Sunday 25 May 2014

Etymology of Body Parts

I recently heard from a young lady from New Jersey, a regular reader who asks if I would look at the etymology of the parts of the body. Thank you for your suggestion, Claire – hope you find the following list interesting!

At first I thought it made sense to work from head to toe (or even toe to head) but then remembered everyone is ostensibly a 12-year-old schoolboy and would instantly scroll down to the bits below the waist (or above it had I started with the toes). Hence so as not to reveal my ignorance as to where these bits should appear in such a list, I opted for alphabetical order.

Ankle – a word which came to English either through Old English or Old Scandinavian, both used this which suggests there is an unknown root common to both languages. Indeed that root is likely shared by Old French and Latin, for the term for that joint between the leg and the foot has the same source as ‘angle’ and that is exactly what it means.

Arm – much as the previous word here we can trace this back to a Proto-Indo-European root meaning ‘fit, join’. From this we can trace lines to German, Danish, Swedish, Dutch, the Scandinavian tongues, and others all meaning ‘arm’. Note the original reference appears to be to the arm joint, also seen in the Greek derivative arthron ‘a joint’, Armenian armukn ‘elbow’, and Latin armus ‘shoulder’.

Brain – a Germanic word which seems only ever to have been used to mean ‘brain’ or perhaps ‘skull’. In his book of 2005 Anatoly Liberman suggests it is from the Proto-Indo-European root bhragno meaning ‘something broken’. (Any follow-up comments here are utterly pointless as I’ve already written them!)

Chest – was never used for the thorax until the sixteenth century, prior to that both males and females had a breast. The term chest came from Old English cest meaning ‘box, casket’, a suggestion the rib cage was a box containing a number of vital organs.

Chin – generally a Germanic word referring to the front of the jawbone, however earlier usage would be to the whole of the jawbone in many languages - one exception being Old Irish, where gin referred to the ‘mouth’.

Ear – the English version is somewhat different from those in other languages of the Germanic group which seem to prefer ore and ora and similar. All are derived from Proto-Indo-European ous seen as ‘perception’ in general rather than just hearing. It may also be of interest to learn nobody was ‘wet behind the ears’ before 1914 (the earliest known usage); however ‘the walls had ears’ by 1610; and as recently as the 1880s some medical practitioners believed piercing the ear lobes improved one’s sight.

Elbow – derived from two words, the first ell being ‘the length of the forearm’ with the addition of boga ‘bow, arch’ and related to bugan ‘bend’.

Foot – in the Indo-European group of languages, those of the Germanic arm prefer ‘foot’ whilst the Latin group opted for forms closer to the modern French pied – somewhere between these two is the original Proto-Indo-European ped all of which refer to the foot.

Finger – a Germanic word which can be traced to Proto-Indo-European penkwe meaning ‘five’ and for obvious reasons as there are five digits (the thumb was considered a finger until later)

Hand – the origin of this word is very uncertain, although we do know the Old English hond, from which it has come into Modern English, was also used to mean ‘power, control, possession’.

Head – this from Old English heafod also seen in a topographical sense to mean ‘the top of a slope’ which may well have been the original sense.

Knee – can be traced back to Proto-Indo-European where the root geneu also gave Greek gonia or ‘corner, angle’ and sharing an origin with the ankle.

Leg – a word which came to English quite late and first seen in the 13th century. Thought to have originated from a Scandinavian leggr it probably came from a Proto-Indo-European root meaning ‘to bend’.

Nail – first used in English solely for the fingernail, Old English naegl is related to terms in other languages of the Indo-European group where usage can refer to fingernails, toenails, claws, and even hooves.

Nose – can be traced to Proto-Indo-European nas which has given a name to this part of the face in all the Germanic languages, Sanskrit, Old Persian, Lithuanian, Latin, and many others. It’s original meaning is so ancient as to be unknown.

Neck – the origin depends upon whether we accept this as a purely Germanic term or not. This does not seem likely as hnecca is rarely used. It is possibly from a Proto-Indo-European knok meaning ‘ridge’ ad seen topographically in Old Irish cnocc Old Welsh cnwch and Old Breton cnoch, all three used to mean ‘hill’.

Shoulder – the origin of this Germanic term is uncertain, although it may possibly be related to the origin of ‘shield’ for obvious reasons.

Stomach – the bit at the lower end of the gullet began as stoma which, meaning ‘mouth’, referred to the other end.

Thigh – began as Proto-Indo-European root teuk or ‘to swell’, and probably came into usage in referring to the thickest part of the leg.

Thumb – as we have already seen ‘finger’ was applied to all five digits on the hand, this the case until around the 5th century. Again the term ‘thumb’ is Germanic and best seen in the Scandinavian reference meaning literally ‘the stout or thick (finger)’.

Toe – the Proto-Indo-European root here is deik which means ‘show’. This makes more sense when we understand many Indo-European languages used the same word for both toes and fingers.

Waist – this can be traced to a Proto-Indo-European root of wegs meaning ‘to increase’ (the first syllable of ‘augment’ has the same origin) and shows the figure would only get bigger from this the narrowest part of the body.

Wrist – a Germanic word which is traceable to a root of wreik meaning ‘turn’. Interestingly Old Norse rist was used to mean ‘instep’, as indeed it was in German where it also had the alternative meaning of ‘back of the hand’.

Sunday 18 May 2014

Parts of Speech

At school one of my most loathed lessons was English Grammar when learning parts of speech and tenses. Having written for some years I suppose I should be more interested in usage, yet it is the etymology of the terms themselves which I find of more interest and look at such below. If nothing else it may help me remember something I should probably have learned forty-odd years ago.

Noun – came into our language from Middle English which, as with most words which did not appear in the earlier Old English, has Norman French influences and can be traced to Latin nomen meaning ‘name’.

Pronoun – as above but with the additional ‘pro’ meaning ‘substitute’ and ultimately from the Latin pronomen via French pronom.

Adjective – and again from Latin, also via Old French where adjectif came from adjicere meaning ‘add, attribute’.

Verb – another Middle English term from Old French verbe and Latin verbum originally meaning simply ‘word’.

Adverb – as above, where Old French adverbe and Latin adverbium saw the addition from ‘added’.

Preposition – a Middle English word from Latin praeposito and ultimately prae-ponere ‘place before’.

Conjunction – another Old French word (conjunction) and Latin (conjunctio) meaning ‘connect’.

Interjection – ultimately from Latin interjectio meaning ‘interrupt’.

Not only do these eight lexical categories (to give the correct term) share a common theme but, in the main, are fairly self-explanatory. In the case of tenses, itself from Latin tempus or ‘time’ and via the earlier French tens with the same meaning, the basic past, present and future speak for themselves. Less obvious is the ‘perfect’ tense, from Latin perficere ‘complete’; ‘pluperfect’ is Latin plusperfectum ‘more than perfect’.

What may not be particularly well known is that while many languages have three tenses, English is actually a two-tense language (Japanese is another), where there is only the past and non-past, the latter covering both the present and future in a single verb form. Similarly Greenlandic and Quechua (South American native language from around the Andes) have only future and non-future. There are also languages with no tenses, in a grammatical sense, including Chinese, Burmese and Dyirbal, the latter restricted to a small part of Queensland and, as at the census of 2006, restricted to just 29 speakers. Strange as it sounds there are languages with four tenses, where past is separated into recent past and remote past. I could find none with five tenses but did find one with six. The Kalaw Lagaw Ya tongue of Australia (native to some parts of Queensland) has the remote past, recent past, today past, present, today or near future, and remote future.

Sunday 11 May 2014

Modern Slang

Slang is created by succeeding generations to create a personal code which the older lot were not meant to understand. I recall one phrase we thought we could use quite freely around the school – of course ‘dreck’ was not a word we had invented, as the German teacher was quick to point out. We also freely used the expression ‘wagging it’ to describe one who was AWOL. I was amazed to discover this had skipped a generation and was well-known to my grandparents, although they would have termed it ‘playing the wag’.

In modern parlance the same is true where old expressions have been revived. For example the insult ‘div’, a description of someone who is considered less than wise and an overheard expression which got me thinking about the subject in the first place. There are two schools of thought here, northerners may point to a the foolhardy miners who insisted on using the older and less reliable Davy Lamp down the mine when a proven improvement was readily available. I would question this explanation as the ‘divs’ would also be endangering the lives of their colleagues and such a double standard would surely never be allowed by the mine owners. In the south of England a much later origin has been suggested in a shortened form of Unemployment Dividend – the 1950s version of Job Seekers Allowance. This explanation is not much more credible, an insult from a shortened form of ‘dividend’ hardly seems likely as a dividend is a positive not a negative.

What does seem certain is the origin of ‘chav’. This stereotype has been in use far longer than I ever thought. Apparently it was in use, in its modern sense, by 1998 and first appeared in print five years later – it was named ‘the word of the year’ for 2004. However the word certainly existed in the 19th century when it is given as ‘chaval’, a slang term for ‘a boy’. It is held to be from the Romani word chavi meaning ‘child’. Despite what you hear it is most certainly not an acronym, creative etymology long after it was in general use suggested an origin of ‘Council House And Violent’.

Sunday 4 May 2014


A homograph is defined as a word which has more than one meaning. Perhaps this should be explained further as there are some words which share a spelling – bow and wind, for example – but have different pronunciations as well as meaning. Here we are looking at the same spelling and different meanings. For crossword compilers (and solvers) such words are invaluable when trying to fill that five-letter space. Using the alternate definition when the word is clearly used in the other context can prove a minor distraction.

Bat – Every night untold millions of insects are killed by bats.

Bear – Bear watching bear baiting

Brace – A brace of pheasant will help support a family.

Can – Can factories can

Clear – Clear balls on a snooker table.

Conduct – Conductor attracts in electrical performance.

Down – Get down from that duck!

Lead – The vicar took the lead.

Quarry – The old man finally managed to bag his quarry.

Rock – Fred Flintstone’s music collection was all rock.

Spirit – Brandy was the epitome of spirit in the school

Wave – The hairdresser put a wave in my hair.