The Creative Exploration of Language

Category Archives: Words

The Boys Will Be the Boys

Anyone with knowledge of the history of sports in South Africa and the ways in which it is entangled with its political and social history might be surprised to know that the nicknames for their national Rugby team, the Springboks (Springbokke in Afrikaans, sometimes shortened to Bokke), and their national soccer team, Bafana Bafana (Zulu for “The Boys, the Boys”), are, in essence, the same.

On its surface, this is surprising for a few reasons.  In modern South Africa, Rugby has traditionally been viewed as a “White” sport, while soccer has been considered a “Black” sport.  Despite this apparent difference, both team names suggest a rambunctious, wild, but not lethal, masculinity: the essence of boyhood.  The Zulu term does this directly, while the Afrikaans term needs a bit of interpretation to get there.

How did I find myself in this particular linguistic cul de sac?  It all started when I began using the Duolingo app to learn Irish.  One of the first words that I was given to learn was buachaill, which means “boy.”  I have learned over the years that when assessing a word, one should focus on its core, by which I mean the initial and second consonant sounds, as these are the elements that are most likely to connect to other words in the same language or cognates in other tongues.  Vowels tend to shift frequently and endings tend to be unique to each language group or even each language within a group, so I tend to give the former secondary importance and simply ignore the latter.

So, back to buachaill.  Like many people, I had long ago made the observation that Irish contained a lot of extra letters, both vowels and silent consonants, so my brain automatically focused on the core of the word, bu(a)ch-, and the English word buck sprang to mind, followed by the phrase young buck.  In my experience, this phrase refers to a young man or teenage boy who is acting in an aggressive or cocky manner.  I wondered, of course, if buachaill was connected to buck.

As it turns out, they do seem to be related at the Indo-European level.  Buck goes back the Old English bucc, which means a male deer.  A similar Old English word, bucca, means a male goat.  The fact that a very similar word was used to denote the male version of multiple animals indicates that the root word carried the basic connotation of “male”.

Given the fact that English and German are “cousin” languages that sometimes demonstrate close cognates, but are at other times widely divergent, I like to triangulate my etymological thinking by incorporating Scandinavian into the analysis of Germanic words.  In this case, it worked surprisingly well in that the Swedish word for “boy” is pojke (pronounced like “poika”).  This is an extremely close cognate to bucca if one accounts for two things.  First, Swedish often treats the letter “j” (at least unofficially) like a vowel (see hjärta, “heart” and jord, “earth”) and its function in pojke is to act like the English “i” in forming the “oi” diphthong.  Second, the “b” sound in English and German often becomes a “p” sound in Swedish (see , “at”, cognate with bei in German and by, in the sense of nearness, in English).  Put in phonetic terms, English and German tend to use a voiced bilabial stop where Swedish tends to use a voiceless one.

This is what I love about investigating the roots and origins of words.  Not only do you gain insight into the way related languages developed via subtle phonetic changes, you stumble across pleasing instances of synchronicity that reveal prosaic truths about the world we live in.  In this case, sports teams tend to be given names that evoke energetic, dangerous masculinity and this concept has validity across a wide range of languages and cultures.

If you don’t believe me ask the Tampa Bay Buccaneers or the Milwaukee Bucks.


Boor, the Gentleman Farmer of Yesteryear

I have long been interested in the word boor, in terms of its relationship to its obvious cognates, the Dutch boer and the German bauer.  All three words ultimately stem from the reconstructed Proto-Germanic word *buraz, which means “house” or “dwelling.”  This word in turn seems to come from *bhu, which means “to be” or “to become,” with associated meanings related to “growth” or “increase,” which seem to build off the idea of “becoming.”

While the modern Dutch and German words simply mean “farmer,” the English boor has lost this literal sense and now means “rude” or “uncouth.”  While farmers are often characterized as rude and uncouth, I suspect that the transition that the word boor has undergone, whereby it has become a term of disparagement with its literal meaning being overtaken by a word of French origin is a legacy of the Norman invasion and the corruption of the language that followed.  This does in fact seem to be the case, with farmer entering English in the late 14th century and the negative connotations associated with boor in evidence by the 16th century.

While I always find these types of investigations interesting, a chance encounter with the Irish word bóaire allowed me to consider boor from another angle.  Bóaire literally means “cow noble,” being composed of bó (cow or cattle) and aire (noble, from the Sanskrit arya).”  Breaking the word down in this way reveals another level of meaning and makes clear the word’s ancient Indo-European derivation.  A noble is a noble, defined by blood and family, but in an archaic society where wealth is measured in cattle, a “cow noble” is someone who has achieved a high level of social status, a form of nobility, through economic means.  In modern terms, we might call someone like this nouveau riche or, more in keeping with the word’s agricultural theme, a gentleman farmer.



I’ve been working on a translation of the comic tale Hreiðars Þáttr from Old Norse and stumbled on the word þreyta (the letter þ is called “thorn” and is a voiceless dental fricative pronounced like modern English “th” in “think”.  It has a voiced counterpart called “eth” that is written ð and pronounced as “th” in “this”).  I didn’t recognize þreyta and had to look it up, but once I did, I felt dumb; it is a fairly obvious cognate with the English word threat.

As it turns out, threat goes back to the Old English noun threat, which means “pressure,” and the verb form threatian, “to press.”  Knowing that dental fricatives such as “th” often change to or from alveolar plosives such as “t” and “d,” I considered whether I could think of any other words that fit this pattern and quickly came up with tread (tredan in Old English, troða in Old Norse, and treten in German).  While the literal meaning of tread is “to step on” or “to walk on,” the connection with applying pressure to something is obvious.  Throttle is similar in that the three key elements are present and the connection to the theme of applying pressure is obvious.

This pattern seems particularly rich in Old Norse, where the word þreyta means “to wear out or exhaust.”  Þraut means “hardship,” þrátta means “dispute” or “quarrell” and þrúd (as in Þrúdheim, Thor’s hall) means “power” or “might.”  This vein runs so deep in Old Norse that Þra- is a common element of compound words indicating persistence or obstinance (e.g., þrálátr=”stubborn”).

Based on this, it seems that the concept of the application of applying pressure or force is denoted in the Germanic language family by the following series of sounds:

  • voiceless dental fricative (“th” as in “think”) or alveolar plosive (“t” or “d”)
  • alveolar trill (“r”)
  • alveolar plosive (“t” or “d”)

I was able to find an Indo-European connection to this theme quite easily with the IE root tred-, which means “to drill” and is connected widely to various words in the Indian and Slavic branches of the language family.  I don’t know where I fall on the ongoing debate related to sound symbolism in language, but the “genetic” connection within language families seems to be indisputable.


MacGowan, Son (Mac) of the Smith (Go-w/bh/v-an)

Recently I was reading a book by Sir Alex Ferguson, the now retired manager of Manchester United football club, in which I learned that he grew up in an area of Glasgow called Govan.  This name gave me pause.  I know, largely based on researching the roots of my own family, that the west and northwest of Scotland are the areas that were conquered by Irish invaders in the 6th century.  Gaelic language influence is therefore concentrated in these areas of the country.

Considering the likely Gaelic roots of Govan, I made the connection to the last name of one of my favorite singers, Shane MacGowan.  MacGowan was born in England to Irish parents and lived part of his childhood in Ireland, in County Tipperary.  Surely Govan and Gowan come from the same root?  And, assuming they do, what does it mean?

It didn’t take long to find out.  As it turns out, Gowan is derived from the Gaelic word for “smith”.  Examples from modern Celtic languages include gabha in Irish and gofaint in Welsh.  So, the last name MacGowan is occupational in nature (like the English last names Taylor, Smith, Hooper, etc.) and means “Son of the Smith”.

The core element of the Celtic words appears to be gab- or gob-, which correlates with the Indo-European concept of a “lump” or a “piece”.  Example cognates that come to mind here are gabalas in Lithuanian and gabals in Latvian.   There is even a connection with Slavic languages in that the word for “smith” begins with a kow/v– root, with kowal in Polish and kovac in Slovak being prime examples.

The Germanic language family stands in contrast to its cousins, in that it employs a totally different root.  The English word smith is closely cognate with the German schmitt, Dutch smid, Swedish smed, etc.  All of these are derived from the verb “to smite”.  I find this contrast between the concepts underlying the word in each language family to be fascinating.  The focus in the Celtic languages is the material that is being worked, while the Germanic word derives from the action being taken.



From Llyfr to Livre to Leaf

I recall reading some years ago that the Celtic languages are more closely related to Latin and its daughter languages than they are to the Germanic languages.  This may seem at first glance to be a bit counterintuitive, given the fact that the living Celtic languages are clustered in Northwestern Europe and fairly well surrounded (with the exception of Breton) by English.

However, in ancient times the Celtic peoples were close neighbors of the Romans.  The history of Rome is littered with wars against the Celtic peoples to their north and west and it was largely the conquest of the Celtic tribes in places like modern day France that brought the Romans into contact with the Germanic peoples further north.

I recently embarked on an intensive study of Celtic history and myth.  During my reading I came across a number of words that caught my interest for various reasons.  The one that sticks with me the most is the Welsh word for book, llyfr.  When I first encountered this word I immediately noticed its similarity to the French word for book, livre, but for some reason, I did not pursue the line of inquiry any further.

A few months later, I happened to stumble across the Irish equivalent, leabhar (pronounced, I am assured by a native Irish speaker, like “lao-wer”) and fireworks went off in my brain.  I connected the Welsh, French and Irish words to the Spanish word for book, libro, and derivative forms such as the English library, which solidified the word in my mind.

When I say the “word” I don’t mean any of the words I have mentioned above, but rather the triliteral root of l-b/v/f-r.  The different permutations of this “word” show the interrelatedness of and gradual transitions between different languages within the Indo-European language family and serve to drive home the point that the idea that languages are related is a literal, rather than a figurative, concept.

Ultimately, all of these words stem from the Indo-European root of leup- / leub- / leubh-, which is generally found in words having to do with things that are loose (such as lips), things that are peeled off (such as the bark of a tree or a leaf).

It gives me great joy to know that this primeval meaning, this base connection to the idea of something that is loose, a slice of something more substantial, has been carried through to modern times in such a consistent way in a series of related languages.
















Sometimes a word just leaves me filled with questions.  For example, what exactly is a fishmonger?  And what does one have in common with a gossipmonger or a hatemonger?  Finally, are there any other types of mongers out there and, if so, what do they do?

I’ve always understood intuitively that a fishmonger sells fish and that, by metaphorical extension, a hatemonger “sells” hate and a gossipmonger “sells” gossip.  What piques my interest here is why this act of selling makes the person in question a monger, as opposed to a seller or some other word.  

As it turns out, monger comes from the Old English word mangere, the noun form of mangian, meaning “to trade.”  This is in turn related to the word for “many” or “much” in Old English, monig, which turns out to have deep connections within the Germanic and, further back, Indo-European language families.

As an example, related noun forms include the Old English menigu and Gothic and Old High German managi.  Related adjectival forms of the word include the Dutch menig, Norwegian mange, Old Saxon manag, ancestors of the proposed Proto-Indo-European *menegh.  This Indo-European root remained remarkably stable in the Slavic and Celtic branches of the language family, as evidenced by the Old Church Slavonic munugu, Old Irish menicc and Welsh mynych.   This stability seems to me to indicate the foundational or fundamental nature of the concept of many, hence the need for the word from time immemorial.






I recently came across a relic of my childhood that I had forgotten: the ridiculous commercial extolling the virtues of cheese that I have always thought of as “Hanker for a Hunk o’ Cheese”.  When I watched the video on YouTube I was transported back to the early 80’s in a way that I found a bit startling.  As far as I can recall, this was the most commonly played commercial during Saturday morning cartoons.

Beyond the memory shock and amusement of seeing the commercial again, I got thinking about the word hanker and what it meant.  As with many of the words that I end up exploring, the meaning of hanker, “to desire” or “to want”, is clear to most native English speakers, but it gets used rarely and generally only in specific contexts.  In this case, that context is related to food or drink.   In other words, hanker seems at first glance to be a variant form of hunger, but with a clear twist that is worth exploring.

When I looked into it, I found that the word represents a nice poetic metaphor for unfulfilled desire.  Hanker comes from the Dutch word hankeren, meaning “to hang”, while the Dutch word for hunger is honger.  The fact that the two words are so closely related makes the metaphorical aspect of hanker clear.  To hanker for something is to be tormented or punished by the lack of something.  This connection between hanging and lacking can also be used in more mundane contexts, such as in the phrase, “I left him hanging.”

I particularly like the symbolism of hanging, as this is often equated with an initiatory ordeal that involves deprivation and suffering, following which the person undergoing the experience receives special status or knowledge.  A few diverse examples of this that come to mind are the symbolism associated with the Hanged Man tarot card, Odin hanging on the tree Yggdrasil for nine nights without food or water in order to obtain the runes and the tribal initiation ritual undergone by Richard Harris’s character in the film A Man Called Horse.

In the end, I’m guessing the makers of the commercial chose to use hanker for simple alliterative purposes and because it fit with their vision of the commercial’s Wild West setting.  That said, now that I have thought through the more subtle meaning of the word, I find its use even more amusing.

But was the campaign successful in its main mission?  The answer, I think, is both yes and no.  I like cheese just fine, but I don’t hanker for it.



Wink is a word that recently got my attention when I encountered it in German, where, in verb form as winken, it means “to wave” or “to beckon”.  I found it interesting that these two meanings, while not literally the same as in English, do seem to express an underlying idea that is similar to that expressed by the English word.    

For instance, a wave is something that is intermittent; think of the peaks and troughs of a wave in the physical sciences, or the back and forth movement of the hand.  In addition, a wave of the hand is generally viewed as a friendly and welcoming gesture, and to categorize it in some instances as a form of beckoning wouldn’t be going too far; think of a phrase like “they waved him over”.  In both examples, one can see the connection between the use of the word wave and concept of an intermittent action.  In addition, the act of waving is connected to the concept of attraction, of establishing a connection with another person and drawing them into one’s orbit.

Getting back to wink, when we use this word in English, we think of a short opening and closing of the eye, reinforcing the connection to the concept of being intermittent.  In addition, the connotation of beckoning is present in English as well in that a wink is generally something that is used to attract another person, whether sexually or simply to pull the person into something and make them complicit.  

All this thinking about wink brought to my mind the fact that the Dutch word for store or shop is winkel.  This is interesting because by utilizing the w-n-k consonant root that seems to be a feature of the Germanic languages for a place that sells goods to consumers, the Dutch word seems to suggest that a store is engaging potential customers actively, by waving, or beckoning to them.  In English and German the corresponding words (store and laden, respectively) are passive and appear simply to be borrowed from other domains related to the piling up of supplies, military or otherwise. 

In the end, wink is a good example of what I find so interesting about language families.  From one basic root (in this case the consonant cluster w-n-k) numerous permutations and meanings can be derived and, much like human families, different aspects of the underlying root are brought to the fore in each language within the family.   


Beginning is a common word that, like many such words, hides a deeper, more profound origin.  In fact, beginning is such a fundamental word that it is difficult to formulate a definition for it without resorting to a form of the word itself.  That said, something like the following might be acceptable: a beginning occurs when something is brought from a state of non-being to a state of being.

When considered from this perspective, the true nature of the word begins to shine through.  This nature can most effectively be uncovered by asking the question, “How do I bring something from a state of non-being to a state of being?”  There are a number of potential responses to this question that spring to mind, but all of them can ultimately be boiled down to the idea that every beginning stems from an act of dynamic creativity.

This connection between the word beginning and the concept of dynamic creativity is reinforced when one breaks down the word into its constituent parts, as below.

First is the prefix be-.  I have discussed the use of this prefix in a previous post about the word bewildered, so here I will simply point out that it is cognate with the German prefix ver-, and is generally used to indicate a sudden shift or intensification of perception.

Second is the crux of the word, –ginn.  While it stands alone within English (can you think of any other words with –ginn in them?) it does have very similar cognates in other Germanic languages (Old English beginnan, Old High German biginnan, Dutch and German beginnen, Norwegian begynne, etc.).  In all these cases, -ginn seems to be related etymologically to yawn, and to have the literal connotation of “opening up” or “gaping widely”.

This meaning, in combination with the resemblance in sound, made me think of the Ginnungagap of Norse mythology, the “yawning void” or the “magically charged void” out of which the world began.  The latter interpretation comes from the use of ginn- in Old Norse, where it is used as an intensifier to mean “great”, “holy” or “magical”.

So, putting the word back together, we arrive at a poetic meaning for beginning that is something like “an act of dynamic creativity that causes something to suddenly appear out of the void of potential”.  This definition of the word appeals to me because it keeps front and center the idea that creation is a mystery, an unexplainable spark that feeds off the fuel of potential to light up the world.




I became interested in twilight only accidentally, by virtue of my interest in another word altogether.  A few weeks ago, I happened to come across the word crepuscle in its adjectival form (crepuscular) a couple of times in quick succession.  I had heard the word before, and never really understood its meaning from context, but for some reason or another had failed to follow up and track down the definition.  To the extent that I had thought about it, I had supposed it had something to do with veins or the internal workings of the human body, perhaps due to its passing resemblance to muscular.  As it turns out, I was nowhere near the mark.

When I actually bothered to look up crepuscle, it turns out to be a Latin-derived term that means ‘twilight’ or ‘dusk’.  My initial thought was that it was fancier, Latin-derived term that equivalent to one or more native English words.  At first glance, this is unremarkable.  Many concepts in Modern English are described by words from both Latin and Germanic roots which have come down to us concurrently.  The interesting bit here is found only when one digs beneath the surface to examine the roots of the words in question.

Crepuscle ultimately comes from a complex of Latin terms connected to creper, which means ‘dark’ or ‘obscure’.  Similarly, dusk stems from the Old English word doxian, meaning ‘to make dark’.  The meaning of these terms shows a strong degree of equivalency and it is notable that, though they are used in relation to the setting of the sun, both focus solely on the aspect of darkness.  These concepts don’t make reference to light.

This is interesting because twilight takes a different approach, literally meaning ‘two lights’.  In other words, the concept of twilight incorporates both the dying of the light and the growing of the darkness.  From this perspective, crepuscle and dusk are reductive in that they position the phenomenon purely as the decline or passing away of light, while twilight is synthetic in that it captures the balance between light and dark and draws attention to its true nature.

While dusk certainly has its uses (I think I can live without crepuscle), I find that I am drawn to the concept of twilight, the time of two lights, as by far the more beautiful and poetic term.