Archive for Etymology

The Garden of Morning Calm

[This is a guest post by S. Robert Ramsey]

You’ve probably heard Korea referred to as the “Land of the Morning Calm.” That’s a nickname for Korea that’s been used in the West at least since the 19th century.

And perhaps because Koreans agree that “Morning Calm” sounds mystical and romantic, it’s been picked up lately—often for commercial purposes—in South Korea, too. Korean Airlines, for example, has frequent flier perks for members of its “Morning Calm Club.” In 1996, an arboretum east of Seoul was given the name, “Garden of Morning Calm.”

But the nickname is a chimera, the result of a mistake—and probably one made by some starry-eyed Westerner infatuated by the mysterious Orient. ‘Morning Calm’ is a mistranslation of an ancient name for Korea, a name known only from ancient Chinese records.

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Kunlun: the origins and meanings of a mysterious place name

A recent post introduced the evocative place name, Kunlun:

"Kunlun: Roman letter phonophores for Chinese characters" (2/16/21)

As we learned from the previous post, Kunlun is known from historical and fictional sources dating to the last two millennia and more to refer to mythological and geographically locatable mountains in Central Asia and in the far west as well as to vague places in Southeast Asia and blacks associated with them.

Simply because of the wide range of referents, one cannot help but be intrigued how it transpired that the same unusual name, which mostly refers to mountains, can be so broadly dispersed.

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Phlegm

My sister Heidi and I agree that, though we dislike the substance, we like the word.  Somehow, the shape and sound of the word are captivating.  "Phlegm", with its five consonants and one vowel, rolls up out of your throat, flows across your tongue, and issues forth through your lips.  "Phlegm"!  What a singular word!

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Dangerous heights and tipping vessels

Chris Button says that he was looking at the oracle-bone form for wēi 危 ("precarious, precipitous; perilous; high; ridge [of a roof]; dangerous") and noticed that Huang Dekuan (2007 mammoth dictionary of ancient forms of characters) treats it as depicting a qīqì 欹器 ("tilting vessel" or "tipping vessel").  This was:

…an ancient Chinese ceremonial utensil that automatically overturned and spilled its contents once it reached capacity, thus symbolizing moderation and caution. Both Confucian and Daoist Chinese classics include a famous anecdote about the first time Confucius saw a tilting vessel. In the Confucian tradition (e.g., Xunzi) it was also named yòuzuò zhī qì (宥座之器, "vessel on the right of one's seat"), with three positions, the vessel tilts to one side when empty, stands upright when filled halfway, and overturns when filled to the brim—illustrating the philosophical value of the golden mean. In the Daoist tradition, the tilting vessel was named yòuzhī (宥卮, "urging goblet" or "warning goblet"), with two positions, staying upright when empty and overturning when full—illustrating the metaphysical value of emptiness, and later associated with the Zhuangzian zhīyán (卮言, "goblet words") rhetorical device.

(source)

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Of chains and Old Sinitic reconstructions

[This is a guest post by Rhona Fenwick]

Though best-known for its titanic consonantal inventory, Ubykh also has an etymologically fascinating vocabulary, heavy with loans from a diverse array of sources. Many of these are drawn from the indigenous lexicons of its Circassian and Abkhaz sisters, but Circassian and Abkhaz both also acted as proxies by which Ubykh became a linguistic placer deposit of sorts, receiving substantial loan strata from millennia of the ebb and flow of Kartvelian, Turkic, Mongolic, Semitic, and Indo-European cultural tides. More recently the Ubykh nation’s exodus from their homeland and subsequent exile in Anatolia, following extensive genocides at the end of the Great Caucasian War (Ubykh: Adəɣaʁʷərda ‘the Rape of Circassia’), added yet another layer of complexity and invested the language with loans from whole new branches of Indo-European, Turkic, and Semitic. This makes compiling an Ubykh etymological dictionary a complex and challenging project, and while engaged in it I’ve often found myself having to track etymologies along paths that lead deep into other language stocks entirely. This post began as a question to Victor Mair while I was playing bloodhound along one such trail, and it was on his suggestion that I reworked it into a post for LL. Thank you for having me!

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Spinach: the Persian vegetable

The other day, when we were discussing where Napa cabbage came from, Diana Shuheng Zhang mentioned to me that the Chinese word for "spinach", bōcài 菠菜, indicates that it came from Persia.  She's usually right about such things, and she was in this case too:

From earlier 波斯菜 (bōsīcài), from 波斯 (Bōsī, “Persia”) + (cài, “greens, vegetable”).

where bōsī 波斯 is obviously a transcription of "Persia":

Borrowed from Old Persian (Pārsa).

Middle Sinitic: /puɑ  siᴇ/

(source)

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Proto-Indo-European laks- > Modern English "lox"

From the time I began the systematic study of the language family in the summer of 1990, I have known that the word "laks-" ("salmon") is important for the early history of Indo-European, yet I felt that something was not quite right about the claims put forward in this article:

"The English Word That Hasn’t Changed in Sound or Meaning in 8,000 Years:  The word lox was one of the clues that eventually led linguists to discover who the Proto-Indo-Europeans were, and where they lived."

Sevindj Nurkiyazova, Nautilus, May 13, 2019

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Little sticky twigs

Or maybe "little sticky toes"?

'Tis the season for articles about mistletoe, like this one: Rachel Ehrenberg, "Marvelous Misunderstood Mistletoe", Knowable Magazine 12/18/2020:

Some plants are so entwined with tradition that it’s impossible to think of one without the other. Mistletoe is such a plant. But set aside the kissing custom and you’ll find a hundred and one reasons to appreciate the berry-bearing parasite for its very own sake.

I was interested to learn about haustoria, epicortical runners, viscin, hyperparasitism, and so on — but then there's the etymology:

Their name derives from Anglo-Saxon words meaning “dung-on-a-twig” — typically the dung of birds, which eat the seeds and disperse them to new host plants. 

I was curious about how to get from "dung-on-a-twig" to "mistletoe", so I turned to the OED.

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Who created batik? Who appropriated batik?

This is something I wanted to write about back in mid-July, but it fell victim to my backlog of thousands of e-mails.  Now, slowly, slowly, slowly, I'm catching up, and I find that it's still a worthy topic to post on.

"‘China, master copycat’: uproar in Indonesia at Xinhua’s batik claim"

Xinhua released a video saying batik is a traditional craft ‘common among ethnic groups in China’, sparking protests by Indonesians on social media

There are long-standing disputes over the origins of food and traditions such as batik, rendang and nasi lemak among Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore

Randy Mulyanto, SCMP 7/14/20

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Macaque and Old Sinitic reconstructions

I've long been deeply intrigued by the word "macaque".  It's an odd-looking term with a murky history, but somehow it just seems to fit the creature that it designates.

American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 5th ed.:

French, from Portuguese macaco, of Bantu origin; akin to Kongo makako, monkeys : ma-, pl. n. pref. + -kako, monkey.

Online Etymology Dictionary:

East Indian monkey, 1757, from French macaque, from Portuguese macaco "monkey," a Bantu word brought from Africa to Brazil (where it was applied 17c. to a type of monkey there).

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Middle Eastern harps and "harp" in Eastern Central Asia

There is an abundance of ancient harps archeologically recovered from the Tarim Basin and surrounding areas.  Just in the Tarim Basin alone, there are 23 harps dating to the first millennium BC:

Yánghǎi 洋海 (east of Turpan, just south of the foothills of the Flaming Mountains at the broad, pebbly ("gobi") terrace embouchement of the Toyuq Gorge) — Uyghur Yankhi, Yanghi, Yangkhe, Yangxé. Uyghur Wikipedia has Yanqir; Turkic Yarghol (5 harps dating from 999-250 BC)

Zhāgǔnlǔkè 扎滚鲁克 (village in Toglaklik Township, Chärchän / Qiemo County) — Uyghur Zaghunluq (3 harps dating 600-300 BC)

Àisīkèxiáěr 艾斯克霞尔 (southern cemetery, along the lower reaches of the Baiyang / White Poplar River [originally a Mongolian name transcribed in Sinitic as Nàmùguōlè 纳木郭勒] in the vicinity of Qumul / Hami) — Uyghur Eskişehir, Eski Sheher ("Old City") (11 harps dating 8th-5th c. BC)

Qūmàn 曲曼 (Zankar cemetery near Tashkurgan) — Chushman (2 harps dating 6th-3rd c. BC

Yú'érgōu 鱼儿沟 (west of Turpan about a hundred miles and south of Ürümchi about a hundred miles, in Dabancheng District — modern Uyghur name is Iwirghol or Éwirghol (1 harp dating 3rd c. BC)

Chärchän / Qiemo District Museum (1 harp collected from the people)

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Autumn sorrow

Barbara Phillips Long sent in these remarks from the comments section in a post at Lawyers, Guns, and Money about the feminist revolutionary Qiū Jǐn 秋瑾, executed by the Qing dynasty imperial authorities in 1907 (the post is headed by a striking statue of Qiu Jin):

I like the statue a lot too, so I did a deeper dive into Qiu Jin's Wikipedia page. This is her death poem, using her name (Qiu = autumn), before being publicly beheaded in her village: "秋風秋雨愁煞人" ("Autumn wind, autumn rain — they make one die of sorrow") brb off to make this my email signature.

Edit: I looked up 愁煞 chou2sha1 because the syntax in Chinese is very different from the English translation. I'm definitely not fluent, let alone understand classical Chinese poetry, so would be happy to hear from anyone who actually knows something about this stuff. 愁 by itself is "to worry" (but a more intense version of worry, I assume, since 擔心 dan1xin1 is the usual term people use). 煞 is a variation of 殺 (to kill, terminate, cut short, put a stop to, etc.)

So actually, I'd say it's much more violent in the original. Hard to translate without ambiguity in English ("Autumn wind and autumn rain kill us with sorrow"???), so I can see why the translation ended up the way it did.

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Sour waist

When I first began to have extensive interactions with Chinese friends more than sixty years ago, I was puzzled upon hearing them say, "My waist is sore / hurts / aches / pains".  I thought my puzzlement would disappear when I started to learn Mandarin around five years later, but I actually became more confused because what I heard them articulating in Mandarin, "yāo suān", sounded like they were saying "waist is sour".  In those years I didn't pay much attention to the characters, but focused primarily on the spoken language.

"Yāo" was not a problem because I knew that if you had a body part that was troubling you and it was pronounced "yāo", then it must be your waist.  But in English we don't usually talk about problems with your waist unless you're complaining that it's too wide.  We wouldn't normally think of a waist as being "sour".

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