Sunday, November 27, 2016

The Romance of Words by Ernest Weekley 1921

The Romance of Words by Ernest Weekley 1921

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Professor Weekley interests us in philology no less than Professor Wyld, but he treads an entirely different path. His aim is to select the unexpected in etymology, to show us the close connection between jilt and Juliet, to trace assegai back to Chaucer, to explain the true meaning of phrases like curry favour, which really means the combing down of a horse of a particular colour.

The result of this system is that we begin for ourselves to eye every word with suspicion, and work out by ourselves reasons why trivial means commonplace (it can be picked up anywhere, at the meet of "three ways," trivium), and so on.

Why are the series of monosyllables by which notes are indicated, do, re, mi, fa, so, la? They are supposed to be taken from a Latin hymn:

"Ut (do) queant laxis resonare fibris
Mira questorum famuli tuorum
Solve polluti labü reatum
Sancte Iohannees ..."

Professor Weekley invites us to watch words as they travel, an amusing game.

Apricot starts in mediæval Greek, through vulgar Latin as præcox (early ripe), through Arabia. It first crossed the Adriatic, passed on to Asia Minor or the north coast of Africa, and then travelling along the Mediterranean re-entered Southern Europe. Carat does much the same, being a corruption through French, Italian and Arabic of the Greek KERATION (fruit of the locust-tree, little horn). Hussar is a doublet of corsair, and has travelled a long way since the separation first took place. The cocoa of cocoanut is a Spanish baby word for a bogey-man.

Then there are words of popular manufacture like ortolan, guinea-pig (which is not a pig and does not come from Guinea), parrot ("little Peter"), pinchbeck and nicotine (from the names of men), and so on.

Phonetic accidents account for many vagaries, as we see only too commonly with the letter "h." It is noteworthy that in Imperial Rome educated people sounded the aspirate, while it completely disappeared from the everyday language of the lower classes, the vulgar Latin from which the Romance languages are descended, so far as their working vocabulary is concerned.

That is why the Romance languages have no aspirate. Our "educated" h in modern English is mainly artificial, as we saw before: cf. Armitage with hermitage.

Then there are sound changes by assimilation, dissimilation and metathesis: the lime and linden is an example of the first; tankard for cantar, wattle and wallet examples of the third. Some words shrink, like Spittlegate near Grantham for hospital gate, gin for Geneva, grog from the admiral who wore grogram breeches, navvy for navigator. Words have a habit too of completely changing their meaning. Treacle used for balm in Coverdale's Bible from theriaca, a remedy against snake-bite, a lumber-room, is really a Lombard room, where the pawnbrokers stored pledged property.

Adjectives are especially subject to change. Quaint used to mean acquaint; restive used to mean standing stock still; smug used to mean trim, elegant, beautiful; homely used to mean ugly, disagreeable, coarse.

Miniature ought to mean something painted in minium (red lead).

The original scavenger was an important official.

There is too the study of semantics—the science of meanings as distinguished from phonetics, the science of sound.

The exchequer is really a chess-board; chancel a cross-bar, so cancel.

The study of metaphors is a little startling, when we find that to "take the cake" is paralleled by the Greek LABEIN TON PURAMOUNTA, and that "to lose the ship for a ha'porth of tar" is merely dialect for sheep. Tar is used as a medicine for sheep.

Folk etymology is worth spending time over, if only to discover such things as the derivation of humble-pie, a pie made from the umbles of a stag; umpire (non per), not equal; ramper, causeway, a doublet of rampart; purley, a strip of disforested woodland from pour-allée; taffrail from tafel, picture; posthumous, from postumus, latest-born. Witch-elm has nothing to do with witches; it is for weech-elm, the bent elm.

Ignorance of the true meaning of a word leads to vain repetitions: greyhound means hound-hound; Buckhurst Holt Wood means beech wood wood wood; a cheerful face means a face full of face.

And before taking leave of us and sending us off on a thousand different scents of our own in chase of words Professor Weekley warns us to preserve the rules of the hunt. A sound etymology must not violate the recognised laws of sound change (these may be found in Professor Wyld's book); the development of meaning must be clearly traced, and it must start from the earliest or fundamental sense of the word.

With the few delicious examples that I have quoted before you, multiplied by a thousand in The Romance of Words, this is a game to send you into ecstasies, and one of which you can never tire.

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