Poetical etymologies

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Wondermark #829, 4/20, "In which pepper is explained":

The mouse-over text is

"How often does somebody actually WONDER ABOUT ETYMOLOGY in my PRESENCE?? You GOTTA give me this!!"

There's at least one significant anachronism in the faux-Victorian setting: as far as I know, degrees in "linguistics" were not offered anywhere in the English-speaking world until after WWII.

Needless to say, pep is in fact a shortened form of pepper, which in turn, according to the OED, is

< classical Latin piper, a loanword < Indo-Aryan (as is ancient Greek πέπερι ); compare Sanskrit pippalī long pepper.

By "long pepper" the OED refers to

Any of various forms of capsicum, esp. Capsicum annuum var. annuum. Originally (chiefly with distinguishing word): any variety of the C. annuum Longum group, with elongated fruits having a hot, pungent taste, the source of cayenne, chilli powder, paprika, etc., or of the perennial C. frutescens, the source of Tabasco sauce.

And my understanding is that the capsicum genus is native to the Americas, and did not exist in Europe, Africa, or Asia in pre-Columbian times. So a Sanskrit word for "long pepper" is either a modern importation into Sankrit, or else a modern extension of a word that actually referred to something else.


  1. Faldone said,

    April 21, 2012 @ 6:31 am

    Just one comment: Accusing Wondermark of anachronism is like accusing the phone book of being overly slavish to alphabetical order.

    [(myl) It was more an observation than an accusation; and you're free to take it as a celebration.]

  2. Geraint Jennings said,

    April 21, 2012 @ 6:37 am

    Long pepper = Piper longum, native to SE Asia

    [(myl) Aha. Thanks for clearing up my confusion.]

  3. bulbul said,

    April 21, 2012 @ 6:39 am

    Actually, I think the "long pepper" referred to here is piper longum, a plant from the genus piper, family piperace, native to India and South-East Asia. It's a relative of piper nigrum, the fruit of which we know as black pepper (and white and green). Apparently the capsicum spiecies were named because their taste was similar to black pepper.

  4. Ø said,

    April 21, 2012 @ 6:42 am

    It seems that:

    There really is something from India called long pepper.

    It is in the genus piper, so a closer relative to black pepper than to the New World capsicum (chili) peppers.

    Before capsicum came along it was used in Europe.

    The Romans imported both it and its name, and confused it to some extent with black pepper.

  5. Adam B said,

    April 21, 2012 @ 7:34 am

    Another question implicitly raised by the strip – is the family name "Pepper" from the spice, or from some other root?

  6. D-AW said,

    April 21, 2012 @ 8:06 am

    What, or which part of this, is poetical? And why? Is poetical used to mean fanciful, made-up here?

    (The man is accused of being a liar, not a poet – by faux Victorian times surely the Platonic injunction had been well countered)

  7. dw said,

    April 21, 2012 @ 8:51 am

    The use of "Davis" as a first name (at least for a Briton) seems to me like another anachronism.

  8. 'Poetical' Etymologies? | Poetry & Contingency said,

    April 21, 2012 @ 9:07 am

    […] morning's Language Log brings us a post called 'Poetical Etymologies', which reproduces this Wondermark […]

  9. D-AW said,

    April 21, 2012 @ 9:16 am

    My comment seems to have been blocked by a filter, so I posted a reply here:

  10. Rod Johnson said,

    April 21, 2012 @ 10:24 am

    D-AW: I think you are being overly, well, literal, about the use of "poetic(al)." It is sometimes used to mean "fanciful." If the aesthetic value of something trumps "mere" accuracy, if the creator makes free with the facts in the service of art, we call it poetic license. It seems that's the sense of "poetical" that's being used here.

    The etymological sense of "poetic", from poiesis, making, literally the making of pots, I think, has more or less been swallowed up by the literary sense, but it still survives in expressions like "poetics" and "poetic license." It's one of those fossil metaphors you describe.

    By the way, the same tension between "made" and "fictive" exists within the English word "fabricated." A poem is a fabricated thing, as is, here, a fabricated etymology.

  11. D-AW said,

    April 21, 2012 @ 10:41 am

    @Rod, yes you're spot on about the usage, though I'm not sure etymology is the best basis for argument here… When I get some time I'll elaborate on why I think the invented etymology in the cartoon is more like a tale than a poem, but it's basically because it defeats metaphor with metonymy. There is, within the original (denied) link between 'pep' and 'pepper', a fossil metaphor (which likens a personality trait to a mouth sensation or taste). But in replacing this with a story about some Sir Pepper, we are left with only contiguity.

  12. goofy said,

    April 21, 2012 @ 10:43 am


  13. Jeff Carney said,

    April 21, 2012 @ 11:09 am

    they're false cognates.
    is named for Sir Davis
    who was the first
    to import the spice from
    India to Britain
    in the seventeenth century.
    It was a trade name:
    Brand Shockening Powder.
    Later genericized simply to
    comes from the Middle Greek
    meaning verve or spirit. Hence
    pep rally.
    Sometimes coincidences like that

  14. Rod Johnson said,

    April 21, 2012 @ 11:24 am

    D-AW: I don't mean etymology is an explanation, but that it has left a kind of penumbra (or bathtub ring) of the older meaning around the modern meaning. And of course, people use "poetic" to mean "aesthetically please in a kind of fanciful way" all the time–"that thing you said about my ass was almost poetic" kind of thing.

    I'm sad that Shockening Powder isn't really thing, by the way.

  15. Rod Johnson said,

    April 21, 2012 @ 11:27 am

    Oops, to continue: Nice to see the Jakobsonian (I assume) metaphor-metonymy/similarity-contiguity analysis still has some life in it.

  16. Ray Girvan said,

    April 21, 2012 @ 2:34 pm

    @Rod Johnson: I'm sad that Shockening Powder isn't real…

    Yes. It sounds like the kind of thing that could have been invented by John Henry Pepper.

  17. Rubrick said,

    April 21, 2012 @ 4:44 pm

    I believe Wondermark is considered to take place in modern times, more or less. It just happens to be modern times depicted with illustrations culled from Victorian-era publications (extensively Photoshopped).

  18. djw said,

    April 21, 2012 @ 5:02 pm

    @ray girvan

    Pepper sounds like the kind of guy we could use around today!

  19. John Lawler said,

    April 21, 2012 @ 6:34 pm

    While I was the UG advisor at UMichigan Linguistics Dept, I looked up every Linguistics degree granted by UM in an effort to identify alumno/as, and found to my amazement that a woman whose name I don't recall (I'll try to look it up when I get home; I'm in the SFO airport right now) received a bachelor's degree in Linguistics around 1901. I have no further information than that, alas.

    [(myl) When you look it up, please also see what department it was given in. It was supposedly in 1946-47 that Zellig Harris founded the first linguistics department in North America; this was the basis for my assumption that degrees under the category of "linguistics" would not have been given in Victorian times.]

  20. Kerim Friedman said,

    April 21, 2012 @ 9:39 pm

    Reminds me of the Lord Douchebag skit from SNL:

    "Lord Worcestershire: You know, Sandwich.. were the Sandwich Islands named after you?

    Earl of Sandwich: Oh, no. Everyone asks me that, but I'm afraid nothing has ever been named after a member of my family."


  21. Jerry Friedman said,

    April 22, 2012 @ 7:20 pm

    @dw: Davies Gilbert (who took his wife's maiden name—he was born Davies Giddy) was the president of the Royal Society from 1827 to 1830. It's a short step from there to "Davis" as a given name, and indeed, you can find references to him as "Sir Davis Gilbert" (which is how I found him).

    Here's a Mr. Davis Jones who directed a choir that won a medal and ten guineas at the National Eisteddfod of 1881. The other winners mentioned on the page have their first and last names given, so I imagine "Davis" was his first name.

  22. Jamie said,

    April 23, 2012 @ 10:15 am

    I bought some long pepper when I was in the Caribbean (rather ironically) just because I had never come across it in Europe. It has a very different flavour to "normal" black pepper.


  23. Richard Hershberger said,

    April 23, 2012 @ 10:47 am

    Regarding "Davis" as a given name, the more general observation is that the pattern of surnames being used as given names dates back to the 16th century. (Recall that Lady Jane Grey's husband's name was "Guildford Dudley".) Even were there no attested Victorian examples of "Davis" as a given name, it still would have been plausible.

  24. Jerry Friedman said,

    April 23, 2012 @ 3:26 pm

    @Richard Hershberger: Thanks for answering the question I was thinking of asking! (However, just as "Friedman" and "Hershberger" are unlikely given names now, "Davis" could have been particularly unlikely in Victorian times. Has anyone done the linguistic study of which surnames are used as given names and in what cultures, restricted to those that normally distinguish? Why have I met a Mexican man with the given name Winters but never one with the given name García?)

  25. Peter Taylor said,

    April 23, 2012 @ 4:56 pm

    @Richard Hershberger, without something to show the link that could just be evidence that the pattern of place names being used as given names dates back to the 16th century. (Not that I dispute the assertion; and it all gets rather circular with place names becoming surnames and vice versa too).

  26. Robbie said,

    April 23, 2012 @ 7:09 pm

    The Piper / Capsicum confusion is typical for old world / new world plant exchanges: Trask gives a great example (which I might be misremembering) of a Basque native word arto which means maize and its derivative artaxiki "little maize" which means millet.
    This brings up all sorts of tempting theories of maize's pre-Columbian or even pre-Indo-European presence in Europe, or of the Basque discovery of the Americas…

    Luckily, we have plenty of written texts, in which, Trask says, it's clear that before 1400 arto means millet, in the 1500's arto could mean either millet or maize as it was applied to the new grain, and only in modern times do we see the re-analysis of artaxiki for millet.

  27. Stuart Brown said,

    April 24, 2012 @ 5:32 am

    Pippalī is a feminine form of the masculine root pippala, the main meaning of which is the sacred fig tree Ficus religiosa. This has become peepal in Hindi and from there borrowed into English as "pipal" (http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/pipal) so it would appear both pipal and pepper have the same origin.

    [Checking up pippala I find it can also mean a type of bird, a sleeve, a school, sensual enjoyment, a nipple, and a berry (of the above trees), which gives me an opportunity to rehearse the old Sanskritists' saw about every word in Sanskrit having four uses: (i) its actual meaning; (ii) the exact opposite of its meaning; (iii) something about an elephant or a lotus; and (iv) something obscene.]

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