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Issue 92   

July 10, 2000
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spotlight_1.GIF (2578 bytes) Spotlight on...

English ancestry

Scattered over the web there are scores of pages with a link to Take Our Word For It.  Some of them  offer comments on the page.  One even took us to task for the "lameness" of our humor.   Well, we are, of course, a magnanimous pair and take this sort of thing in our stride.  Nevertheless, our web-bots soon located that critic's server, hacked through the wet Kleenex he uses as a firewall and... Hey!  Looks someone has edited his page.  Bwa-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha!

Ahem...  What really surprised us this week was to find one page which described us as "superficial" because we don't explain how all English words derive from Sanskrit.  Regular readers will be aware that the real reason we don't do this is that we are part of a huge conspiracy to conceal vital facts from the public.  Other earth-shaking truths which we have been instrumental in hiding are that the moon is made of green cheese, there is a crock of gold at the end of all rainbows and that Paul is dead.

It seems that the time has come to address this common misconception regarding the history of  the English language.

Sanskrit is an ancient language of India.  It is the language of the Vedas, the oldest books of the Hindu religion.  Pious Hindus believe it to be the language spoken by the gods and the original language of mankind.  They may also tell you that it is closely related to German.

At the end of the 18th century, England was busy colonizing India and English scholars were busy learning the hundreds of Indian languages and their dialects.  Pretty soon, it was obvious that the languages of southern India differed greatly from those of northern India.  Also, the northern Indian languages (Hindi, Urdu, Punjabi, Bengali etc.) all seemed to be derived from an ancient language called Sanskrit.  Scholars soon noticed that Sanskrit bore a strong resemblance to European languages and postulated a common ancestor.

The Sanskrit language is more perfect than the Greek, more copious than the Latin and more exquisitely refined than either, yet bearing to both of them a stronger affinity than could possibly have been produced by accident.  So strong, indeed, that no philosopher could examine them all three, without believing them to have sprung from some common source which, perhaps, no longer exists.

- Sir William Jones, address to the Asiatick Society in Calcutta, Feb. 2nd, 1786

After making this deduction Jones rested on his laurels and left to others the task of drawing the family tree of languages which included both European and North Indian languages.  Two early workers in this field happened to be German, so when they studied Sanskrit they found lots of cognates (related words) in their native tongue.  Hence the Indian misunderstanding about Sanskrit and German.

Friedrich von Schlegel proposed that the European languages descend from Sanskrit.  It turns out that they don't.  His was the first attempt at the family tree, though, and his ideas gained popular acceptance.  So, ultimately, we have Schlegel to blame for the myth that English derives from Sanskrit.  It took the genius of Franz Bopp to get to the truth of the matter by analyzing languages' grammars, rather than their vocabularies.  He published "On the conjugational system of the Sanskrit language, in comparison with that of the Greek, Latin, Persian, and Germanic languages" in 1816.  (He was 25 years old at the time and we hate him, hate him, hate him! )

With the exception of the Basques (Euskadi), Finns (Suomi), Hungarians (Magyar) and Lapps (Sami), the Europeans are descendants of a group of people (sometimes called Aryans or Indo-Europeans) who inhabited the Russian steppes a few thousand years B.C.  These people entered Europe in waves of tribal bands with related languages.   These successive invasions gave us the modern language groups Baltic, Celtic, Germanic, Greek, Italic, and Slavic.  English belongs to the Germanic group.

One bands of Indo-European people migrated east to what is now the Xinjiang province of China.  These people, the Tocharians, prospered along the Silk Route and then, about a thousand years ago, they disappeared as the Takla Makan (Turkish: "you go in, you don't come out") desert swallowed their towns.  About the same time that the first Indo-European speakers were settling Greece, other  Indo-European speakers were settling Persia and India.

The suggested ancestral language predates writing, so all statements about it are hypothetical. It is customary to use an asterisk to remind readers of this.  The ancestor language is therefore called *Indo-European or *Proto-Indo-European and when citing a  (hypothetical) word from this (hypothetical) language one writes it *skep.  Oh, in case you were wondering, *skep is supposed to have meant "cut", "hack" or "scrape" in *Indo-European.  The words shape, landscape, shaft, shabby, scab, shave, scabies, scabrous, scapula, ax, hatchet, [nut]hatch, comma, sarcoptic [mange], syncope, kopeck have been traced back to this (hypothetical) word, as have many others in other European languages.  There is a mountain of such evidence suggesting that *skep was a real word, but just to remind you that no one has ever conversed with a native *Indo-European speaker, the asterisk stays.

Sanskrit, rather than being an ancestor of English, is more like an uncle.  Its father was English's grandfather.  Another widely held misconception is that English comes from Latin.  Well, the Romans did occupy parts of Britain for a few hundred years and Latin contributed several words to the local language.  But that language was Welsh, not English.  

The earliest speakers of English were invaders coming from several Germanic tribes, mainly Angles, Saxons and Jutes.  They were the Anglo-Saxons and they spoke a language which scholars used to call Anglo-Saxon.  The scholars have now decided that calling it Anglo-Saxon was a bad idea and can't for the life of them remember why they called it that in the first place.  They now insist that the language be called Old English.  [Anyone foolish enough to think that Shakespeare wrote in Old English has to stay after class.  You know who you are.]

There are a few English words which do come from Sanskrit but these are mostly loan-words from the period when India was under British rule.  Examples are opal from utpala "beyond compare" and jungleAn opal from jangala "desert".  Sanskrit words which have taken a longer route to English are mandarin and shaman.  Like joss-stick, mandarin is a word which we associate with China but which really has more to do with Portugal.  It was the Portuguese who first used mandarim to translate the Chinese word kwan.  They had heard the word used by Malays who had borrowed it from the Sanskrit word mantrin "counsel".  The man- in mandarin comes from a Sanskrit root meaning "mind" or "to think".  Thus mandarin is related to mental.

The anthropologist Mircea Eliade introduced the word shaman as the title of the village magician and spirit guide he encountered in some Siberian tribes.  Eliade got shaman from Russian but the Russians learned the word from the Tungus people who said sman.  You'd think that would be the end, but no.  The Tungus borrowed the term sha men from Mongolian where it meant a practicing Buddhist.  The Mongolians had learned the term from their neighbors, the Chinese but it is not originally a Chinese word.  It was their approximation of sramana, Sanskrit for "listener".

AG00003_.gif (10348 bytes) Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From David Segsworth:

My brother says the word siege comes from "seat".  In Hebrew it can mean "pursue" and in Arabic it can mean "wall" or "fence".  (The be- in besiege is a regular construction of these languages meaning "with".)  I think "wall" makes more sense than "seat".

Amazing the images we find sometimes!  Click to follow the link.We're not exactly sure what you mean by saying "in Hebrew it can mean 'pursue'", because siege is not of Semitic origin.  It instead derives via Old French sege (or variations thereof) from vulgar Latin sedicum, a variation of sedes "seat".  In the early 12th century, when the word was first recorded in English, it referred to a literal "seat", especially one occupied by a person of high rank or power.  That meaning is now obsolete, but it is carried figuratively in today's meaning of siege : "to position a group (an army) around a town or castle and keep anything (supplies, people, communications) from moving in or out, eventually weakening the inhabitants so that the castle or town could be captured".  The group or army laying siege would actually seat themselves, or encamp, around the object of the siege.  So a siege is etymologically a sit-in.  Its Indo-European root is*sed- "to sit", making relatives of sitz bath, saddle, sediment and eisteddfod, among many othersThat latter word, in case you were wondering, is a recognized English word coming directly from Welsh for "a sitting down".  An eisteddfod (pronounced eye-steth-vod, the th being voiced) is the Welsh name for a gathering of bards, their custom being to compete in music and verse.Marchiing during Eisteddfod Week in Wales.  Click to follow the link.

Getting back to siege, and speaking of Wales, there is also something known as the Siege Perilous.  This term goes back to the times when a siege referred to a seat, and the Siege Perilous is the seat at King Arthur's round table which can only be occupied by the knight who will find the Grail.  Finally, there is also the term a siege of herons, meaning "a flock of herons".

By the way, the be- in such words as besiege, become, and bemoan does not mean "with" but instead denotes a sense of "around" or "about".  It derives from bi "by" and is thought to be cognate with Greek ambi-.

Read about other words in our bookstore.

From Thor Anderson: 

Some people at work started debating the origin of the phrase one fell swoop.  Some theories that we came up with for its origin were 1) falconry - the bird dives (or swoops) down for the kill, or 2) beheadings - the best way to be beheaded was with one good chop.  Someone mentioned that fell is old English for "kill", but that applies to both of our theories.  We were hoping that you'd settle our bet!

We're afraid that, with one fell swoop, we're going to have to bash both of your theories, because the phrase derives directly from Shakespeare's pen.  It was with Macbeth that he made one fell swoop a relatively common phrase:

Malcolm: Be comforted.  We don't have to tell you who this is, do we?  Click to follow the link.
              Let's make us med'cines of our great revenge 
              To cure this deadly grief.

MacDuff: He has no children. - All my pretty ones?  
               Did you say all? - O hell-kite! - All?  
               What, all my pretty chickens, and their dam, 
               At one fell swoop?

MacDuff laments the murder of his wife and children, shocked that they were all killed at once. Fell can have three meanings: as an adjective meaning "fierce, savage, cruel", as the past tense of fall, and as a verb meaning "to cut down". Shakespeare probably had all three meanings in mind here as they all  perfectly describe the way that the murderer, the metaphorical hell-kite, "swooped" down on MacDuff's family.

Prior to Shakespeare, this phrase did not have a specific application.  He invented it.  As for the phrase's elements, fell in the "fierce, savage, cruel" sense derives ultimately from Latin fellonem, source also of English felonSwoop, "the pouncing of a bird of prey", is thought to be a dialectical form of Old English swpan "swope" meaning "sweep". 

From Robert Patrick:

When and where was the word star first used to designate a charismatic performer, as in stage star or screen star?

You're very close to the answer, in a general sense.  This type of star was first an actor of the theatre, back in the early 19th century.  No, this is not a twentieth-century usage, as might have been expected.  Star first appears in the record in this sense in 1824: "Carter was at a loss for a star in the pugilistic hemisphere to produce him a crowded house."  This quote refers to the boxing ring, but only three years later we find the Edinburgh Weekly Journal saying "He had hitherto been speaking of what, in theatrical language, was called stars," indicating that the term had been around for some time in theatre-speak.  The sense, of course, was one of "a person of brilliant reputation or talents", shining as brightly as, say, the morning star (Venus).  The term stuck and moved beyond the theatre to performers of music and even, as the first quote above indicates, boxers!

Star derives from Old English steorran, descended from the Indo-European root *ster-, which is the source also of Latin stella and Greek aster.  Other cognates are Cornish and Breton steren, Welsh seren, Sanskrit star, and Persian sitareh, source of the name Esther.

From Goorgoora:

Could you tell me about the word virgin?

Well, English borrowed it from Old French virgine, which derived it from Latin virginem.  The ultimate known source is Latin virgo "maiden"; virgo's origins are obscure.  The earliest surviving example of the word in recorded English comes from about 1200, when the word meant "a chaste and pious woman", presumably by influence from the notion of the Virgin Mary.  By 1300 the word had the more general meaning of "a woman who is chaste and pure".  Just a few years later, however, the term was used to refer to a young man who was in a state of chastity.  The word was used figuratively with reference to things instead of people in the 17th century (eg., virgin forest), and by the mid-twentieth century it was used to refer to a naive or innocent person. 

From Richard Orr:

Does the phrase on the right track have something to do with starting trains out of the roundhouses?

You may be surprised to learn that it may have a lot more to do with ships than with trains.  This phrase was originally on the right tack, tack being a nautical term meaning...

A rope, wire, or chain and hook, used to secure to the ships side the windward clews or corners of the courses (lower square sails) of a sailing ship when sailing close hauled on a wind; also the rope, wire, or lashing used to secure amidships the windward lower end of a fore-and-aft sail. 

On the right tack came to be applied to "the course of a ship in relation to the direction of the wind and the position of her sails", and that is the sense in on the right tack: "on the right course".  Apparently, speakers began to confuse tack, with which they weren't very familiar in that sense, with track, which seemed to make perfect sense (sort of like folks who call the television series Star Track when it is actually called Star Trek).

On the right track dates from 1886, while on the right tack dates from the late 17th century.

From Dan Payne:

I realize that poont*ng is an inappropriate word, but my interests are purely academic.  A co-worker said yesterday, "Do you remember that word poont*ng?"  She obviously had the wrong definition in mind, because she thought it was a slang term for women in general, but I told her that it was more anatomically specific.  One person said that it is from the Vietnam era, but I think it goes back much further.  Please enlighten me if you can.

Inappropriate?  What a curious choice of word.  All words are appropriate when words are the subject of discussion.

On the other hand, though our interests are also purely academic, we would like to give readers the option of choosing to learn about this word's origins instead of having it jump out of the page at them.  Our discussion of the origins of this word is to be found here.   We will add discussions of other "inappropriate" words as they occur.

curmdgeon.GIF (1254 bytes) Curmudgeons' Corner

Resident curmudgeon Barb Dwyer creates a commotion over noise.

Many years ago I learned to write computer programs in the COBOL language.  This language was designed to be read and understood by managers and other non-programmers so its commands resemble English sentences.  For instance, the meaning of "ADD PAYMENT TO TOTAL" isn't hard to grasp.

If, like me, you had to punch each letter onto paper tape you would try to keep these sentences as short as possible.  Luckily, some words could be abbreviated and others could be omitted altogether.  Instead of "ADD PAYMENT TO TOTAL." we could just say "ADD PAYMENT TOTAL."  This is because the word TO was considered a "noise word".  Noise words were simply disregarded by the computer, they added no meaning and were therefore unnecessary (unless you wanted your manager to understand it).

Once I had been alerted to the concept of "unnecessary words which add no meaning" I began to hear them everywhere.   The sentence "You know, man, it's like raining, dude" is mostly noise, being identical in meaning to "It's raining".  You know is a noise word par excellence and may be deployed almost randomly in any sentence.  When even you know fails to fill out the phrase to sufficient length, I would recommend resorting to you know what I mean.  I  once heard the extreme of this development.  In a radio interview, a young, ex-gang member was so nervous that he inserted a staccato you-know-what-I'm-sayin' several times in each sentence. 

One noise word in particular is well-nigh ubiquitous, and that is today.  "How are you, today?" is no more searching an enquiry than "How are you?"  Today, in this instance is a noise word.   Waiters ask me what I would would like to order today as if it were possible to order for other days.  At the supermarket checkout in towns I've never visited before I am frequently asked "And how are you, today?".  The words and and today are, in fact, meaningless noise words but I always come away with the impression that I have been mistaken for a local.

I have also noticed the phrase go-ahead-and is increasing in popularity.  Apparently, some folk are incapable of performing any task without going ahead first - "I'll go-ahead-and cut the grass",  "Why don't you go-ahead-and pass the salt".  While shopping recently, I heard a husband tell his wife that he would "go-ahead-and go on ahead."  The implications of this delightful concept made my day.  A new version of Zeno's paradox occurred to me.  Before Achilles can go he has to go-ahead-and go.  But before he can go-ahead-and go he has to go-ahead-and-go-ahead-and go... 

Well, I'll go ahead and go, now, then.  Have a nice day.

Sez You...

From Michael Naray:

Err... sorry to bring up something that was discussed so long ago, but I've only just found out about an "artistic" decorative process that uses metal, gold coloured foil to coat furniture, picture frames, etc.  The process is called "Dutch Metal Gilding", and the foils are called "Dutch Metal".  Yet another one for the collection!

Oh, those darned Dutch! 

From Phil and Roz Lieberman:

Renay Wessberger Fanelli: Hi! Is this the same gal who worked for me in Avoca, Pa. years ago? If so, please contact me; we have MUCH to catch up on!

Phil and Roz came across Renay's name in one of our columns.  They wrote us, and we wrote Renay.  Here's what Renay had to say when she replied to us:

Yes, it is a case of long lost colleagues reuniting. I worked for Phil Lieberman many, many years ago-I think it was the Summer of 1979. I was a student at Penn State University, interested in pursuing a career in environmental science and landed a summer internship at the Economic Development Council of Northeastern Pennsylvania in Avoca, PA (I'm from Scranton). Phil was one of the head planners, and I believe had his own office, I was in the "bullpen" with all males ranging in age from about 23 to 35. It was tons of fun (but boy was I nave)!!! Phil and I have exchanged a few emails since you forwarded this message to me. 

Take Our Word For It - a lot more than just etymology!  Seriously, we're glad that this site helped to bring old friends back together.  Thanks for filling us in, Renay!

From Sarkis Baltayian:

In your last "Words to the Wise", Issue 91, page 2, you referred to clapping as a gesture of delight or encouragement "at least since Chaucer's time" and give a reference from 1669: 'In 1669 we have a reference to such applause in Samuel Pepys diary: "Indeed it was very finely sung, so as to make the whole house clap her."' I would like to point out that there are some examples much older than that in the Bible (probably 3000 years earlier in the case of Job), where we see clapping used both as a sign of derision and as a sign of joy and encouragement.  Uses of clapping in the negative way are recorded in the following passages:

Job 27:23: "Men shall clap their hands at him, and shall hiss him out of his place. (New King James Version) and "It claps its hands in derision and hisses him out of his place." (New International Version) 

Lamentations of Jeremiah 2:15 (NKJV) 'All who pass by clap their hands at you; they hiss and shake their heads at the daughter of Jerusalem: "Is this the city that is called 'The perfection of beauty, The joy of the whole earth'?"' 

Uses of clapping for joy and encouragement are seen in the following passages: 

Psalms 47:1 (NKJV) "Oh, clap your hands, all you peoples! Shout to God with the voice of triumph!" 

Psalms 98:8 (NKJV) "Let the rivers clap their hands; let the hills be joyful together before the LORD."

Isaiah 55:12 (NKJV) "For you shall go out with joy, and be led out with peace; the mountains and the hills shall break forth into singing before you, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands." 

II Kings 11:12 (NKJV) "And he brought out the king's son, put the crown on him, and gave him the Testimony; they made him king and anointed him, and they clapped their hands and said, "Long live the king!"'

You are doing a fine job! I love your Web site.

Thanks for those citations, Sarkis.  Something else we should mention related to clapping: the claque (from French claquer "to clap") which dates, as an institution, from the theater of Dionysus in ancient Athens.  A claque is an organized body of persons who, either for hire or with other motives, band together to applaud or deride a performance and by doing so attempt to influence the audience.  Roman Emperor Nero's claque was one of the most famous (or infamous!).

Mike says that Tibetans clap to dispel evil spirits.  He doesn't know how they applaud.

From Harry Coleman:

Here's another apt name for you. Dr. Grimm - a periodontist.  My first appointment with her, sight unseen, was on a Friday the 13th. Yikes. 

From Kevin Brennan:

When white folk went to black neighborhoods looking for prostitutes they would honk their horn. This is the source of the disparaging term honky used by African-Americans. I did not research this but was told so by a fellow co-worker (Larry Miller) that this is indeed accurate. What do you think?

Kevin, if we tell you that the moon is made of green cheese will you believe us if we add that "this is indeed accurate!"?  Well, don't let Larry pull that one on you, then!  Not one of many etymological sources suggests Larry's explanation.  Make him show you (and us!) his accurate evidence.  Meantime, we'll have to stick with the explanation that the word might derive from hunky.

Laughing Stock

This is one of the most interesting special dishes we've heard of in a long time!  Sorry it's a bit small.  Just in case you have trouble reading it, it says, "Steamed Children with green onion and ginger (half), HK $98".  And there's a picture of a chicken or duck (difficult to tell) nicely arranged on a plate with garnish.  Boy, they're really making those children look appetizing these days!

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