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.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

No rugelach?

I was shocked to discover today that the online OED has no entry for rugelach. I searched under every perverse rendering of the Yiddish word רוגעלך possible in English spelling, but to no avail. Of course, the last update—posted on 16 September 2010—of the OED3 has only reached rotness in the editors' regular alphabetical run through the letter R, but I think that if they have seen fit to include a lexical item like rug muncher, the word rugelach ought to have received notice, too. The New Oxford American Dictionary includes rugelach, however, so I expect the next installment of R in the OED3 will do as well.

I was trying to verify that word comes Polish rogal, a kind of crescent roll made of good flour, taken into Yiddish and probably reanalysed as a diminutive (the singular is given as rugele in the Dictionary of Jewish usage: a guide to the use of Jewish terms by Sol Steinmetz (p. 44)). I believe that the diminutives make their plurals in -ech in some dialects of Yiddish, or often only a diminutive plural -lech exists. If you can fill in the details of such plural formation, do drop me a line. Polish rogal, crescent roll, is itself is derived from róg, "horn of an animal." According to Vasmer's etymological dictionary of Russian, the Slavic words for "horn of an animal" (Polish róg, Russian рог, etc.) have cognates in Lithuanian rãgas, Latvian rags, and Old Prussian ragis, but further connections are doubtful. Alas.