Friday, 7 July 2017

We, Paleface?

(Tonto's response to the Lone Ranger's Indians, Tonto. Hundreds of them. We're in trouble now.)

A while ago I wrote (here)
...whenever a dictionary says 'origin unknown' it's a fairly safe bet that a non-Roman writing system was involved. In fact, 'origin unknown' is a bit  like the geographer's terra incognita and 'Here be dragons'; it's a euphemism for 'outwith the scope of traditional scholarship'; and it's not a final sentence.
This is reminiscent of a trick question I remember from my schooldays:  

What was the biggest island in the world before Australia was discovered? 
Answer: Australia.

My point is that whenever someone does something, someone else may well have got there first. That Ecclesiastes bloke was right: There is nothing  new under the Sun. While we're on the subject of islands, I wrote here about how the Portuguese visited the island of Leiname in the early fifteenth century and named it Madeira.
Lignum is the root of the Spanish leño, and  [not that simple...] materia is the root of the Portuguese madeira (no prizes, by now, for recognizing metathesis here – the r;and the i. This commonplace in language development is the subject of one of my more popular backnumbers.)
A Castilian monk (again not the first, but possibly – except for an alleged visit by the Vikings – the first in the post-Roman world) 'discovered' the island too:
...[A] Castilian monk also identified the location of the islands in their present location, with the names Leiname (modern Italian legname, cognate of Portuguese madeira, "wood"), Diserta and Puerto Santo.
So says Wikipedia, and I don't have time to trace it back to a sounder source. 
Then along came the Portuguese and spat in their beer (as it were)... 
This is not to say that this is the only word. Among the options, Spanish has madera and Portuguese has lenho. By changing the name, Portugal was not saying 'A feeg for your feelthy leño. We are calling it Madeira, to remove all trace of your influence.' They were simply asserting their right to change the name, or perhaps covering their tracks – 'This isn't what others have known as Leiname, it's Madeira',  changing the name so as to stake their claim – in the way of all colonizing powers.
In their defence though, one should remember that in those days there was no international maritime registry – they weren't to know.

I was reminded of this by Jim Al Kalili's Science and Islam earlier this week (that's when I saw it, although it first aired  in 2009). He thought (as did many [all?] educated Westerners, that Egyptology began in the 19th century with the discovery of the Rosetta Stone. But remember my's a fairly safe bet that a non-Roman writing system was involved. About 40 minutes in, the learned professor...
I'm drawn to the idea of Jim Al-Kalili having an evil alter ego called Midge Acid-id. The gag (if that's the word, perhaps I should just say conceit) works better with IPA  symbols:

Jim/Midge => /ʤɪm mɪʤ/
...starts a quite lengthy piece about how Arabic scholars deciphered Egyptian hieroglyphics much earlier. (I would quantify that much but my sound card is busy with other things...).

Speaking of which, I could be watching the cricket.   Stay tuned for an update about the word algorithm.


And here are a few more clues:
  • Reportedly, be accompanied by a criminal intermediary and be affronted – (4, 7)
  • An amount worthy of consideration amidst your alternate arrangement – (1,4,3)
  • Like the sky, learn cue after improvisation  – (8)
Update: 2017.07.10.12:15 – Added PPS


I promised an update about algorithm, and here it is. In the ninth century, long before William the Bastard conquered Britain, there lived a mathematician in a town now called Khiva. His name, according to one of the Oxford Dictionaries – Dominus illuminatio mea might as well be Dominus obscuratio mea when it comes to trying to work out just who is telling you something (anyway, the source is here) – whose name made its way into the catalogues of libraries that used Roman script as "al-Ḵwārizmī ‘the man of Ḵwārizm’".
Long-time readers of this blog may remember about al being the definite article, marking many borrowings from Arabic, especially ones that came to English via Spain (whose Moorish invaders spoke Arabic as a second language). This explains why the Italian for sugar  is zucchero (as the Arab invaders of Italy through Sicily had Arabic as a mother-tongue), whereas Spanish and Portuguese words for sugar are azúcar and açúcar, bearing the trace of an article: Do you take the sugar in your coffee?

(As Etymonline says
sugar (n.) Look up sugar at
late 13c., sugre, from Old French sucre "sugar" (12c.), from Medieval Latin succarum, from Arabic sukkar, from Persian , from Sanskrit sharkara "ground or candied sugar,"...
The Arabic root of sugar has no vowel before the s.)

This man introduced the idea of solving problems in principle – without reference to specific values. The system he used involved formulating an <insert-word-here> and applying it to the problem. The rest is left as an exercise for the reader. :-)

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