Archive for Etymology

Mud season in Old English

[This is a guest post by Pamela Crossley]

I was recently doing something with my old undergraduate major, Old English, and was reminded of the word Salmonath (Solmonath), which put me in mind of this old conversation on your blog:

"Mud season in Russia: Putin, Rasputin" (3/31/18)

So you'll like this one. Like the others we were discussing before, the Anglo-Saxons referred to a mud season, specifically the "muddy month" of February — Salmonath or Solmonath. There has been a lot of confusion about exactly what Salmonath means. A passage in Bede has been interpreted as saying that he translated "Salmonath" as "cake month," but I think the passage only means that people also called Salmonath "cake month." Somebody else said it was "Sol" as in the sun, obviously silly. Virtually everybody eventually agrees it means "muddy month" but they don't go any further with what this "Sal" or "Sol" is supposed to be. The most illuminating discussion I have now read is in Wedgwood, A Dictionary of English Etymology (1865), Vol III, pp. 25-256, which you can now read online. Turns out, this word is very well attested in other Germanic languages. It is only very distantly related, if at all, to "soil," which comes to English from French; "soil"'s original meaning was place, spot, ground, that kind of thing. Solid.

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Turandot and the deep Indo-European roots of "daughter"

In recent days, the famous aria from the final act of Giacomo Puccini's opera Turandot, "Nessun dorma" (Italian: [nesˌsun ˈdɔrma]; English: "Let no one sleep"), has surfaced as part of a worldwide movement to encourage the Italian people in their struggle against the novel coronavirus (see here, here, and here).  This article by Claudia Rosett gives the backstory:

"An Uplifting Moment, in the Time of Coronavirus", PJ Media (3/14/20)

This led me to ponder the origins of Turandot's name, especially since the operatic version of the story is set in China and she is alleged to be a Chinese princess.  Right away, I was in for a jolt, since "The name of the opera is based on Turan-Dokht (daughter of Turan), which is a common name used in Persian poetry for Central Asian princesses." (source)

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Everything's curated now

Cartoon by K. L. Ricks:

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Spoofing the "crisis" meme

Language Log has been blogging on the "crisis = danger + opportunity" trope since at least 2005.  Our latest iteration is "'Crisis = danger + opportunity' redux" (2/19/20), with a list of references to earlier posts in the series.  By now, the "crisis" meme has become so dull and hackneyed that Tianyu M. Fang has subjected it to a withering deconstruction / reconstruction:

 

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Handbooks and manuals

Joe Farrell wrote in to ask:

Do you know whether the word "handbook" (Gk encheiridion, Lat (liber) manualis) can be found in any other ancient or medieval languages? And, if so, whether it is clearly a loan word or it simply arises spontaneously in different languages from a similar conceptual and material relationship between books and hands.

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"Forty Days and Forty Nights"

The old hymn and blues song of that title have been very much on my mind during the last couple of months.

George Hunt Smyttan (1856)

Forty days and forty nights
You were fasting in the wild;
Forty days and forty nights,
Tempted, and yet undefiled….

Muddy Waters (1956)

Forty days and forty nights, since my baby left this town
Sun shinin' all day long, but the rain keep falling down
She's my life I need her so, why she left I just don't know….

These are very different kinds of songs, yet they are both focused on a period of forty days and forty nights.  I've been thinking about these songs a lot in the current climate of far-reaching quarantines against the novel coronavirus epidemic centered on Wuhan, Hubei Province, China.

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Cossack and Kazakh

At dinner the other night, someone asked whether Cossack and Kazakh are etymological descendants from the same source. The consensus around the table was "probably yes", but no one really knew anything. A bit of internet research supports that conclusion — though no doubt readers will be able to add depth and nuance.

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"Crisis = danger + opportunity" redux

From IAS: Institute for Advanced Study; Report for the Academic Year 2018-2019, p. 8:

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Know your Ossetians

We here at Language Log know our Ossetians:

"Blue-Green Iranian 'Danube'" (10/26/19)

"Sword out of the stone" (8/9/08)

And we know our Scythians, who are closely linked to the Ossetians, too:

"Of reindeer and Old Sinitic reconstructions" (12/23/18)

"Horses, soma, riddles, magi, and animal style art in southern China" (11/11/19)

"Of armaments and Old Sinitic reconstructions, part 6" (12/23/17)

"Of horse riding and Old Sinitic reconstructions" (4/21/19)

"Of jackal and hide and Old Sinitic reconstruction" (12/16/18)

Now Richard Foltz (a cultural historian specializing in ancient Iranian religion), on his blog, "A Canadian in Ossetia:  Life in the central Caucasus", has given us the opportunity to greatly expand our knowledge of Ossetian / Ossete / Ossetic and the Ossetians who speak it with two new, substantial articles:

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Sino-Semitica, part 2: of massage and Old Sinitic reconstructions

As part of our research on the dictionary of Middle Vernacular Sinitic (MVS) that Zhu Qingzhi and I have been working on for more than two decades, I was tickled by this quaint poem (below on the second page) by the medieval Buddhist poet, Wáng Fànzhì 王梵志 (Brahmacārin ब्रह्मचारिन् Wang; fl. first half of 7th c.).

I have been an avid fan of Wáng Fànzhì's unique poetry for nearly half a century.  Quaint, indeed, and also quirky.  Wang Fanzhi is self-demeaning in a funny, adorable way.  The poem I'm about to introduce you to is a good example of his trademark self-abnegation.

What attracted me particularly to this poem for the purposes of our research on MVS is the first word in line 2, chǎngtóu 長頭 ("for a long time"), which does not exist with this meaning in Literary Sinitic (LS) / Classical Chinese (CC).  Finding chǎngtóu 長頭 ("for a long time") in Wang Fanzhi's poem was already enough of a treat, but when I got to the last word of the couplet, I was even more delighted.  As you will momentarily see, what Wang says about his wife's tummy is funny by itself, but the word he uses to describe what the wife does to her tummy made me even more excited.

But let's read the poem first, then I'll talk about the word in question, namely, méisuō 沒娑 ("massage").

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Sino-Semitica: of gourds, cassia, and hemp and Old Sinitic reconstructions

In a personal communication, Chris Button recently reminded me that I had once (more than two decades ago) written about the possible relationship between Semitic and Sinitic words for "gourd":

You might remember a while back I was asking you about your Southern Bottle Gourd Myths paper.

Recently, I've been working a little more on the 瓜 series in my dictionary and have ended up with it as an etymological isolate (bar the obvious relationship with 壺). So, I started looking for an external origin. Your note on the Arabic form qarʿa jumped out at me as being strikingly similar to my reconstruction of 瓜 as qráɣ and very supportive of the areal associations you outline in the paper.

That would add to the other two Semitic loanwords 麻* and 桂** here.

The merger of *-r with *-l in Old Chinese means 麻 *mrál could have gone back to an earlier 麻 *mrár which then aligns very nicely with the Semitic source to support Prof. Mair's suggestion.

We already have a precedent for a borrowing of this nature in 桂 *qájs "cinnamon, cassia" which could regularly go back to *qjáts and is likely associated with Hebrew qetsia "cassia

source of last two ¶s

[VHM:  *má ("hemp")]

[VHM:  **guì ("cinnamon, cassia")]

I had an old, learned German friend named Elfriede Regina (Kezia) Knauer (1926-2010) who was very much aware of the Semitic origins of her nickname and often asked me about its Sinitic parallels (see here, here, here, here, and here).  Hebrew קְצִיעָה‎ ("cassia tree"). Compare cassia. From Latin cassia ("cinnamon"), from Ancient Greek κασσία, κασία, κάσια (kassía, kasía, kásia), from Hebrew קְצִיעָה‎ (qəṣīʿā), from Aramaic קְצִיעֲתָא‎ (qəṣīʿătā), from קְצַע‎ (qṣaʿ, "to cut off") (source).

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Errant v. Arrant

Several people have emailed me to point out an apparent malapropism in a CBS News online headline: Melissa Quinn, "Nadler calls White House's impeachment rebuttal 'errant nonsense'", Face the Nation, 1/19/2020. In current usage, this should probably be "arrant nonsense".

But curiously, arrant and errant are the historically the same word, with an interesting and tangled history.

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The Hu: a wildly successful Mongolian rock band

Here's the official video of their viral hit, "Wolf Totem":

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