Sunday, 19 June 2016

Etymologies and Homonyms

Whilst I am always interested in learning new words, it is the never so much the meaning as the origins which intrigue me. Previously 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 A to F before, now continue with a selection of others:

gill - not the shortened version of the female name Gillian (the name Jill is simply a late alternate spelling), where one of the earliest references is from 1630 in the term 'gill-flirt' referring to 'a giddy young woman'. Here the two meanings are somewhat uncertain, probably owing to the very different meanings of the same word. However the noun describing the breathing organ in fishes likely came to English from Norse tongues, such as Old Danish gaeln and thought to have originated in the Proto-Indo-European ghel-una meaning 'jaw'. The Greek word kheilos or 'lip' has similar beginnings and does tend to support this idea. The term is also used to mean a liquid measure, coming to England from the Old French gille, used in measuring wine, and derived from Latin gillo 'earthenware jar'. The trail becomes blurred here but seems to share an origin with 'gallon', which also originally would describe the vessel used to hold a liquid rather than the volume of liquid it held.

grave - is another where the two most commonest uses are through each having very different origins. Most often associated with death, it came from Old English graef meaning 'ditch', 'trench' and 'cave' as well as somewhere to place a body. This can be traced back to Proto-Indo-European ghrebh meaning 'to dig, scratch, scrape'. This also brought us the third rarely used use. While we tend to use 'engrave' today, originally 'grave' would have been the norm and the 'scratch, scrape' meaning is easy to see in 'engrave'. We also use 'grave' to mean 'weighty, important' and in this case the word came to English rather later from the Old French greve 'terrible, dreadful', itself from Latin gravis or 'heavy, ponderous, burdensome, loaded' and even 'pregnant'. Considering I am writing this on Father's Day to link a word suggesting 'children' with an alternative meaning of 'terrible, dreadful' might be rather bad timing. Yet this sense is undoubtedly the origin as it is also seen in Greek baros 'weight', Sanskrit guruh 'heavy', and from Proto-Indo-European gwere 'heavy'.

groom - here the origins of the meanings are much more closely related, this mainly through the much later beginnings. As a noun in the 12th century grome simply referred to a 'male child'. However within a hundred years it had come to mean 'a youth, young man' and also spoke of a 'male servant, attendeant, minor officer, a knight's squire'. Here the term is thought to be from Germanic growan meaning 'to grow'. As a reference to one who tends horses it clearly came from associations with a knight's squire, by the 19th century having the more general meaning of 'to tend for', and a century later 'prepare for office or succession'. Not until 1600 do we see this used as an abbreviation for 'bridegroom', where Old English brydguma may have been used to mean 'suitor' but is clearly a combination of bryd 'bride' and gruma 'man'. Note the term 'bride' comes from the Proto-Indo-European root bru meaning 'to cook, brew, make broth' - again unlikely to be the most popular revelation on Father's Day.

gross - in these metric times the idea of a dozen dozen, once the most common use, has been replaced by the 'to disgust' and yet the latter use is unknown prior to 1971. The earlier quantity is simply from the Old French gross douzaine or 'a large dozen' by the 16th century and had earlier been used for a weight equal to one-eighth of a dram'. While 'gross' is rarely used to mean 'large, thick' today, it was once used when speaking of the coarseness and quality of cloth. Here the German gross 'large' can still be seen, as can the Latin grossus 'thick, coarse' and used to refer to both food and a person.

hail - as a greeting is from Old Scandinavian heill 'health, prosperity, good luck' and related to Old English waes haeil, itself still used as 'wassail'. Of course we British will associate this more with the weather phenomenon, where the Proto-Indo-European kaghlo 'pebble' is still fairly easily seen in the Greek kakhlex also meaning 'pebble'.

horn - the two meanings are still very much in use, if not the very old joke "Why do cows wear bells? - Because their horns don't work" would have died out years ago. Horn, when speaking of that used on a car, comes from the wind instrument, itself so named as the first were indeed made from animal horns. That part of the animal can be traced back to Proto-Indo-European ker used to mean 'horn, head, uppermost part of the body'. Before anyone writes and points out there is a third use, the sexual usage is acknowledged and has a most interesting etymology. Since at least the 15th century (and possibly since the heyday of the Greeks) the horn has been used to symbolise cuckoldry, perhaps the victim would be seen to grow such on his head, and thus 'horny' in the sense 'aroused' comes from 'horn' being used to mean 'cuckold' - not a nice thing to be but, to my mind, a delightful word.

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