Etymology

Notebook dump. As pretty as it sounds. Thoughts that sat for weeks and never grew. Out on the curb, free, as-is, no warranties. The kind of thing that usually goes in the Patreon.

MANDRAKE ROOTS

"Etymonline doesn't tell you everything." In obvious ways, in the ways nothing tells you everything: Etymonline omits the detailed explanations and theories of PIE linguistics, and the arguments about the theories. It would be beyond my capabilities to dress them down to plain English and keep their truths whole. And I suspect that for most internet users, such detailing would be useless impediment.

There's another sort of gap. You might read that a word or phrase was "popularized (or revived) by Scott." There's omission in that, and it's deliberate. Have we reached the point yet where it is necessary for me to write "Sir Walter Scott, the 19th century Scottish novelist"?

A Google search for "Scott" gives me 2,040,000,000 results. At least that's what it says. Am I reading that right? Is that two billion? However many, Sir Walter is nowhere on the page. At the top is more-than-a-screen's-worth of businesses with "Scott" in the name that Google wants to steer me to. Then Scott paper products. Then videos and Twitter for someone named Travis Scott, and the page of ultra-MAGA U.S. Rep. Scott Perry. I advise not looking at any of them.

By the end of the fourth page of results, the author of "Ivanhoe" has made no appearance, but I can read all about "Sen. Rick Scott vacations in Italy amid bleak midterm outlook."

This is one reason I hate Google and every reason I hate the internet.

Expecting people to keep up is the alternative to talking down to them. Both of those ways seem to me now damned as symptoms of a fatal -ism in the writer. I accept my dual damnation; still I have to justify myself, if only to myself. I can aim only in one direction. Etymonline is most useful, I think, at its current elevation. If it fires over your head, that shouldn't shame you. It can't know whether you "get" a one-name-reference or not, so it still looks at you the same.

It thinks of itself as a door into the past, not a shop-window of it. You'll want to know who "Scott" is, at the least, if you want to spend any amount of time in "everyone's" mind during a recent century-and-a-half. Forget Google. Come inside.

***

sarcasmical. A lath-shaving from the 17th century's attempt to cut an adjective to go with sarcasm. Sarcastic endured; it was the proper word by its sound. Sarcasm snaps like a dog's tooth. But sarcasmical is too sweetly clumsy to abandon, as is the other also-ran, sarcasmous. They both suggest the toothless puppy furiously worrying the leg of the big dog, who hardly notices.

***

"The bold, unshackled, and impartial search for truth is among the noblest and most necessary employments of the human mind." That is a 19th century sentence; in 2022 that exact thought cannot be framed in strictly modern English that comprehends all of it (the whispers of association, the arc-point in historical trajectory, the semitheological framing). But that exact, antique statement is the thing at stake here, now: To choose to reason, to have power to make informed, unforced judgments and the power to act on them. To ask unwanted questions. To ask whether the sun really goes round the earth.

***

In 512 B.C. the Corinthian horse-breeder Pheidolas entered his mare in the games in Olympia. The moment the race started she threw her rider, then she charged down the track with the rest, rounded the post tight as a tick, kicked in an extra gear when she heard the home-stretch trumpet, crossed the mark first, and pulled up smartly. The Elean judges, after they picked up their jaws, had to talk it over, but in good Greek style they proclaimed Pheidolas the winner and raised a statue to the horse. Her name was Breeze. Pausanias the geographer saw it 700 years later.

***

Cleveland, ridiculing in verse a fellow 17th century popular poet, complains that people can no more read the man's poetry "than read that dungfork pothook hand / That in Queen's College Library does stand." "That dungfork pothook hand," the footnote informs, is the devil's own handwriting. It is in a passage in an old book, copied directly from a note the devil had scribbled while delivering an answer to a conjurer.

Apparently it was one of the campus sights; Anthony a Wood, describing visitors to the school in the 1660s, writes, "After that they went and saw the chapple then the library to see the divell's hand." And Satan's autograph is still there. But having once done business with Dictionary dot com, I can tell you it looks nothing like his e-signature.

***

Both disciplines dig to learn, but etymology is the platonic sister of archaeology: She gets her wisdom without the grit under her nails. Archaeology makes facts out of artifacts discovered by hard-hats making parking lots.

In both arts you observe patiently: dirty shards laid out on a lab table. And later, after, in the dark you hear dirge and rhythmic footfall and see an urn, whole and polished, borne by the weeping women under the shade of the Kerameikos gate.

***

Much of the bulk of an English historical dictionary is there because of poetry. Metrics give curves to the language when it dresses up for literature: elaborated metrics are a closet of garments English can slip into or out of. Poets need furry words and slinky words. Poets ride the language hard and leave a mark.

***

You read an old text and you see a hand with a pen moving across a page, copying or forming the letters of what's already been thought or worded. In the Anglo-Saxon glossaries and margin notes, where a scribe is matching Latin to English, you can see the mind hesitate, step back, ponder the word, think about other words. That thought has left traces in the choices made. Track, spoor, footprint in the mud under the window.

***

This is the forest primeval. The murmuring pines and the hemlocks,
Bearded with moss, and in garments green, indistinct in the twilight,
Stand like Druids of eld, with voices sad and prophetic,
Stand like harpers hoar, with beards that rest on their bosoms.

That is English written in a correct Latin meter; it is how Latin poets would sound if they wrote in English. But they didn't, and if they had, they would have learned sense enough not to try that. Longfellow does it as a deliberate deformation, and though the lines are lovely and powerful, you can see why it can't sustain for more than a verse or two, in our English. Our thumps of accent make the line crack in the English-speaking mind into two or even three (the second line).

***

How did the moons of the planets get classical names? It can't have been a relic of classical times, because the satellites weren't known before telescope technology, in the 17th century. Their discoverers tended to name them after patrons, real or hoped-for, which led to an embarrassing lot of petty European tyrants honored with celestial bodies. Galileo himself started the custom. Scientists, when they began to write up their observations of the satellites, properly turned their back on all that and used numbers for them: Saturn I, Saturn II, etc.

Which was scientific, but more new satellites kept being discovered, and often their orbits were closer to the planet that the known and numbered moons. So the ordering kept changing to stay rooted in natural reality (not the accidental order of human observation), and a consistent scientific literature became impossible.

To solve that, from 1831, William Herschel proposed giving the multiplying moons suitable proper names out of mythology, a proposal readily accepted by the other astronomers and in use by 1848. It was a romantic outcome over a rigorously scientific one, yet it was a choice made within the discipline of astronomy and driven by scientific concerns. And so our science has Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto (Jupiter's paramours, unconsenting) rather than prosaic Jupiter IV, etc.  Saturn has Rhea, Mimas, Hyperion (all Titan names; Greek Kronos, equivalent to Roman Saturn, was their leader), and more.

***

Wikipedia defines an ermine as " a mustelid native to Eurasia and the northern portions of North America. Because of its wide circumpolar distribution, it is listed as Least Concern on the IUCN Red List."

Blount (1656), defines an ermine as "a little beast less then a Squirrel, the fur whereof is very costly, worn onely by Princes or great persons."

Each is most true. They do different things. As late as the late 19th century, a dictionary entry on an animal might tell you what it tastes like and what is made from its grease.

***

Beddoes, ever anachronistic, in "Death's Jest Book" (1850, set at "the end of the thirteenth century") has a soliloquy, during which the speaker gazes on the dead hero and muses "the light that shines upon his pale forehead now, through yonder gewgaw window, undulated from its star hundreds of years ago." As poetic meditation on fame's inconstancy, it is poignant in meter and diction. The science that founds the image is impeccable. But no one would have known it in the 13th century or any other until Beddoes' own generation.

It interests me as human evidence (not an n-gram, thank you) of the diffusion or filtration of scientific discoveries into the public mind. By 1850, stellar distances are matter for poets. The same year, "In Memoriam" does the same with modern geology:

The sound of streams that swift or slow
Draw down Æonian hills, and sow
The dust of continents to be;

***

The entry for species  wasn't very good. I should have thought more about the shape of the entry. The history of words such as species is the shape of tulips in an urn. It has a neat base, swells out, then bursts into arcs of sense-stems that turn buds this way and that.

It starts in the Republic with a basic Latin definition: species, "a seeing, a sight, a look." That semantic starting spot has paths to anywhere — "a sight," or "how you look to others," "what you see in your heart or soul," "the thing you should look at instead of other things." And the sense-picture swells out elegantly, time moving upward, then gathers again and bursts into crisp senses, independent words now.

One stem bends through Latin philosophy (groping for a match to the Greek word that we have as the -oid  suffix), and Roman jurisprudence, and acquires the meaning "a special case." And, from there, "a kind; a sort; a number of individuals having common characteristics peculiar to them." And modern species ends up as the scientific choice (17th century) for a class of living things sufficiently alike one another and distinct by nature from all others.

And on another stem bookkeepers writing in Medieval Latin start to use in specie ("in kind") to mean "in minted metal money," so English gets a noun specie "coin, money in the form of coins."

And on yet another, the word flows through the tongue of the marts and ports of the old Mediterranean, species, taken as a plural now, there means "goods, wares," things that are particularized by kind and sorted for sale or storage or shipping, especially the most important and valuable of them, spice.

***

My mistakes are the usual bungling. I'm like one monkey with a million typewriters. But some errors are accidentally perfect in a small way. I had a space in the word managing that a spellchecker would never find, with the result: "managing" = man aging. Which hits the bone. And I wrote maniacal "affected with mania" as maniacle. Probably just left-handed dyslexia. But perhaps some contamination from manacle "an iron fetter for the hand." It's a mistake, but it's there, oh it's there.

In every cry of every man,
In every infant's cry of fear,
In every voice, in every ban,
The mind-forged manacles I hear

***

D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson's "Glossary of Greek Fishes" is one of my favorite books. Not just for research, but for beach-reading. It was published mid-20th century, but it feels a century older. Thompson was a grand scholar on the old scale, and he netted every fish mentioned in the surviving ancient Greek manuscripts and published as much as he can learn about all of them.

He has consulted the historical writings of the Egyptians and the Romans and the Arabs and others who fished or sailed in the same waters. He has looked at the words used by Mediterranean fishermen and fish-markets in the Middle Ages and later. What he hasn't done, as far as I can see and I've read it through twice, is consult a scientist. A modern author of such a book probably could not avoid doing this. It would be perfectly useless.

A scientist could tell you everything about a fish that an ancient Greek didn't know, and nothing that he did. A modern scientist, thinking or writing scientifically, loses sight of the "finny tribe," of the fish and the fishes that exists in a pre-scientific mind. Thompson is writing a book about fish-words, not a book about fish. It is a book about fish as a concept in the ancient mind, in long-dead Athenian culture, on seas they saw as gods.

No doubt Thompson was encouraged in this omission, if he needed encouragement, by the number of times (and he notes them) modern science, once it got going, discovered curious facts about fishes that already were right there in Aristotle, overlooked because it never occurred to the modern scientists the old guy might be right.

***

The languages that inflect heavily for gender are aware of the absurdities it leads them into. They take an artisanal delight in crafting their own tangles. Jespersen ("Philosophy of Grammar") gives one from Swedish that translates as "What is the name of that ape? She is called Charles, for it is a he."

***

In Meinhof, Die moderne Sprachforschung in Afrika (1910), you can read that Hamitic languages spoken along the coast of the Red Sea apparently have one grammatical class for: persons/big important things/males and a second for thing/small things/females. The rules for applying those categories are complex or vague, and one result is that a woman's breast is masculine, because it is larger, and a man's is feminine. It's possible that the essential difference intended by grammatical "gender" was "big/powerful/important" vs. "not so much." Which differentiation, in the world most of our ancestors anywhere anytime lived in, mattered.

***

The medieval English continued the Roman computation of the mile as 5,000 feet, or 1,000 paces, or 8 longer divisions, which they equated with their native "furrow length" or furlong. Meanwhile in the markets they haggling over the honesty of measures. Over the course of the 1200s England's authorities evolved definitions of the length of the inch, foot, yard, and the perch (five-and-a-half yards), which was important in land measures.

In the 1590s, when Parliament attempted to set a modern English statue mile, it turns out the common measure of a foot was now shorter, which threw the two ways to determine a mile out of alignment. The Roman mile was clearly the original and true one. But almost all the property in the kingdom had been surveyed using the rod (based on the perch) that was a twelfth or so short. To change the measure would have thrown all the deeds and taxes in England into confusion. So Parliament made the mile bigger. The mile stayed 8 furlongs, which were measured based on the rod. The English statute mile thus came out as 5,280 feet, and so we memorized it even when I was a kid.

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