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Comments on English Word Origins
Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins

A review of:

My brother referred me to the above web site and asked me to evaluate what I found there.  I was interested, somewhat pleased, and yet considerably puzzled by some of the contents.  Here are some of my thoughts on the article on word origins I found on KryssTal.

Many of the word origins given I recognize and find that the writer is basically correct.  But many of the explanations or categorizations are so reductionist as to be nearly absurd.  Others are questionable in the way (s)he has described them.

Sloppy Explanations
Some comments and wording indicate some serious linguistic background, but this makes more puzzling some of the sloppy references and terminology of some explanations.  It is unfortunate that the first two sections of this paper make it sound foolish and childish.  Later sections contain some things of interest.

Many of the words he says were just made up are clearly from native Anglo-Saxon sources, Latin through French or scientific.  A quick visit to the Merriam-Webster's Intercollegiate Dictionary (MW) clearly documents many of these.  How someone with some linguistic background could be so careless is puzzling.

Just Appeared?
The article first lists words that "just appeared in the language out of nothing."  Many of these have well-known and well-documented usages.

Documented Native Words
Like dog -- a native English word < docga, documented before 12th century!  kick < Middle English kiken, documented from 15th century.  Of course, before these early centuries somebody could have made up the terms so they "just appeared."  But this is the case with ALL words -- how far back into history do you want to go!??  What do they mean here?

I was surprised to find that, according to MW, donkey and jam are indeed of unknown origin, though the latter is documented from 1706.

A Byte of Science
The word byte, for instance, was coined within the computer tech industry as a humorous form of "bite" in connection with the already-in-use "bit" for a single bit of information.  

A "byte" was a mouthful of "bits," though specifically defined as 8 bits.  So it did not "just appear ... out of nothing."  There are 1000s of pages of stuff documenting this over the last 30 years.  In the 90s, I wrote an article about this and other computer word origins for our computer club newsletter in Kenya.  (In fact, I compiled a computer glossary at that time.)

Scientific Words
Quasar is a recent scientific word, made up, yes, but specifically by astronomers (not "just appeared") from quasi-stellar.  Yuppie, of course, is well-documented as coming from the media and sociological demographic term Young Urban Professional > YUPpie, in popular grammatical adjectival usage, then back to the new common noun form that means the same as YUP originally meant.

We know the origin of yuppie, just as for hundreds of words that have developed in our Information Age in the media's attempt to clearly capture some concept or trend in a usable single word of phrase.  Yes, it was coined, but specifically for a reason, and in a documented process, not "out of nothing."  

The article includes one section of words "coined by Shakespeare."  (Without including the whole list, they claim there are 1600 of these.  Maybe so.)  Maybe the specific form of the word shown first appeared in a Shakespeare play.  But even if that is the first record we have of them, all the ones they list are from recognized old forms, many coming from Latin.

Further, the fact that they first appeared in Shakespeare's plays does not mean he "coined" them, but that likely indicates they were actually already in use, given the audiences and cultural milieu of that time and the enlightened elite court, gentry and business society and International state of English life.  

Shakespeare may have made some of his fun by making up words in forms they would recognize, though, just as modern writers do.  This process does not usually involve totally unknown words, but extended usages.  It was a highly literate era.

Known Classics
Take critical -- from a Greek word kritikos, with a Latin/French suffix common in modern English.  And excellent, this is an old Latin word, in early use in English through Norman French.  Surely Shakespeare was not the first English person to use this!!  

It would have been an active word the Normans brought with them when they came to England in 1066 with their form of French.  MW says it is documented as a Middle English verb excellen < excellere, from Middle French, Latin excellent, excellens, present participle forms.

On majestic, again that is the common Greek/Latin/Germanic suffix on an old Latin word.  Middle English majeste < Middle French majesté < major and related forms;

Some are given documentation dates in the range of Shakespeare -- countless 1588, lonely 1607 (clearly from (a)lone, an old word), obscene 1593.

Firmer Ground
Later sections seem planted on firmer ground, but explanations are sloppy in some.

Aztec to Spanish to English
The explanation of chocolate is a bit off-center from what I have understood.  They give the original Aztec (Nahuatl) form as choco-atl.  There is apparently one syntactic error.  ("The Spaniards inserted an A between the T and L...."  It appears they meant "...inserted an L between the O and the A.")  

Sources normally report the Aztec form borrowed by the Spanish was chocolatl.  (See extensive sites on this:  http://www.google.com/search?q=chocolate+chocolatl&sourceid=opera&num=0&ie=utf-8&oe=utf-8)   And this became chocolate, not chocolato.  Most atl words in Nahuatl (Aztec) became ate in Spanish, and were borrowed into English in that written form, but with the English pronunciation dropping the final E.  Compare coyote (Sp and Eng spelling) < coyotl.  

Another site ( hocolatl&hl=en) discusses some ambiguity in the origin of the Spanish word.  The spelling of the possible Aztec form cacahuatl may be what the KryssTal writer was attempting to represent:

Some scholars think the Aztec called their
chocolate chocolatl.  But others think that was a
Spanish invention, based on the Aztec word
cacahuatl (“bitter water”) or the Mayan chocol haa
(“hot water”).

Some Are Right
Some words on which I agree with their explanation:
algebra (the case with many of our mathematical terms, from Arabic, through Turkey and Greece or the Moors in Spain, though some of the Arabic terms came into Arabic from Greek, as they recovered the Greek classics in the old Eastern Greek-Persian empire territories.)
checkmate (I have read something like their explanation of the derivation from Persian-Farsi, but am less familiar with the details)
awful, notorious, nice (cf. "cute" which originally meant bow-legged!)
bra (though he misspells the French word, which should be brassière), bus, exam,
gym, lab, petrol, pram

Other Minor Corrections/Clarifications:  
On Family Names
     Preston (they say "an English City") -- means Priest's Town

     French (they say it is "from France" -- well, only roughly, and do they mean the country or the word?); France is a derived phonetic form, just as French is.  Both the country and the ethnicity were derived from the earlier ethnic tribal name Frank.  France is derived phonetically: Frank > Frankish (standard Germanic form for adjective form of nationality) > Fransh (like the current region of France Franche-Conté) > France (pronunciation:  frâns, with nasal vowel), adjective franç-ais.  The form "French" is an English pronunciation derivative from earlier Anglo-French forms.

     Scott (they say "from Scotland") -- Scott is the word for an ethnicity.  The country is called Scott-land because it is the land of the Scot(t)s (after they took it away from the Picts!)

     Russell (they say "French:  red haired") -- this may be French, but it is broader Germanic, so maybe Norman (Viking) in French, related to russet, ruddy (red), and may be pre-Germanic Celtic.  Russell is a sept of Cumming or Russell clans in Scotland (could be from Norman French).

I was interested to learn from this article, and confirm it from other sources (ref http://www.babynamenetwork.com/detail.cfm?name=Campbell&gender=Male), that the famous Scottish name Campbell is a Gaelic word meaning "Crooked mouth."  

Folk Derivations
I found one site (http://baby-names.adoption.com/search/Campbell.html) also giving a French derivation "pretty field" (from the Medieval French/Latin forms campo - field, bell(o) - pretty).  The equivalent Italian form Campobello is still a current place and family name.  The French derivation appears to be a folk etymology.  If it is actually reported correctly in this source, it is probably a folk derivation developed by Campbell descendants in France, refugees from one of the many civil/clan wars in Scotland over the centuries when France was an ally of Scotland against England (1200s-1400s).

On Place Names
    gleann (Gaelic)
Celtic words always fascinate me.  This one also occurs in the Welsh form glyn.  We are familiar with the personal name from this word, usually spelled Glenn.  (Some people spell the name Glen.)

In our discussion, there was some question about the possiblity of the spelling glenn in the song "Danny Boy."  All the lyrics sites coming up in a quick search have the spelling glen.  Ref. http://www.ireland-information.com/irishmusic/dannyboy.shtml.

MW says Middle Irish was glend, and gives Scottish spelling as glenn. I would say that the latter is SCOTS (Lallans, or Lowland Scots language, also spoken in Ireland), since we have the documented (Scottish) Gaelic form gleann.

    Thorp -- They mention prefix Thorp and suffix -torp, but there is also the form throp.  Just this week I also saw the spelling thorpe.  Ex. Winthrop, Northrop, which are more common to us as family or personal names, but deriving from the same usage.

Burgs and Boroughs
    beorg, current form -burg was not mentioned.  This or some form of it occurs in all Germanic languages, I believe.  Ex. Edinburgh, Pittsburgh, Vicksburg, Lewisburg and dozens of others.  We even have the common term "burg" for a small town.

In Scotland, this word is spelled burgh, as the suffix: "Now the town, or, as the Scots would say, the burgh, of Selkirk figures in my all-time favorite poem ..." (http://www.uwm.edu/~corre/occasionalw/selkirk.html) and "Scottish royal burgh of Banff" (http://www.britannica.com/eb/article?tocId=9013151).

In the US both spellings are pronounced "burg" (just like -berg).  We also have the variations for spelling the 2-syllable variations in America: boro, borough: (In Scotland burgh is two syllables.  I am not sure if this ever occurs in the US).  In England, another form of this is bury, pronounced "burry," as in towns like Canterbury, Glastonbury.  In the US this ending on names is usually pronounced "berry." A less common variation is spelled brough, found in the family name Yarbrough.  Note the same Germanic form in French -bourg, as in Strasbourg.

In practical terms, the most disappointing aspect of this KryssTal article -- which contains some excellent information -- is that so much is patently wrong, askew or unclear, that one must consult other sources to verify whether any one item of interest is really true and correct.  The glaring errors and careless style sadly bring the whole article into question for any serious word student.


Article arose out of comments in an email discussion with my brother Greg about listings on the reviewed site 22 July 2005
Finalized and Posted 26 July 2005

Copyright © Orville Boyd Jenkins 2005
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use. Other rights reserved.

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