June 24, 2009

Word Origins…And How We Know Them

Posted in Essays, Non-fiction tagged at 5:40 pm by j128

Book cover of Word Origins…and how we know them is a book by Anatoly Liberman, focusing on the etymology (history of words) of the English language. Many of his books are primarily written and directed at a scholarly audience; however, this book is written for etymology amateurs or those who are just interested in a language’s etymology, or those who aren’t interested in taking up and devoting oneself to studying etymology. It was published in 2005 by the Oxford University Press.

I find his writing is often witty in sections of the book – whether this is intentional or not, I can’t be sure, or perhaps this wit just stems from some of the unbelievable etymologies of our words, such as the pumpkin and cucumber, which I will elaborate upon further in this review of mine.

I picked up Word Origins because the title sounded intriguing and I have a mild-mannered interest in etymology – etymology itself derived from the Greek ἔτυμον (étymon) and λόγος (lógos), with a rough meaning of “true meaning of word”, as etymon is derived from etymos, true, and lógos: word – which I think stems from my pursuing interest and knowledge in languages. Languages are a most interesting topic and indeed complex at times: as they are tools for communicating with others of our kin and that in some languages written and oral forms can some differentiate between one another in meaning or expression and that quite a number of languages have words that are virtually untranslatable into other languages and as such a rough translation ensues with the original meaning lost or barely recognizable or without meaning in the language it has been translated into. A good example of this scenario is a language’s idioms: such as the English idioms break a leg or pulling one’s leg. An idiom is known not to be taken literally, yet, to go along with our scenario, a non-native speaker of English may incorrectly interpret the meaning, which is confusing especially if the evidence is contrary to the saying. The usages of idioms and expressions are often tedious or difficult to explain, especially if the origin is unclear or has since been lost in antiquity… Furthermore, we have strayed from our original topic of reviewing Word Origins.

Review of Word Origins

As I mentioned earlier, Anatoly Liberman‘s writing style is laced with wit and also with a certain vigorous enthusiasm that is evident throughout the entire book. While I said it could be read by any person, including those who have an amateur interest in etymology, I must warn readers that it can be confusing sometimes – not by the author’s writing but rather the complicated history of etymology: I must say it is not as easy as the ABC’s or 123 – and myself found that it is no easy, light read. But, that is just my opinion – perhaps a person with a stronger enthusiasm than mine could find it differently. All in all, it is an enjoyable read despite all odds.

Professor Liberman outlines the basics of etymology: there are about four types of etymologies: borrowed words, i.e. loanwords such as the French hors d’œuvre (a type of appetizer) or the German Doppelgänger, which is conventionally spelled without the capitalization as doppelganger (note the loss of the umlaut on the A), yet the correct alternative German spelling would be Doppelgaenger. Some loanwords become so integrated into the adoptive language that a speaker of the language in which the loanword came from may not recognize it due to the ambiguity of the loanword including possible spelling changes or pronunciations. Prof. Liberman describes loanwords as having been created due to the inherited nature of all human beings: in which humans are physically mobile, yet are mentally lazy.

The other etymologies include word formation (including compounding and derivation), onomatopoeia, and sound symbolism, such as imitative words like the familiar cock-a-doodle-do of the rooster or the sound that the cuckoo makes – so-called due to the sound that it makes. Another avian example is the naming of the black-capped chickadee; putting aside the first part of its name, the bird’s song is commonly described as chick-a-deedee-dee, as to why it is called black-capped is its significant physical feature in that its head has a black patch, similar to a cap.

Professor Liberman describes sound symbolism as having evolved from mankind attempting to mimic the sounds and noises that animals make. As we do not have the appropriate vocal capacities to successfully mimic the sounds that animals make without flaw, we came to create words that roughly mimicked the sounds that we heard: a horse’s neigh, the mooing of a cow, and, uncharacteristically according to Word Origins, the oink-oink of a pig. The etymologies of these words are certainly very (very is a French loanword as it happens) interesting and sometimes almost totally unbelievable in how the earliest form of the word was totally unrelated to the current word. Speaking of current, how many people are aware that our English word currant (a dried fruit similar in appearance to a raisin) derives from the Ango-French phrase reisin de Corauntz, referring to Corinth, Greece, yet I have heard of another etymology in which currant derives from a corruption of a French word for Corinthian and when one sees the word, the resemblance is quite strong; indeed Corinth and currant almost rhyme.

Etymology of “Pumpkin” and “Cucumber”

I quote this from Chapter 12, pages 135-136: “The ultimate source of pumpkin is Greek; pēpōn meant “ripe” and, by implication (or so it seems), “large melon.” Its opposite, Late Greek ágouras or aggoúri(on) (gg was pronounced as ng) (unripe), became known to other Europeans as augurke (Modern German Gurke), ogorek ~ ogurek (Polish), and so forth. English borrowed from the Dutch word with a diminutive suffix and ended up with gherkin (a cucumber for pickling). Melons, it appears, had to be eaten mellow, whereas cucumbers were consumed “raw.”) (The pun melon ~ mellow is unetymological: Late Latin mēlō- mēlopēpo was a shortening of [apple + ripe]. Thus the Greeks had a fruit called ripe (the melon or the pumpkin) and a vegetable called “unripe, raw” (the cucumber), but since they were not the first to cultivate either, the word for the cucumber may not have been native with them.

“It is not known who taught Ancient Romans to grow cucumbers; in any case, Latin cucumis (genitive: cucumeris) is not from Greek. Cucumis resembles cucurbita, from which, by way of French, English has gourd, but their similarity may be due to chance, or perhaps both are sound symbolic formations; cucur- resembles a baby word for a round object. Europeans (and this is the main point here) could have thought of a native name for an imported object, but it was easier to call a cucumber a cucumber and later clip it to cumber (a new common form in British dialects) or cuke than to invent something new. Plant and animal names and the names of objects of material culture (including those of foodstuff like butter, sugar, and coffee) tend to migrate from country to country. They send the etymologist in search of their home and original meaning all over the world. Finding them is no easy task, because, along the way, melons turn into pumpkins, while Greek nouns grow Dutch suffixes, and because the records of early civilizations are scarce and the languages that were the likeliest sources of such words may have died centuries before writing what was invented. Often we have to be satisfied with vague references: “probably Mediterranean,” “an Alpine word”, or “of Oriental origin.” “


I fully recommend reading this book to anyone who is interested in etymology. It is readily available in bookstores and online, such as Amazon.com.


“Language is always at play. Creating words may be the most delightful game of all. To come up with something really new is hard, but it requires a minimal effort to change one sound in a word that already exists, and this is how we get the likes of roley-poley† and harum-scarum.” – Chapter 6, page 54

“Before computers became a part of our life, everybody knew that a macintosh (also spelled, or rather misspelled, mackintosh) is a raincoat. In 1836 Charles Macintosh (1776-1843) invented a waterproof material that bears his name. Even those who are far from linguistic pursuits will guess that Macintosh or Mac (whether Big Mac or the computer) goes back to a name. Such words, usually spelled with a small (“lowercase”) letter, are all around us. Sandwich, diesel, and volt, among hundreds of others, are familiar examples. Their origin is clear when we know the circumstances in which they came into being. But sometimes those circumstances have to be reconstructed from a few fossils. In still other cases, even such fossils are absent.” – Chapter 10, page 106

“Names appear undisguised in derivatives like Shakespearean, Byronic, Kafkaesque, Bonapartist, Marxism, and yperite (another name of the mustard gas used in 1915 in the battle of Ypres, in Belgium), because we know who Shakespeare, Byron, and others were. However, Nicolas [sic] Chauvain is a forgotten figure, which makes chauvinist opaque. But for the dimly remembered imprecation by Jove, Jove, that is, Jupiter, would have become a dead word. Astrologists regarded the planet Jupiter as the source of happiness. Hence jovial, which is divorced in our mind from the Greek god; perhaps (through phonetic attraction) we think of joyful when we pronounce that word.” – Chapter 10, page 123-124

“Words and germs travel with people, who have always known how to cover great distances, even though in the Middle Ages and later, thousands never left their villages and would call a local’s wife born ten miles away “an overflow.” Borrowings are monuments to human beings’ physical mobility and mental laziness.” – Chapter 12, page 135

“Mastering a language, even one’s own, especially such a rich language as English, is a gallant deed.” – Chapter 12, page 156

“The human mind can reconstruct only order. As a result, reconstructed languages are always neat and logical. They compare favorably with the chaos of the modern state that serves linguists as their starting point. However, if language arose from cries accompanying gestures, imitation of sounds in nature, instinctive exclamations at work, or babbling, the earliest words must have been so haphazard as to defy reconstruction.” – Chapter 16, page 223

“A.T. Hatto, an incomparable translator into English of three great Middle High German poems – The Nibelungenlied, Tristan, and Parzival – finished The Nibelungenlied with an article entitled “An Introduction to a Second Reading.” I, too, would like to invite my readers to leaf through this book again. Many things said in early chapters will appear in a new light now that the end is known. A book not worth rereading is not worth reading even once.” – Chapter 18, page 250

†In this case, roley-poley refers to the woodlouse. The roly-poly (note spelling) is a “British pudding made of jam or fruit rolled up in pastry dough and baked or steamed until soft”, which is similar, in a way, to a Swiss roll.


Oxford Etymologist: OUPblog (Anatoly Liberman) – Essay columns by Professor Liberman on the Oxford University Press USA blog, no membership required to read these.