Tag Archives: dorks of my genus

Answers I Wish I Could Send: Etymology Edition

[Ed. note: one in a series.  Emails are only lightly edited for–if you can believe it–clarity.]

Your online dictionary defines “peak” as “a pointed or projecting part of a garment; especially :  the visor of a cap or hat”; and tentatively derives the word from “pike”. This is false. “Peak” derives from “beak” (which is why “bill” is a synonym). If I am correct, your definition should be modified.

Your logic is unassailable: “peak” looks like the word “beak,” and both hats and birds have a bill. Or rather, only the hats that truly matter–good American hats–have a bill. I don’t know why we didn’t see this before.

Oh, wait–we didn’t see it before because that’s not how etymology works. Imagine being tasked with creating ancestral photo albums for everyone in your family. You start with your second-cousin; you have, as your guide and starting point, a photo of that cousin that was taken yesterday. You are led to a large, dusty room that is overflowing, Hoarders-style, with pictures. The pictures go back hundreds of years, and several are stained or torn so badly that you can only guess at who the person in frame is. Some of those pictures will be of this cousin; many of these pictures will be of people who look vaguely like your cousin; many will be of other people you don’t know; there are several of Stinky, the neighbor’s dog. The door behind you creaks shut and locks. There are closed doors to your EAST and SOUTH; to your NORTH is a dimly lit brass lantern.

This is etymology. You are likely to be eaten by a grue.

The reason that there are so few etymologists in the world is not for lack of education or desire; it’s because etymology is really frickin’ hard sometimes. Lines of derivation aren’t always clear, and you don’t just need a pretty good hint that one word derives from another, but a whole corpus full of literature that supports that. So if we give an etymology for something–even if we qualify it with “probably”–then you can expect that there’s some actual evidence for that.

 In the case of “peak,” it looks likely that it is an alteration of the earlier word “pike.” Did you know that both “peak” and “pike” were spelled “pyke” at one point? Granted, it was a point about 600 years ago now, so unless you read Middle English for fun and profit, you probably don’t know that. Etymologists do, though, because it is their job to read Middle English for “fun” and (snort) “profit.”  Not all hope for your theory is lost, however: most scholars qualify the “pike” etymology with a “probably” or “possibly.”  If we discover that “peak” and “beak” both came from some crazy Proto-Indo-European root that means “to be conspicuous to idiots,” then we will gladly update our entry.

 Question: I looked up the word “mien” and noticed the following etymology:

Origin of MIEN

by shortening & alteration from “demean”

First Known Use: 1522

However, in French, they have the same word which can mean (1) mine (mining) or even (2) someone’s expression or outward appearance.

The world is abundant, mon ami. There are many orthographic combos that appear in languages around the globe, as pervasive as late-fall ennui. That doesn’t necessarily mean that all those words are related.

Think of it: a whole life’s experience–love, death, the rains in Provence, her kiss in Milan, the flowers Mémère used to set out at dinner–to be summed up using a handful of symbols. Though we live life together, we experience it alone. The form sin shows up in English and Spanish and Norwegian and Irish and Vietnamese–it even shows up in the language of man’s dreams (Esperanto). Yet none of these sins are related. So many worlds, so few characters to share an experience. It is inevitable that we should tread on each other’s words and give them our own meanings.

In short: the English “mien” really is a shortening of “demean,” and even if it was influenced by the French mien, that is not its origin. Everything dies.

I recently read, in, I believe, the Webster’s Unabridged version, that the origin of the term “Nosy Parker” was unknown~~I believe that this term originated from a series of movies, in which the lead actor was Lionel Barrymore,known as Dr. Gillespie~~these movies, each with a different title, featured Dr. Gillespie in the lead role as not only a doctor, but a solver of mysteries~~he is wheelchair bound in each of the series, and is looked after, fretted over, and followed around by his nurse, Miss (or Mrs.) Parker~~she is constantly trying to find out what he is up to, and listens through the door, reads his messages, whatnot~~hence~~she was nosy Parker, the nurse who could not let anything alone~~~This,I feel, is where the term “Nosy Parker” comes from~~~

Please excuse my tardy reply; I was hypnotized by your tildes. They have a very William Carlos Williams feel to them:

reads his messages, whatnot



~~she was nosy Parker

the nurse who could not

let anything



In any event, that would be a wonderful etymology for “Nosy Parker,” but alas, time is not on your side. “Nosy Parker” first showed up in print in the late 1800s; Lionel Barrymore’s movies date to the 1940s. Generally speaking, the word shows up in print after it is coined, not before, though we cannot discount the existence of a band of time-traveling linguistic trolls who have an inexplicable love of Lionel Barrymore.

Sadly, this state of affairs is fairly common in etymology: there is a perfect, spot-on story about how a word came to be, and then the horrible linear nature of time (as we experience it) screws it all up. “Doozy,” for instance, is supposedly a shortened form of “Duesenberg,” a make of tres classy cars. But “doozy” shows up before any Duesenbergs do. Is that disappointing–or, dare I say, a waste of a good car? Yes. Yes it is. But no amount of wishing, willing, secret incantations, or flux capacitors will change the facts.

I’d just like to say, though your app states that the origin of the word “gorp” is “unknown,” most everybody knows that it is an acronym for “Good Old Raisins and Peanuts.”

Well, you know scholars: dumber than most.

Here is a truth universally acknowledged: we like language to make some goddamned sense. Most of the complaints we hear about how horrible English is are because it (or one of its constituents) “doesn’t make logical sense.” And if something’s origin is shrouded in mystery, it is, in a way, nonsensical–there’s no reason, event, or word combo we can blame for that word. Calling trail mix “gorp” for no discernible reason goes against our instinct for causality and our desire for tidiness. So we invent reason: “Good Old Raisins and Peanuts.” After all, trail mix has raisins in it (sometimes) and peanuts in it (sometimes), and raisins and peanuts are both good (debatable) and old (sure, why not). There it is! There’s our reason! Why can’t you just see it?

Acronymic etymologies are, by and large, total horseshit. Acronyms weren’t really popular until the late 19th century, and very, very few of them have entered English as words. So, no, it’s not “Port Out Starboard Home” or “Constable On Patrol” or “Ship High In Transit,” even though these are all logical within a flawed and totally imaginary system. No, it’s not “Fornication Under Consent of King” or “Found Under Carnal Knowledge” or “For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge” or “Fornication Unallowed in the Commonwealth of the King.” (I mean, ponder for a moment: if sexytimes were actually outlawed in the Commonwealth, don’t you think that there’d be ample record of it?)

The origins of the word “jut.”  It seems obvious the word originates with the name of the Danish peninsula Jutland described in Wikipedia as a peninsula that “juts out” in Northern Europe.  Although there may not be a documented relationship, are you able to include the obvious in the possible origins words?

Yes, we are absolutely able to do that. It’s obvious: Jutland JUTS OUT, so clearly we got the word “jut” from Jutland. While we’re at it, we are also going to change the word “boot” to “bitaly,” and I have to revise the etymology of “ballsack” to note that we probably got it from the name of that famous ribald, Honoré de Balzac.

Etymologies in dictionaries are pretty much about documented linguistic relationships. As fitting as it is that Jutland happens to jut out into the Baltic like it does, it is merely a happy coincidence. Sometimes these happy coincidences also lead to documented linguistic relationships, but we always make a note of it. “Redingote,” for instance, is a funny little word that refers to a style of coat worn by men in the 18th century. It looks sort of like “riding coat,” doesn’t it? And hey, look at that: we have documented evidence that “redingote” is actually the French adaptation (borrowed back into English) of the English “riding coat”!

But it must all come back to the documentation. Etymologists are just crackpots with evidence behind them. We don’t truck much in variable origin stories–that’s really more DC’s and Marvel’s purview.

Question: I regard Webster’s very highly, and use it very much. But I am quite shocked about the lack of knowledge about so many Words’ origin, when the answer is just across the North sea. In Norwegian, Icelandic, Danish or Swedish. The Word QUALM is a very good example.

What about Finnish, huh? Or Faeroese? NOT “ACROSS THE NORTH SEA” ENOUGH FOR YOU?

It’s a common misconception among people who really, really love their native language a lot that their native language is the Ur-language, the language from which all other language sprang. This misconception is hard to counter: I mean, if you are positive that there is a family resemblance between Norwegian and, say, Amharic, then you are damned well going to see a family resemblance. “The word for ‘water’ in Amharic is /whah/ and in Norwegian it’s ‘vann’. SO OBVIOUS.”

Except, well, no. One of the things that etymologists must consider when weighing whether X word in Y language came from B word in C language is whether or not speakers of C language ever had contact Y language during the time that the word first showed up in Y language. If Norway gave English speakers the word “qualm,” then you’d think we’d have some clear evidence of that from the 1500s, when “qualm” showed up in English. But we don’t. We know–because, again, etymologists read all sorts of weird stuff–that there were similar words in a bunch of Germanic languages for the 200 or so years around when “qualm” showed up in English. But not in Norwegian. Not only that, but English speakers didn’t have a ton of exposure to Norwegians in the 1500s. We were more into the Dutch at that point, sorry.  So the likelihood that the English “qualm” came from Norwegian is <hearty laughter>.

To sum up: if there is an Ur-language from which all languages today descended, it is lost to time and it’s deffers not Norwegian. We are sorry to disappoint; thanks for writing.


Filed under correspondence, etymology, lexicography

Assembling the Treasury, Wordhoard, Synonymicon, Thesaurus

All lexicographers, regardless of where on the prescriptivist/descriptivist spectrum they fall, like to tell you they are totally objective when writing their dictionaries. They get worked up into a veritable froth if you suggest otherwise, maybe even raising their voices to conversational levels and daring to make eye contact when they tell you that you are utterly wrong. Lexicography’s underlying tenet is complete objectivity! Get thee behind me, John Dryden!

Notice how they conveniently fail to talk about thesauruses when objectivity comes up.

Unlike dictionaries, there is no one approach to compiling a thesaurus, no Unified Theory of Synonyms. The main goal that all of them have is to present an entry word and a group of words related to that entry word, but how those words are specifically related to the entry–and how they are presented–is varied, to say the least.

I grew up using a Roget’s Thesaurus (and I use the indefinite article advisedly, as “Roget’s” is not a trademarked name in my part of the world). Like other dorks of my genus, I spent many a Sunday afternoon sprawled out on the couch, paging through a reference book. The dictionary and encyclopedia were hauled out any old time, but the Roget’s was reserved for dim, snow-muffled days, when it was too cold to go sledding and I was feeling as pensive and thoughtful as a nine-year-old can possibly feel. Roget’s had an elevating effect on me, and I’d be so moved by its profundity that I’d read it aloud to our dog. “Section one,” I’d intone solemnly to Buffy, our crabby Airedale, whose spot on the couch I was bogarting. “Existence. Being, subsistence, entity, essence. Ens. ” She’d huff and I’d sigh, and we’d stare out the window at the whiteout, feeling deeply for a few seconds about dog treats and life, respectively.

Roget’s is brim-full of existential gravitas because of how it was compiled. In the early 1800s, one Peter Mark Roget thought that a collection of words arranged by semantically related clusters within larger, epistemological categories would be a useful tool for the discerning scholar, and fifty years later, Roget’s Thesaurus was released to the public. Roget’s focused–and continues to focus, under a slew of different names and publishers–on grouping terms within larger semantic ideas and divisions. “Existence,” the first subcategory, includes nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, formal philosophical terms, slang, and a wide variety of words that have something to do with the idea of existence, including “fact,” “sloth,” and–so cheery!– “grim reality.”

A brilliant system, though perhaps a little too much for the average teenager looking for another synonym of “desire” to use in this frickin’ essay on Wuthering Heights. But without it, teachers would no longer be regaled with fabulously inane and overly thesaurized essay sentences like, “Heathcliff dementated because of his propensity for Catherine,” or “Linton was Heathcliff’s foeman in wanting to pay one’s court to Catherine.” Dr. Peter Mark Roget, we salute you.

Dr. Roget’s categorization system isn’t to everyone’s taste, however. Discerning gentleman-scholars may have had the time to take the measure of each of the given synonyms, but the college student running on caffeine and youth, scrambling for an impressive synonym of “admonition” at 4:00am, may not. Some folks prefer a dictionary-like presentation of terms, and Roget’s is intentionally not dictionary-like. Enter the competitors (Merriam-Webster) and the losers who get to try to one-up Dr. Roget (me).

Where Roget’s revels in its epistemological abstractness, the thesaurus I was tapped to write was going to revel in its solidity. Unlike Roget’s, M-W thesauri deal entirely in listing related groups of lexical synonyms and antonyms. Instead of rambling chunks of loosely related words and an index that was half the size of the book, we’d present a list of words that mean exactly the same thing as the headword.  Words that were close would be called “related words” or “near synonyms,” and near synonyms would be grouped together by similarity of meaning. Same deal with antonyms. Very tidy.

And because we like tidy things, two groups of words that are commonly perceived as synonyms and antonyms would not be entered, because they were not lexically tidy: members of a genus and complementary pairs. This meant no “sofa” and “furniture,” nor any “black” and “white.” “Sofa” is not a lexical synonym of “furniture” because the word “sofa” does not mean “furniture.” Rather, a sofa is a type of furniture–it’s a member of a genus. And “black” is not the lexical antonym of “white.” If you look up “black” in the dictionary, its definition isn’t “not white.” “Black” and “white” are a complementary pair, like “knife” and “fork,” and “lexicographer” and “boring.” Not lexical, not eligible for entry. I nodded: yes, this is what we are good at, the lexical thing. This will be easy.

And it wasn’t.

Before you can find synonyms, you need to figure out what the meaning core of your headword will be. You must begin with a meaning that is broad enough to encompass most of the synonyms a person will want, but narrow enough that there’s some significant difference between it and another headword.

That seems like common sense until you begin writing and realize that you may need to have a bunch of synonyms in mind before you start actually looking for that bunch of synonyms. I worked backwards: I’d doodle out a list of possible synonyms for “general” and then begin looking for the common meaning they shared. When drafting that meaning, I also had to learn to avoid a common device used in dictionary defining: the synonymous cross-reference. Single-word cross-references in dictionary definitions are synonyms, and why waste a synonym in a meaning core when you can put it in the synonym list? (Because it is easy and I am lazy, that’s why.)

Once the meaning core is in place, you begin the hunt. The first M-W thesaurus was compiled, yes, by hand, with editors flipping through the Third and trying to keep track of all the possible synonyms for “love.” It was an overwhelming task, one sure to induce some strong hallucinations and psychotic breaks, and perhaps that explains why “chatty” was not listed as a synonym of “glib” in the first edition of the Collegiate Thesaurus but “well-hung” was. I had it easier, but even with a computer and a searchable dictionary database, finding and ordering synonyms and near synonyms was tricky. My nature was working against me: I am a splitter–a definer who likes detailing every possible denotative nook and connotative cranny of a word’s meaning–and so perhaps not the best person in the world to write a thesaurus. ‘Togs,’ I reasoned, means ‘clothing’, but it also refers to clothing worn for a specific purpose. Is that enough lexical synonymy to include ‘togs’ as a synonym? Or is it a near synonym? A vacuum whirred downstairs. It was 6:00pm, and I was going to be locked in the building overnight with nothing to eat and a bunch of boring, pedantic ghosts if I didn’t leave pronto. Synonym it is.

I began to rearrange lists of words by register, then by connotation, then for no other reason than they looked right next to each other. “Gear” and “rig” seemed to fit together–they are more technical words, referring to specific types of clothes used in particular activities, like mountaineering. And “costume” and “garb” sat well next to each other–they refer to dress-up, fanciful, special-occasion clothes. But those two groups are distinct: “costume” and “rig” didn’t work together, and that seemed right to me. It’s just like assembling a puzzle, I reassured myself. A puzzle with blank pieces you color in as you place them, and in the end you hope you have come up with a convincing representation of the Mona Lisa.

This sort of derangement is both de facto and de rigueur in the lexicography biz, but I was unprepared for one thing: that what seems right to me may not be what seems right to other editors. My thesaurus batches were returned; my carefully constructed near synonym groups had been scattered and re-formed. “Rig,” “outfit,” and “costume” ended up together, with “gear” left out. Other near synonyms were dropped; some were promoted to true synonyms. I was so thrown by this that it took me a while notice the crowing glory of the revision: my managing editor added two true synonyms I had, in all my shuffling, missed: “clothes” (with the comment “!!!”) and “habiliment(s).” “Clothes” is exactly the sort of obvious synonym it’s easy to overlook when you are slogging through a dictionary, trying to find every last possible synonym or antonym of a word. I had fallen prey to Well-Hung Syndrome. As for “habiliments,” I had never seen the word before in my life. Assuming the Drudge’s Hunch, I stared at my reconfigured entry. I rubbed my face, and then rubbed it some more, until it began to look like a flatiron steak. The revisions made me feel a bit dumb and defensive.

Defensive, yes, because isn’t lexicography coolly objective? And isn’t my very objective read of “gear” and “outfit” perfectly fine the way it is, since I’m totally and completely objective? But if we’re both objective and we disagree, then how objective are we being? One of us, I tutted to myself, was not being objective.

In truth, neither of us was being 100% objective. The very nature of grouping, ranking, and sorting near synonyms means that a certain amount of subjectivity will inevitably be a part of the process. I stuff my word sausage differently that the managing editor stuffs his.

Nonetheless, my turd-stirring nature won out. I padded over to the managing editor’s cubicle and interrupted his reading and marking with my concerns regarding objectivity. He listened patiently to my concerns about the order of near synonyms, but when I brought up “habiliments,” his brows beetled. “Kory,” he sighed, “that sort of catch is exactly why we do this as a group. ‘Habiliments’ is a synonym for ‘clothing,’ even if you don’t know the word. And if you really think that ‘outfit’ doesn’t belong with ‘gear’ and ‘costume,’ then write your reasons down on a pink and I’ll consider it.”


He shook his newspaper in irritation. “Last I checked, my title was not ‘Dictator.’ This is a group effort.”

Lexicographers get defensive about objectivity because we know that, no matter how much training we have, we cannot be truly objective because we experience language subjectively. (We are, contrary to popular belief, fully human and not at all robots.) Sometimes our own personal experience with the language is invaluable: that subjective sprachgefühl helps guide a lexicographer when defining, when editing, when rubbing a jumble of synonyms between your hands to discover their relative heft and shape.

Sprachgefühl isn’t just weighed against written evidence–it is put against other sprachgefühlen. Every citation we take, every rewording of a definition, every example sentence penned is a subjective use of language. But when considered together, subjectivity fades into a picture of patterned, communal–and objective–use. Language is a human group effort, and so should lexicography be.


Filed under lexicography, making word sausage, thesaurizing