Sunday, February 10, 2013

another nod

More ill than usual these days, I have spent my time today in bed reading the OED. As I have mentioned before in this blog, the treatment of Sanskrit in the etymologies of the OED is often a little careless. Today I came across the OED's etymology for kirpan, "the sword or dagger worn by Sikhs as a religious symbol."
Panjabi and Hindi kirpān, < Sanskrit kṛpaṇa, sword. 
Actually the Sanskrit word kr̥pāaḥ, "sword, sacrificial knife," has a long ā too. Punjabi kirpān and Hindi kr̥pān, by their form, must be learned borrowings, not the organic descendants of the Sanskrit through Middle Indic. Panini apparently derives the Sanskrit word from the root of kalpáyati, "he orders, apportions, cuts, trims," whose Indo-European antecedents are disputed. Kalpa is also one of the Finnish words for sword--perhaps one of the early Indo-Iranian loanwords in Uralic? 

Saturday, February 2, 2013

not clear as crystal

After pointless hours of research, I would do anything to know how Persian  ‏شيشه šiše “glass”, from Middle Persian <šyšk> “flask, bottle” (cf. Armenian շիշ šiš "bottle”) might be related to Mishnaic Hebrew אֶשֶׁשׁ “crystal ball, light reflector” and Jewish Babylonian Aramaic  אֲשׁׅישָׁא “jug”. Someone somewhere has suggested such a relationship. Someone somewhere has also suggested a relationship of all these to Middle Egyptian šs “alabaster”.  Did the Iranian word originally designate a flask of semiprecious material for holding perfumes? Sorani has شووشه  šûšand Kurmanci şûşe, and this vocalism is also found in Georgian შუშა šuši. (In this semantic sphere, later Assyrian has a luliu “slag of glass” and later Babylonion lulimtu “a jewel(?)”. That there are exchanges between š [sometimes reflecting Proto-Semitic lateral *] and lateral l in the languages of the region is well known.)

Saturday, January 19, 2013


It is incredible to me that the Oxford English Dictionary does not have the word pogonip. Merriam-Webster say that they have a cite from 1865. I had thought that the OED had put all of their material for the letters M through R online, before the editors started jumping around more last year. How did this word fall through the cracks in the OED's reading program for American genre fiction?

Perhaps pogonip got swept up into general-use dictionaries because it was used in a Louis L'Amour story "Down the Pogonip Trail". Later writers of Westerns and frontier fiction seem to have propagated the word after that. Gillian Welch uses the word in one verse of her marvellous song "Wrecking Ball" on her album Soul Journey):
Oh, just a little deadhead  
Who is watching, who is watching?  
I's just a little deadhead  
I won a dollar on a scholarship  
Well, I got tired and let my average slip  
Then I's a farmer in the pogonip  
Where the weed that I recall  
Was like a wrecking ball
Is pogonip the only word in English from Shoshoni (besides Shoshoni nɨmɨ "person" in the linguistic term Numic)? I really like having these rare words in the dictionary. Imagine the pleasure of reading a Western in which this word is dropped, wondering where it came from, and then looking it up in the dictionary to find its origin with the sinking feeling that it will not be entered. But there it is!  

The Random House Dictionary (always the best general dictionary for the origins of Native American words, thanks to the contributions of Ives Goddard) gives the following etymology:
Origin: 1860–65, Americanism; < Shoshone paγɨnappɨh thunder cloud; compare soγovaγɨnappɨh fog (with soγo- earth), yaγumpaγɨnappih fog (with yaγun- valley).
 I must see if there is a further Uto-Aztecan etymology for paγɨnappɨh. To be continued...

Sunday, December 2, 2012

El Uñón

Tonight, after the election of Enrique Peña Nieto, I have seen too many headlines in English language news sources that read Enrique Pena Nietowhich sounds very unfortunate when pronounced out loud. Pondering the sound of ñI was eventually led to search for minimal pairs in Spanish that illustrate the contrast of /ɲ/ and /nj/. Wikipedia provided the following: uñón /uɲon/ "large nail" (of the finger or toe) and unión /unjon/ "union". But how real a word is uñón?  Well, mis uñones and sus uñones get a paltry few hits, but there is also this:  
EL UÑON  Un ser mitico, hombre con uñas muy largas, que utiliza para atacar a las gentes como un animal salvaje.
found in Mitos y leyendas de Antioquia la Grande by Javier Ocampo López, a collection of Colombian folklore available on Google Books. To me there is no greater pleasure than reading dictionaries of mythogical beings—a taste I developed when I received a copy of an English translation of Borges' El libro de los seres imaginarios when I must have been six or seven. Of the many beings I read about in that book, I was particularly haunted by the thought of the NasnasLying in bed with my head on the pillow in the dark of night, I often imagined that the sound of my heart was actually the thud of the horrible hopping of the Nasnas, slowly and clumsily making his way to my house in the night, bobbing up and down like a sinister pogo stick...

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

inelegant word

The small town of SopchoppyFlorida, holds an annual festival showcasing the art of worm grunting, a traditional method used to gather earthworms for use as bait. A thick stake of wood, less than three feet or so in length, is driven into the ground, and then a flatiron is drawn across the top of stick in such a way that the stick vibrates. The vibrations disturb the worms in the ground, and they wiggle up to the surface and are gathered by the pailful by the grunters. (The worms perhaps mistake the noise of the vibrating stake for the sounds made by a mole digging through the earth, so that they climb to the surface in order to escape being eaten.) The term that Florida worm grunters use to describe the tool of their trade, the wooden stake, is stob. This word dates from Middle English times and is related to the standard English word stub. In modern times, stob survives chiefly as a regionalism meaning a short piece of wood.” Professor Charles F. Smith of Vanderbilt University included the word in his 1883 work “On Southernisms”, a compilation of Southern regional terms. His account of the word reads as follows: Stob, a small post or stake or stump of a shrub, South, commonly so used in many, if not all, parts of the South. It is not elegant, however. Despite Smith’s low estimation of stob in 1883, the Florida worm grunters of today still find the word useful.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

et idem indignor quandoque bonus dormitat Homerus

Eating at a Japanese restaurant today, I asked for some ponzu for dipping my takoyaki in (I am homesick for the Kansai today and I went to the Japanese food-court in the Porter Square mall). Ponzu has an interesting etymology—it's from Dutch pons, "punch" (that is, wine or spirits mixed with fruit juice and spices), a testament to the long period during which the Dutch mediated contact between Japan and Europe. The Dutch word is from English of course, and it's interesting to see ch in English punch rendered as s in Dutch... I wonder what that says about the articulation of s in 17th and 18th century Dutch dialects...

Looking up the etymology of punch in the OED3 out of curiosity, to see if anything interest had been discovered by the OED editors during their run through the letter P, I came across this:
Apparently < Sanskrit pañca (also with vernacular pronunciation pañc) in pañcāmṛta, lit. ‘five nectars (of the gods)’, combination of five medicaments, so called on account of its five ingredients, i.e. milk, curd, butter (probably ghee), honey, sugar (probably molasses) < pañca five adj. + āmṛta, plural of āmṛt nectar ( < the same Indo-European base as ambrosia n.); perhaps compare also Sanskrit pañcapātra set of five glass bowls for libations; the Sanskrit collective compounds would usually have been written and thought of as separate words. 
This is all screwed up. A word *āmṛta is parsed as the plural of what looks like a compound *āmṛt with, as a final member, a noun stem *mṛt- with the -t- extension beloved by Sanskrit for making vowel-final roots inflectable as nouns. Apparently several errors have been made here, perhaps through confusion caused by the pronunciation of Sanskrit tatsamas in Hindi, by inattention to the proper resolution of sandhi, and by carelessness in the use of stem-forms for the citation of substantives. First of all, the word for "nectar conferring immortality" is amṛtam, with a short initial a-, not a long ā-. From the synchronic perspective, this a- is the a privative of Sanskrit, although the compound amṛtam is doubtless the reflex of a formation of Proto-Indo-European date, and the -mṛtam is likewise transparently from the root mṛ-, "to die."  

Also, the OED3 citation of etymon as simply pañcāmṛta is confusing. Is it a stem? An inflected form? The OED3 ought to have written pañcāmṛta- or used a fully inflected form as the citation formthe nominative for a masculine or feminine substantive, and the nominative-accusative for neuter substantives, as in the present instance. The compound pañcāmṛta- is used in the later literature both as a neuter singular pañcāmṛtam and a neuter plural pañcāmṛtāni according to Monier-Williams. A collocation of pañca and amṛtam "nectar" is not attested in the Rg Veda, where the word does amṛtam indeed make the archaic regular plural  amṛtā with long ā (not, however, *amṛta). As the OED etymology is currently written, it looks to the Sanskritist as if a putative consonant stem *amṛt makes a plural *amṛta.  That is plainly ungrammatical. What kind of neuter plural ending is -a in Sanskrit?

I am ashamed to say that I was not sure I could produce a properly formed plural for a neuter consonant stem having the shape *amṛt off the top of my head. *Amṛnti? I had to slink away to my bookshelf to consult Whitney's Sanskrit grammar to see what the proper form wasindeed *amṛnti. In any case, no such stem *amṛt- (which ought to be an adjective meaning "not dying") exists, as far as I can gather from Monier Williams. What the OED meant to say, I think, is that pañcāmṛtam is a compound of  pañca "five" and amṛtam, nectar of the gods, and that in rendition of this compound in the modern Indic languages the -am of the neuter is ignored. 

All this aside, in the continuation of the OED3's etymology of punch, the discussion of the vowel in the word and its quality in 17th and 18th centuries is fascinating.