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.