Monday, May 9, 2011

"Sunday" Trivia 15

Well, it's Monday again, and you know what that means... Sunday trivia! (Sorry for the tardiness. I have no excuse beyond enjoying the first few days of summer vacation.)

Metathesis is the rearrangement of sounds in a word. Besides being a common feature of casual speech, metathesis also plays into the etymology of many words in English. Bird, for example, comes from the Old English bryd, and horse comes from hros. Ask, which is commonly said as "aks" in some dialects, was present in Old English as ascian and acsian, which were both acceptable variations until the 1600s. In some cases, both forms remain in the written spellings, as with three and third. And sometimes a word will undergo metathesis back and forth over the centuries, as crud derived from curd which derived from crud.

And some words have been so scrambled they're unrecognizable. Walrus is from Dutch, and probably derives from the Old Norse rosmhvalr, hrosshvalr, or rostungr. And the rosm in rosmhvalr may come from Finnish mursu, so the sounds are even more tangled. Leprechaun comes from the Old Irish luchorpan, literally "a very small body."

Your trivia question today is about metathesis. Name two words in modern English from the same Latin source, but one of which has metathesized heavily, ending up with (almost) the same four consonants but with the last three in reverse order.

Hint: both words relate to communication.

(One consonant has been altered over the years but is still very similar.)

(Thanks to Becca Cheney for giving me walrus on last week's trivia!)

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

"Sunday" Trivia 14

Late again! Final projects have been occupying my brain. Here's some trivia for you.

(Spoiler alert.) The answer to last week's trivia question was pineapple, a fruit which is called ananas in a huge variety of languages other than English. The etymology of pineapple is interesting as well - the term originally referred to pine cones, and was used for the fruit because of their similarity in shape. Pine cone emerged as a replacement a few centuries later.

English has a lot of weird little compound nouns like this, especially as names for plants and animals. Some are very transparent, like jellyfish, groundhog, or firefly. Others used to be transparent but are a little hazy now, like kiwifruit, which was named after the flightless bird but is just known as kiwi to some cultures with less interesting wildlife. Or horseradish - in Old English, horse was often used to mean "strong" or "large." Still others seem transparent on first glance, like greyhound, which actually derives from Old English grig-, "bitch," not the color.

But some are extremely opaque. Butterfly, for example, may come from myths about witches disguised as insects who steal butter, or the color of the bug, or the color of its excrement. (Butterflies have funky names in many languages, including psyche, "soul," in Ancient Greek and mariposa, "Mary rests," in Spanish.) Or cockroach, which uses the folk etymology of cock, "rooster," and roach, a type of fish, but is actually derived from Spanish cucaracha.

Your trivia question today involves compound nouns. No hyphens or spaces are allowed for any answer. Name:

1. An animal whose name is a compound noun with a religious etymology.
2. An animal whose name is from a Dutch compound noun.
3. An animal whose name derives originally from the names of two animals in Greek, because in ancient times it was thought to be a hybrid of the two.

(Update: Turns out there are a few answers to number 2! Can you name an example from Netherlands Dutch and from Afrikaans Dutch?)

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Sunday Trivia 13

Some words manage to take root as loanwords in languages across the world. Probably the most famous example is okay, which is also interesting because of its debatable etymology. The four major claims are:

1. Initialism for a deliberate misspelling of "all correct" as "oll korrect." In the mid-19th century there was a fad for using abbreviations with obvious misspellings, like OW for "oll wright."
2. Abbreviation of Old Kinderhook, a nickname for Martin van Buren after his hometown.
3. The Choctaw word okeh, meaning "it is so and not otherwise." The spelling okeh was common in English until the 1960s or so. This etymology was popularized around 1885 and carried some weight until modern etymologists offered opposing theories.
4. A word or phrase from an African language like the Wolof or Bantu waw-kay or the Mande o ke. This possibility has been largely debunked.

Whatever its true origin, okay has been adopted all over the world, in languages including Portuguese, Spanish, Arabic, Hebrew, Japanese, Korean, Cantonese, Mandarin, Vietnamese, and German.

Your trivia question today is about a word which appears in many languages. There is a fruit which has the same name in Armenian, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, French, German, Icelandic, Italian, Latin, Norwegian, Polish, Romanian, Swedish, and Turkish, but a very different name in English. What is it?

(Additional details: In the Roman alphabet, the name of this fruit is written identically in the languages listed. It is written identically but with diacritics or accents in Arabic, Greek, Hebrew, Hindi, Macedonian, Persian, Portuguese, Russian and Spanish.)

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Sunday Trivia 12

All right, this is really Tuesday trivia. It totally slipped my mind to post on Sunday - the end of the semester has kicked me into a different gear. So, as meager compensation, here's a piece of trivia from my suitemate Justus:

What common English word consists of six letters in alphabetical order?

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Sunday Trivia 11

English is a language fond of borrowings. As James Nicoll once said, "The problem with defending the purity of the English language is that English is about as pure as a cribhouse whore. We don't just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary." By most estimates, only a quarter of modern English words have Germanic roots. About 30% are French, 30% are Latin, 5% are Greek, and the remaining 10% are from other languages. (Of course, many of the most common words are Germanic, so this statistic can be misleading.)

But people are resistant to change, and throughout the history of English there have been movements to avoid borrowings and stick to words of Anglo-Saxon origin. The resulting constrained language has been called Anglish, Saxonised English, and even Blue-Eyed English. Understandably, it can get a little hairy. Terms like birdlore to replace ornithology or tonesmith to replace composer are cringe-worthy even though they're analogous to handbook and manual, which we use interchangeably. My favorite piece of Anglish writing, and a great example of why it's so hard in modern English, is the essay "Uncleftish Beholding" by Poul Anderson. (Uncleftish beholding means atomic theory.)

Your trivia question today concerns borrowings of the most impure sort. Name a word that modern French has borrowed from English and which English originally borrowed (in part) from Norman French.

Monday, April 4, 2011


Thanks to my suitemate Justus for this bit of trivia.

Hybrid words are words that have roots in more than one language. For example, hexadecimal, from Greek (h)exi- for six and Latin decimus for tenth, might have been sexidecimal if purely Latin or hexidektal if purely Greek, but the ubiquity of decimal in English and the dominance of hexa- (consider hexagon, hexameter, Hexameron) yielded the word we know today.

Another interesting example is aquaphobia, which utilizes the Latin word for water but the Greek for fear, and is associated only with a general trepidation over water. Its Greek-only cousin, hydrophobia, normally refers to rabies.

Your challenge: Give a place name that is a hybrid with one root in a Native American language and the other in Greek.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Sunday Trivia 10

Suppletion is when a word's different forms have different etymologies, leading to inflections ranging from translucent to completely opaque. For example, in English, good and better have different roots, as do bad and worse. It's really interesting to track the strange ways different forms of words gain popularity or fall out of use. To be in English is a really funky case because it comes from three different Old English verbs: beon, "be, become," eom, "remain," and wesan, also roughly "remain." As late as the 1500s, we used these verbs separately in certain forms: "I be," "thou beest," "they beth," before our tenses crystallized into the totally standardized but deeply weird set of be, being, been, am, are, is, was, and were.

In a looser sense, suppletion can refer to words that are related in meaning but not in origin. Obviously we have a boatload of these in English because of the different languages we've borrowed from. In the case of collateral adjectives, the adjective normally used with a given noun is etymologically unrelated: moon and lunar, horse and equine, brother and fraternal. These examples are all nouns derived from Proto-Germanic and adjectives from Latin, which is very common.

Your trivia question today is about (loose) suppletion. Name two collateral adjectives in English that correspond to two mysterious nouns: they appeared in Old English inexplicably, with no plausible root in Proto-Germanic, Latin, or any other language linguistic historians have explored.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Sunday Trivia 9

Etymologies that have multiple steps are extremely interesting and opaque. Some go through several changes in meaning along the way. Colors, for some reason, can be especially tangled.

One of my favorites is cardinal (the bird), which is named after the color, which is named after the robes worn by the clergy rank, which comes from Latin cardo, which originally just meant "door hinge." Chartreuse is named after the liqueur, which is named for the monastery where the liqueur is made, which is named for the mountain range, whose etymology I wasn't able to uncover. Scarlet derives from cloth marked with symbols; purple originally comes from the shellfish used to make dye; blue comes from an Indo-European root which led to terms in various languages for white, yellow, and gray as well as blue. Other colors are interesting because of the number of languages they came through on their way to English, like lilac, which derives from French, from Spanish, from Arabic, from Persian.

Your trivia question today is about colors, and complicated etymologies, and animals, and places. Name a color that derives from an animal that derives from a place that derives from an animal.

(Thanks to my linguistics professor Larry Horn for many of these.)

Monday, March 21, 2011


Sunday Trivia 7 was about nationalities, and a friend of mine mentioned that what we call going Dutch (splitting a bill evenly) is referred to as American in some languages and some parts of the world. It turns out that the full story is a little more complicated: some South American countries use pagar a la americana, "pay American style," and Thailand uses อเมริกันแชร์, "American share," but worldwide there are several nationalities associated with this practice. In Turkey, they say Alman usulü, "German style"; in Egypt, Englizy, "English style." This reminded me of a great graphic I once saw, originally from Language Log. It's a map of mutual incomprehensibility:

In this image, an arrow from one language to another signifies an expression like "It's all Greek to me," which is the arrow from English to Greek. (This is a phrase that Shakespeare coined, although the idea of Greek being hard to understand is much older.) Some great patterns emerge here, like the global inability to understand Chinese, or the more subtle geographic trends that govern certain areas, like English → Greek → Arabic → Hindi. It's nice to know that as messy and convoluted as English can be, there are other languages that the world has deemed much more inscrutable.

Of course, I also have some trivia for you guys. The answer is (sort of) a reversal "Greek to me." Name a term in English which derives from an onomatopoeic Greek word for foreigners.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Sunday Trivia 8

I'm back from spring break and back to fully fledged trivia.

Last week's Sunday trivia had an answer involving an eggcorn, a respelling based on a misinterpretation or mishearing of a word or phrase. Often these can be pretty funny, like power mower instead of paramour or old-timer's disease for Alzheimer's disease. Eggcorn is itself an eggcorn from a misinterpretation of acorn.

Misinterpretations longer than a single word or phrase, like those from lines of songs, are called mondegreens. This term is another self-reference, based on Sylvia Wright's childhood understanding of a 17th-century ballad:
They hae slain the Earl O' Moray,
And Lady Mondegreen.
Which actually reads:
They hae slain the Earl O' Moray,
And laid him on the green.
Some mondegreens from popular songs are common but nonetheless hilarious: "'Scuse me while I kiss this guy" from Hendrix's Purple Haze and "There's a bathroom on the right" from Bad Moon Rising by Creedence Clearwater Revival. (The lyrics are actually "'Scuse me while I kiss the sky" and "There's a bad moon on the rise.") Reverse mondegreens are nonsense which has been derived from normal language, like the Iron Butterfly song In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida, which comes from "In the Garden of Eden." Intentional reinterpretation of foreign song lyrics has its own special charm, and is known as soramimi. (You could call Mots d'Heures soramimi.)

Less transparent and not quite as funny are misinterpretations that have shifted into normal usage through folk etymology, in which a word is reshaped to something the speaker is more familiar with. So, the Latinate asparagus becomes sparrowgrass to some speakers because they are familiar with sparrows and grass, or the Spanish cucaracha becomes cockroach because the speaker already knows cocks and roaches (back then a type of fish.) In some sense these are just eggcorns that have gained credence.

Today's answer comes from an old and opaque folk etymology. Name an herb whose spelling was altered to match a familiar flower and a familiar name.