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

~~

hence

~~she was nosy Parker

the nurse who could not

let anything

alone

~~~

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.

51 Comments

Filed under correspondence, etymology, lexicography

51 responses to “Answers I Wish I Could Send: Etymology Edition

  1. This made my brain happy this morning – thanks!

  2. “just so” stories are more fun than accurate in the etymology game it seems, but not to worry — the people at Merriam are pretty fun all the same

  3. As for “qualm” in Germanic languages, the very same spelling just happens to occur in German, albeit capitalised. However, it does not mean misgivings or self-doubt, it means the sort of smoke you get when you try burning wet fuel such as grass, leaves, wet charcoal etc. on a garden fire.
    Which all goes to show, etymology by coincidental spelling is nothing more than a smoke screen.

  4. Holy crap, these posts are the funniest damn things I have ever read. Please never, ever stop writing them.

  5. Everyone knows “qualm” is an acronym for “quit your asking, linguistic menace.”

  6. I’ve had so many arguments like this before. “But spirit and image just makes so much more sense than spit and image!” Well, sorry, your intuitions about what makes sense are contradicted by the cold hard facts of lexicography and historical linguistics.

    • Kory Stamper

      My absolute favorite etymology email was a claim that “sushi” is actually Polish, because obviously they eat raw fish in Poland and have for centuries, it’s practically the Polish national dish! And bee-tee-dubs it is totally RACIST to claim that Japanese people love raw fish, that is a STEREOTYPE ABOUT ASIANS and RACIST, YOU RACISTY RACISMING RACIST.

  7. Ø

    I have rarely run into “trod” as a present-tense form.

  8. Patty

    Very funny and interesting article, thanks! And comments are witty, too! No biggie, but I kept momentarily pausing over what was your writing and what was an excerpt. In standard typesetting, excerpts are indented as block quotes, and the writer’s words are full measure.

  9. I hesitate to bring this up given Kory’s scorching non-replies, but the M-W definition for hello says its first known use was in 1877, whereas Mark Twain used it — in its normal sense as a greeting — in his 1871 story “The Curious Dream”.

    There. After many years, I’ve finally gotten that off my chest. Scorch away. 🙂

  10. davidly

    Wahrlich schrieb Stamper:
    “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.”

    At least you didn’t say “The reason *why* is because…” That’d be a treble whammy. If you don’t mind, I’m going to replace “because” with “that” before I print your (as always) amusingly edifying text to read with my students… of grammar.

    • Or as the ladies say in The Music Man: “CHAW-cer … RABBLE-ais … BALL-zack!”

      Here’s my take on qualm (firmly founded on the OED, I hasten to add). Tl;dr: There are at least two words qualm in English, and the idea that the modern one is of Scandinavian origin is … not ridiculous.

      Davidly: “The reason why” has been part of English for centuries, and is entirely standard. And having “reason” in one sentence and “because” in the next is also entirely standard.

      • davidly

        Ah, but standard according to whom? Don’t get me wrong, I’m no prescriptivist. One can find plenty of questionable or – as the case may be, as it were, so to speak, if you will – personally grating usage on my part.

        I, like the author, take it upon myself to point out to my students when that might be the case. With my comment I was merely making that point, albeit wrapped most unfortunately in just a smidgen of passive-aggressive – that is, not entirely conscious – pedantry. I felt that it fit the tone of the piece, which I enjoyed immensely.

        Anyway, folks beyond the obnoxious grammarian set find “the reason why” and the “the reason why is because” and “the reason is because” questionable because it resonates circular reasoning even when it – the reasoning – is not.

        Kory’s more recent employment of the pronoun “it” represents “the reason” and therefore, to my ear, still jingles the sound of question begging. The fact that she compounded it with a semicolon (see what I did there?) only strengthened the correlation.

        Apropos of nothing (except your having referenced OED), I am reminded of M-W’s rejection of “antidisestablishmentarianism” as a word (as is their right according to the standards they have set forth). Anyway, M-W may not accept that the word is used as defined by OED, but they do have a second definition that may eventually qualify it for inclusion (I paraphrase): “Often cited as an example of a long word.”

        Is that a definition?

        • Kory’s more recent employment of the pronoun “it” represents “the reason” and therefore, to my ear, still jingles the sound of question begging. The fact that she compounded it with a semicolon (see what I did there?) only strengthened the correlation.

          That must be hard for you. Too bad there’s nothing you can do about it, like maybe just getting over it.

          • davidly

            Nothing like responding to self-aware ironic pedantry in the spirit of good will by turning it into a pissing contest. I’d’ve thought there was nothing to get over — or, at least that my tone would have indicated as much. Yours, however…

  11. Eric Schoenfeld

    Very nice, Kory. So, with all that difficult and often unrewarding sleuthing as a job requirement, why does one set out to be an etymologist (instead of, say, a firefighter, or a sky-diver — you know, a safer profession)? And where does one go to achieve that degree, Bachelor (or Master or Doctor) of Etymology?

  12. Y

    Add fakeronym: “People Under No King”.

  13. hankgillette

    “Acronymic etymologies are, by and large, total horseshit.”

    At least we’ll always have “oll korrect”.

  14. BobHale

    I’m not sure which is more fun – reading the details of the etymologies or counting the pop-culture references.

  15. I no longer want to be an etymologist when I grow up. I want to be a time-travelling lingiustic troll BEFORE I grow up!

  16. You’re so harsh with your replies Kory !
    One should be pleased that others show interest in their own work…

  17. This was very insightful, glad i found your blog.

  18. Pingback: Falling in Love with Words | The Dictionary of Victorian Insults & Niceties

  19. Tom S. Fox

    I’m sorry, did Esperanto kill your dog?

  20. Paul

    Kory,
    I believe many of your answers are very worthy of communicating to the sender……..Actually all of them. I am glad you put them here for us to enjoy. I am assuming these are questions asked of you at MW where you must you where the cloak of a serious etymologist.

    • Kory Stamper

      Let me assure you, I only wear the cloak of a serious etymologist, and that’s only when the real etymologist is busy doing work and doesn’t pay attention to where he’s put his cloak.

  21. Someone who can balance exacting etymology AND a well-formed reference to a grue definitely deserves to be featured on the Freshly Pressed. Looking forward to the next edition.

  22. maybe you can explain the etymology for “understand” to me. I consulted even OED, and the best I can surmise is to gather together many concepts and “stand up” with them, or something like that.

  23. Pingback: Answers I Wish I Could Send: One Week’s Worth | harm·less drudg·ery

  24. Manu

    I was lured by a Kory Stamper sign along my erratic way on the net and ended up on that (nearly) year old entry. May I anyway point out a small issue about your reference to the French “mien”? (to clear things up or do the opposite, you decide)

    The French word for “(1) mine (mining) or even (2) someone’s expression or outward appearance” is “mine”, not “mien”. It is however pronounced halfway between mien/mean and “min” in minimum.

    French “mien” rather translates to “mine” (the pronoun, not mining). I don’t think there is any phonetic equivalent in English (for the nasal vowel at least). Neither “mien” nor “mine” seems to come from the other, but they most probably share a common Indo-European root.

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