Archive for Etymology

Bird, boy, girl, dog, recorder: etymology unknown

"Five common English words we don’t know the origins of – including ‘boy’ and ‘dog’", Francesco Perono Cacciafoco*, The Conversation (7/4/24)

[*See the author's extraordinary academic profile here.]

The author begins by describing the act of naming items in the world, the etymological study of words, the comparative method, the relationship of English to Germanic and thence to the Indo-European family, and how their vocabularies are all connected.

However, the process doesn’t always work. The English lexicon includes some terms known as “proper words”, which today apparently exist only in English. Cognates for them cannot be found in any other language.

These are very simple and common words but being unique, we cannot apply the comparative method to them and therefore cannot reconstruct their origins. These “proper words” represent an exciting puzzle of the English language. Here are five examples.

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Charon's obol

Sino-Platonic Papers is pleased to announce the publication of its three-hundred-and-fifty-first issue:  "Placing Western Coins Near the Deceased in Ancient China: The Origin of a Custom," by Pin LYU:

ABSTRACT: This article traces the custom in ancient China of placing Western coins in proximity to corpses during burial. Academic attention has focused on the origin of the custom since Marc Aurel Stein initially connected the finding in Turfan of Western coins placed in the mouths or on the eyes of the corpses with Charon's obol, the ancient Greek coin that, similarly placed, paid Charon to ferry the dead to the underworld. Some scholars agreed with Stein's proposal, while others suggested that it was instead a traditional Chinese funerary ritual, unrelated to Greece. This article moves away from over-reliance on written sources and aims at uncovering the patterns underlying this custom, through the collection and analysis of available archaeological material. Results indicate that the custom possibly originated in the Hellenistic practice of Charon's obol and then traveled to China with Sogdian immigrants, developing into a regional funeral ritual in Turfan.

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Huaxia: pre-Han cognomen of the Middle Kingdom

Iskandar Ding and the Scythians are well known on Language Log.  Now they come together in this reference to Christopher Beckwith's The Scythian Empire:

[click on the illustration to go to the X post and then click again to embiggen the page so that it is easy to read]

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Tocharo-Sinica and Sogdo-Sinica

Exchange between VHM and Chris Button:


I just heard a lecture on Tocharian by Gerd Carling, and she said that the word for "enter" in Toch. is something like "yip".  That jerked me to the edge of my seat, since it is identical to the pronunciation of 入 ("enter") in many Sinitic topolects.

The verb is well grounded on the Tocharian side.  This is from the etymological section of Doug Adams dictionary or Tocharian:

  ■TchA yäw and B yäp– reflect PTch yäp– (though at least the preterite participle yaiwu in A shows the influence of B [VW:605]). PTch *yäp– is from PIE *yebh– ‘go, enter (into)’ seen in Hieroglyphic Luvian iba ‘west’ (for a discussion of the latter word, and different conclusions, see Puhvel, 1984:375-377) < *ibho– and Greek zóphos ‘dusk, gloom, (north)west,’ and Greek zéphuros ‘(north)west [wind]’ (< *yobh– and *yebh– respectively).  For the semantic development of Hieroglyphic Luvian iba– one should compare Greek dúsis ‘west’ from dúō ‘get, get into’ and the TchB kauṃ yäp– ‘set [of sun]’).  The Tocharian and Hittite words are to be connected with *yebh– ‘futuere’ [: Greek oíphō (< *o– + ibh-), Sanskrit yábhati, OCS jebǫ (P:298; 508)], the meaning ‘futuere’ coming from ‘penetrate’ (Winter, 1998:349; cf. Beekes, 2010:1063-1064).  The connection with yábhati is VW’s (1941) but later (1976:605) he suggests a phonetically impossible development from a PIE *(e)ieu-.  Malzahn (2017:283-284) adds, on the basis of Cheung, 2007:213, an Iranian cognate *ya(m)p/b-‘move, wander, rove, crawl’ and takes the antecedent Proto-Indo-European to have meant ‘go, move (slowly) inside.’

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Franklin (1773) on colonial obligations

A couple of days ago, I did a web search to find out how late the King of Prussia mall was open, and landed on the Wikipedia page for the "census-designated place" King of Prussia, which (as I knew) includes lots of stuff besides the mall. Reading the article and following links, as one does, I learned something new, namely why in the world an "edge city of Philadelphia" was named after Frederick the Great.

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World word: soap

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"Lord of Heaven" in ancient Sino-Iranian

[This is a guest post by Chris Button about xiān 祆 (usually defined in English as:
Ahura Mazda, god of the Zoroastrians 
From: Shuowen Jiezi, circa 2nd century AD
Xiān: húshén yě. [Pinyin]Xian is the god of the foreigners.
The two components of the 祆 glyph are shì / ("show, reveal, manifest; spirit") and tiān ("sky, heaven, celestial").
Although hugely important in the history of religions in China, the etymology of xiān 祆 is highly elusive.  Through close attention to the phonology of the glyph and its components, Chris aims to ferret out the source of a possible loanword.]
I've been pondering over 祆 EMC xɛn "Ahura Mazda, Zoroastrianism" for a while and its possible relationship with 天 EMC tʰɛn "heaven" (compare 忝 EMC tʰɛmˀ with 天/祆 as phonetic in the top half). 

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Language Log asks: Mari Sandoz

In preparation for my run across Nebraska during the month of June, I'm boning up on the land, culture, and history of the state.  It wasn't long in my researches before I encountered the esteemed writer Marie Sandoz (1896-1966).  Hers is one of the most touching stories about a writer, nay, a human being, that I have ever read.  She has much to tell us about her language background and preferences, and how she had to struggle with her publishers to retain them in the face of standardization.

She became one of the West's foremost writers, and wrote extensively about pioneer life and the Plains Indians.

Marie Susette Sandoz was born on May 11, 1896 near Hay Springs, Nebraska, the eldest of six children born to Swiss immigrants, Jules and Mary Elizabeth (Fehr) Sandoz. Until the age of 9, she spoke only German. Her father was said to be a violent and domineering man, who disapproved of her writing and reading. Her childhood was spent in hard labor on the home farm, and she developed snow blindness in one eye after a day spent digging the family's cattle out of a snowdrift.

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Language Log has been fortunate to have had several guest posts and numerous comments by Douglas Adams, doyen of Tocharian studies in America (see "Selected readings" for a sampling).  Now, stimulated by the recent post on Chinese chariotry, he has written the following ruminations in response.

I read with interest the material on early Chinese chariotry.  It was far outside my competence to judge.  As you knew, I was most interested in the comment that was looking to the possibility of Tocharian > Chinese lexical borrowings.  As you also know, it has long been my suspicion that there was more west > east influence on Chinese language and culture than is generally realized.  And the "westerners" involved were most likely to have been Tocharians of one sort or another ("Tocharian D"?).  It's probably not only PIE pigs and honey that, via Tocharian, show up in Chinese.

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Indigo and cabbage, part 2

The first part of this series, "Indigo and cabbage", written the day before Thanksgiving in 2023, is one of the most satisfying and fulfilling posts I've ever made.  This follow-up is even more of a delight, because here I get to introduce a new paper by anthropologist-linguist-textile expert Elizabeth J. W. Barber, and what a tour de force it is (see below).

Here I give an extended account of her scholarship, especially her early activities in the computer analysis of Chinese, because she was instrumental in helping to make that possible at its foundational stage.

She earned a bachelor's degree from Bryn Mawr College in Archaeology and Greek in 1962. Her chief mentor was Mabel Lang from whom she learned Linear B and who advised her honors thesis on Linear A. In addition to Lang, Wayland wrote her thesis under Emmett L. Bennett Jr. Her thesis used computer indices of the Hagia Triada Linear A texts in an attempt to decipher its signs and symbols. The computer indices were made via punched cards, a method which was preceded by the work of Alice E. Kober on Linear B. She earned her PhD from Yale University in linguistics in 1968. Her doctoral study at Yale University was supervised by Sydney Lamb, under whom she wrote her dissertation, "The Computer Aided Analysis of Undeciphered Ancient Texts."

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From Chariot to Carriage

In our studies of the transmission of Indo-European language and culture across the Eurasian continent, one of the most vital research topics is that of horse-drawn wheeled vehicles.  During this past semester, I taught one of the most satisfying courses of my entire half-century career, namely, "Horses and humans".  Among the many engrossing subjects that we confronted are the nomenclature for wheeled vehicles, how horses were hitched to them, and so forth.  Many of these questions are now authoritatively answered in the following paper by three of the world's most distinguished scholars of equine equipage.


Sino-Platonic Papers is pleased to announce the publication of its three-hundred-and-forty-fourth issue:

"From Chariot to Carriage: Wheeled Vehicles and Developments in Draft and Harnessing in Ancient China," by Joost H. Crouwel, Gail Brownrigg, and Katheryn Linduff.

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The call / name of the gecko

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Thought panzers

Vacillating Chinese terminology for think tanks

Mark Metcalf wrote to tell me:

Global Times*just ran an article that might be of interest regarding PRC think tanks and a new book related to this topic: “Researchers, scholars explore methods to boost China’s influence of thoughts”.

*an appendage of People's Daily

I was caught up short by the clumsy expression "influence of thoughts".  But something else about this new development bothered me much more.  Mark tracked down the title of the book in question:

《Sīxiǎng tǎnkè: Zhōngguó zhìkù de guòqù, xiànzhuàng yǔ wèilái 思想坦克:中国智库的过去、现状与未来》("Thought tanks [armored vehicles]: the past, present, and future of China's wisdom warehouses"]) [VHM — intentionally awkward translation for special effect, to be explained below]

What jumped out at me in the title was the use of tǎnkè 坦克 for (think) tank. In my Chinese studies, I learned that tǎnkè 坦克 was a military weapon and not a repository. And when you Google images of tǎnkè 坦克, all you see are images of tracked vehicles. That's how all my Pleco dictionaries translate the term, as well. However, when you put the term into Google Translate, it provides both the tracked vehicle and an alternative translation: "a large receptacle or storage chamber, especially for liquid or gas" with yóuxiāng 油箱 ("oil / gas[oline] / fuel tank") as a synonym. Yet GT can't translate the term sīxiǎng tǎnkè 思想坦克.  [VHM:  And well it should not.  See more below.]

Going out on a limb, could the expression sīxiǎng tǎnkè 思想坦克 have the dual meaning (i.e., a pun) for an offensive organization ("vehicle") that is used to control / defend the narrative of the CCP?

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