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Don't Eat With Your Mouth Full

Where can we live but days?

steepholm steepholm
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Cratylus vs. Saussure
Maybe I'm more than usually etymologically minded, but not I think to a pathological degree. Admittedly I felt melancholy the other day when I considered that many people who talk about "booting" their computers probably don't realise the word derives from the expression "to pick oneself up by one's bootstraps", a thought that always triggers a series of pleasant associations in me, usually terminating in the Primum Mobile of the Ptolemaic universe. What a lot of fun they're missing!

So, I'm quite surprised that when the Romans moved the start of the year from March to January they didn't take the opportunity to rename September through to December in a way that reflected their revised position. By that time, presumably, these had become mere arbitrary counters to them, rather than words with intrinsic meaning. Similarly, the missionaries who converted the English surely missed a trick when they left the days of the week for the pagan gods to swank around in. This doesn't strike me as a case like that of, say, building churches within henges, or converting the goddess Brighid to St. Bridget, since no Christian substitution was made: the names were, again, just counters.

As with etymology, so with mnemonics - which sometimes indeed overlap. I told one of my Japanese friends the other day that I remember the Japanese word for "fresh" (shinsen = 新鮮) by looking at the characters, which consist of a kanji meaning "new" (新) followed by a kanji which is itself made up of the kanji for fish and sheep (鮮). So, I think of new fish or new sheep being "fresh". What relation this bears to the actual etymology of the word I've no idea, but it seems a pretty obvious mnemonic. She however had never noticed this, and found it very amusing when I pointed it out. No doubt the same experience could be had in reverse - indeed, I'll look out for it.

Goodbye = God buy ye.

All right = Okay, sure, wilco (=will comply).

itself, apparently from swank NY-Knickerbocker nob slang for "all right" distorted into "oll korrect," and then abbreviated.

Most idioms, no? But it's hard to remember they're idioms.

In the US we say "Hi" as a greeting. No one knows or remembers that it's short for "Hiya" = "How are you?" And yet people will sometimes answer: "Pretty good," and only if you challenge them do they wonder why they've answered that. It's a kind of behavioral thing. I think they think "Hi" is short not for the simple "How are ya?" but an abbreviated gesture towards "Hi, how are ya?"and so they anticipate when they answer.

I asked a native French speaker the other day whether numbers like 80 (=quatre-vingts) or nine-six (quatre-vingt-seize) struck him as a calculation, or just the pure primitive name of a number. He understood the question after a beat, but said, of course they were pure primitive names. Whereas I have to figure it out, the way I don't have to figure out trent et un.

Wittgenstein says that when we don't have to figure something out is when it comes to life for us. For Wittgenstein numbers are what they are when they do come to life that way. XLIV is... wait... 44!

for private detective?

Is case in point a case in point?

Edited at 2015-10-04 06:39 pm (UTC)

In some ways I feel that words come to life when you don't have to figure things out but do anyway, because you are conscious of language's diachronic dimension. I find (and I'd guess so do you) that most of your examples tend to come bringing their tales behind them. Words leave their paw prints everywhere.

Yet I've no patience with people who confuse etymology with meaning. Someone who says that (for example) "horrible" really means "provoking goosepimples" has simply substituted one 2D meaning for another less useful (because less generally comprehended) one.

I imagine that Wittgenstein is right when it comes to learning new languages. When you stop having to keep up an act of constant translation, then indeed the language lives. From the echo chamber of etymology, however, there is no escape.

I thought "Hi" derived from a shout to get people's attention (variant of "Hey," "Oi," etc.), just as "Hello" used to be a halloo, or else an exclamation of surprise. It had to be pointed out to me that people do not say "Hello" (or hullo, or hallo), as a standard greeting in novels written before the very end of the 19th century -- it's a term that came in with the telephone. People did occasionally say things like "Why, hullo, it's Herbert, isn't it?" when they actually meant not "Hello, Herbert," but "I am surprised to see you, Herbert," or "I wish to attract your attention, Herbert." (Case in point: the Artful Dodger addressing Oliver Twist with "Hullo, my covey, what's the row?", which looks very like a modern greeting, but isn't quite that.)

I always thought "good-bye" came from "God be with ye."

I was (partly) mistaken

It seems a case (there should be a name for this) of a false etymology influencing the meaning of a word enough to count as partly, though latterly, true. Anyhow, here's the OED:

It has been suggested (W. Franz, ‘Good-bye’, in Engl. Studien (1898) 24 344–6) that the phrase may have originated as a shortening of God buy you ‘God redeem you’ (compare buy v. 4, and also God save you! at save v. Phrases 2b), and that association with God be with you is of later date. Although this suggestion would more readily explain the diphthong in the second syllable, it is not supported by the earliest forms (compare the α. forms). Some of the β. forms with buy do, however, appear to result from later secondary association with buy v.; this association may also have influenced the pronunciation.

I love the word connections.

I hadn't realized the truth about "booting" and am delighted now; thanks for mentioning it!

However, I understand the etymological mindset, I feel. I recently had to give a very short discussion of why I liked the English language for a school event and, among the points I made was that "window" derives from wind's eye, because I do find it delightful that hidden within one of the most prosaic words I can think of is such a poetic metaphor.

Agreed. This is why I've always been rather against spelling reform (from a selfish point of view, anyway), because spelling in English - like wrinkles on a loved face - is often a clue to a word's long and interesting life.

(Thank you in return for wind's eye, which I was unfamiliar with!)