Something sharp in that sock

Etymology is like chocolate: dispensable but irresistible. Words hopping from one language to the next, shape-shifting, gaining new meanings…

Take our sharp. Or rather skarpo, the word used by the Goths (a Germanic people who neither built cathedrals nor dyed their hair black) for ‘sharp thing’ or ‘pointy thing’. In the Early Middle Ages, this was borrowed into Italian, where scarpa came to mean ‘shoe’. After all, most shoes are somewhat pointy, and mediaeval fashion sometimes prescribed them very pointy indeed. A common alternative was the diminutive scarpetta, which somehow sounds even pointier.

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Oh blast

Little-Bugger-Infant-RedWhat a pity! In Lingo, I claimed that “English has no loanwords from Bulgarian, with the debatable exception of the name of the Bulgarian currency, the lev, which literally means ‘lion’.”

I’ve just discovered that I missed one, and a very colourful one too: bugger. The invaluable Online Etymological Dictionary has this to say about it (I’ve edited the entry for clarity): Continue reading

Etymologising through my hat?

shapkaBusiness deals that seem too good to be true usually are, and the same is true for etymologies.

This morning, I came across the Turkish word şapka, pronounced /shapka/, for ‘hat’. It reminded me of the French word chapeau, and I thought the -ka ending sounded just like a Russian suffix, as in babushka (grandmother) and balalaika (literally ‘babbler’). Continue reading

Slip of the longue

A lion. 'Leo' in Latin, not 'deo'.

A lion. ‘Leo’ in Latin, not ‘deo’.

But for a silly mistake, I would have been a dinguist. You know, a dinguist – a specialist in dinguistics.

The mistake was not my own; it’s the old Romans what did it. And when I say old, I mean really old. Older even than Caesar, Cicero and Seneca, the authors who wrote the sort of Latin we are still somewhat familiar with – the classy, classical sort.

Before their Latin, there was Old Latin, and though it looked grammar-schoolish enough, it was different in many small ways. For instance, it had the word dingua for ‘tongue’ and ‘language’. Caesar, Cicero and Seneca would consider that old-fashioned; the Latin equivalent of Ye Olde Tea Shoppe. They would write lingua. And it’s in their footsteps that we follow every time we use the word linguistics. Continue reading


Near the next door neighbours

The interestingly named Wells-next- the-Sea in Norfolk.

‘The end is nigh, the end is near, the end is bound to come next year.’ As doom and gloom goes, this prediction is not only charming – impeccable metre, simple but correct rhyme – but also linguistically interesting.

Its main attraction lies in the three words beginning with n: nigh, near and next. Say them out loud – does anything strike you? If not, let me help you by spelling them the Old English way: neah, near, niehsta. Rather like near, nearer, nearest, aren’t they? Or like high, higher, highest, for that matter. And that’s no coincidence, because they were indeed degrees of comparison, as grammarians call them: the positive neah meaning ‘near’, the comparative near meaning ‘nearer’ and the superlative niehsta meaning ‘nearest’. Continue reading

Feline lingerie

Winter_Lady_dressEtymology moves in a mysterious way, its wonders to perform. Who would think that the humble word panties has a proud, venerable origin?

No surprises in the first part of the journey back in time: panties is a diminutive of pants, itself a clipped form of pantaloons. Nowadays, this last word usually refers to trousers, but in the 17th and 18th centuries, it meant ‘tights’. English borrowed it from French (pantalon), which in turn had snatched it from Italian (pantalone). Continue reading


gatoOh, may it be ten years or more
Until, all silent and depressed,
We lay our whiskered carnivore
In a sarcophagus to rest.

And then we will, as language nerds,
Seek solace in the hidden humour
Of these two Greek and Latin words’
One common meaning: meat consumer.

In the mood for wormwood and vermouth

wormwo37-lThe following German words have different endings now, but historically speaking share a common suffix: Armut (poverty), Einöde (desert), Heimat (home, native land), Kleinod (piece of jewellery, gem) and Zierrat (ornament). In Old German, all these words had the suffix –uoti. Their etymologies are uncontroversial and can be found in the etymological dictionary of the leading lexicographical publisher in the German language area, Duden.

The same source states that the plant name Wermut (wormwood) used to be wermuota in Old German (and wermōd in Old English; wormwood is a folk etymology), but that its meaning and origin are obscure. According to the most up-to-date Dutch etymological dictionary, the first part may mean ‘bitter’ – the plant is known for its bitterness, and there are Celtic words for ‘bitter’ which may be related. (Later, in France, Wermut was used in a bitter drink named vermouth, which went on to become an international word.)

So if the Old German adjective arm (poor) could produce a noun Armut and the Old German adjective klein (now ‘small’, earlier ‘delicate, graceful’) a noun Kleinod, is it all that far-fetched to conjecture that an adjective meaning ‘bitter’ similarly may have produced a noun meaning ‘bitterness, something bitter’?

Good as it sounds, there’s probably nothing in it. The a of wermuota is different from the i in the -uoti suffix. There is also an Old German noun muot (modern meaning: courage, but related to English mood) which may muddle the picture. Like wormwood, Wermut may be an old folk etymology. So my suggestion is vulnerable on several grounds. And it’s true: amateurs such as myself usually get things wrong in etymology. But I couldn’t resist sharing the thought.