Issue 123, page 2

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Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From Shishir Pandya:

My 6 year old nephew wants to know why elephants have trunks in the front and cars have trunks in the back.  This surely relates to the origins of the word trunk.

Your nephew is quite astute!  For our British-English speakers, allow us to clarify that what you call the boot of a car is called, in America, the trunkWhy?  Let's start with the etymology of trunk.  English borrowed it from French tronc in the 12th century, and the French word came from Latin truncum, the accusative form of truncus "main stem or stock of a tree or the human body".  

The Indo-European root is ter~- [ where ~ = schwa]The primary meaning of this root is "to cross over, pass through, overcome".  How on earth do we get from there to "main stem of a tree"?  Though it seems a bit tenuous, the link appears to be "overcome" as in "defeated", with the further notion being "maimed", as in having one's limbs cut off.  So a trunk is something that is "limbless", just as tree trunks have no limbs on them, and the human trunk does not include the limbs or head.

HowClick to learn more about elephants. do we get from a tree's trunk to an elephant's trunk?  The notion here is one of a pipe or tube, like a hollow tree trunk.  The word in the elephant sense is first recorded in 1565.  That was easy.  So how is a car's trunk like a tree trunk?  Think of the kind of trunk in which things are stored or shipped.  That sort of container is said to have gotten its name from the fact that it was made from the trunks of trees.  Such trunks were attached to the rears of automobiles or placed into what later came to be the trunk, which took the name of the primary article stored within it.

From Joy Reynolds:

Where does the word smarmy come from?

Do you remember last week when we discussed the history of the word butter?  In that discussion we mentioned the Old English word smeoru "grease, oil" which also gave us the word smear.  It is thought that smarmy is related to that Old English word.  The notion behind smarmy is "one who smoothes [something] down using an oily or greasy substance", like hair oil.  That became a metaphor for someone who "smoothes by behaving in a flattering/toadying manner".

We first find smarm in 1902 with the "flattering" meaning.  It is thought to also be related to a Dorset (England) word smawm "to smear" which is found in the written record as early as 1847.  The adjective smarmy first turns up in 1924.

From Bob Band:

My question is: why do we use the word pay in compound verbs like pay attention, pay heed, pay court, and pay respect?  We can just as legitimately say simply heed, court, and respect, so why the excess baggage?

Let's look at pay by itself, first.  It was paien in Middle English, deriving from Late Latin pacare "to appease" by way of Old French paiier.  The ultimate Latin source was pax "peace".  The Indo-European root here is pag- "to fasten", implying that pax is a "binding together by treaty".  The Latin word has given English numerous other words such as peace, appease, pacify, pagan, peasant, and page.

How did we jump from "peace" to "give money"?  Well, if you owe someone money, how do you appease him?  Why, you pay him, of course.  So the notion of pacification is gone and the notion of money (or the like) remains.

Why do we pay attention, heed, court, and respect?  We also pay visits and compliments, don't we?  Well, the idea behind all of this payment is one of duty (softened from the "debt" meaning), so that you "owe" someone your attention or respect, or it is your "duty" to visit or compliment someone.  A lot of the "duty" meaning has been lost so that now we say, for example, pay a visit to mean simply "visit".  We first find pay used in this sense in the work of Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night's Dream, to be exact: 

Where I have come, great clerks have purposed
To greet me with premeditated welcomes;
Where I have seen them shiver and look pale,
Make periods in the midst of sentences,
Throttle their practis'd accent in their fears,
And in conclusion dumbly have broke off,
Not paying me a welcome.

- Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night's Dream, 1592

From Irene Stupka:

What is the origin of remote?  Is there a mote?  Does it mean to "mote again"?

Not exactly.  Something that is remote is etymologically "[far] removed".  The word entered English in the early 15th century as remote "distant", coming, via Old French remot, from Latin remotus, the past participle of remover "remove".  The Latin verb was formed from re- "again, back" and mover "to move".  The Indo-European root for mover is meu~- "to push away".  

A remote control is a control that is used from a distance.  That term dates, surprisingly, from 1904, though the kind of remote controls we all use today date from quite a bit later.

From Abe:

It was a great thing for me to find your web page. I am coming from a Southwestern Iranian city called Dezful. We use the word "Zoo-Nee" to imply the same anatomical feature as knee. I find it quite interesting that the second part of the Dezfuli word sounds identical with the pronunciation of the English word. Please explain when you have a minute. Thanks.

It was very observant of you to notice the similarity between the Persian word and English, especially as Persian and English are both Indo-European languages (and we assume that Dezfuli is  dialect of Persian).  English knee is very old, going back to Old English, and it goes back from there to the Indo-European root g(e)neu- "bend".  That root gave Latin genu "knee", which is where English got genuflect and, surprisingly, genuine, among others.  It is also thought to be related to Greek gonia "angle", which gave English all the -gon words (diagonal, polygon, etc.).  The Germanic forms are very similar to the English word: German and Dutch knie, Swedish kn, and Danish kn.  The English verb kneel was formed before the Anglo-Saxons, speakers of Old English, reached England, so we also find Dutch knielen.

To answer your implied question, it does appear that the Persian word and the English word are related.  In Sanskrit, "knee" is jaanu (clearly similar to the Latin form), which is actually quite similar to your rendering of the Persian word.  (Sanskrit and Persian are both part of the Indo-Iranian branch of the Indo-European family of languages.)

You thought we were going to leave you hanging on how genuine came from genu, didn't you?  We're not that cruel!  When a child was born in ancient Rome, the midwife would present it to the mother's husband.  Under Roman law, if he placed the baby on the ground and turned his back on it, this indicated that he disowned the child and declared that he was not its father.  (Now do you see why we said "mother's husband" and not "father"?)  On the other hand, if he took the child upon his knee he officially acknowledged the baby as his own.  Such a gesture proved that the child was "of the knee" (the Latin is genuinus), and the meaning simply changed to "authentic" with time.


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Last Updated 05/28/01 09:42 PM