Wednesday, January 11, 2012

`Etymological Opaqueness'

I met a friend for lunch who, when I arrived, was reading her new ebook. I’d never seen one before and asked if I could hold it to get a sense of its heft. She’s an Orthodox Christian and her book has internet access, so she was reading the Dynamic Horologion and Psalter – a guide to the Daily Offices and other devotional services of the Eastern Orthodox Church. The word was new to me but I worked a fast etymology and guessed that horologion is from the Greek and means “Book of Hours.”

After lunch I checked the Oxford English Dictionary and confirmed my hunch. The dictionary leaves out horologion (my spell-check software also doesn’t recognize it) but includes more than a dozen etymologically related words with multiple meanings, such as horology, “the art or science of measuring time,” and horologic, a word I learned as a kid in connection with morning glories: “Of a flower: Opening and closing at certain hours.”

In my book bag was a volume I had just taken from the campus library: An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology (University of Minnesota Press, 2008) by Anatoly Liberman. Among other things, words are tools. When I use a tool – say, a belt sander -- I like to know how to use it properly, so no one gets hurt. More to the point, I enjoy knowing some of the history packed into words, what Emerson called their “fossil poetry.” That makes etymology a branch of paleontology, or better, archeology, a sifting through strata. Each word echoes with many words, and a good writer learns to orchestrate the echoes, though even experts don’t hear all of them. Liberman writes in the introduction to his dictionary, which traces the origins of fifty-five words across 360 pages:

“The common denominator of all fifty-five words is their etymological opaqueness. The solutions offered here are, of necessity, controversial. If the history of bird, cockney, slang, and the rest were less troublesome, their etymology would have been discovered and accepted long ago.”

Liberman devotes almost five double-column pages to so mundane a word as bird, proving it’s not mundane after all (fuck, incidentally, merits ten pages). When looked at with such intensity, words we use casually, even carelessly, come to resemble densely packed stars of meaning. On Monday, Nige devoted a post to the 101st birthday of Gypsy Rose Lee and used another word new to me – espieglerie. As he puts it: “What charm, what finesse, what espieglerie - what a dame!”

The OED gives us “Frolicsomeness, roguishness,” and cites an 1816 usage by Sir Walter Scott: “A pretty young woman with an air of espieglerie which became her very well.” The other usage dates from 1852, when Francis Edward Smedley writes: “Which act of un-English-woman-like espiéglerie must be set down to the score of a foreign education.” Both refer to women, the first with approval, the second with xenophobic distaste.

The root is French, espiéglerie: “mischievousness, impishness, roguishness; piece of mischief, prank.” But the French is borrowed from the name of the trickster figure in German folklore, Till Eulenspiegel, the source of Strauss’ tone poem. In Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist (1610), Till makes his first appearance in English literature as “Howelglas” – that is, owl glass or, roughly, Eulenspiegel.

1 comment:

Chuck Kelly said...

The etymology of surnames is interesting, too. I listened to a BBC 4 Radio program a few months ago about genealogy. The expert said FULLER & WALKER are regional variants of the same occupational-based surname.

They both signify a person whose occupation was trampling cloth to roughen it. Northern England & Scotland called these people Walkers. Southern England called them Fullers.

There was another associated name in Southwestern England, but I've forgotten it.