Sunday, 17 April 2022

Synonym Etymologies D

Continuing the look at synonyms through the eyes of the etymologist, this time it is the letter D and dull, as in 'dreary'.

Dull, as used in reference to colour or brightness, is unknown prior to the end of the 14th century. This comes from its use in referring to a tool or weapon being blunt - and that also the reason 'dull' has been used to mean 'slow in understanding' - and can be traced back to Proto-Indo-European dhul from the root dheu 'dust, vapour, smoke'.

Dreary is first used in Old English dreorig and meaning 'cruel, bloody, blood-stained', and came to English through the Germanic line with similar meanings. Ultimately this can be traced to Proto-Indo-European dhreu meaning, depending on the context. 'to fall, flow, drip, droop'. Hence the original 'dripping with blood' has changed to become 'dismal, gloomy' - and one would think blood loss to that extent would hardly make anyone pleased.

Dismal also began with a rather different meaning, for in the early 15th century the sense was 'unlucky, inauspicious'. This came to English from Old French and Medieval Latin, the latter dies mali 'evil or unlucky days', and tracing back further from Proto-Indo-European dyeu 'to shine' and mel 'bad, wrong'.

Drab had been used in the 16th century as a term for a 'dirty or untidy woman' (and worse), but this is connected to an Old French word drap. Here the meaning is 'yellowish-grey' or other similarly lifeless colour by the 18th century and earlier still simply described the thick woollen cloth of unremarkable colour.

Banal, as in 'hackneyed' or 'lacking distinction', has the same origin as 'ban' and is not difficult to see. The Germanic root of both words saw Old Norse banna 'to curse, prohibit', German bannen 'expel, banish', and back to Proto-Indo-European bha 'to speak'. The same cluster of words has also given us 'bandit' and 'contraband'.

Tedious came to English from Old French tedieus and Late Latin taediosus with the same meaning. While of uncertain etymology, it seems likely to be related to words such as Old Church Slavonic tezo and Lithuanian tingiu which both mean 'dull'.

Boring is another where the etymology is uncertain, but probably came to English from French and likely used in the sense of 'boring a hole' where progress might be made but a very slow and laborious pace.

Lifeless is the opposite of life, and the only word we need to examine. All Germanic roots refer to 'body, person' and the like, which earlier forms use as 'continuance, perseverance', this showing the links to earlier still Proto-Indo-European leip 'to stick, adhere'. Hence the longtime sense of 'life' is actually 'not to die'.

Insipid came to English from the French around the early 17th century, and is derived from Latin sapere to 'have a taste' and used more to refer to flavours as it is related to sapidus 'tasty' and also to the modern word 'sapient'.

Wearisome is clearly from 'weary' and both words from the Germanic group which have never had any other meaning than 'to exhaust, make tired'.

Bland is from the Latin blandus 'smooth-talking, flattering, alluring', and thus has virtually changed to the opposite meaning. Tracing this back further takes us to Proto-Indo-European mel 'soft' which, it could be argued, could be lead to the word in both the positive and negative sense of 'bland'.

Flat is not used in the 'dull, tedious, boring' sense until around 1870, when it went even further to mean 'total failure'.

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