Posts Tagged ‘Etymology’

Scholars who take the Old English for Orthographers LEXinar take a critical look at what’s said about the historical origins of words. Many categorically false, totally ascientific claims have been made in print by language educators widely considered to be “experts.” It’s been going on for decades.

In the 1980s, Bob Calfee’s “Layers of the English Language” triangle listed a dozen words as having an “Anglo-Saxon” origin. Two of them are definitively not Ango-Saxon: cry is Latinate, and jump isn’t attested until the Modern English period. A third, grave, is a homograph. One of the pair (dig a grave) does have an Old English origin; the other (a grave illness) is Latinate. Certainly there were less ambiguous options available.

More recently (2004), Louisa Moats has claimed that tube is Anglo-Saxon (it’s French), that television is Latin (actually, the <tele> is Greek), that biodiversity is Greek (not quite — the diversity piece of the compound is Latin). Moats also indulges in a fantasy of Anglo-Saxon origins for amuse, engender, enable, and endure, all of which are of French origin in real life. Other words that Moats falsely associates with Anglo-Saxon across her work include crash, age, lilac, recess, cable, bugle, title, dabble, problem, commit, and adept, most of which were adopted from French. She also attributes gravity to Greek. Poor old French! It doesn’t even get a layer in the triangle.

Moats is unfortunately in good company. In a 2009 article in American Educator written with her reading science colleagues (Joshi, Treiman, and Carreker), more than half of the examples of Anglo-Saxon words and patterns they give are flat-out wrong, not including ambiguous examples like Calfee’s grave or the homographic found (past tense of find, to establish, and to pour molten metal — two of which are French). They mistake a Greek origin for ache (it’s actually Old English) and Anglo-Saxon origins for the following words: carpenter, farmer, grocer, butcher, passable, agreeable, punishable, catch, pouch, rich, age, saved, and plentiful, but they’re mostly adopted from French.

Le sigh.

All in all, this article alone boasts more than 40 etymological lies in 12 pages, and that’s just one piece of writing from these prolific authors. This is not an occasional error or a minor problem. It’s epidemic. It’s malpractice, and I’m not mean or nasty for calling it out. I’m right.

Now, I don’t know everything, and I don’t expect others to know everything. I make mistakes in my work, and when others point them out, I am grateful for the opportunity to deepen my own understanding. I’m not unreasonable. I don’t, for example, fault Moats and company for being unable to explain the spelling of words like us, thus, yes, if, his, much, which, such, or, all of which she refers to as “exceptions” to the final patterns <ss>, <ff>, and <tch>. These words aren’t really exceptions — there’s no such thing; rather, they’re function words, which take the smallest possible spelling (see in/inn, of/off, or/err). I don’t expect educators to have a good command of this yet, as it’s not necessarily terribly common knowledge, and not something a plain old dictionary will flag.

However, etymology — a word’s origin — is not a matter of guesswork or opinion. Any proper dictionary can tell us where words come from. We can look them up in the Online Etymology Dictionary on our phones for free, for crying out loud. People with Ph.D.s and secure jobs should be able to ask an intern or proofreader to look up all the examples in a dictionary if they don’t care to reap the incredibly rich, captivating understanding that word study brings for themselves. Either way, it is a professional and ethical imperative that these authors begin to ensure that the teachers and scholars reading the words they write will not continue to be systemically misinformed.

In addition to the rampant etymological underhandedness in print, teacher trainers and workshop speakers perpetuate the same careless claims in classrooms and conference rooms. I’ve heard countless examples myself, and colleagues who know better report them to me.

It kind of makes me mad. Like, mad angry and mad crazy.

Mistakes don’t make me mad. But willful, continual misinformation makes me mad. Irresponsible scholarship makes me mad. False claims of expertise make me mad. And, as faithful LEX readers will recall, experts meeting corrected information with denial and deflection make me really, really mad.

Well. Today I received the following email from a colleague:

“I was attending an Indiana IDA meeting yesterday in Indianapolis. In an adjacent room, [famous teacher trainer guy] was conducting his 1-day morphology training. I stuck my head in for about 10 minutes to hear him talking about how morphology builds vocabulary—OK so far.

BUT this was his example:

crazy is Anglo-Saxon

insane is Latin

lunatic is Greek

I just had to walk out.”

Now, this man is a well-known, well-traveled, well-respected trainer whose work I have found troubling before. He has a habit of telling teachers not to teach the schwa because it’s “too complicated.” Of course, this advice is problematic because the schwa is the most common phone in an English utterance, but what really fries me is the all-too-familiar “don’t worry your pretty little heads” tone of a man telling a roomful of female educators what’s too hard for them to understand. Yuck.

Now, as far as crazy/insane/lunatic go, of course, I find the choice of subject matter to be a little ironic, ’cause I do indeed think it’s a little crazy to make unsubstantiated claims about word origins while stressing how important word origins are to word study. As you might expect, our morphology “expert” only got one of his examples right: insane does actually have a Latin root. But crazy is built on a French loanword, and lunatic is derived from luna, the Latin word for moon.

Instead, if you really want to have a look at cross-linguistic synonyms pertaining to insanity, I’d submit the following:

Old English: moony

Latin: lunatic

Greek: selenomanic

See? That makes a lot more sense.


Old English: mad

Latin: insane

Greek: psychotic

I’d love to be able to include crazy, but its origin is a hard tail to pin on that tired, old layers-of-language donkey. It’s originally Germanic, but was adopted from French. And the French in question is Norman French, not Parisian French. This is true of so, so many words educators erroneously attribute to Anglo-Saxon: they’re short, common, everyday words, but they were Norman French contributions, not Anglo-Saxon. Some of them are Latinate; others are Germanic. After all, it was a really Germanic French that English was adopting words from in the late Middle ages.

Now, as I said, I’m not unreasonable. I get that understanding the nuances of language history and word histories requires study. After all, that’s what I do. I am sympathetic to the fact that most people don’t have the depth of etymological knowledge that I have. I get it. But that’s just the thing: you don’t have to have extensive knowledge of etymology in order to get it right, at least most of the time. You just have to look in a dictionary. Someone else has already done the study for you. It takes less than a minute or two to look up and read the entries for crazy, insane, and lunatic online.

Moreover, I’m not talking about generally held folk etymologies that get a foothold in the cultural rock wall; I’m talking about people who are widely regarded as “reading scientists,” people others rely upon for linguistic expertise and accurate information about language. Etymology as a field of study involves using established practices of comparative linguistics, based on the broader principle of the scientific method. The etymological guesswork across “reading science,” where every other example of an Anglo-Saxon word isn’t Anglo-Saxon, is pseudoscience, neither scientific nor a method.

Look, writing books and articles and speaking at conferences are activities that require research and preparation. I’m not a lunatic for pointing out that conference speakers, certified trainers, and respected, peer-reviewed authors be held to a higher standard when it comes to the empirical claims they make about words. Factual rigor is not an insane expectation for scholarly speaking and writing.

I’m not crazy.

I am, however, pretty mad about etymology.

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San Diego, beautiful city by the sea, is opening its arms for a Word Detectives weekend workshop with Pete Bowers and me. The registration flyer is below — please join us if you can!

Now, then, let’s look at San Diego, shall we? The city was named for St. Didacus of Alcalá, though the Spaniard never saw its shores. Didacus is Latin, of course, and Diego is the Spanish. The English version is James, as in Saint James, known in French as Saint Jacques, and in Portuguese as São Diogo. Other Latinate variants include Iago (as in Othello), Jaime, Giacomo, and Jacó. Germanic variants include Jacob or Jakob, Kobe, Koppel, and Yankel — the last two are Yiddish nicknames. Yankel! I like the idea of having a workshop in Saint Yankel.

The storied pilgrimage trail through western Europe is called El Camino de Santiago de Compostela in Spanish, Le Chemin de Saint Jacques in French, and the Way of St. James in English. The scallop shell that marks the path carries a rich symbolism. Of course, seafood eaters know that coquilles Saint-Jacques are scallops cooked with mushrooms, cream, cheese, and I think bread crumbs, but I’m the wrong person to ask.

Perhaps the most interesting etymological tidbit I found about Diego is that the ethnic slur dego also derives from Diego! All of these names derive, however circuitously, form the Hebrew Ya’aqobh, from ‘aquebh, ‘heel.’ The name itself denotes ‘one that takes by the heel’ — if you’ve ever read about Jacob in the book of Genesis, you’ll know why.

So, take this opportunity by the heel, and join Pete Bowers and me for two days of inquiry into, discovery of, and evidence about language in San Diego, which simply calls itself America’s Finest City.


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Illustrated Etymology

A friend just pointed me to this site, Illustrated Etymology, where creative types illustrate the histories of words, as researched by the incomparable Douglas Harper on The Online Etymology Dictionary.

What a great project to do with kids: choose a word to investigate, research its history and relatives, illustrate, and explain the development to present-day sense and meaning.

Go get lost here for a bit, maybe think up your own.


Late 14c., flowering plant (Iris germanica), also “prismatic rock crystal,” from L. iris (pl. irides) “iris of the eye, iris plant, rainbow,” from Gk. iris (gen. iridos) “a rainbow; the lily; iris of the eye,” originally “messenger of the gods,” personified as the rainbow. The eye region was so called (early 15c. in English) for being the colored part; the Greek word was used of any brightly colored circle, “as that round the eyes of a peacock’s tail” [Liddell and Scott]. Illustration by Daniel Dickson

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At the outset, the purpose of this post was going to be to inform folks about the Pennsylvania seminars. But I ended up deep in language (surprise!).

Here’s what happened: I started thinking that I really should reorganize this website (I need my own website, I know, I know), and I should have a page just for announcements, and a different page for language investigations. That got me to thinking about the word organize, and I was off and running. So my excuse for not having an organized website (yet) is that this post is both: an announcement and an investigation.

Putting together two weekend seminars out of state is no mean feat. It takes a lot of organization. The Friday spelling seminar is $75, payable to Stratford Friends School, and the Saturday-Sunday etymology seminar is $225 ($250 with lunches), payable to LEX. Folks who sign up for both get $25 off the weekend seminar. So, you know, it’s complicated bookkeeping, which is so not one of my great loves. I can do it, and I do it fine, but I don’t love it. On top of that, there’s hotel information for those traveling in ($124/night includes shuttle service, so no rental car needed). Please contact me for more information or registration flyers. I’m sorry it’s cumbersome — one of the things I plan to have better organized in the future, along with the website.

Thinking about the word organize, I started to wonder whether <org> or <organ> is the base element, and whether it’s related to <erg>, a free base element that denotes ‘work’. I was thinking of the word cyborg, a 20th-century neologism coined from “the first elements of cybernetic and organism” (The Online Etymology Dictionary — the only unadulterated OED). Sure enough, I see that <organ> and <erg> are indeed etymologically related — both courtesy of Greek via Latin. I have some evidence that <org> is a base element, but that’s a story for another time.  Suffice it to say that I’m satisfied for the time being with the following understanding:

<organ> is a stem meaning “instrument” — literally, denotationally, “that with which one works” (Etymonline, and elsewhere). Now if only I could get my website and my LEX life more finely tuned!

This word family — organize, organization, organic, organism, organ — is etymologically related to the base <erg> (‘work’) and its family of energy, allergen, ergonomic, ergative (look it up! I promise you will learn something). Also related etymologically: urge, surgeon, and — you guessed it — work!

Now, this investigation took me some (shocking!) places I didn’t expect to go, and it also took me back to some places I’ve been before, thus deepening my understanding of those previous journeys (one with surgeon was particularly rich) and whetting my appetite for others. One of the things I have to work out along the path of my investigation is how I know when I’ve got a morpheme and what’s simply, as one well-known morphologist likes to call it, “etymological residue.”

How can we tell? No resource will tell us reliably what the orthographic base element of a word is; this is something we have to discern by an organic process. So what does that process look like, and how do we know when we’ve ventured away from morphology, and entered into etymological markings and connections rather than morphological analysis? Well, as it so happens, this is a central question of my current work. I have a sense of how this works, but my present academic research and writing are targeting  these questions explicitly. This is the work I will be sharing, in its latest form, at these weekend conferences in Pennsylvania.

Recently, I was conversing with a dear friend and adviser about the purposes of my work, my audience, my goals. It’s great when people who are invested in me and my work question me, because it makes me organize my thoughts and put energy into capturing them in text. What I realized is that, while I might be allergic to bookkeeping and organizational details, I have a sense of urgency about my real work, my language work. Here’s the best I could articulate to my friend, “I just do it, like an artist or a writer, because I can’t not do it. Because there are stories to be told, even though not everyone wants to hear them.”

There are more stories about these words and so many others. I am so looking forward to sharing them here and in the March seminars (don’t forget — there’s one in the Chicago area March 9-10 too!). If you’d like to hear more, come and join us, or think about working with LEX to set up your own local workshop.

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Save the Date

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