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A number of weeks in the past (21 July 2021), I posted an essay on homonyms and promised to develop this theme additional. Nobody urged me to take action, however the topic is so wealthy that even with out encouragement I believe I’ve the proper to return to it.
Some homonyms are really historic: the phrases in query would possibly sound alike or be almost similar greater than a millennium in the past. However extra usually a newcomer seems from nowhere and pushes away his neighbors with out caring for his or her well-being. That is very true within the realm of monosyllabic phrases, which are typically sound-imitative or sound symbolic. Consider dud. Such formations (one syllable starting with and ending in the identical consonant, normally b, d, g, or p, t, okay: bib, gig, gag, pip, pop, pup, tit, tat, kick, cock, and the remaining) are a nightmare to an etymologist. They are often coined at any time and imply nearly something. Examples abound. Dud is just one such. In dialects, dud shouldn’t be too completely different from dude, a phrase that has been mentioned in minute element. Dud means “a contemptible particular person” and “a nugatory object.” Then, after all, we now have duds “garments; rags, tatters.” Dud “coarse cloak” turned up within the sixteenth century, and dud “nugatory object” 300 years or so later. Are we coping with two phrases or with two senses of 1 symbolic “unit”? Chronology is after all a big issue, however such phrases usually linger in rural speech and fashionable utilization (not to mention low slang) “endlessly,” with out turning into recognized to the remainder of the world. A lexicographer and an etymologist are at a loss about the right way to arrange the entry.
Or take dock, one other monosyllable (a dock for ships). Within the fourteenth century, the phrase got here to English from Dutch or Low (= northern) German, the place its origin is misplaced. As soon as once more, we now have a sound complicated which will imply virtually something (like duck or dick), and certainly, facet by facet with this dock, stands dock “a part of a horse’s tail.” The sooner which means of this dock appears to have been “bunch, bundle.” Lastly, dock “herb” exists. All three traveled from language to language (when the which means is nearly arbitrary, why keep at house?). Their antiquity (dock “herb” surfaced in Previous English, the opposite two within the fourteenth century) explains nothing and proves nothing besides that the sound group dock can designate numerous objects, most of them strong.
Dig and canine are equally obscure, and the complicated canine has been utilized to quite a few objects, typically for no apparent purpose. I imagine that canine is a child phrase (the nursey is a fertile subject for monosyllables), however, so far as I can decide, nobody is in a rush to share my opinion. Little doubt, dock1, dock2, and dock3 are completely different phrases (homonyms) as a result of they denote completely different objects, however their existence reveals how homonyms could come up out of a single sound group, whose reference is so imprecise that their semantic growth is almost unimaginable to hint.
A considerably completely different case is frog. Like canine, pig, and stag, this phrase has puzzled language historians for hundreds of years. Bug and bathroom belong to a distinct group of obscure phrases however have the same construction. Frog, will probably be remembered, shouldn’t be solely an historic animal identify. “A pyramidal V-shaped substance within the sole of a horse’s foot” (such is the dictionary definition) has been recognized in texts solely for the reason that seventeenth century. Because the OED informs us, the Greeks, Portuguese, and West Frisians have comparable makes use of of phrases for “frog.” Thus, although traditionally, we appear to be coping with a metaphor (a frog-like picture known as a frog), a contemporary dictionary finds it essential to checklist two completely different phrases. Lastly, dictionaries cite frog “an attachment to the waistbelt to hold a sword, and so forth.; a decorative fastening for a army coat,” which surfaced first in Daniel Defoe’s works (thus, within the early eighteenth century). This frog is of unknown origin. One other intelligent metaphor? An opportunity coincidence? Nobody is aware of. That is how homonyms multiply.
There’s a British saying Bob’s a-dying, which implies “nice racket; boisterous merriment.” The English Dialect Dictionary by Joseph Wright, a treasure trove of British regional vocabulary, cites this idiom (all of the variants are about making plenty of fuss). The phrase has even been substantivized; therefore the odd noun Bobsy-die (!). A number of publications within the glorious journal The Mariner’s Mirror urged that the phrase is of nautical origin (certainly, examine gentle bob “an infantry man”); but nobody is aware of for certain. I’ve usually puzzled: is basically somebody referred to as Bob (that’s, Robert) meant? A bob is something spherical. This phrase has been recognized from books for 4 centuries, and, predictably, its origin stays undiscovered. There is also one other bob “a blow, rap” (examine the verb bob “to maneuver with a jerk up and down”). Isn’t this bob a-dying and setting off a substantial ruckus? I’ve equal doubts concerning the slang phrase as much as dick (or Dick) “as much as snuff,” however I’d quite depart this phrase, as soon as talked about above in passing, with out dialogue, despite the fact that these days, it’s fairly unimaginable to make anybody blush.
Different homonyms are more durable. Now that I’ve completed engaged on my explanatory and etymological dictionary of English idioms (will probably be printed by the College of Minnesota Press), every kind of weird phrases pop up in my thoughts. Thus, monkey on the chimney (or home) means “mortgage.” To make certain, monkey enterprise wants no clarification, and a number of other phrases like monkey’s allowance “blows as a substitute of alms” and to pay in monkey’s coin (“to pay in items, in private work, in mumbling and grievances”) are to a sure extent clear, however monkey on the chimney? A facetious alteration of cash? A pun on the animal’s identify?
Monkey was an unique case. Lexicographers and etymologists are in bother with the bob ~ dud multitude and with seemingly incompatible phrases like flock, mentioned within the July “gleanings” for this 12 months, and whereas coping with distant epochs, when the temptation is powerful to mix senses, quite than to separate them. We largely really feel secure when the phrases to be in contrast belong to completely different elements of speech, reminiscent of felt (noun) and felt (the previous of really feel) or smelt (= smelled) and smelt (fish identify). The origin of the fish identify is unknown, besides that one other fish known as smolt (a medieval phrase recreation?). The origin of the verb can be unknown (!), and, if in some obscure method, the smelt and smolt obtained their names from their scent, we nonetheless notice that scent1 and scent2 are homonyms: one is a noun, the opposite is a verb.
My two unpretentious essays on homonyms had a most modest purpose: to level to an attention-grabbing chapter of English lexicology, a chapter filled with pitfalls and surprising revelations.
Function picture: Tweedledum and Tweedledee by John Tenniel by way of Wikimedia Commons
Anatoly Liberman is the writer of Phrase Origins And How We Know Them in addition to An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. His column on phrase origins, The Oxford Etymologist, seems on the OUPblog every Wednesday. Ship your etymology query to him care of [email protected]; he’ll do his finest to keep away from responding with “origin unknown.” Subscribe to Anatoly Liberman’s weekly etymology articles by way of e mail or RSS.
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“I’ll be a monkey’s uncle” was fashionable partly due to inner rhyme. But when supposed to be anti-evolution, would possibly it appear to have the descent backwards: man to monkey quite than monkey to man?
A ‘monkey’ is C19th slang for £500, which could have been the scale of mortgage (a cost or encumbrance on the title of the property) which a purchaser of modest means may afford to keep up.
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