Thursday, April 26, 2018

A tale of two hearths

A tale of two hearths

A hearth is a significant place — significant in many ways. This is a tale of two hearths

You can find the first hearth in many languages. Versions landed in Lithuanian, Russian, Gothic, Old Norse, Old English, Latin, & Sanskrit. Its source is the Proto-Indo European word meaning heat or fire. As one might expect, the English version is the word hearth. But this root meaning heat or fire also gave us:

cremate to burn or consume by fire — 1620s

& cremation — the process of burning or consuming by fire — 1620s

carbonnon-metallic element occurring in all organic compounds — 1789

carboniferous —  containing or yielding carbon or coal — 1799

carbuncle — originally a red, inflamed spot — 1200s

Our second hearth is less expected — nearly incognito. This group of related words came to English through the Latin word focus, which meant home or family, hearth or fireplace. In time it came to mean point of interest. Focus appeared in English in the 1640s. 

In the 1100s, this same Latin root made its way through French & gave us foyer, which initially meant fireplace, but because a fireplace was often an amenity in the greenroom of a theater, the word foyer began to refer to the room for actors who are offstage. By 1859, the word foyer referred to the theater’s lobby. 

The word fuel comes from this same root, & appeared in English about 1200. And in the 1300s at the end of the evening, one had to cover the fire — the Anglo French word for this practice was couvre-feu, which in English became the word curfew (it took until the 1800s for our modern meaning to come into existence),  

And though it didn’t make its way to English until 1994, the word focaccia, a bread baked on the hearth, came to us through Latin & Italian from that same root meaning home or family, hearth, or fireplace.

May your hearths always be warm & may your words all have intriguing stories.

My thanks go out to this week’s sources: Merriam Webster, Collins Dictionary, Wordnik, & Etymonline.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Words from Egypt & Niger-Congo

Words from Egypt & Niger-Congo

This week’s celebration of one African language & one African language family follows last week’s post on Bantu & Kimbundu. English gets its words from many sources.

The word ibis, meaning a stork-like bird came to English in the 1300s from Egyptian. Though modern English speakers use the word ibis to refer to dozens of different types of birds, only one ibis is the sacred ibis of Egypt (Threskiornis aethiopicus), for whom all the others were named. 

Mumbo-jumbo came to English meaning big, empty talk in 1786 from a language spoken in the region of Niger, from a language in the Niger-Congo family of languages.

Caiman (or cayman) showed up in English in the 1570s & appears to have navigated some messy linguistic waters through Carib and Spanish. Etymologists’ best guess is that the Nile crocodile or one of its close cousins was called caiman by people of the Congo region, who were enslaved by Europeans & brought to the new world. The etymologically messy part of the equation is that today’s caimans are South American alligators, yet the word caiman is not applied these days to any animals of the African continent.

The Niger-Congo language family also gave us the word tango, through Argentinian Spanish. Starting on the African continent as tamgu, to dance, it made its way to South America, before arriving in Europe & installing itself in the English language in 1913.

The word pharoah made its long way from Egyptian through Hebrew, Greek, & Latin to land in Old English over a century ago. Pharoah comes from the Egyptian word pero, which means great house.

Oasis landed in English in the early 1600s from Egyptian after a trip through Hamitic, Greek, Latin, & French. The original Egyptian word appears to come from a word meaning dwelling place.

Though no one is certain, it appears the word canopy came from Egyptian, arriving in English in the 1300s after touching down in Greek, Latin, & Old French. The Greek form meant Egyptian couch with mosquito curtains, & the Egyptian source word for canopy meant gnat.

Gum made its way from Egyptian through Greek, Latin, & Old French before arriving in English around 1300. Originally meaning resin dried from the sap of plants, it gained the meaning sweetened gelatin candy mixture in 1827.

Who knew? Thanks for joining me in this romp through a few of the languages that contribute to this wacky & glorious thing we call the English language.

My thanks go out to this week’s sources: Merriam Webster, Collins Dictionary, Wordnik, & Etymonline.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Celebrating Bantu & Kimbundu

Celebrating Bantu & Kimbundu

Woody Guthrie once said of another songwriter, “Sure, he stole from me, but Hell, I steal from everybody.” The English language appears to have a similar attitude when it comes to word acquisition.

One of the lesser-acknowledged languages from which English has stolen is Bantu, a family of languages spoken across much of southern Africa. Here are a few words that started out in one of the Bantu languages (including Kimbundu, mostly spoken around Angola). Darned it they didn’t make their way into Modern English.

Chimpanzee - appeared in English in 1738 from the Bantu word for a gregarious, anthropoid, intelligent ape, known in biological circles as pan troglodytes.

Gumbo - a vegetable and seafood soup thickened with okra. The word gumbo arrived in English in 1805 through Louisiana French from the Bantu word ngombo, which means okra

Tote appeared in English in the 1800s from the Kimbundu word tuta, meaning both to carry & a load.

Marimba came to English in 1704 from the Bantu word for an indigenous African xylophone-like instrument.

Goober  arrived in English in 1833 from the Bantu, Kimbundu, or Kikonga word nguba, meaning peanut, a leguminous plant.

Zombie arrived in English in 1781 from the Kimbundu word nzambi, originally meaning god, then picking up the meaning re-animated corpse in the world of voodoo.

Tsetse came to English in 1849 through South African Dutch from the Bantu word for fly — all species in the genus glossinidae, Tsetse is also excellent evidence that the Bantu indulge in onomatopoeia.

Banjo appeared in English in 1764 from the Bantu word mbanza, which referred to an indigenous African instrument not terribly unlike the modern banjo

I’m hoping some of you will join me in celebrating these two languages’ contributions to English by offering something along the lines of huzzah! in the comments section. 

My thanks go out to this week’s sources: Merriam Webster, Collins Dictionary, Wordnik, & Etymonline.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

How do you roll?

How do you roll?

The Indo-European word meaning to roll is *wel-. It was constructed by etymologists based on evidence from Sanskrit, Greek, Lithuanian, Old Church Slavonic, Latin, Old Irish, Old High German, Old English, & more.

Its offspring are legion. Here is a small sampling:

revolve to roll back

devolveto roll down

involve to roll into

evolveto unroll

revolt — to roll over

convoluted to roll together 

volume — originally a roll of parchment containing writing 

whelk — a marine snail with a spiraling (rolling) shell

willow — a tree — imagine a storybook weeping willow, with branches that enclose anyone standing near the trunk, foliage that rolls around that person

wallow — originally, a disturbed spot in the soil where some animal had rolled around

wallet — originally a bag or knapsack holding one’s bedroll

waltz — in1825 the waltz was considered a riotous and indecent German dance involving the gentlemen seizing the ladies around their waists — involving not only a circular rolling pattern on the dance floor, but the nimble rolling of the ball of the foot.

Comment or not, depending on how you roll.

My thanks go out to this week’s sources: Merriam Webster, Collins Dictionary, Wordnik, & Etymonline.