Sunday, 25 November 2012

Etymology of the Major Rivers of the World

When it comes to place names the vast majority, especially those in the United Kingdom, have been coined in the last 1,500 years. But with river names the origins are invariably much older, indeed many are so old they are completely unknown.

Yet that these names are so old it does allow us to trace the evolution of modern languages and work back through time to perhaps glimpse something of the theoretical parent tongue, known as Proto-Indo-European, which is held to have given rise to the various language groups across not only Europe but also the Indian subcontinent and parts of the Middle East.

Looking at the major river systems of the world, starting with the longest and then that which holds the most water.

Nile - is not only the longest river in the world it is also one of the oldest proven geographical names still in existence. It is thought to be from a Semitic-Hamitic word nagal meaning (as is the case with so many river names) simply ‘river’. Note the Egyptians called it the Ar or the Aur meaning ‘black’ and a reference to its colour when heavy with sediment.

Amazon - is not named for its size, but from a Tepiguarani word amazunu meaning ‘big wave’. This is a reference to the famous bore which can wreak significant damage to the lower reaches.

Yangtze-Kiang – takes its name from the ancient city of Yangchow with the Chinese kiang meaning simply ‘river’.

Mississippi – is from an Algonquian word meaning ‘great river’. In 1542 the Spanish called this the Soto Rio Grande or ‘the big river of Soto’, he being Ferdinand de Soto who led the Spanish expedition here three years earlier.

Missouri – thought to be a Native American, probably Dakota, word meaning ‘muddy’ and aptly named considering the volume of silt carried by this tributary of the Mississippi.

Yenisei – a river in Siberia which is rarely heard of as it flows north into the Arctic Ocean and thus frozen solid for much of the year. Oddly it comes from a Turkish loan word iondessi and means ‘big rver’.

Huang He – means exactly what its English name suggests, the Yellow River being named for the volume of silt it carries.

Ob – as with the Yenisei, a Siberian river flowing north into the Arctic Ocean. This time the name most likely comes from the Iranian ab meaning ‘water’, although some sources give it as a local Komi word meaning ‘aunt’.

Irtysh – a tributary of the Ob, the name has three possible origins of which the most likely is Mongolian from ertis meaning ‘river’. While Kazakh ir tysh ‘to dig the land’ and possibly referring to irrigation seems more likely when it comes to spelling, that the Kazakhs were not here until well after the name was in use makes this unlikely. There is also Bashkir yrtysh meaning ‘rushing’, although this does not describe this slow-moving river at all.

Parana – not only the name of a river but a city and a state. However ultimately all are named from the river, which is named from a native word para meaning, once again, ‘water’.

Congo – a major river which does not have a name referring to water in any way, not does it refer to the country through which it flows. Both are named from the source of the river, the Bantu kong meaning ‘mountains’. In recent years the river has been known by its local name of the Zaire, za being the root and meaning ‘river’.

Mekong – should probably be understood as referring to ‘main water’ with the second element related to Sanskrit ganga meaning ‘river’.

Mackenzie – is named after Sir Alexander Mackenzie who sailed up here when voyaging to the Arctic Ocean in 1789.

Darling – is named after the governor of New South Wales from 1825 to 1831, Sir Ralph Darling, by Captain Charles Stewart who was deemed to be the first European to sight the river.

Niger – comes from a Tamashek word n-gheren meaning ‘river among rivers’.

Volga – the longest river in Europe may have a list almost as long of possible meanings. Among the suggestions are Slavonic vlaga ‘moisture’, Estonian valge ‘white’, Finnish valkea ‘bright’, and Russian veliki ‘great’.

Euphrates – is from the Greek spelling of the original name of Purattu, itself from the Assyrian ur at meaning ‘father of the rivers’ and understood as being the mightiest.

Yukon – a native word meaning, somewhat predictably now, ‘big river’.

Indus – comes from the Sanskrit sindhu meaning ‘river’ and losing its initial ‘s’ thanks to both the records of the Romans and the Greeks.

Brahmaputra – again possibly from Sanskrit, perhaps meaning ‘son of a brahmin’ but every chance there is an earlier unknown word or phrase.

Danube – that one of the longest rivers in Europe is named from a Sanskrit word shows the close relationship between these tongues derived from the Proto-Indo-European language. Here Sanskrit danus meaning ‘damp’ or Avestan danu ‘current’ are the most likely beginnings.

Zambesi – as with the Zaire za is the first element, here combining with another to give ‘big river’.

Ganges – from Sanskrit ganga meaning simply ‘river’.

Ural – named from the mountains where it rises, likely from Tatar ural meaning ‘girdle’ and used in the sense of a ‘belt’ separating Europe from Asia.

Dnieper – not named from the simplistic ‘river’ but a Latin version of the earlier Sarmartic don ipr and literally meaning ‘river river’.

Irrawaddy – is thought to be from Hindi airavati or ‘elephant river’.

Seine – an evolved name which pre-dates the Roman name of Sequana (but is the earliest recorded) and is thought to mean ‘calm, quiet’ and describes the nature of the river.

Orinoco – takes the Guarauno word meaning ‘the place to paddle’ and thus named from the upper reaches where it is navigable only be small boats.

Tigris – one of the oldest names in the world which can be explained. While the meaning is generally accepted to refer to its fast-flowing current, especially in comparison with the Euphrates, and speaking of ‘arrow, spear’, the language which provided the name has several candidates including Sumerian, Sanskrit, and Old Persian and most likely pointing to a common ancestor for them all.

Limpopo – if it is named from its upper reaches then this is Matabele ilimphopho or ‘the river of the waterfall’ or, if named from the lower reaches, the ‘crocodile river’ which is its alternative name.

Volta – is a late name given by Portuguese explorers and first seen in 1714 as Rio de volta. This is either seen as ‘river of return’, if describing a turning point, or ‘turning river’ if remarking on its winding course.

Rhine – from Old High German ri ‘to flow’ and Gaulish renos ‘water’.

Loire – a name which can be traced through the Roman name of Liger to the Indo-European lig meaning ‘to flow’.

I would welcome any suggestions for themes or subjects, or even specific words to examine the origins, meanings and etymologies. I’d be delighted to hear from you.

Sunday, 18 November 2012

Desert Island Discs

First introduced to this long-running radio broadcast by my grandmother. In those days nearly every piece of music chosen was classical or from some musical or other – at least it seemed that way. In recent years the delights of the podcast, the ideal companion on a long walk, has reunited me with Desert Island Discs and started me thinking about my own particular choices and just how difficult it must be to select just eight tracks to represent one’s life thus far. When first listening, with my grandmother, as I was around seven years old and, with the Merseybeat dominating the UK charts, the decision would have been much easier than today, almost five decades later!

Never one to be able to resist a challenge, I began to jot down some favourite tracks but soon abandoned this method as I would have ended up with hundreds before long. Hence I tried to think of music which reminded me of significant moments in my life. Oddly this failed for the opposite reason, for I have no notion of what (if anything) was playing when I heard about 9/11 or Kennedy’s assassination, for example. So I tried eras and genres and eventually whittled the list down to the following. Unlike the programme I’ve not explained the reason for my choices, indeed I’d probably struggle to find explanations for most. Incidentally this list would probably change dramatically every single day.

She Loves You – The Beatles

Meditation de Thais – Jules Massenet

Brown Sugar – The Rolling Stones

The Impossible Dream – Matt Monroe

Running Scared – Roy Orbison

Walk Hand In Hand – Gerry and the Pacemakers

I Shall Be Released – The Hollies

Imagine – John Lennon

When it came to a choice of books the decision was much easier. My favourite sci-fi author is, was and ever shall be Isaac Asimov. Mr Asimov was also famous for being the first (and maybe still the only) person to have a published work in every category of the Dewey Decimal System. As Kirsty is very flexible when it comes to book choices, I shall opt for the yet to be released The Complete Works of Isaac Asimov, it might even be able to tell me how to survive on this island. Incidentally the mandatory Shakespeare I can take or leave, and the Bible will only be ballast. I have no faith and if I accept it will teach me to be better inclined toward my fellow man it is doubly redundant as I am now alone on a desert island!

Luxury item was very difficult. It changes every time I make a decision. So before it changes again, I’ll opt for R Daneel Olivaw – I doubt if this will be allowed but I’m not giving her the chance to veto it. Oh, and if you don’t know who or what R Daneel Olivaw is, you haven’t read my book choice.

Sunday, 11 November 2012

Little Known Body Parts

Perhaps that should be body parts with names one rarely hears?

This thought came to mind by way of a pub quiz when one of those standard trivia questions came out. The question was “What is the name of the groove between your nose and lips?” to which the answer is, of course, the ‘philtrum’. (Yes, of course I got it wrong.) However just in case someone asks similar questions in the future, I have put together the following selection.

The outside part of the ear is known as the ‘auricle’. That fleshy part which means we have two nostrils and not one is correctly called ‘columella nasi’. Up a bit higher and, unibrow wearers excepted, we find the ‘glabella’ between the eyebrows. Nearby is the point where the nose meets the forehead, or the ‘nasion’. David Bowie is an example of a ‘heterochromatic’ individual, for his eyes are different colours (one brown and one blue). Talking of eyes the white part should correctly be referred to as the ‘sclera’. Round the back is the nape of the neck, or rather the ‘niddick’. You don’t have warts you have kerotosas. Perhaps the beauticians among you (I’ve never met one, never needed to) are aware the half moons on your fingernails are correctly called ‘lunula’. While on the subjects of hands the fleshy part between thumb and index finger is your ‘thenar’…. ….. and the space between those two digits is the ‘purlicue’. And a little lower those creases around your wrist are not ‘creases around your wrist’ but ‘rasceta’

Before anyone writes to me I am well aware the following three do not qualify as parts of the body but I simply liked the words so much I could not leave them out. Pandiculating is the correct term for ‘yawning’. Borborygmus sufferers should be fed, it describes ‘tummy rumbling’. And ear wax sounds much better if said to be cerumen.

We would all do well to commit this list to memory. Especially a couple of individuals whose contribution to the annual holiday trek which features as many quiz nights as possible has been limited to ‘netball’ and ‘Iron Maiden’. You know who you are.

I would welcome any suggestions for themes or subjects, or even specific words to examine the origins, meanings and etymologies. I’d be delighted to hear from you.

Sunday, 4 November 2012

Plural is Singular ….

….. but singulars is plural. I’m talking about the words ‘plural’ and ‘singular’, of course.

The question of odd plurals came to light when looking at the origins of place names and I discovered a dialect word ‘housen’, used until comparatively recently (at least as Old English goes) for the plural of ‘house’. I once overheard an animated debate concerning words ending in –ouse and their plurals. One pointed out that mouse became mice, and louse became lice, and therefore house should be ‘hice’ and not houses. After five minutes of this I, being distracted from the book I was supposed to be reading, suggested they settle their dispute by asking the ‘Scise’. Two blank stares and one “Humph!” and I was alone once more.

It does not follow that a word ending in –ouse always have a plural ending in –ice. Neither does –oo- always have to become –ee- simply because there is more than one as is the case with foot and feet, goose and geese, which is why moose becomes mooses. The same follows for the American idea that because the plural of locus is loci and radius is radii, this is not true of hippopotamuses, octopuses, and platypuses all the correct plurals.

On the other hand there are words which are both singular and plural – deer, offspring, series, species, and fish. Note there is a word ‘fishes’, but this is used when referring to the number of kinds of fish and not a number of individuals.

Finally I recall having a report read out loud to me some years ago. The passage which sticks in my mind contained the word read as ‘passerbys’. Later, knowing the person reading it was more than capable of making this mistake, I sneaked a look at the Daily Drivel (I shall refrain from naming and shaming) to discover they had indeed used ‘passerbys’ as the plural of ‘passerby’ and not ‘passersby’.

I would welcome any suggestions for themes or subjects, or even specific words to examine the origins, meanings and etymologies. I’d be delighted to hear from you.