Tuesday, 14 July 2015

Who are you calling a fossil?

This post led  me to think about fossils, and [of course] the word's derivation. I ruled out a possible link to ossa (="bone", Latin) – though the coincidence is quite appropriate, and I won't pretend that a scurrilous explanation of the didn't cross my mind. Then I toyed with a link to fossa (="ditch", also Latin). That wasn't too far off the mark (though I was initially inclined to dismiss the idea – as if a "fossil" were just something 'found in a ditch'. A true folk etymologist would go one better and make a fossil something found in a ditch – originally related to an archaeological dig near Fosse Way.)

But a ditch is DUG. And here's what Etymonline says for fossil:
1610s, "any thing dug up;" 1650s (adj.) "obtained by digging" (of coal, salt, etc.), from French fossile (16c.), from Latin fossilis "dug up," from fossus, past participle of fodere "to dig"...

Restricted noun sense of "geological remains of a plant or animal" is from 1736 (the adjective in the sense "pertaining to fossils" is from 1660s); slang meaning "old person" first recorded 1859. Fossil fuel (1833) preserves the earlier, broader sense.

There is another sense, widely used among students of linguistics, and explained in a footnote in When Vowels Get Together:

Which leads me back to that post (at the thought-provoking linguisten.de – though they dig up interesting stuff, and can't be blamed for its shortcomings):  it's an old Mental Floss piece. [HD: In this commentary, my numbers refer to their numbers.]
  1. Not so much an error, more a missed trick. Of wend, Etymonline says 
  2.  "to proceed on," Old English wendan "to turn, direct, go; convert, translate," from Proto-Germanic *wanjan (cognates: Old Saxon wendian, Old Norse venda, Swedishvända, Old Frisian wenda, Dutch wenden, German wenden, Gothic wandjan "to turn"), causative of PIE *wendh- "to turn, wind, weave" (see wind (v.1)). Surviving only in to wend one's way, and in hijacked past tense form went. 
    The author of the Mental Floss piece is presumably a student and/or a non-native teacher of ESOL, and so more interested in the "outrageous" irregularity of go than in what seems to  me the more interesting link with wind
  3.  Oops. The double s could have saved him here:
  4. The "desert" from the phrase "just deserts" is not the dry and sandy kind, nor the sweet post-dinner kind. It comes from an Old French word for "deserve'.. 
    This rather short-circuits the story. The Old French word was (or derived from), to quote Etytmonline,  servir "to serve" (see serve (v.)). ...  
    Then ...Middle French dessert (mid-16c.) "last course," literally "removal of what has been served,"
    So the word is related to "the sweet post-dinner kind'; that part of the story explains the extra s (which to the student just looks like a gratuitously irregular way of representing the /z/ phoneme – so irregular that in many cases (this Mental Floss blogger, for example) the student doesn't notice or remember it; really sophisticated students may even discount it as a typo when they see it written (as they often do: I wonder how many of the 341,000,000 deserts noted by Google should really be desserts.)
    Again, the ESOL bias has interfered: remotely related to has been perverted into meaning nothing to do with because it's easier to remember that way. But it's also easy to remember the whole story, as long as you get the spelling right.
  5. Again, not so much an error, more a missed trick. The author obviously knows his stuff. It was [accurate] news to me that eke "comes from an old verb meaning to add, supplement, or grow". But I did know the word (conjunction..? – well, sort of; often used to reinforce "and") eke as used by Chaucer . And I wondered at first why "an 'also' name" came to be a nickname; but the abbreviation aka put me on the right track: "also known as".
  6. Another missed trick: sleight  is related to  sly.  but that word is not a commonplace in the ESOL classroom. In fact, English Vocabulary Profile [HD – there was once a link for this, but it required authentication] does not include it in the recommended vocabulary for even C2 level (in the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages C2 is the most advanced level). [I think they'd probably question that use of 'recommended'. To quote their spiel,

    The EVP shows, in both British and American English, which words and phrases learners around the world know at each level - A1 to C2 - of the CEFR. Rather than providing a syllabus of the vocabulary that learners should know, the EVP project verifies what they do know at each level.

    But you get the gist: whereas a native speaker of English will find the link to sly useful (and of mnemonic value for remembering the derivation of the phrase sleight of hand), the student of ESOL is most unlikely to.]
  7. And another, possibly for similar  reasons. Like sly for no. 4, dent is not included by EVP for any level of student vocabulary. But dent is involved, as this Etymonline link shows: 'dialectal variant of Middle English dint . Very interesting (and of mnemonic value). It also explains the line in Good King Wenceslas:
    In his master's steps he trod
    Where the snow lay dinted

    Not the sort of cultural background that a student is likely to have.
  8. Yet another. Riding roughshod: as regular readers will know from this and maybe other posts, I am particularly interested in the way idiomatic expressions tend to refer to old technology (ride roughshod, hang up (a telephone), a flash in the pan.... etc etc ad nauseam) or are culturally specific (in the UK we steamroller things; in the US they railroad them). Even a well-known idiomatic usage like mailbox (in the context of email) refers to the US postal system rather than the UK (where we have 'letter boxes' if anything  – that's if we have a free-standing box at all).

    But I liked the blogger's '17th century version of snow tires'.
  9. OK, although I'd question the 'Scottish'. Isn't the Scottish for 'from'  frae?
  10. '..."hue and cry," the expression for the noisy clamor of a crowd'? Really? I thought it had a more specific meaning than that....Yes, Etymonline:

    ...Hue and cry is late 13c. as an Anglo-French legal term meaning "outcry calling for pursuit of a felon.
  11. Not wrong, but another missed chance. Personally, I'd find it hard to discuss kith and kin without digressing to kindred spirit.  And  is kith related to... {yup}:

    couth (adj.) Look up couth at Dictionary.com
    old English cuðe "known," past participle of cunnan (see can (v.1))...

    The derivation of kith was new to me, but it led to a link with another obscure word –  much less common than either sly or dent, and almost certainly not in an ESOL student's vocabulary. In fact, it's only in mine when fossilized in uncouth. Again, the ESOL bias had prevented the blogger from making links of interest and mnemonic value.
  12. '...the lurch you get left in comes from an old French backgammon-style game called lourche. Lurch became a general term for the situation of beating your opponent by a huge score' says the blogger. Really? I'm on thin ice here, but it seems to me the predicament idea of in the lurch would be more likely to refer to a difficult/impossible situation (not unlike a stymie in golf or a snooker in snooker or, similarly, but in pool, behind the 8 ball. I feel an update coming on, but must finish soon.)
  13. OK. I'm glad of the information.
  14. Again, a missed trick. The obscure word here is shrive, shrove, shriven – particularly shrove, as in 'Shrove Tuesday' (Mardi Gras), when believers in The One True Faith get shriven in preparation for Lent,

    <autobiographical_note theme="shriving" value="throwaway">
    As a veteran of many a Shriving, or the Sacrament of Penance as we used to call it...
  15. <digression>
    I remember a homework, when we had to list all the benefits of Confession. One boy was caned for plagiarism when he used the expression '...solaces a burdened conscience'. Father Steven did not feel  it had the typical attributes of a 12-year-old boy's vocabulary. (I may have invented the caning bit, but Fr Steven wasn't noted for his willingness to 'spare the rod...'.)
     Eheu fugaces...
    ... I find the use of short in 'short shrift' a mite confusing. Brevity, in  my estimation, was to be regarded with relief on these occasions.
Some of the
uncritical applause
So, as I've remarked before (here), stuff on the web can be interesting and useful without being entirely satisfactory. I must say though that I find it a little irksome that several dozen people have applauded/like/reblogged ... it on the linguisten.de site without exercising any kind of critical thought.

It was good, but it could've been a whole lot better.

Update 2015.07.15:14:40 – As intimated: out on a limb, but Hier stehe ich... ("I don't know Andrew", as Martin Luther put it.)

I wrote yesterday that I wasn't satisfied about the embarrassingly big victory idea. I suspected that like stymiedsnookered, and behind the 8 ball the idea of in the lurch should somehow refer to a difficult or unplayable situation.

My first port of call  for [in the] lurch was Etymonline:
lurch (n.2) Look up lurch at Dictionary.com
"predicament," 1580s, from Middle English lurch (v.) "to beat in a game of skill (often by a great many points)," mid-14c., probably literally "to make a complete victory in lorche," a game akin to backgammon, from Old French lourche. The game name is perhaps related to Middle English lurken, lorken "to lie hidden, lie in ambush," or it may be adopted into French from Middle High German lurz "left," also "wrong."

Again, an out-and-out victory. [PS: Strike one.] 

This source was quite promising about the unplayable idea:
To be in the lurch was to be severely discomfited. Various phrases built on the idea, including to give someone the lurch and to have someone at the lurch, respectively to get the better of a man or to have the advantage of him. By the final years of the sixteenth century, within a short time of the word arriving in the language, to be in the lurch had appeared, meaning to be in difficulty and without assistance. After all, it wasn’t the job of the other player to give any help to the loser.
[PS: Strike two.] But the same site goes on:
...lourche or l’ourche, which the Oxford English Dictionary suggests may be from a regional German word recorded as lortsch, lurtschlorz  and lurz. A phrase, lurz werden, meant to fail to achieve some objective in a game. The term was taken over into French, not only as the name of the game but also in the phrase demeurer lourche, to lose embarrassingly badly.
There were other sites but they all referred to the same view and spoke of the lack of fully informed and authoritative sources. [PS: Strike three.] 

But by chance (I suspect the Blares have been at it again  – the blogging equivalent of the Lares['household gods' in Ancient Rome] mentioned before, hereLe Temps published a piece to celebrate Quatorze Juillet, based on an interview with
... Ulrich Schädler, le directeur du Musée du jeu sis au château de La Tour-de-Peilz....
La lourche relève donc du même ordre d’organisation de l’espace de jeu [BK jeux '..'orchestré[s] sur un plateau à deux compartiments'] , avec des règles comparables. Ulrich Schädler nous signale que le mot nomme en outre «une sorte de tactique dans ce jeu, lorsque l’on place des doublons sur plusieurs cases de suite». Une manœuvre pour placer ses pions, ou ses dames, tout en occupant des flèches...
That sounds pretty specific to me,.,,, and doesn't justify the fears expressed all over the Web that the details of the game are lost in the mists of time. The game is not so much not known about as not documented  – at least, not in English. Historians of French board games know perfectly well  how to put someone en lourche.

Of course, over time the meaning may have broadened or changed. Not everyone knows that stymie is a golfing term (quite like snooker, as it  leaves the opponent in a position with no direct shot at the target). Not* knowing this doesn't stop people from meaningfully saying they're stymied.  And the meaning of in the lurch seems to have undergone a similar broadening in meaning.

There's a risk here, though, of what has been called elsewhere (see my footnote to this post) ‘The Etymological Fallacy'; things mean whatever they mean to whichever speech community is using them. (Knowing what they meant ONCE, though, is quite fun.)

Update 2015.07.19:19:05 – Added correction.
*Of course, people don't need to know the original meaning of stymie in order to use it in its present sense.

Update 2018.04.09:14:05 – A few format tweaks for clarity,  and added inline PSs.

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