Swans Commentary » swans.com June 15, 2009  



Crossed Etymologies


by Marie Rennard





(Swans - June 15, 2009)   Any translator will tell you that looking for the etymology of a word and its equivalent in another language is the most entertaining and fascinating part of the work.

I'll start with a simple example. A pun -- clipped form of pundigron, which is perhaps a humorous alteration of it. Puntiglio, "equivocation, trivial objection" (Online Etymology Dictionary), is translated into French by calembour. If the English origin is clear, the French one appears to be impossible to trace. All French dictionaries mention a possible origin in calembredaine -- regionally distorted in a close version of calembourdaine. However, they all have to admit that the meaning of those two words, phonetically close, is quite different, "calembredaine" meaning extravagant tellings. So what?

Well, generations of linguists have worked on the history of this word. In 1789 (it's still interesting to note how much linguists live apart of the history. How could one wonder about etymologies while a revolution was going on?), the Congrès de Cythère in Paris evoked a possible origin in the name of an apothecary who was fond of puns and had lived a century earlier. Then it was successively assumed it might originate in the German Earl of Kalemburg, or even in the Arab kalem (speak) and bour (abusive). The word was written, through the ages, Kalembour, Calembour, and even Kalembourg (Encyclopédie Diderot et d'Alembert. Bièvre himself wrote the article before leaving the country to save his head), its spelling varying with its possible origins. No one knows, and few care.

For those who do, I'll go on with another trick of word with the ever-present toast. Any French will tell you this one comes straight from England. It does not, and originates in the old French toste, a piece of bread one used to put in his glass of wine. (Let's note that it hence can't be an English creation, those people who have always been unable to bake correct bread, and who moreover are known to put ice in their wine.)

More trivial but still interesting is the etymology of the French ass -- cul. Whereas ass has its clear origin in "arse" (slang for "backside," first attested in 1860 in nautical slang, in popular use from 1930; chiefly U.S.; from dial. variant pronunciation of arse (q.v.). The loss of -r- before -s- attested in several other words (e.g., burst/bust, curse/cuss, horse/hoss, barse/bass). Indirect evidence of the change from arse to ass can be traced to 1785 (in euphemistic avoidance of ass "donkey" by polite speakers) and perhaps to Shakespeare, if Nick Bottom transformed into a donkey in "A Midsummer Night's Dream" (1594) is the word play some think it is. Still extracted from the Online Etymology Dictionary.), the French cul comes from Latin culus, originating itself, as often, in the Greek Kholein, which means "sheath," clearly showing how customs and morals can contribute to the elaboration of language.

About words that jump from one language to another, we have to mention the agelast -- a person who never laughs. The word was forged from Latin in the 15th century by the famous French writer Rabelais. However, though it can still be found in English dictionaries, it has completely disappeared -- if ever figured -- from French ones.

Our last example, since we do not aim at boring readers, will point out the origin of another rare word, sycophant. In French dictionaries, it was used in the ancient Greece to qualify those who would denounce people who stole figs from sacred trees, and later those who made a living of denouncing the misbehaviors of rich citizens, hoping for a reward from tribunals, and has through centuries acquired the meaning of informer. However, the English sycophant will be translated into French as flagorneur -- i.e., a flatterer or a toady. How and why can the same Greek word come to acquire so different meanings? In both languages, the etymology appears to be the same: phaneim, show, and sykon, fig. It's the interpretation that changes. We have given the French one, let's see the Anglophone one.

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, sycophants were the supporters of politicians who used to "show the fig" to their opponents, i.e., sticking the thumb between two fingers to simulate female genitals, a sort of antique finger fuck. Of course, politicians themselves would not give into such obscenities, and the sycophant hence came to designate toadies, people who would do anything to be noticed by the leader.

I'll end this article about the vain pleasures of etymology by calling for the contribution of readers who share with me a certain taste for nitpicking. Never hesitate to send me your discoveries and findings -- they'll always be welcome.


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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published June 15, 2009