Fast Mash

  • Via French, transition comes from Latin transitiōnem, accusative of transitiō
  • Transitiō is formed from transire, to go across, fusing trans (across) and īre (go)
  • Preposition/prefix trans likely derives from a verb, *trare (to cross), while īre stems from prolific Proto-Indo-European *ei

First off, I want to thank Stan Carey for his shout-out of “The Mashed Radish” on his always learned and be-learning Sentence First. Subscribe to him. Second, I want to welcome all the new followers I’ve gained as a result of it; I look forward to our community and conversation.

So, the big move has arrived. At the end of this week, my dictionaries and I will be in transition and transit from Minneapolis, MN to Laguna Beach, CA. (No, it is not healthy to talk about my dictionaries that way.) I plan to keep up with my weekly postings, but may be claiming a little wiggle room from time to time in the short future. But let’s just say that I suspect the ocean will be every bit as inspiring as the snow.

Since I otherwise can’t conjure up a better one, let’s get right to this week’s word: transition, a (now) regular enough word, if with a little more starch in its collar, but which displays some of the wonderful stuff of word origins and the English language.


As with many more academic, abstract, or technical English words, transition was taken right from Latin—in this case, transitiōnem, formed on transitiō. The -em marks the accusative case, the n functions as part of a conjugational paradigm, -iō gets affixed to the t of a participial stem, and…OK, we’re not in Latin class.

Know that all this inflection business—changing the form of words to change their grammatical function, like adding –s can mark the plural in English—is tell-tale Indo-European.

Also know that English, particularly Middle English, borrowed quite liberally from this -iō-/-iōn- structure (via French) to form all kinds of nouns of state or condition. Think, well, condition, or relation, nation, compression, depression, or connection (or connexion for my UK friends). In English, -ing, Germanic in origin, serves the same function as Latin -iō, forming verbal derivatives like talking, reading, and writing. But English—as most languages are, though perhaps to a higher degree than others—is a mutt, taking not just vocabulary but grammatical structures from other languages. Language, the great appropriator, the great opportunist.

In Latin, transitiō referred to a “crossing” or “passage,” although it could also signify switching political parties or infectious diseases, which some would way say are one and the same. Language trades so the wares of metaphor. By the 1550s, English took up the word from French (where else?), and it meant passing from one condition or state into another, much as it does today. (For the OED, 1975 marks the earliest evidence of transition as a verb.)


But there is more to anatomize in transitiō. Latin derived it from transīre, its own verb meaning “to go across.” We also get transit and transient from it. In transīre, you probably recognize trans, a rather productive prefix in English meaning “across/over/beyond.” Transcontinental was a big word in the age of the railroads. Transgender is an important one today. And the U.S. Congress has proved itself ever intransigent in its legislative transactions.

In English, trans is a prefix; in Latin, a prefix, too, but also a preposition. For instance, trans sylvam means “beyond the woods”; hence, Transylvania. Historical linguists posit that trans evolved from a verb, possibly *trare, which simply meant “to cross.” A relative, the English preposition through, tells a similar story.

This, to me, is the true wonder of etymology and language evolution. All the little nuts and bolts that hold language together—morphemes like -ing, humble and mundane prepositions like through or across or with, articles like the—didn’t just come from nowhere. They started out as their own whole words far back enough, words with meat and muscle, thing-words and action-words. With time and usage, with the way language both gets whittled down and built up in speech, they became purely functional, their stories now invisible or inaudible, but carrying them around with them nonetheless.


The other part of transīre is īre, that essential of essential verbs, “to go.And this is another terrific demonstration of the vigor of etymology—the way a simple sound spreads and persists and changes through time, tongue, and culture. The Online Etymology Dictionary cites a great list of the progeny of Proto-Indo-European’s *ei- (to go, walk):

  • Greek eimi (I go)
  • Latin īre (to go); iter (a way; think itinerary, reiterate)
  • Old Irish ethaim (I go); Irish bothar (a road, blending words meaning “cow’s way”; cf. bovine)
  • Gaulish eimu (we go)
  • Gothic iddja (went”
  • Sanskrit e’ti (goes); imas (we go); ayanam (a going, way)
  • Avestan ae’iti (goes)
  • Old Persian aitiy (goes)
  • Lithuian eiti (to go)
  • Old Church Slavonic iti (go)
  • Bulgarian idea (I go)
  • Russian idti (to go)
  • English ion (introduced by Faraday in 1834, but we’ll save that story for another day)

That’s impressive. I’d say transition is in good company. Those ancient utterances live on, as we teach students to write more effective transitions between body paragraphs, or discuss transitioning new software systems at the office, or figure out our footing in the world as we transition from life in Minnesota to California. And while its flesh and bones may be Latinate, transition, as these examples evidence, behaves like a true English word.

m ∫ r ∫


Fast Mash

  • Bask comes from Old Norse, baðask (bathe oneself), with middle syllable lost
  • The Scandinavian word joins baða (bathe) and reflexive verbal suffix –sk (self)
  • Suffix –sk traces back to Proto-Indo-European *swe– (self) via Old Norse pronoun sik
  • In 1300s, bask meant “to wallow/bathe,” but especially in blood; evolved to refer to “in sunshine” and metaphorical sunshine

I took our kayak out this weekend. In the middle of Lake of the Isles, I stopped paddling to bask in the summer sun—and in Minneapolis’ lovely mix of city and nature. And then it hit me: bask. I knew I forgot to include something in last week’s post on self and other. It was the word bask. And its final two letters, –sk. It turns out that there’s a lot going on in the  little word.


Old Norse—the North Germanic language of the Vikings, runes, and sagas, and parent of close siblings Icelandic, Faroese, Norwegian, Danish, and Swedish—had sik, a reflexive pronoun. A reflexive pronoun, you may be familiar, refers to its own antecedent. In English, think myself or yourself or themselves. And, ultimately, self-referential sik can claim its spot in the selfsame bloodline as self: It, too,  derives from the prolific Proto-Indo-European *swe- we studied last post.

Over time, the Old Norse sik became contracted to -sk. (Speech loves economy, nah mean?) This functioned as a reflexive suffix tacked onto the end of verbs. In bask, –sk was suffixed onto baða, or bathe, to form baðask. (Bathe and baða, kissing cousins, you can see.) And, in everyday mouths, the middle syllable got swallowed, eventually yielding bask Busk, parent of bustle, features the same suffix: “to busy oneself.” From extended contact with the Danes, violent and peaceful, English borrowed quite the array of words, including everyday words such as sky and they.

Etymologically, bask means to bathe oneself. The form of the word today disguises its compounds; the root verb and reflexive suffix have become what some call “opaque.” I recommend you treat yourself to some more disguised compounds (such as bridal or blackmail) as described by preeminent English etymologist Anatoly Liberman. Oh, he also has a killer weekly etymology blog, The Oxford Etymologist.

“Bask in the doneness”—or blood

So, somewhere in the 1300s, baðask looses its middle and enters the language as basken. Yes, it loses one sound but picks up another. The –en marks the infinitive form (to bask), and makes it grammatical in Middle English. Almost all of English’s inflections eventually fell off, making the language abnormally uninflected for an Indo-European language. At this point, basken wasn’t always so clean or sunny. It could be straight bloody. Basken frequently meant to wallow or be suffused not just in warm liquid, but in blood.

Check out these gruesome early attestations from the OED. In 1393, John Gower wrote:

The child lay bathed in her blood..And for the blode was hote and warme He basketh him about therinne.

I don’t know what is going on here. But isn’t it pleonastic—using more words than necessary—to use him after a form of bask, the word already reflexive? Maybe it is in Icelandic, but the semantic value of -sk is lost on English ears.

Later, in 1528, poet John Skelton wrote:

Basked and baththed in their wylde burblyng..blode.

Geez, this is like Macbeth walked into the set of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. A vertiable bloodbath. I mean, blood does really get everywhere.

Speaking of Shakespeare, he is credited with the first attestation of bask‘s brighter meanings, i.e., basking in “the genial warmth” (OED) of sunlight or fire. Says the attending lord Jaques merrily in As You Like It (2.7):

A fool, a fool, I met a fool i’th’ forest, / A motley fool—a miserable world!— / As I do live by food, I met a fool,  / Who laid him down and basked in the sun, / And railed on Lady Fortune in good terms, / In good set terms, and yet a motley fool.

From here, bask starts living a more figurative life: basking in the metaphorical “‘sunshine’ of love, favour, glory,” (OED). Or, my favorite, “doneness.”

During a discussion of the writing process, a professor once shared a story about helping her son revise and edit an essay he was writing. Even after several rounds with the red pen, she said she kept suggesting changes here, rewordings there. He replied, “Mom, at some point, you have to bask in the doneness.” Yes, at some point, things are just done. And I can’t think of a better way to describe the feeling of finishing an essay or article.

“An undoubted Scandinavian immigrant”

Smitten by Old Norse’s ability to render verbs reflexive, I did some more digging—and fell down quite the delightful rabbit hole in Icelandic language and literature scholar Eiríkr Magnússon’s 1874 “On SK and SH In English Terminations” (Cambridge; Harvard).

In this, he parses the suffix -sk in Icelandic, which has remained remarkably close to Old Norse. Apparently, –sk also functioned as reciprocal suffix (hittask, to hit each other, or meet) and as a passive suffix (kallask, to be called). It could also be suffixed to adjectives, adding “individuality and intensity” (p. 280). He writes that nið means contumely” or shame”, while niðskr means “shamefully stingy.”

But, more to our purposes here, he offers his own explanation for why bask came to be associated with the sun. This is why I love the stuff of etymology:

In ancient times it was a common custom throughout Scandinavia for people to have hot-air baths at their houses. The custom the Scandinavians doubtless adopted from the Fins, who bathe in the same manner to this day. The heated bath-house was called baðstofa, bathing stove, a word which in Iceland signifies the warmest room in the house, the sitting-room, although the use of it for bathing purposes has long since been abandoned. The hot air being the element in which it was common and customary to effect bathing by a languid repose, the tendency to repeat on a hot summer’s day the habits of the bath-room brought the phraseology of one element into the other. Hence, the common phrase at baðask í sólinni. The reflexive form, baðask, I take to be the immediate source of bask brought about by the process first of dropping the dental aspirate, ð, which, phonetically speaking, is a weak and evanescent element in the word, and the contracting baask into bask. Here, I think it must be conceded, we have to deal with an undoubted Scandinavian immigrant. (pp. 281-282)

I’m guessing these hot-air baths are akin to saunas, which indeed the Nordic are famed for. But below is an image of an Icelandic baðstofa, or living/sitting/common room. I love the sleeping dog.

Gömul baðstofa (old sitting room), where much of the cottage industry of spinning wool was done. Image courtesy of Vísindavefurinn.

 m ∫ r ∫ 

self & other

Fast Mash

  • Self is rooted in the reconstructed Proto-Indo-European *swe-, meaning “separate” or “apart,” whose derivatives range from idiot and seclude to ethics and gossip
  • Other is rooted in the reconstructed Proto-Indo-European *al-tero-, the base of which is *al-, meaning “beyond.” Derivatives range from allegory and alien to ultimate and else.

I don’t know about you, but I have plenty of small embarrassments that still prickle me from time to time. Most of these involve botching a greeting with a European woman. One kiss, two kisses, three kisses. Slight contact, no contact, gestured contact. I get the variations; I just lack the grace. I lack the social fluidity, always feeling I cause some sort of minor, fleshy collision, leaving behind a residue of saliva and unsophistication.

The same applies to the various hand-slapping and dapping we modern, young, American men often use in meeting and departing. I never know what is expected, and the result is knuckles, awkwardness, and a mumbled, self-deprecating chorus of “my bad.”

When it comes to writing, I shudder to recollect my first go at a college essay. We were assigned one for practice in my junior-year English class, I believe, with Mr. Cahill, may he rest in tweed-patched, Wordsworth-yawping peace. I submitted some overwrought piece about self-discovery through scholarship. The opening sentence included the word selfhood in the context of a painfully extended metaphor about mountaineering the prose of Jonathan Swift. Yuck.

Mr. Cahill passed back the papers soon enough. Scrawled across the top of mine, however, were two words that could sink the heart of any pretentious overachiever: “See me.”

“You might want to…How should I say it? Tone it down.” he said. “Selfhood?”

Wordiness, so often co-morbid with purple prose, can betray too much self-involvement on the part of the writer. So, in the interest of toning things down, instead of talking too much about myself, let’s take off the hood just talk about self.


Self comes directly from Old English, whose many Germanic cognates derive from the Proto-Germanic *selbaz, in turn coming from the Proto-Indo-European *sel-bho-. At the root of this is *swe-, meaning “separate” or “apart.”

The derivatives of this root are many and astounding. Columbia University professor John McWhorter does an incredibly lucid job, in fact, with the origin of self in his introduction to What Language Is, an entertaining and edifying read. It, in part, inspired this post.

A quick note . Why do we leave a dash at the end of roots like *swe-? The dash indicates that the roots took on suffixes that changed the role of the word in an expression, just as, say, Russian or Latin words take on endings. And as McWhorter puts it, Proto-Indo-European was a language “very heavy on suffixes” (10). For example, *swe– could pick up a d and take on –yo to function as an adjective: *swed-yo. As words change, sometimes these endings become stuck onto forms. Other times they fall off altogether. Both happened in the story of *swe-. Much thanks, Professor McWhorter.

Let’s have a taste of the *swe– life in some of Proto-Indo-European’s more prominent daughter languages.


  • Swami (one’s own master)


In Greek, *swe– took to life as idios (from *swed-yo; own, private) and took on a different suffix to form, for example, ethnos (people of one’s own kind).      

  • Idiom, idiot
  • Ethnic, ethos, ethics


In Latin, *swe- evolved into sed and se-, which were prefixed onto all kinds of verbs. Secret joins se– and cernere (to separate; discern uses the same verb). Custom is from com- (together) and suescere (to get used to). Sober fuses se– and ebrius (drunk; yes, think inebriation).  

  • Secret, secure, seduce, seclude, segregate, separate, several
  • Solo, sole, sullen
  • Sober
  • Suicide
  • Accustom, custom
  • Sodality, mansuetude, desuetude


The Germanic family morphed *swe– into *sebjo (blood relation). Gossip, originally godsibb, blends god and sibb (relative), and subsequently underwent considerable semantic development. Swain started out as “a young man attendant on a knight” and was suffixed to form boatswain and coxswain.

  • Sibling
  • Gossip
  • Swain

And, oh, you know how all the cool kids are sporting rolled-up jeans these days? They are just showing some selvage, or the edge of woven material that has been finished to prevent unraveling. Sartorially, it’s “in.” Etymologically, it’s “self-edge.”

GQ approves this selvage. Image courtesy of GQ.


As I like to pick apart not just individual words but also word themes, if you will, the etymology of self begs the question:  What about other?

Other had another life in its Old English form oþer. (The symbol <þ> is the letter thorn, which was used alongside eth, <ð>, to spell th sounds). It could function as an adjective, “the second,” (and in some cases “next”) as well as as a pronoun for “one of the two.” Other still serves as an adjective today, but not in the sense of “the second.” Scandinavian languages, the Online Etymology Dictionary notes, though, have retained this sense.

Like selfother is not alone, with its many Germanic cognates pointing back to the Proto-Germanic *antharaz, itself from the Proto-Indo-European *an-tero-. This root is a variant of *al-tero-, which is where things get quite interesting.

The second part of this root, *tero-, was a suffix to form comparative adjectives. Think: bigger, better, funner. And the first part, *al-, is believed to have meant “beyond.” Here’s some of the beyond of this “beyond”:


  • Allegory
  • Allophone, allomorph, allele


  • Alter, altruism, altercate
  • Ultra, ultimate
  • Alien, alias, alibi


  • Else

And oh, did you ever find it strange that the French refer to Germany as Allemagne or the Spanish as Alemania? (Well, as strange as anything else in the mess of language.) Anyways, I always have. It turns out there is speculation that the root of the eponym might mean “foreign men,” drawing from, what else, *al-.

Self is Other

There is you and then there is everybody else. Right? But on the etymological level, in some sense self and other blur. The self is that which is “separate from” or “apart from” others, and the other is that which is “beyond” the self. Both exist on a plane of difference and relativity, mutually defined by apartness, a beyond-ness—membranes bounded but porous, an intersubjective bridge. And, as the French poet Rimbaud more lyrically formulated it, “Je est un autre.” I is an other.

citrus, part II

Fast Mash

  • Orange enters English in the 14th-c. from the French orenge (pomme d’orenge) via Spanish naranja, Portuguese laranja, Italian narancia
  • The Romance forms of orange ultimately go back to Arabic naranj, Persian narang, Sanskrit naranga; may be rooted in Tamil (South India) naru, for fragrant
  • Also growing in bunches, grapefruit is indebted to grape, from French graper (gather), from Germanic root *krappon (hook, used to so gather)

Last February, my fiancée and I travelled to Istanbul. Winding through its dense and storied streets, we stopped often to sample foods from street vendors and stalls, such as the savory pastry of börek, sesame-ringed simit, or cups of golden-hued çay, the tea steaming from its tulip-shaped glass.

On one afternoon outing, after my wanderings led us—yet again—through that bustling center of Old Istanbul, the Grand Bazaar, we took a seat a tiny table at a tinier stall just at the market’s perimeter. For refreshment, I stuck with çay, happily substituting my coffee addiction with Turkey’s go-to beverage. (No native is really Turkish coffee in Istanbul.) My fiancée, however, went for something new: freshly squeeze pomegranate juice.

In my traveller’s Turkish, always received warmly, I ordered: “Lütfen bir çay ve bir nar istiyorum.” Literally, please one tea and one pomegranate (juice) I would like.

Turkish is what is called an agglutinative language. That means it forms complex words by “gluing together” individual morphemes. And a morpheme is the smallest grammatical unit in a language.

So, in English, cats has two morphemes: cat and s, which marks the plural. Other languages like Turkish glue a lot more morphemes together than English does. Take istiyorum: in one word, it combines morphemes for verb tense, aspect, person, and number to communicate “I want,” “I am wanting,” or “I would like.”

If I wanted to negate that statement in English, I would say, “I do not want.” I need two new morphemes, in this case two whole words, and I place them in the right order in the expression. But a Turkish person would add a morpheme right smack dab in the middle of the whole word: istemiyorum. It gets really complicated, really fast. And it’s a totally different way of doings things. Cool, right?

Anyways, it’s the Turkish nouns in my drink order that interest me here. Yes, the Turkish çay is related to chai, pronounced the same and ultimately from the Chinese. But I didn’t expect that nar would be related to orange. Though thousands of miles away, with the humble nar I was in fact much closer to home than imagined.


As lexicographer Eric Partridge put its, “The descent of orange is long, yet clear.” Well, “clear” is his opinion.

In the 14th-century, Middle English picks up orange (and at some point the fruit itself?) from the French orenge (now orange). The French occurred in the phrase pomme d’orenge, taken from a similar Medieval Latin construction. French picked up pomme from Latin’s pomus, which meant fruit and later apple. (Cf. the Dutch oranjeappel and the Scots appil orange.  Also consider French’s pomme de terre, earth-apple, for potato.)

The Latin was taken from the Italian narancia (now arancia), and the form of the word travelled like all the sailors who brought the fruit over from Asia.

Here is a study in some orange (cognates):

  • Provençal, auranja
  • Catalan, taronja
  • Spanish, naranja
  • Portuguese, laranja
  • Italian, narancia/arancia/melarancia
  • Rumanian, naranta
  • Greek, nerantzi

The Spanish naranja seems to be the point of diffusion from orange’s oldest crop: the Arabic naranj, Persian narang, and the Sanskrit naranga (orange tree).

The Sanskrit, in turn, is probably related to terms in two of that subcontinent’s hundreds of other tongues: Tamil’s naram/naru (which Partridge glosses as fragrant) and Tulu’s narengi. It’s not every day one gets to talk about Tamil or Tulu. Both are the in the Dravidian family, a non-Indo-European language primarily spoken in Southern India and Northern Sri Lanka.

At this point, you’re probably seeing nar as a common thread. In Persian, nar named the pomegranate, which fruit and term spread to the Turkic peoples. Hence, a freshly squeezed cup of nar in Istanbul. It was delicious, too.

So, what happened to the and the in English’s orange?

The o- may have been influenced by the southern French city of Orange (later tied up in Dutch royalty and Irish Protestantism). Or or, the French for gold, due to the fruit’s color, from the Latin aurum.

And the n? Perhaps due to something called misdivision, or metanalysis, which happens when words are broken down at the wrong boundary. A few examples illustrate:

  • An apron? Originally, a napron.
  • A newt? An ewte.
  • Nickname? First, an eke name, with eke meaning also or additional.
  • An umpire? More like a noumpre (from French for odd number).
  • And how about one where there is no definite article (a, an)? Tawdry originally comes from St. Audry’s lace.

At some point, the definite articles—as in un naranja, une narange, or una narancia— could have promoted the loss of the initial n. Say them out loud and it’s easy to be convinced.

And here’s just a little more zest in the life of orange from the Online Etymology Dictionary:

The tree’s original range probably was northern India. The Persian orange, grown widely in southern Europe after its introduction in Italy 11c., was bitter; sweet oranges were brought to Europe 15c. from India by Portuguese traders and quickly displaced the bitter variety, but only Modern Greek still seems to distinguish the bitter (nerantzi) from the sweet (portokali “Portuguese”) orange. Portuguese, Spanish, Arab, and Dutch sailors planted citrus trees along trade routes to prevent scurvy. On his second voyage in 1493, Christopher Columbus brought the seeds of oranges, lemons and citrons to Haiti and the Caribbean. Introduced in Florida (along with lemons) in 1513 by Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon. Introduced to Hawaii 1792.

How do you like them apple-oranges?


I like grapefruit. No sugar, too. I buy it. Always pumped for a healthy, colorful, and tart start to the day. But I never get around to it. The apples and bananas are the first to go. Then oranges. Then the pitted fruits and berries. My fruit bowl is left not-so-empty with a grapefruit or two.

As Socrates surely implied, the unreflected grapefruit is not worth eating. So, what is up with the grape in grapefruit, anyways? And what, if anything, do grapes and grapefruit have in common?

Their etymology, that’s what. Grapefruit, called so in 1814 and cousin to the shaddock or pomelo, grows, apparently, like grapes, in bunches and clusters. The Old French grape, referring both the bunch and the individual grape berries, was most likely formed on graper, which meant gather, seize, or catch with a hook. This verb, in turn, probably comes from the Germanic root *krappon, meaning hook. Cramp and crampon are related, as is grapple, which perfectly describes my relationship to the fruit. The tool came to name the action, and the action came to name the result.

Who says you can’t compare apples and oranges—and grapefruits and grapes?

 m ∫ r ∫