Sunday, 15 November 2015

Etymologies and Homonyms (again)

Whilst I am always interested in learning new words, it is the never so much the meaning as the origins which intrigue me. A couple of years ago I looked at homonyms, a word with two meanings and I looked at the etymologies of these words. Were there two completely different origins and the identical spelling is pure coincidence or has the word simply been used to mean two different things?

Here are another selection and, having done ABC before, now continue with a selection of others:

Dear can be used as a noun to mean ''beloved' and as a verb to mean 'expensive'. In both cases this is from the Old English deore and if defined as 'precious' can also be used in both senses.

Deck can be used to mean 'adorn' and also to refer to a part of a ship. Both are derived from Middle Dutch dekken meaning 'to cover' and, once again, appropriate to both senses. Note the use referring to a pack of cards is first seen in the late 16th century, thought to liken the stacked cards as the decks of a ship. Later use as a tape deck, coined around 1949, describes the flat surface required to ensure smooth passage of the recording tape from one reel to another.

Down is also used to describe soft feathers as well as the opposite of up. These have to quite different origins, albeit from similar words. Old English dun meant 'hill', still seen in the similar modern word 'dune', today only used to refer to sand features. We also find Old Scandinavian dunn referring to 'soft feathers', this derived from Proto-Indo-European dheu which referred to 'to fly (like dust)' or 'rising cloud'.

Duck is found in its earliest form as a verb. Germanic languages feature intermediate forms - Old High German tuhhan, German tauchen, Old Frisian duka, Middle Dutch duken, and Dutch duiken - are come from Proto-Germanic dukjan or 'to plunge or dive'. As a noun it is easy to see how dabbling is why the waterfowl earned this name. Furthermore because the females greatly outnumber the males, this is why the females are known generically as 'ducks' while males are specifically 'drakes'. The use of 'duck' as a noun is a late addition to Old English, Saxons used the term ened from Proto-Indo-European aneti.

Even can be used to mean 'alike' as well as 'equal'. The latter is from Old English efnan with the former from the similar efen. Both undoubtedly have the same root, although when the two meanings first came about has never been identified and by the same token we have no idea which use came first.

Exact is most often used as an adjective meaning 'precise'. This is from the Latin exactus, with the same meaning, itself the past participle of exigere which means 'demand, enforce' and is also how the word 'exact' is used as a verb. In English the 'demand' meaning is much older than the more common modern use of 'precise'.

Fawn is most often used to refer to the young of the deer and, as with the previous example, is of later origin than the verb. The young deer came to English from Old French feon which originally meant 'young animal' rather than specifically 'young deer', indeed the former was in popular use until at least the 15th century in England, too. This ultimately shares an origin with 'foetus', the Latin fetus meaning 'bringing forth' as well as 'offspring'. When it comes to the verb meaning 'grovel', this began as Old English faegnian or 'rejoice, applaud'. Later Middle English used 'fawn' as an expression of great pleasure and delight, in particular we find it used most often in reference to a dog wagging its tail.

File can be used to refer to the tool or the act of using said tool to smooth or abrade, particularly in metalwork. In this sense Old English feol comes from Proto-Germanic fihalo 'cutting tool' and Proto-Indo-European peig 'to mark by cutting, an incision'. Interestingly a couple of Eastern European languages have also evolved this root to mean 'paint', presumably both are linked in the sense of the piece being improved upon by work done on it. Talking about a file in the office sense (computer terminology simply borrowing this usage), has a strange etymology indeed. First seen in the early 16th century, this is from the Old French file meaning 'a row' and still used in English in this sense. The link from 'a row' to 'documentation' is through the original filing being done by stringing the documents on a cord or wire. This is reason we so often hear administrative excuses telling us something is either 'on file' or, more often, 'not on file'.

Fine has three uses: as an adjective meaning 'pure, refined'; to describe something as 'delicate'; and as a verb meaning 'penalise'. The first example is from Old French fin 'perfected', itself sharing a root with 'finish' and the French word finis. In Modern French the word continues to be used in the second sense of 'delicate', and came to English in a general sense around 1300 when used to express approval, this is why we use expressions such as 'fine figure' and 'fine arts'. When it comes to third meaning, this is also Old French where fin was used to mean 'limit, death, boundary' as well as in the sense 'fee, payment, finance, money', the different uses probably beginning as when a debt became due, ie the period of credit had come to an end.

Fire could well be one of the earliest words ever spoken, or at least one of the earliest ever described. Clearly that original sense referred to flame and, while we will never know what language was first spoken, we do know a reasonable amount of Proto-Indo-European, the root of most European and related languages. This ancient tongue appears to have to quite different roots for 'fire': this seen in paewr which should be seen as 'inanimate' and probably best seen as the chemical process and thus the process of burning; and also from egni, the origin of 'ignite' and used in the sense of 'animate', ie the living flame. Fascinatingly the latter 'animated' use is also seen in viewing water as a 'living force' both etymologically as well as elementally. When used to mean use of a gun, this undoubtedly refers to the flame associated with early musketry and although we use 'fire' with archery today, this is a modern term and Saxon archers would have said 'shoot'. The ejection of the projectile in guns, muskets and canon is undoubtedly the reason for using fire to mean 'dismissal', this not seen before 1885.

Flat has three uses today. The earliest, and most obvious, came to English from Proto-Germanic flata which meant 'shallow' as well as 'flat'. It is worth noting that while today we would see 'flat' as meaning 'having no significant rises', the original sense was 'having no significant dips'. The use of 'flat' to refer to a property on a single storey began some two centuries ago in Scotland and originally described (quite sensibly) what we would today see as a bungalow. It is derived from a source meaning 'ground, floor' and ultimately used to refer to 'level ground near water'. In a musical sense it is first seen in the late 16th century, this originally being used to mean 'dull, featureless, lacking contrast' - we still speak of 'featureless' when looking across a flat landscape. Around the same time, indeed within ten years either side, we find 'flat' used in the context of 'unexciting' and also in reference to drink being flat.

Fold is used as a noun to refer to an enclosure for animals, this from a Germanic root and brought to England by the Saxons with falud. While evolution of the word is uncertain, it is interesting to note the Dutch vaalt and East Frisian folt have the same origins but have come to mean 'dunghill'. As a verb the history is much clearer. Distributed across the northern hemisphere and seen in Albanian pale, Greek ploos, Latin plus, and Sanskrit putah, while also evolving in some languages to mean 'a joint'.

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