14 April 2012

Just sharin'

Today at the service garage, waiting for the mechanic’s verdict, I noticed an ad declaring “original parts” in numerous languages. The German version is Originalteile. "Part" in German is Teil.

I saw one I didn't recognize: Originální díly. Looks related to German Teil, but it doesn't look at all like a Germanic language. So I started to think about the connections...

Then it hit me: German Teil comes from the verb teilen, which means “to divide or share”. In at least some Slavic languages, the same concept is expressed by the root del- (e.g., delit' in Russian). So I'm homing in on a Slavic language for díly.

Further musing turns up these words in English and Italian, conceptually similar to sharing, as in "sharing something out", "dividing something up" (by cutting/slicing):
  • English tailor
  • Italian taglio (noun "a cut")
If we continue along this line, we'll probably start finding scads of relatives in this family, because what we've got here is an Indo-European root. All these words are cognates

  • Stumble upon another IE root? Check.
  • Discovered connections I hadn't thought of before? Check.
  • Originální díly? Czech.

06 March 2012

Hewing and Gluing

Have you ever been struck by a cleaver? No? Good!

How about by the word cleaver? I have. The verb cleave is something I’ve pondered for quite a few years (okay, not continuously). It can mean one thing, but also pretty much its exact opposite: "to cut apart" and "to hold together".

There are a number of things going on here... First, the cutting, chopping (or chopped) sense is in these words: to cleave, cleaver, cloven, cleft and probably cliff, and of course, cleavage. *

Speculating a little, I wonder if clover is related (with its distinctly separated or cloven leaves). Stretching a bit further afield, there’s also clove, which I believe takes its name from the French word clou, for “nail”, which the little pungent spicey thing resembles almost to a T. (Hint: nails are for pounding.)

There’s possibly even more. If, as a certain eminent linguist of my acquaintance likes to point out, “b” = “v”, then what about clobber, and from that a club? A club, in addition to being a weapon, is also what English speakers call the suit of cards that looks like a clover but the French call trefle, from trefoil or “three leaves”).

Is it just a coincidence that all of these words have some apparent kinship revolving around the concept of cutting, chopping, or hitting? Read on...

This cutting/chopping/separating idea is what most people today get from these words. But there’s another conceptual use of cleave that survives in older English and modern poetical or oratorical styles. There are phrases such as to cleave to your partner and cleaving to a path, for instance. Both of these phrases mean “to stick to...”, which is decidedly not akin to cutting, chopping, or hitting. **

I have fewer related words to show for this meaning of cleave, but that doesn’t diminish the puzzle for me. (Hint: that was foreshadowing.)

I think it’s pretty clear that this older “stick to” concept of cleave is related to the modern German verb kleben, which means “to stick, affix, glue”. I don’t know enough German to know whether there are kleb- words that also mean “to cut, chop, separate”.

But I do know another German word that somehow brings us back to the “cut apart–stick together” dichotomy: hauen. This verb means “to chop, cut, strike”. In fact, it resembles in no small measure our English hew, meaning the same thing. Again, it’s not part of the conversational lexicon for today’s English speakers, but it exists in phrases like rough-hewn or even to hew a path through a thicket or whatever.

Here’s where the puzzle, or “coincidence” gets most interesting. *** Because in the same sense that we have cleave to a path or cleave to your partner, we ALSO have hew to a path or hew to a line (“stay the course”)!

Huh? On one hand we have a word, cleave, that seems to come into English through German (though undoubtedly it’s an IE root) and can mean both “chop” and “stick together”. On the other hand we have an apparently very different word, hew, that seems to come into English though German and can mean both “chop” and “stick together” -- not just literally, but in the poetically idiomatic expressions: cleave/hew to a path.

How can two apparently unrelated words mean, on the one hand, one thing, and on the other, the exact opposite, in a poetical, figurative sense?

I suspect the answer is that cleave and hew are not as unrelated as they at first appear.

That still leaves the question of meaning one thing and its opposite... But, since this post has already clobbered you over the head with a lot of words, I think I’ll save the obligatory, revelatory trip to my OED for another time and just leave you with this thought:

Instead of asking at the start of this blog post whether you’d ever been struck by a cleaver, it seems I could have also asked if you’d ever been STUCK by a cleaver.

- o - o - 

* For readers who may remember that this blog is about words and pictures, I'm sorry to disappoint you on this one. (Oh, alright. Look here.)

** Unless you have to chop down trees to clear a path, beat up rival suitors to claim a spouse, or cut in on someone to dance with a desired partner.

** Cue daughter’s sigh: “Actually interesting? Or merely Dad interesting?”

28 February 2012


Overheard in a crowd in Stuttgart: Ich möchte dich ungerne verlieren.

Translation: "I would like to lose you [in the crowd] unwillingly" or "I would like unwillingly to lose you."

Instead of saying the equivalent of "I would NOT like to lose you", the speaker said she WOULD like to lose the other person, but unwillingly (ungerne).

What's going on here? I had never heard such a construction before. Seems a little convoluted for a simple thought. I wonder whether the speaker changed her mind mid-sentence...

Maybe my German-speaking acquaintances can enlighten me?

25 February 2012

Beer and the Bible, sort of...

Back to the wonderful topic of beer, I was thinking about two words that crop up sometimes in beer styles here in Germany: Urtyp (“original type”) and Urquell (“original source”, as in “source of water”, like a spring). The ur- prefix means “original”. Then I remembered another German word, Ursprung (“origin”) and its adverb, Ursprünglich (“originally”).*

You can’t help but notice the similarities between ur- and or- in English “original”. Easy to imagine they come from the same source (pun intended).

So that got me thinking about the origin of origin. It struck me that the three major monotheistic religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) trace their roots to Abraham. And Abraham traces his roots to... Ur, as in Ur of the Chaldees or Chaldeans. (Check your Genesis, 11:31.)

Could Ur (which seems to be a common prefix in Mesopotamian place names) be the origin of our word origin? Time for a trip to my OED.

Results? Not as clear-cut as I’d like. I’ll spare you the details**, but essentially origin (“rise, beginning, source”) led me to originate (“bring into existence”) led me to original (“from L. oriri, to rise”) before something interesting cropped up with orchestra, which comes through Greek from the PIE *ergh- “to set in motion, stir up, raise”, from root *er-/*or-.   Er...in other words, the PIE root *er-/*or- has to do with starting up, beginning, or rising up (like a spring) from the earth.

Seems like my attempt to link beer with the Bible are coming to nought. Ergh! Unless we can somehow delve into Sumerian place names and figure out whether their ur- prefix is related to the PIE root *er/*or. Which I can’t.

But it is a bit of fun imagining Urians playing pick-up football in the hot sun against the visiting Babylonians, chilling with a brewsky afterwards. I imagine one of them scratching his head, looking at the bottle, and asking “What are we gonna call this?”

- o - o -

*Interestingly -- to me, at least -- the German quelle and spring/sprung root both relate to our English spring as a source of water.

** The Details:

origin: early 15c., from M.Fr. origine, from L. originem (nom. origo) "rise, beginning, source," from stem of oriri "to rise, become visible, appear". [Let’s try originate.]

originate: yadda yadda (see original).

original: early 14c., from L. originalis, from originem (nom. origo) "beginning, source, birth," from oriri "to rise" (see orchestra).

orchestra: c.1600, "area in an ancient theater," from L. orchestra, from Gk. orkhestra, semicircular space where the chorus of dancers performed, with suffix -tra denoting place + orkheisthai "to dance," intens. of erkhesthai "to go, come," from PIE *ergh- "to set in motion, stir up, raise" (cf. Skt. rghayati "trembles, rages, raves," L. oriri "to rise"), from root *er-/*or- (cf. L. origo "a beginning;" Skt. rnoti "rises, moves," arnah "welling stream;" O.Pers. rasatiy "he comes;" Gk. ornynai "to rouse, start;" Goth. rinnan, O.E. irnan "to flow, run").