From “to” to “too”

A trend has spread on social media following the many and disturbing allegations of sexual assault and rape against Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein: me too, which tens of thousands women are posting to express that they, too, have been assaulted or harassed.

The little word, too, so simply yet powerfully bringing attention to how pervasive, and pernicious, sexual violence against women is. For today’s post, let’s put the etymological spotlight on it.

lane-2590230_1920.jpg
“Too”: moving in the right direction. (Pixabay)

Continue reading “From “to” to “too””

Advertisements

Winning words: “Feldenkrais” and “Gesellschaft”

For the third consecutive year, the Scripps National Spelling Bee  crowned co-champions. This year, Jairam Jagadeesh Hathwar correctly spelled Feldenkrais, sharing the top orthographical prize with Nihar Saireddy Janga, who spelled Gesellschaft. Where do these words come from – and what do they mean, anyways?

Feldenkrais

Feldenkrais is a trademarked name “for a system of aided body movements intended to increase bodily awareness and ease tension,” as Merriam-Webster, the official dictionary of the bee, explains it. This form of somatic education takes its name from Moshé Pinchas Feldenkrais, an Israeli scientist born in what is now the Ukraine, who designed and founded the Feldenkrais Method.

Gesellschaft

First theorized by German sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies, Gesellschaft is “a rationally developed mechanistic type of social relationship characterized by impersonally contracted associations between persons,” according to Merriam-Webster.  Gesellschaft characterizes the more modern, impersonal, and institutional relationships of modern society, compared to the more personal, traditional, and rural ones of Gemeinschaft.

Literally translated as “companionship” but used in the sense of “society,” Gesellschaft joins the German geselle, a “companion,” “associate,” or “fellow (guildsman),” with the noun-forming suffix –schaft, related to English’s own -ship, as in, well, companionship. The suffix, at root, means “state” or “condition,” ultimately cognate to the word shape.

To ace the shape of these words, Hathwar and Janga no doubt mastered the orthographical equivalent of Feldenkrais.

m ∫ r ∫

 

 

What’s up with all those letters we don’t say in “Leicester”?

Against all odds, the Leicester City Football Club clinched England’s Premier League title on Monday. Far and wide, millions of lovers of football – and Cinderella stories – cheered the unlikely champions. And as many, perhaps, learned how to pronounce the name of this club and city. Leicester, in spite of its extra characters, sounds like the name Lester, which is derived, in fact, from this very Leicester.

Why do we pronounce Leicester like “Lester”? Or, for my readers not interested in sports, Gloucester like “Gloster”? (I can still feel my nerdy shame when an English teacher corrected my mispronunciation of this King Lear character.) Oxford English Dictionary offers: “The history of the form written -cester, of which only -ster is pronounced (in Worcester, Bicester, etc.), is obscure; the written form is perhaps of French or medieval Latin origin.” Economy, generally speaking, is ultimately behind the pronunciation, historical inertia behind the spelling, I imagine.

While we can’t explain for certain the peculiar pronunciation of –cester, we can explain where it comes from.

Cester: phonetic cheshire cats and linguistic underdogs 

From roughly 40 to 400 AD, Rome ruled much of Great Britain. Over 1500 years later, its footprint still shows. Ancient Roman military fortifications, for example, have endured not only in their physical remains, but in place names as well. Latin called these sites castra, a plural noun meaning a “camp,” which we might liken to military bases today.

A diminutive form of castra, castellum, a kind of “fort,” gives English castle. The ultimate origin of Latin’s castrum is unclear, though many connect it to castrate via a root meaning, yep, “to cut off.” The surname Castro, as in Fidel, is a notable Spanish cognate, as is alcazar,  from an Arabic rendering  of castrumal-qasr 

Old English borrowed Latin’s castra as ceaster. (Old Welsh did as cair.) Anglo-Saxon records show ceaster in combination with original Celtic names for tribes and topography. As early as the 10th century, Leicester, for instance, is recorded as Ligora-ceastre; the first element preserves either the Celtic name of the tribe or for the river there when the Romans marched in around 47 A.D.

For a time, ceaster, pronounced more like its now-obsolete descendant, chester, stood on its own word as a word “town,” especially a former Roman-occupied castra. But English largely remembers ceaster as a toponymic suffix, variously adapted as -caster (Lancaster), –chester (Manchester, ), –cester (Leicester), and in other place names like Exeter and Cheshire. Each of these former Roman encampments, again, likely preserve Celtic roots in their first elements: Lancaster may have meant “camp on the Lune River”; Manchester, “on the breast-like hill”; Exeter, “on the Exe River.” Cheshire, meanwhile, is “chester shire.”

For all the Latinate -cester’s that occupy its place names, the English language, like Leicester, is itself something of an underdog story. It survived once stronger (or at least better-funded clubs) on its historical pitch, from Norse to Latin to French. But then again, the Anglo-Saxons themselves were a visiting team: Celtic, too, as we also see in the likes of Leicester, played hard as well.

m ∫ r ∫ 

From “numb” to “nimble”

In his remarks in the immediate aftermath of the massacre at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Ore. last week, President Obama commented on the epidemic of mass shootings in the US: “Somehow, this has become routine. The reporting is routine. My response here at this podium ends up being routine. The conversation in the aftermath of it. We have become numb to this.” Numb – the word is very cautionary and, if we look to its etymology, perhaps instructive.

Numb

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) cites numb in English’s written record around 1400. Then, the word signified “deprived of physical sensation or of the power of movement, especially through extreme cold.” The OED cites figurative usages for numb – “emotionally deadened, unresponsive, or spent, as the result of grief, shock, fear, etc.” – by the late 1560s, though this was rare until the 19th century.

Numb is a past participle of a much older and once everyday verb in Old English, nim, and is first recorded in the form of nommeNim – or niman, if we consider its infinitive form in Old English – functioned like take, a Scandinavian-based verb that eventually supplanted nim by the 15th century (OED).  As philologist Walter Skeat explains it, numb originally conveyed “taken” or “seized,” which shifted to mean “overpowered,” and then extended to “deprived of sensation.”

But where did that come from? We don’t pronounce it. No one ever did. We did, however, pronounce the phoneme in a word related to numb: nimble. Here, this is called “excrescent,” describing a consonant added between two others. This happens usually to make pronunciation easier. (Try pronouncing nimble without the b. Does the articulation feel a bit more strained to you?) As a result of hypercorrection in English spelling, the b was added to other words ending in m. Crumb, dumb, thumb, and limb are other examples. Anatoly Liberman, the Oxford Etymologist, explains the phenomenon in greater depth on an excellent piece he wrote on English spelling.

Nimble

Now, nimble – attested in a variety of forms in Old English, including numel – joins nim and an instrumental suffix, -le. Nimble is a very old word in the language, first documented to mean “quick at grasping, understanding, or learning” and “quick to seize or take hold of one” (OED). With that suffix -le, the OED goes on, nimble means means “apt to nim.” By the 1400s, we have evidence of its more modern sense of “agile,” or “quick and light in movement.”

We should listen to numb’s etymological lesson and seek to be nimble – in mind and in action – instead.

Coming up, we’ll also take a look at the deeper roots of nim and some surprising words it  related to.

m ∫ r ∫

debt

English spelling can be a mess. Take the word debtmaking its own mess in Greece as we’ve seen, which features a b we write but don’t say. Whence the b?

Debt

For everything else, there's debt. "Debt." Doodle by @andrescalo.
For everything else, there’s… “Debt.” Red marker and yellow felt-tip on lined paper. Doodle by @andrescalo.

As it appears in the English of the late 14th century, debt is recorded as dete. No b, for the word comes to English from the Old French dette. No b, as that was lost – in a process linguists call elision – when those early French speakers were shaping it from the Latin debitum, “debt.” Literally, debitum means a thing “owed,” a past participle of the verb debēre, “to owe.”

Starting in the Middle Ages, some scholars ‘restored’ the spelling to include its Latin b, which spelling stuck sometime in the 16th century. In this case, scribes were imitating Latin manuscripts. This effort may have aided understanding, linking the English spelling with its Latin root. The scribes may also have believed they were ‘elevating’ the English language to the likes of antiquity. Doubt, subtle, and receipt also reflect this phenomenon.

Debēre itself joins and elides the prefix de- (“away from”) and habēre (“to have, hold”). Debt, then, is literally something “away from having.” Debitdue, and duty also derive from debēre. The verb produced dever in Old French, or “duty.” A French expression meaning “to make it one’s duty” features the phrase en devoir, “in duty,” source of English’s endeavor.

And for habithabitat, and inhabit, English is also indebted to habēre – as well as malady, with its French root ultimately eliding the Latin male habitus, “in a bad [physical] condition.” Able, too, is from the verbvia the Latin habilis (“easy to hold”). Renaissance scholars try to ‘restore’ its h, too, but this didn’t stick.

Ultimately, a debt is dependent upon some sort of gift. This holds true, too, etymologically, if we’re generous. Indo-European scholars take the Latin habēre back to the Proto-Indo-European *ghabh-, a reciprocal root meaning “to receive” or “to give.” “To hold” something, perhaps, implies you can give it away or keep it for yourself.

Etymology doesn’t make economic debt any easier, but, concerning why we spell debt as we do, it helps.

Debt_Scribbles

m ∫ r ∫