Anarcheologos

The Creative Exploration of Language

Tag Archives: Etymology

Nightmare

Nightmare is a half understood word in the sense that the first half is clear, but the second half is not.  What is a mare in this context and what does it have to do with waking up in the middle of the night with your heart pounding?  As it turns out, both halves of the word are interesting and both have remarkably deep and consistent Indo-European roots.

Night is derived from the Proto-Indo European (PIE) word *nekwt, meaning “night”.  This word is remarkably stable across languages and follows a patter of n + vowel + palatal or velar consonant, generally fricative:

  • nacht (German)
  • nox (Latin)
  • naktam (Sanskrit)
  • natt (Swedish)
  • naktis (Lithuanian)

It is also seems to me to be connected to two other words, next and near.  As is often the case, this connection is a bit clearer in German where the words are nächste and nahe, respectively.  Other German words that fit this pattern are nach, which means “to” or “towards” and nachbar, which means “neighbor” in the literal sense of a “near dweller”.

The common thread linking all of these words that follow the form n + vowel + palatal or velar consonant seems to be the idea of proximity or closeness, which fits nicely with the constrictive nature of night and darkness in general.

Now for the second part of the word, mare.  This comes from the Old English word mare, meaning an evil spirit or an incubus.  This word also has deep and consistent Indo-European roots, with the word being mahr in German and mara, marra or mare in the Scandinavian languages.  While there are a couple of competing theories regarding which PIE root mare comes from, the leading contender is *mer, which means “to harm” or “to rub” with the connotation of “chafing”, “rubbing away” or “wearing out”.

Putting the word back together we get to something that seems to indicate an evil spirit in close proximity to the sufferer and putting them under duress with constant, wearying pressure.  Not a bad way to describe something that haunts your sleep and terrifies you while you are unconscious.

In the end, I’m left with thought that the original idea as to the cause of nightmares, a literal demon perched atop you while you sleep, pressing on you, wearing you down in the darkness, is nothing more than a poetic way to describe a phenomenon that would today be described in more prosaic terms using scientific psychological language related to things like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder that I don’t think most people understand any better than they understand the term “demon”.

It seems to me that people in both eras attempted to define and describe something complex and poorly understood with terms that were appropriate to their times and cultures.  Ultimately, though, they are both using metaphors and, as usual, the older ones seem more vibrant and compelling.

 

 

Thrice Greatest: Maha, Machen, Magnus

I have recently rekindled my interest in Buddhism and have subsequently been doing a lot of reading on the subject.  More specifically, I am reading some of the Mahayana sutras, starting with the Diamond Sutra, and I had a realization that brought me both pleasure and some amount of frustration: the Sanskrit word maha, the first element in Mahayana, means “great” and I had never realized this before.

Given that Mahayana is one of the two main branches of Buddhism, I had encountered the word numerous times and had a clear understanding of its meaning: “Greater Vehicle”.  However, I never stopped to break it down and assign English meanings to the parts of the Sanskrit word.  I treated the word as a symbol where the combination of those particular letters, in that particular order, simply equaled the meaning “Greater Vehicle” in some sort of creatio ex nihilo process that did not bear examination.

But when I did break the word down into maha + yana, I saw connections immediately.  The first word that came to mind was maharaja, which means “great king”.  I then began, as I tend to do when thinking about a word, to look for substitution patterns that might help me to transpose the word into other languages within the same language family.

I knew from prior research that consonants that sound “softer” in Sanskrit tend to sound “harder” in European languages so I focused on the “h” in the middle of maha and turned it into two phonetically related “hard” sounds of “k” and “g” and came up with some cognates immediately.

I first tried the m-k root and (focusing on sound) came up with the German words Macht and machen, which mean “power” and “to make or do” respectively.   This makes sense in that maha doesn’t seem to mean “great” in the sense of “large”, but rather in terms of power.  In other words, something is great because it can do things.

Using the m-g root, the the first word that came to mind was megin, the Old Norse word for “power” or “strength”.  My mind then jumped to the Greek word mega, which means “great”.  In the modern world, this is a word that all English speakers understand intuitively, from Megabucks to Megalopolis to Megabus.  For those with a more esoteric bent, one need only think of Aleister Crowley describing himself as “To Mega Therion,” or “The Great Beast.”

At this point, other associations started popping up, such as the Latin word magnus, which also means “great.”  From this we get the reasonably common Scandinavian boy’s name Magnus, which was an element in the name of the Holy Roman Emperor Karl Magnus, better known by the French version of his name, Charlemagne.  Again, he was given this name because of his deeds in uniting large parts of western Europe under the banner of the Holy Roman Empire, not for his physical size.

Finally, given my interest in ancient, medieval and Renaissance philosophy, I hit on the legendary Greco-Egyptian figure Hermes Trismegistus, or “Thrice-Greatest” Hermes.  Here again, greatness is a byproduct of power, of the ability to do things.  In the case of Hermes, there is no general agreement among scholars as to why he was called “thrice greatest”, but competing theories include his mastery of the three areas of magical wisdom in the ancient world, alchemy, astrology and theurgy, and the three most exalted roles in society, those of philosopher, priest and king.

In most ways, this is a tidy and satisfying conclusion to my investigation of maha, and I am once again left with an admiration for the beauty and clarity of Sanskrit.  Every time I encounter transliterated Sanskrit I am pleasantly surprised at how much intuitive sense it makes in relation to other Indo-European languages.  However, I am also left with a lingering sense of frustration that it is so difficult to learn because it uses Devangari script.  Much like Greek, Persian and Russian, the unfamiliar script is a formidable barrier and Sanskrit may remain a bit of a mystery to me, just on the other side of the veil.

 

 

Lord and Lady

One of the things that I find most interesting about analyzing the roots, and therefore, the original meanings of English words is the way in which they tend to change from the functional to the symbolic.  What I mean by this is that English has changed so much over its lifespan that modern English words derived from Old English tend to have undergone contraction and simplification that obscures their original, literal meanings.  These original meanings often tend to be functional and additive in nature, while the modern meanings, divorced from their roots, have no literal meaning and tend to map directly to archetypal images in our brains that, while slightly different for each person, are consistent in their broad outlines.

Lord and Lady are a good example of this.  When I hear the word lord, an image pops into my head of a man who is wealthy, powerful and benevolent.  It makes sense that lord became a synonym for the Christian God in English.  While lady has a few different connotations depending on context, when I hear it connected to lord, as in the formulation “Lord and Lady X,” I think of a similar character: wealthy, refined and charitable.   In both cases, however, there is apparently no substrata to the word; a lord is simply a lord and a lady is simply a lady and everyone understands what those words mean without thinking any more deeply about it.

However, a lord was originally a hlafweard in Old English.  This is a compound word that breaks down into two parts:

hlaf– loaf

weard– keeper or guardian (cognate with modern English warden)

So, lord originally meant something like “loaf warden”.  Things brings a bit of a different image to mind, doesn’t it?  Personally, I see a sort of paranoid medieval petty official, guarding the king’s food supplies against raiders and unruly peasants.

Lady follows a similar pattern.  In Old English the word was hlæfdige, which is a compound form of:

hlaf– loaf

dæge– kneader

So, lady originally meant something like “loaf maker,” bringing it into a tidy, if traditional, relationship to lord.

What I find fascinating here is that, due to the evolution of English over the past ~1,500 years, these original meanings, in all their charming functionality, have been lost and replaced with what I consider to be archetypal symbols.  I don’t know to what extent this happens in other languages.  As I have noted elsewhere, German seems to retain the literal meanings of its words much more clearly than English, which is something I appreciate about the language.  However, I don’t know to what extent German speakers are aware of those meanings on a daily basis as they use the language.

 

 

Regulate

This one has been staring me in the face for a long time, but I didn’t see it.  Regulate is a very common word meaning to control or impose order on something by setting limits.  In other words, to lay down rules and impose punishments or disincentives for breaking them.

What eventually caught my eye about this word is its obvious connection to various Indo-European words related to the concept of kingship.  The root of regulate is reg-, which literally means “a straight line” or “to direct in a straight line;” in other words to rule.  There are numerous cognates of reg- that mean “king” in Indo-European tongues:

  • Rey (Spanish)
  • Raja (Sanskrit)
  • Rex (Latin)
  • (Irish)
  • Re (Italian)

This list is notable in that it is limited to the Celtic, Romance and Indian branches of the tree.  Being a native English speaker, I wondered why we say king and what that says about the differing concepts of kingship within the Indo-European language family.

King, and its relatives in the Germanic language family (König in German, koning in Dutch, kung in Swedish, konungur in Icelandic, etc.) stem from a different Indo-European root altogether, gen-, which means “to give birth.”  This meaning is clear in modern English words such as generate and engender, but there are cognates in numerous Indo-European languages which denote more than the simple fact of being born, but also membership in a tribal or ethnic group:

  • Gente (Spanish)
  • Jánas (Sanskrit)
  • Genus (Latin)
  • Cine (Irish)
  • Genus (Italian)
  • Génos (Greek)

The Indo-European root gen- came into English as kin, meaning “family.”  King is the result of a compound Old English word, cyning, which combines the noun cyn (equivalent to modern English kin), and the suffix -ing.  In this usage, the suffix denotes belonging to or being descended from the noun it follows, a pattern often seen in family and tribal names in the ancient Germanic world (think of the Scyldings from Beowulf).  So cyning literally means something like “member/descendent of the family/tribe.”

Based on the above, it is clear that the Celtic, Romance and Indian words for king are all formed from a root (reg-) that emphasizes the legalistic exercise of executive power, while the root used by the Germanic languages (gen-) emphasizes membership in a group that defines itself through shared descent.

This difference seems to have its origin in the differing political systems found in the cultures themselves.  Ancient Romans, for instance, viewed themselves as being citizens of a state that imposed laws and exacted punishment for breaking them, whereas Germanic tribesmen viewed themselves as being just that; members of a tribe.  Even though the political situation on the ground has changed over time, the ancient distinction between the etymologies of the words remain, much like the silent “gh” in the word “night”.

 

 

 

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.

Wink

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.   

Twilight

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.

Naughty

Naughty is a word that I have used for years in a silly way, almost always spoken to one of my children when admonishing them for something mildly bad they have said or done.  This usage and meaning are widely understood, but an interesting question arose as I thought about this word recently: why exactly does naughty mean “bad”?

No answer came to me immediately and I didn’t bother to pursue one, but I let the question sit in my subconscious for a few weeks.  Then, one day, I had a flash of insight that allowed me to connect naughty to naught, as in the phrase come to naught, or there’s naught else I can do.  Making this connection made me realize that the root of naughty is an archaic word for “nothing”.

This sent me running for dictionaries and websites in order to understand where naught comes from.  What I found was that naught derives from the Old English word nawiht, where na means “no” and wiht means “thing”.

From this perspective then, to be naughty is to act in a way that is not constructive, that is likely to lead to nothing.  This sense of non-constructiveness seems to be the root of the moralistic tone the word has taken on, perhaps as an outgrowth of the Protestant Work Ethic, which was particularly strong in England.  It is interesting to note that most other European languages (at least the ones with which I am familiar) do not maintain this connection, by which I mean that the common way of rendering naughty in these languages has no connection to the concept of “nothing”.

This moral angle would also explain how the word has come to be used as a humorous descriptor of (often “illegitimate”) sexual behavior.

In the end, I think I find naughty to be such an interesting word because it hides in plain sight, while remaining flexible enough to change with the times and be used in various ways.

Horn

Horn is a deceptively simple word.  As a noun, it refers to a hard protuberance that sticks out from the head of certain animals.  It also refers to a class of instruments played by blowing, which were originally made from animal horns.  From a third perspective, horn refers to a device installed in your car that is used to make loud warning sound.  This meaning, like that of the musical instrument, comes from the fact that loud warning sounds were originally created by blowing into an animal horn.

As a verb, the ancient connection of horns with cuckoldry survives in the modern phrase “to horn in on,” which is used to describe the act of taking possession of something that belongs to someone else.  This sexual connotation is also present in the adjectival form horny.

While certainly divergent, one can see how they are connected and how they likely developed without too much effort.  What got me thinking about this word, however, was a different usage that seemed not to fit with others: the baseball phrase “around the horn”.  For those not familiar with the phrase, following an infield out or strikeout, the defensive players on the field customarily throw the baseball to each of their infield teammates at the various stations of the infield diamond before tossing it back to the pitcher to face the next batter.  The more I thought about this phrase, the more I wondered why the infield diamond should be referred to as a horn.

Around the same time that I had begun thinking about horn and its various uses, I stumbled across the fact that the word for corner in the Scandinavian languages was some variation on horn (horn in Icelandic, hjørne in Danish and Norwegian and hörn in Swedish).  Initially, this seemed like a strange coincidence, but then I recalled that Germanic languages generally have an “h” in place of a “c” in Latin and its daughter languages.  For instance, the English word hundred (honderd in Dutch, hundert in German, etc.) comes from the same root as the Latin centum.  Similarly, the Latin canis and the English hound (hund in German and Scandinavian, hond in Dutch and Afrikaans) spring from the same root.  In each of the examples above, the Germanic “h” is a “c” in Latin and the Romance languages.

The word corner entered English through French (corne) and is ultimately derived from the Latin cornu.  It replaced the native English term hyrne, which was cognate with its Germanic cousins.  Based on this, I came to the conclusion that the use of the word horn in the phrase “around the horn” might simply be a survival of an archaic term and was simply another way to say “around the corner”.

At first, this seemed a bit unlikely, as hundreds of years lay between the adoption of the word corner into the English language and the invention of the game of baseball.  However, as I researched additional uses of the word horn, I came across it as a geographical term in reference to two specific locations: the Horn of Africa and Cape Horn in South America.  In both cases, the usage of the word horn fits with its archaic meaning of a corner, or a place where two sides come together and meet in a point.

The final twist in the saga of horn is that, in the case of Cape Horn, the name seems to be a coincidence.  The southern tip of South America was rounded and named by Dutch sea captain Willem Corneliszoon Schouten in 1616 and named Kaap Hoorn, after his hometown of Hoorn back in the Netherlands.  However, in a truly wonderful piece of synchronicity, the medieval history of the city of Hoorn indicates that it was so named because it stuck out into the waters of the Zuiderzee, and this despite the common word in Dutch for corner being hoek.

In the end, it seems that my initial hunch was correct and that a commonplace phrase used on a daily basis in American sports vernacular hides an interesting and complex medieval linguistic survival.

Glimpse

Glimpse has a beautiful ring to it which stems, I think, from the fact that it is both simple and complex at the same time.  It is simple in the sense that it is a monosyllabic word with a commonly accepted definition (something like “a quick look”) that is used with reasonable frequency.  On the other hand, it is complex because it contains the relatively unusual but aesthetically pleasing consonant cluster “mps” and because its exotic construction seems to offer the promise of deeper meaning.  After all, if glimpse simply means to have “a quick look”, then why do we have also have glance?

The answer is found quickly once one investigates the origins of glimpse.  It comes ultimately from the Old English word glimsian, which meant “to shine faintly”.  In Middle English, this became glimsen and meant “to glow” or “to glimmer”.  So, from an etymological standpoint, glimpse clearly has a connection to seeing something that is both difficult to see and also something that stands out from its surroundings, usually through emitting light.  This is an interesting paradox and seems to limit the number of things that might become the subject of a glimpse.

The connotation of “quickness” that sometimes causes glimpse to be confused with glance is somewhat misleading and is a secondary characteristic that stems from a structural source: something that is difficult to see is likely to be seen only briefly.

Once this clarification between glimpse and glance is made, some interesting observations result, such as the dichotomy between the words in terms of being passive versus aggressive.  To glance at something is an active effort which is controlled by the glancer and which often, but not always contains a hint of disdain which is the natural byproduct of the active nature of the glance.  What I mean is that if one controls the length and intensity of one’s gaze, then it follows that, by choosing to give something only a quick, cursory look, one is indicating that the item or person being observed is trivial or merely utilitarian.

A glimpse, on the other hand, is passive.  Something glimpsed is something that is revealed to the observer, and is often something that is subtle, incomplete or incongruous.  The true power of glimpse is that it implies a mystery, an incomplete view that promises more and entices the observer to try to see the whole that is hidden.

While a glance might tell you how much your dinner cost or which person in your subway car is speaking too loudly on their cellphone, a glimpse is often the catalyst for an adventure.