Thursday, January 31, 2013

A map of onions?

This just came along on my facebook stream -- I'm linked up to a lot of authors and researchers, so it's an interesting mix.  This article traces (and maps) variations of the word "onion" across Europe.  Just thought you'd find it interesting, and it shows how complex the linguistic interactions can be even for such a simple thing.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Big waves - no good name?

It's surprising just how much of our regular vocabulary is outdated or based on bad information.  "Tidal waves" (as we usually use the phrase) have nothing to do with the tides.  They are caused by a disturbance of the seafloor that causes a part of the ocean surface to rise or fall.  They can also be caused by avalanches that drop into a sea or shore, displacing a huge amount of water.  As time goes on, we seem to be retiring "tidal wave" in favor of the Japanese word "tsunami".

But "tsunami" simply means "harbor wave" ... which also fails to describe the actual thing.  We've seen a lot of video in recent years showing these massive waves striking places that are not harbors.  Historically, it's true that they did enormous damage to Japanese harbors.  The word "tsunami" is still outdated and misleading.

There's really no good word for these events.  They're not really just waves, either.  They are vast surges of water, where the sea level rises and can reach miles inland.  The closest parallel is the storm surge which accompanies a hurricane, also caused by a colossal force altering the actual sea level.  And you can't really call them "killer waves", because they may also manifest as non-events less than an inch high, hardly able to kill a sand flea.

I just thought you might find this an interesting (and unfortunate) lack of words.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Park on the parkway

George Carlin was a master of wordplay.  One of the bits of his that I hear quoted most often is under the subject of how confusing and arbitrary language can be: "Why do we park in the driveway, but drive on the parkway?"

Without even looking it up, one can see that it's a matter of context, and a language where compound words are so easily made up and added to the vocabulary.

From the context of one's home and yard, if you were to set aside one area where you can drive up and park, why not call it a "driveway"?  And if you're building a scenic highway (which might actually pass through a park), it's not a big stretch of the imagination to call it a "parkway".  It's only when the two examples of apparent opposites are put side-by-side that it seems crazy.

It's amazing how many different modes of transport humans have invented, and most of them have their own "ways" for getting around.  There's the seaway, waterway, runway, airway, skyway, byway, highway, thruway, parkway, driveway, beltway, freeway, railway, trailway, pathway, ...

All kinds of alternatives can be imagined.  Would the opposite of a freeway be a payway?  I've heard "tollway" actually used, it seems clumsy but it gets the point across.

Since all roads go through somewhere, isn't "thruway" a bit useless?  And poorly spelled?

And if a "parkway" is the scenic sort, would the opposite be "uglyway"?  I've been on a few stretches like that.

I always thought that the uncommon "beltway" was clever: it's a highway that circles a city like a belt.

For a different perspective, "airway" is fun.  It can be the route you use to travel through the air (on an aircraft), or the route that air uses to travel through you (in your lungs).  Sadly, it doesn't apply if you're just falling through the air, or if air were just blowing in one ear and out the other!

Saturday, May 19, 2012

George Harrison and the grotty grotto

Word lore can pop up in unexpected places. I just saw the old Beatles film "A Hard Day's Night" again, and there's a scene where George Harrison describes a shirt as "grotty" (sounds like "grotto"), to which he quickly adds, "You know, grotesque.*" It's odd for a rock star to stop and give a definition of a slang word at a particular moment in time, so let's look into it.

I had never made that association before, but in grade school, there was the word "grody" (rhymes with "brody") which when we were using it was clearly just a silly way of saying "gross." It even had the awful supersized variation: "grotacious." Now, "gross" itself is a very odd collision of ideas, meaning a specific amount (12 dozen), an overall total ("gross profit"), overweight, of low standing, unrefined, vulgar, offensive ... with all kinds of subtleties in phrases like "gross incompetence" and "gross injustice." As a verb, "to gross" involves reckoning ("grossing a thousand dollars") and "to gross out" is mostly kid stuff ("grossing out your parents"). [DC] gives the source of gross as Middle English "gross" (large), from Old French "gros" (large), from Late Latin "grossus" (thick).

Back to "grotty": [DC] says perhaps from "grotesque", with the note "apparently not akin to 'grody';" though under "grody" their stab at the origin is "1960-65 Americanism, probably alteration of "grotesque."

[EO] points out that "grotesque" used to have a more positive, fanciful meaning, but became darkened by the mid 18th century, no doubt due to the Gothic movement in literature. Comically, [EO] says "grotty" had "a brief vogue in 1964 as part of Liverpool argot," thanks to the Beatles. To come full circle, [EO] traces "grotesque" back to Italian "pittura grottesca" ("pictures in a cave") ... first used "of paintings found on the walls of basements of Roman Ruins". So, the word went from "grotto art" to wild flights of fancy, to Gothic downers, to just plain "grotty."

I'm not sure the two words ("grotty" and "grody") can be separated, however, it's possible that "grotesque" began to rub off on the word "gross" once both began to gather negative vibes. If I told my sister something was "grody", we'd get a good laugh out of it -- the meaning is still there, but with a strange kind of nostalgia. If any schoolkids still use this word, please let me know.

Of course, a "grotto" is still a small cave, though I've heard it used to describe small clumps of trees as well. It's a complex relation between this batch of ordinary, strange, and vulgar words.


*Oddly, right after that scene, John Lennon walks off stage with a showgirl saying, "She's going to show me a stamp collection."

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Thank the gods, it's Tuesday?

Our days of the week also have some hidden meanings in their names. They're actually quite odd.

Sunday and Monday are named after the Sun and Moon. Those are no brainers. But the rest?

Tuesday is named after the Norse god Tyr.

Wednesday is named after the Germanic god Woden.

Thursday is usually said to be named after the Norse god Thor, but an alternative is Thunor, an uncommon variation of Jupiter (Zeus). More detail here:

Friday is named after the Norse goddess Freya, or the Germanic goddess Frigg, who are nearly the same.

Saturday is named after the Roman god Saturn, who was a god of agriculture in this sense.

 It's fascinating how folklore finds its way into our life, through the backdoor, between the lines ... one could argue that these day names don't really mean these things anymore, but they can't entirely escape their origins either. Especially in poetry, you may find events happen on particular days for symbolic or etymological reasons.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

to be or what??

Strangely, the most commonly used verb in any language - "to be" - is often highly irregular. A quick look in English: I am, you/they/we are, thou art, he/she is. Past tense: I/he/she was, you/they/we were. Past participle: been.

Just like "to go," which I have already covered, this is a case of multiple verbs for similar things getting all mashed up together. It's so confusing, you can find etymologies that simply refer to the original verbs as the A-Root, the W-Root, the S-Root and the B-Root.

The A-Root, from Old English aron, survives in am, are, and art. Some sources mix this in with the S-Root, but it seems a likely blend either way.

The B-Root, from Old English beon, survives in be, been and being. The forms I beo, thou bist (still current in German), he/she bith, we/they beoth are gone.

The S-Root, from Old English sindon, survives only in "is". We/they sind (still current in German) is gone.

 The W-Root, from Old English wesan, survives in were and was. The forms I wese, he/she wesst, we/they wesath (etc) are gone.

Originally, these verbs had slightly different meanings (shades of existing, remaining, dwelling or becoming) but they merged anyway. And as wild as this seems, for a verb so central to conversation, similar irregularities exist in Norse and other related languages ... "to be" is not content to be, it's more like having leftovers for dinner.


Saturday, May 5, 2012

go & went

In beginner's English grammar books you were probably told that "to go" is just a freak irregular verb with a past tense of "went." But that's not really correct. There were two verbs for "to go" in English for a long time: "to go" and "to wend." I go, you go, he goes ... I wend, you wend, he wends. Past tense: goed and went. Past perfect: gone and wended.

Maybe "goed" sounded too much like "goad," so it just went away. In any case, the words battled it out over the centuries, and we ended up using all of the verb "to go," except for that one throwback ... "went."

That's not the worst of it. Try figuring out "to be!"