptions found on some seals excavated at the site (see illustration). It is assumed that they spoke a language similar to those of southern India, known as the Dravidian languages. Modern scholars have grouped these together with some languages of the ancient Middle East to make the Elamo-Dravidian group. Curiously, the Mohenjo-Daro seal script bears an uncanny resemblance to a script found on Easter Island in the Pacific.

As to the meaning of Mohenjo-Daro, we can only speculate that the first part of Mohenjo might be related to the Sanskrit word maha, "great" (as in maharaja "great prince"). At any rate, it seems more likely than moha, delusion. Neither maha nor moha  have any connection with mound, hand or henge.


From: Jana Bitton

I am searching for the history of the term grub stake.    I know that according to Merriam Webster's Dictionary it is basically money or supplies given to a miner in return for half of the miner's claims.  However, I would like to know how early this term came into usage.  Some have said that it was only used at the end of the California Gold Rush -- it is recorded in writing no earlier than the late 1850s.  Isn't it possible that the term could have been used earlier, but not written down?

I am looking for this information because the term grub stake was written on a document found in a chest which was placed in the mountains of Death Valley about 150 years ago.  The date on the document is January 2, 1850.  In trying to determine if the chest is a fake, some people question the use of the term grub stake.    In context, the phrase appeared on a manifest of the chest's contents.  It said "1 grub stake $52.75."

Any information you could give would be greatly appreciated.  Thanks in advance for your help.

Regular readers will remember that in November last year we took a week off to visit Death Valley. We had never been there before and not only were we impressed with the astounding geology, wildlife and climate, we found that we shared our family name with a prominent figure in Death Valley history. Consequently, when we read of this discovery in the newspaper it piqued our interest.

For those who may be unfamiliar with the term, a grubstake was a supply of food (grub) which a wealthy investor would provide a gold prospector in exchange for a share (stake) in whatever gold might be found. Presumably, the stated amount of $52.75 represents the monetary equivalent of supplies received.

The latest edition of Webster's New Universal Unabridged Dictionary vaguely states the earliest date for grubstake as 1860 - 1865. If taken literally, this would imply that the document in question is a forgery. The answer may not be quite so cut and dried, however. Our final arbiter in matters of slang is Eric Partridge (A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English). As Partridge deals only with the slang of Britain and its Commonwealth, his main entry for the phrase cites its use among British  soldiers during World War One but he does go on to say this:

The term derives from the Western Canadian (and South-Western U.S.) practice whereby someone with capital provides a gold-prospector with food and, if necessary, equipment. Mitford M. Mathews (Americanisms) records it for 1863; it probably goes back to 1849 in California, and it could have reached Canada by 1851 or so.

So we see that, while the earliest written record of grubstake was 1863, the word may have been coined in California's gold rush of 1849.  Thus, it is (just) possible that the writer of the letter might have been using the latest Californian prospecting terminology (49ers geek-speak). On the other hand, Jan 2nd, 1850 is suspiciously early as it predates the next documented use of grubstake by 13 years.

The Death Valley chest is an intriguing mystery and we would love to be able to help solve the puzzle. If reports are correct, it seems that some other contents of the chest also have their problems. For example, a bowl is marked "Made in Germany" although a state called Germany did not exist until 1870 and the leather of the baby's shoes is still supple. Obviously, these items were not placed in the chest by a prospector in 1850. (Not without a time-machine, that is.) The use of the word grubstake, while extremely dubious, does not allow us to state categorically that the letter is a forgery. Who knows, the letter may yet prove genuine and Webster's will just have to amend its dates.


curmdgeon.GIF (1254 bytes) Curmudgeon's Corner

...our soapbox where we vent our spleen regarding abuses of the English language.

Gee, darling, it's "Dar-jee-ling"!

Mike here. I'm the British one. Living in California as we do, I have gradually become inured to the peculiarities of American pronunciation. As far as I am concerned, the American dialects of English are just as valid as the British dialects and if the Yanks want to pronounce things funny, well, it's their dialect so why shouldn't they? Why is it, then, that I become so irritated when I hear Americans say Azerbaidjan and Beijing?

I must explain to British readers that, in American speech, these words are pronounced AzerbaiZHan and BeiZHing, where the zh represents the sound of a French j or the s in leisure.

For the record, the very reason that Azerbaidjan is spelled with a dj is to remind us that it is a j sound, not a zh sound. Beijing is pronounced BAY-jing with a jing just like the jing in jingle.

If it were just these two place names which were mispronounced, I suppose that I could live with it. Unfortunately, it seems that there is an unwritten rule: "replace j with zh in foreign words no matter how the natives say it". Thus, the Taj (which the locals in Agra pronounce somewhere between tadge and tadz) Mahal becomes "the Tazh Ma-hall".  Similarly, the j in the word raj (and thus also in raja and maharaja) was originally a j as in jump but, presumably, that does not sound sufficiently exotic to American ears so it was transformed to razh  (hence also razha and maharazha). The most fragrant tea in the world comes from the steep "tea gardens" which surround the charming town of Darjeeling, high in the Himalayan foothills. The town takes its name from the Tibetan rDo.rJe.gLing ("place of the thunderbolt") and is pronounced dar-JEE-ling, not dar-ZHEE-ling.

Ask a Chinese speaker to say Mah-Jongg and they will say ma-jong, not ma-zhong. But, of course, Americans don't learn their Chinese pronunciation from Chinese people, they learn it from other Americans.

One that baffles me is parmezhan cheese. The original Italian is formaggio parmigiano so my guess is that a native Italian speaker called it parmijan and was then "corrected" by someone familiar with the rule "replace j with zh in foreign words no matter how the natives say it".

As if the assault on j sounds is not enough, it seems that even sh sounds are not safe: cashmere (named after the Indian State of Kashmir) is cazh-mere in the U.S. 

At first the zh was used only in foreign words but America's infatuation with this phoneme is such that I fear that zh will one day replace j altogether in American speech. Already, several news commentators on National Public Radio are saying seezh instead of siege.


Sez You...

From a reader:

Before the Battle of Agincourt in 1415, the French, anticipating victory over the English, proposed to cut off the middle finger of all captured English soldiers. Without the middle finger it would be impossible to draw the renowned English longbow and therefore be incapable of fighting in the future.

This famous weapon was made of the native English Yew tree, and the act of drawing the longbow was known as "plucking the yew" (or "pluck yew"). Much to the bewilderment of the French, the English won a major upset and began mocking the French by waved their middle fingers at the defeated French, saying, "See, we can still pluck yew!

PLUCK YEW!  Over the years some 'folk etymologies' have grown up around this symbolic gesture. Since 'pluck yew' is rather difficult to say (like "pleasant mother pheasant plucker", which is who you had to go to for the feathers used on the arrows for the longbow), the difficult consonant cluster at the beginning has gradually changed to a labiodental fricative 'F', and thus the words often used in conjunction with the one-finger-salute are mistakenly thought to have something to do with an intimate encounter.

It is also because of the pheasant feathers on the arrows that the symbolic gesture is known as "giving the bird".

This story has been circulating on the internet for a few years now but, despite its elaborate detail and use of impressive phrases like "labiodental fricative", it is absolutely false. There are several reasons why this "etymology" is spurious but the most glaring error is that the raised-middle-finger gesture is essentially American. This gesture was largely unknown in Britain until it began appearing in Hollywood movies in the 1960s and 1970s. (I believe its first screen appearance was in "Easy Rider".) The British equivalent of this gesture uses the middle and index fingers held in a V - similar to the "Victory V" sign of World War II (later revived as the "peace sign" of the Vietnam era) but with the palm toward the gesturer. This "etymology" actually works much better for the British gesture than the American one as you need two fingers to draw a bow. It is still wrong, though.

While it is true that English longbows were invariably made of yew, there is no evidence to suggest that drawing a longbow has ever been known as plucking the yew. Also, the only "prisoners" held by the French were those who could be exchanged for large amounts of gold, that is, royalty and the aristocracy. There was no reason to hold the lower orders, such as bowmen, prisoner. Peasants could not be exchanged for gold, they ate food and used up resources. Captured bowmen were simply killed.

Despite the writer's assertions, the pl consonant cluster in the phrase pluck yew is not "difficult to say". English speakers have no trouble saying such words as please, plenty, plank, or even people. If the pl consonant cluster in the phrase pluck yew were truly "difficult to say", we should expect to find other English words which have undergone the same shift from pl to f. No such words exist, however. (We don't say fease, fenty, fank, or peofe.) For that matter, English still has the word pluck. So, if we have no difficulty saying the word pluck on its own, how does appending the word yew make the pl harder to pronounce? It just doesn't make sense.

[For further discussion of this modern myth, see Sez You, Issue 39]


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