Thursday, February 23, 2017

The elusive scraperfish

The elusive scraperfish

Word-lovers go to great lengths to help others make sense of this nutty language we love so well. The Elusive Scraperfish is one such effort. It’s not elusive because of its astounding camouflage or because it buries itself in the muck. It’s elusive because so many people don’t even know it’s there. Such is the nature of bottomdwellers that concern themselves with English pronunciation rules.

Meet the scraperfish.

It scrapes along on the bottom of the sea, looking for its tunnel-dwelling prey. As its rough belly scrapes along the ocean floor, it makes the sound kkkkkk, kkkkkkk, kkkkkk, signifying to those in the know that the letter C (masquerading as a gill), generally makes the K sound. However, when the scraperfish spots its tunnel-dwelling prey, it sucks it up, savors it, & says sssss, sssss, sssss.

The observant reader will notice the nature of the scraperfish’s prey. When the letter C is followed by an E, I, or Y, it makes the S sound (cellophane, cinnamon, cyborg…). Otherwise, it makes the K sound (coliform, curly, cadaver…). The scraperfish rule even works when a C is doubled, as in accident & accelerate. When a C is followed by the letter H, all bets are off, but in other cases, it’s amazing how consistently this pronunciation rule applies.

What’s cooler still is that there’s a second form of scraperfish.

Amazingly, it hunts the same exact prey, giving us
gelatin, gin, & gymnasium in the presence of its prey, and gasoline, gogo boots, & guru otherwise. Sadly, this second fish’s rule doesn’t work when g doubles up. Also, some high profile words like begin & girl ignore our friend the scraperfish. Still, it applies the majority of the time.

Okay, so how many of you word nerds have already met the scraperfish? And who can contribute other unlikely tales to support English spelling or pronunciation rules? Please use the comments section to let me know.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Alternative facts

Alternative facts

Alternative facts are getting a lot of play these days. It shouldn’t surprise us that the term alternative facts can be alternatively understood, since over time both words have had varied meanings.

The adjective alternative grew out of the Latin word alter, to change or make something different. Its origin is the Proto-Indo-European word *al-, which meant beyond. Alternative showed up in English in the 1580s, meaning offering one or the other of two

When used in rhetoric during the 1600s, alternative meant a proposition of two statements, the acceptance of one implying the rejection of the other. 

By 1970, alternative picked up the meaning purporting to be a superior choice to what is in general use.

The noun fact came from the Medieval Latin word factum, which translates literally to thing done. As time passed, Medieval Latin became Latin, & factum came to mean event, occurrence, deed, or achievement. When it made its way to English as fact in the 1530s, it meant anything done, though in usage, the anything done to which the word fact referred was usually an evil deed.

Grist for the mill, eh?

Anything to say about all this? Please leave a comment or two in the comments section.

Big thanks to this week’s sources: Etymonline, Wordnik, Merriam-Webster, & The OED.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

We ourselves

We ourselves

Imagine a word used to refer to oneself in the plural; sort of a we-meets-ourselves word. Today, etymologists write the word *s(w)e-. This Proto-Indo-European word gave birth to a fascinating and diverse collection of words that all relate back to the idea of we/ourselves.

The word self came to us through Proto-Germanic back when folks were speaking Old English. Some time during its stay in Germanic languages it appears to have lost its plural, inclusive nature. 

Another word from this source is secret, which appeared in English in the 1300s, through Latin words meaning private, set apart, withdrawn, or one one’s own.

Sullen made its way to English through Anglo-French. Initially meaning by oneself, alone (in Middle English), sullen didn’t pick up the meaning morose until the late 1300s.

The word swami appeared in English in the 1700s through Hindi. Swami, now meaning Hindu religious teacher, originally meant one’s own or our own master.

Sibling came to us via Proto-Germanic and Old English. Linguists consider sibling an “enlargement” of the root *s(w)e.

And though they appear nothing like their relatives, the words idiot & idiom also came from *s(w)e-. Born of the idea that folks who couldn’t function in society due to apparent lack of mental ability tended to stay to themselves, idiot came to English in the early 1300s through Latin & Old French. An idiom is a figure of speech peculiar to a particular group of people. Idiom came to English through Greek & Latin in the 1500s. The fact that we cling to our idioms as something that defines us appears to have contributed to the existence of this word

All from a little word meaning we/ourselves.

I’d love to know which of these word-siblings you found most surprising. Fee free to use the comments section for such commentary.

Big thanks to this week’s sources: Etymonline, Wordnik, Merriam-Webster, & The OED.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

To throw

To throw

English gives us many ways to express the action of throwing. Oddly, most these words seem to have been thrown into our language from uncertain northern European sources. Here are a few.

The verb throw appeared in English in the 1300s from the Old English word Ć¾rawan (that first character sounds like th). Initially, it meant to twist, turn or curl. It wasn’t until the 1500s that it began meaning to hurl. Though nobody’s certain of the source of this meaning, some etymologists believe it had to do with the fact that a spinning object (like a football or bullet) can be thrown more precisely than a non-spinning object.

An unspecified Germanic term gave us the word hurl in the 1200s, though it originally meant collision. By the 1300s, though, hurl acquired the meaning to throw. Hurl is related to both hurtle & hurry.

Lob appears to have come into being as a noun during Old English & originally referred to something lumpish, heavy or floppy. It’s unclear how lob morphed into a verb meaning to throw slowly or gently in the game of bowling in the 1800s. Soon afterward, lob was applied to the game of tennis & the use of artillery.

Fling probably made its way to English through Old Norse word meaning to flog from a Proto-Indo-European word meaning to strike. This Proto-Indo-European word also gave us the word plague. It wasn’t until the 1300s that fling meant to throw.

In the 1560s an Anglo-French word made its way into English as jetsam, the act of throwing goods overboard to lighten a ship’s load. By 1848 jetsam morphed into jettison & meant to throw overboard. Soon afterward, it picked up the generalized meaning to throw away.

The word pitch appeared with uncertain parentage in the 1200s meaning to set upright. We see this sense of the word today in the phrase to pitch a tent. It seems that to pitch a tent one needed to accurately strike the tent stakes. By the late 1300s, that sense of accuracy appears to have given pitch its new meaning of to throw. Pitch has any number of other meanings worthy of another post.
Toss showed up in the 1400s from an uncertain, though likely Norwegian source. Originally, toss referred to the sudden throwing of an object. By the early 1700s, one could toss a salad, & by the late 1700s, one could toss a coin.

If you’ve got one in you, throw a comment my way.

Big thanks to this week’s sources: Ralph Keyes’s Etymonline, Wordnik, Merriam-Webster, & The OED.