Archive for Etymology

Mongolian priests and bugs, with a note on the Japanese word for "bonze"

An anonymous correspondent asked:

Are these actually related words, or just homonyms?

p. 127 of  Jack Weatherford, Genghis Khan and the Quest for God: How the World's Greatest Conqueror Gave Us Religious Freedom:

Male shamans were treated with cautious respect, but they evoked suspicion and even disgust. As one saying put it, “the worst of men become shamans.” The word boo, Mongolian for “shaman,” is part of a cluster of words with loathsome connotations: foul, abominable, to vomit, to castrate, an opportunistic person without scruples; it is also the general term for lice, fleas, and bedbugs. 28

His footnote 28: бѳѳ (бѳѳδийн), to vomit (бѳѳлжих), to castrate (бѳѳрлѳх), an opportunistic person without scruples (бѳѳрѳний хн), and the basic term for lice, fleas, and bedbugs (бѳѳс). Хvлгийг муу жоро болох. A Modern Mongolian-English Dictionary, ed. Denis Sinor (Indiana University, Uralic and Altaic Series, vol. 150, 1997),

Someone else asked whether Japanese boosan / bōsan 坊さん ("monk") were somehow related.

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Mud season in Russia: Putin, Rasputin

A couple of years ago around this time I wrote about the "Schlump season" (3/21/15) at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire.  Now, as Dartmouth is becoming enmired in the early spring mud, Pamela Kyle Crossley, who teaches there, told me that she thought of the Russian word for this season:  rasputitsa.  And that made me think of the Russian word for "way; path; pathway; route; track; road":  путь, which I suppose is cognate with "path".  Another form of the word is путин, which reminds me of "Putin" ("road" — I think [see below]) and "Rasputin" ("broken / obliterated road").

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"On the fritz" at Sing Sing

[This is a guest post by Stephen Goranson.]


Though it's generally agreed that "on the fritz" means, more or less, "in an unsatisfactory or defective state or condition" (Oxford English Dictionary), there is no agreement on its etymology. Some currently associate "fritz" with a sound from a malfunctioning electric machine, but the early uses of the phrase did not apply to machines but to persons. Others, including OED, guess that, somehow, the German name Fritz was involved. But several early usages of the phrase were spelled as "on the friz"; and both "on the friz" and "on the fritz" were often spelled without any capital F. Rather than a German name or a mechanical effusion, I suggest, the origin used dialect forms of the verb "freeze," as being frozen up or frozen out were negative. Such forms are well-attested in the Dictionary of American Regional English and in U.S. newspapers of the 1890s.

And a poem that prisoner number 23,669 contributed in 1902 to the "Star of Hope" (a prison newspaper published at Sing Sing) supports this hypothesis.

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Japanese "Yankee" ("juvenile delinquent")

"Japanese start-up helping ‘delinquents’ compete against college graduates for city jobs with new internship:  The company Hassyadai has so far helped 100 youth from outside Tokyo to land employment", SCMP (12/2/17):

Dubbed the “Yankee internship”, the programme, whose participants range in age from 16 to 22, is unique in that it includes the category of Yankee – Japanese slang for delinquent youth.

How did English "Yankee" come to mean "delinquent youth" in Japanese?

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Congee: the Dravidian roots of the name for a Chinese dish

I love congee and I love the word "congee":

"Chinese restaurant shorthand, part 2" (11/30/16)

"Chinese restaurant shorthand, part 3" (2/25/17)

Lisa Lim has written an edifying article on the subject in the South China Morning Post Magazine (11/10/17):

"Where the word congee comes from – the answer may surprise you:  The dish is frequently associated with East Asian cuisine but the term originated in India – from the Tamil kanji"

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GA

One of my favorite Chinese words is GANGA (pronounce as in "Lady Gaga", but put a nasal at the end of the first syllable).  It is so special and has had such a deep impact upon me since I began learning Chinese half a century ago that, in this post, I shall refer to it simply as "GANGA", in capital letters only, except when discussing its more precise pronunciation, derivation, meaning, and written representation in Chinese characters.  Referring to this unusual word as "GANGA" is meant to emphasize the iconic quality it has for me personally, in the sense that its nature reveals many verities about Sinitic languages and Chinese writing.

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Putting the kibosh on bosh

In the "Cultural disappropriation" section of the current The Economist, there's an entertaining and informative article on the latest attempt to purify Turkish:

"Turkey’s president wants to purge Western words from its language:  A new step in Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s campaign against foreign influences"

The whole business is both humorous and hopeless:

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Coral reef, dead or alive

June Teufel Dreyer noticed that the People's Daily and other official outlets refer to Okinotori as a jiāo 礁, reef, which fits her understanding of the geology involved.  The Japanese, hoping for a larger Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), say it is an island. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) definition is that a rock incapable of sustaining life (“life” is not defined; could be human life, animals, plants, bacteria?) is not an island. The government of Japan position is that Okinotori isn’t a rock, since it is composed of coral.  Yet the character, which she assumes the Japanese use as well, clearly contains the rock element.   So, June asked, can coral be considered a rock?  In this case, there are substantial implications.

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Chinese Trumpistas

Their legions grow with each passing day.  This post is about what they are called in Chinese (see below).

The Chinese people were fascinated with Trump even before he was sworn in as POTUS:

"Year of the cock" (1/4/17)

See also the references in the second half of the third post cited below.

Now that Trump has been President for more than four months, he is all the more popular among certain segments of the Chinese population.  Even top politicians who are jockeying for power at the 19th Party Congress to be held this fall are modeling themselves after Trump:

"China’s Leadership Reshuffle 2017: Rising Stars; How China’s regional chiefs use Trump tactic in race for top" (Choi Chi-yuk, SCMP, 6/3/17)

One mentioned Communist Party chief Xi Jinping’s name 26 times in a speech, another mentioned poverty 90 times

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Ask Language Log: cow evolution in Hong Kong

From Hwa Shi-Hsia:

I have a question for Language Log. My sister in Malaysia recently bought an MP3 player with a feature listed as "The fire cow charging". My father figured out that it meant a transformer or power adapter, but he couldn't come up with a plausible explanation. An acquaintance from Hong Kong responded that:

"It's actually a transformer. Of course, transformer is too long to say so it was shortened to 'former', or 火馬. That became 火牛 because that's just how Hong Kong Cantonese evolves."

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From "barbarian" to "very"

Earlier this week, I wrote a post titled "'Little Man' the eating machine" (5/22/17), in which I pointed out that "Man" here does not mean "(hu)man" or "male human", but that it signifies "(southern) barbarian", with extended meanings of “rough; reckless; fierce; rude; unreasoning; unruly; bullying”.  I also noted that this mán 蛮 has another set of meanings:  "quite; rather; somewhat; very".

In the sixth comment to the post, liuyao wrote:

I was hoping VHM would do a linguistic/philological analysis of 蛮 in the sense of “very”. Given that it was originally a derogatory term for “barbarians” in the south (possibly Austroasiatics that have long been displaced or assimilated), how did it come about that the southern topolects (or when they speak their variants of Mandarin) have this character or word for “very”? Are there alternative characters for this morpheme?

I will now attempt to answer all of liuyao's questions.

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Funerarily lost

BIYI has written a very clever article titled "The Culture of sàng: a Generation Lying-down?" in China Buzz Report (Elephant Room, 5/7/17).  It begins with a little Mandarin lesson:

The character 丧 is a polyphone in mandarin Chinese. When it is pronounced sāng, it loosely translates to funeral or mourning. When as sàng, it could be referring to either losing certain things or people ("丧失"), or a conglomeration of negative emotions such as feeling depressed, angry, disappointed and vexed.

And the sàng culture we are talking about here really takes both meanings: it is, very vaguely, the idea that you've lost something and are feeling horrible about it.

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Haba: mysterious Mandarin morpheme for "pug"

There's a town called Hǎbātún 奤夿屯 (where tún 屯 means "village, hamlet; camp; station") in Chāngpíng qū 昌平区 ("Changping District") of Beijing.  The name sounds odd and the first two characters are unusual.  It is said to date back to the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) when it was a Mongol military encampment.  Southerners supposedly referred to the Mongols as "hǎbā".

I've also often wondered about the origin of the name "hǎbagǒu 哈巴狗" (where gǒu 狗 means "dog"), which is the Chinese name for "pug" (it is also called bāgēquǎn 巴哥犬 [where bāgē 巴哥 literally means "ba brother" and quǎn 犬 is another word for "dog"]).  Is it possible that the hǎba 哈巴 of hǎbagǒu 哈巴狗 is related to the Hǎbā 奤夿 of Hǎbātún 奤夿屯?

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