A Magical Muddle.

From Diane Purkiss’s TLS review of Brian Copenhaver’s The Book of Magic:

Schemas are confounded by efforts to find a legitimacy for magic. The English word comes ultimately from Greek magike (in which the original Persian word is spliced with tekhne, “art”), while the Persian magos “one of the members of the learned and priestly class” ultimately derives from magush, “to be able, to have power”, from which we may also derive the word “machine”. So my social hierarchy is your magic, and my magic might be your craft – or even your machinery.

I don’t even know where to start. “The English word comes ultimately from Greek magike”: no it doesn’t; by your own account, the Greek word goes back to Persian. (Or do you not know what ultimately means?) “…in which the original Persian word is spliced with tekhne”: Huh? What is “the original Persian word” (you haven’t even mentioned Persian yet)? You mean “the Greek adjective magike modifies tekhne.” And Greek magikē (to give it its proper long vowel) is the feminine of magikos, an adjective formed from magos ‘magus, sorcerer,’ which per AHD is “from Old Persian maguš” (= the reviewer’s “magush”) and per the more cautious M-W is “of Iranian origin; akin to Old Persian maguš sorcerer.” Note that the Old Persian word means ‘sorcerer,’ not ‘to be able, to have power’; this latter comes courtesy of AHD’s “see magh- in the Appendix of Indo-European roots,” where PIE *magh- is given with the meaning “To be able, have power.” #5 in the appended list of derivatives is “Possibly suffixed form *magh-u‑. magic, magus, from Old Persian maguš, member of a priestly caste (< 'mighty one’)." And #4 is "Suffixed lengthened-grade form *māgh-anā‑, “that which enables.” machine, mechanic, mechanism, mechano-; deus ex machina, from Greek (Attic) mēkhanē, (Doric) mākhanā, device,” hence “from which we may also derive the word ‘machine.’” What a mess!

This sort of thing used to enrage me. Now that I’m older and mellower, I realize it’s absurd to expect people with no linguistic background to be able to interpret dictionary etymologies; they just pick up the sparkly bits that appeal to them and make an ornament out of them. So I guess my conclusion is the usual hopeless “Why can’t everybody get a basic grounding in the science of language in school?”

Comments

  1. …it’s absurd to expect people with no linguistic background to be able to interpret dictionary etymologies; they just pick up the sparkly bits that appeal to them and make an ornament out of them.

    I like this a lot.

  2. Stu Clayton says:

    Why can’t everybody get a basic grounding in the science of language in school?

    Why language in particular ? You’ve got performance in the native language, who needs “grounding” in the language of language, aka linguistics ?

    Might as well ask why can’t everybody get a basic grounding in every science in school. One answer: sciences are only part of life. The last I heard, schools are intended (among other things) to make children familiar with the science of science, aka “the scientific method” (strange, that singular form, as if there were only one such).

    It might be more sensible to complain that everything anyone says reaches you nowadays, since the traditions of editing for content and style have been mostly discarded, even at the TLS. My position is that general ignorance is nothing new, it has merely thrown off its cloak of invisibility. O for the days of the silent majority !

  3. David Eddyshaw says:

    When it comes to things like physics and biology, while they are not part (even at a lowly level) of what our culture assumes should be common knowledge, lay people are at least aware that they exist as disciplines and that there are experts out there who know more about it than they do.

    With linguistics, the dissociation is more profound: many (most?) educated people don’t realise that scientific linguistics is a thing at all. This is amazingly pervasive: it lies behind all the stupid wittering about “avoiding passives”, and it’s the ultimate reason why highly prestigious peer-reviewed science journals publish articles about how they’ve (for example) “proven” by Bayesian methods that Indo-European originated in Anatolia eight thousand years ago, blissfully unaware that their sophisticated maths is vitiated by bad data and questionable assumptions built in from the start.

  4. Magic was one of the reasons why linguistics was developed. The Vedic priests realised at one point that the sacred language must be properly codified and described in pedantic detail to ensure that the divinely potent texts and mantras would for ever be recited with proper pronunciation, intonation, accent, and quantity.

    We all know what may happen to you and your children if you say Indráśatrur varddhasva instead of Indraśatrúr varddhásva.

  5. Why language in particular ?

    What David Eddyshaw said. (Come on, you’ve been reading LH for years, you know the answer to that one!)

  6. I messed it up — horribly and dangerously. The 2sg. middle imperative of {vṛdh} ‘grow’ is várdhasva. Fortunately, *varddhásva is simply meaningless, so perhaps Indra will spare me this time.

  7. David Marjanović says:

    Might as well ask why can’t everybody get a basic grounding in every science in school.

    For a generous definition of “every science”, I got that in school. Except linguistics.

    The last I heard, schools are intended (among other things) to make children familiar with the science of science, aka “the scientific method”

    That would be great. I only got that in an optional course in the last year.

    (strange, that singular form, as if there were only one such).

    In the abstract sense used here, there is only one method for discovering knowledge that is scientific: the combination of parsimony and falsification, the ability to answer the question of “if I were wrong, how would I know?” all the way down.

  8. For a generous definition of “every science”, I got that in school. Except linguistics.

    Indeed. Despite me getting 6 years (and an ‘O’ Level) in a subject called “English Language” at a ‘Grammar School’, I would have been clueless about syntax and inflection if it weren’t for also studying Latin. Despite studying several Shakespeare plays, there was no explanation of why the language is strange/no mention of the Great Vowel Shift.

    Similarly in French (taught by the Situational method, another ‘O’ level), no grammatical principles, no connection to vocabulary in English. More to the point: no help when I actually travelled in France.

    Oh, I did learn to identify the passive: the Chemistry master insisted we use nothing but for writing up experiments.

    I guess knowing principles of etymology or how to read a dictionary entry won’t improve your employment prospects.

  9. Neither did the biology, chemistry, and physics classes I took in high school, like many college-bound Americans. But whereas colleges want those sciences, they seem to have no interest in linguistics.

  10. The alarming thing is that this reviewer with “no linguistic background” appears to be a Professor of English at Oxford. How and when did it come to be that the study of literature became so totally divorced from the study of linguistics?

  11. It was a gradual process, taking off when contemporary novels, essays etc become the bulk of what there was to read. As a result people didn’t have to bother with The Classics and the doctrine of the enclitic De (dead from the waist down). Philology split into entertainment and linguistics.

  12. David Marjanović says:

    taught by the Situational method

    What is that?

    How and when did it come to be that the study of literature became so totally divorced from the study of linguistics?

    And at Oxford no less?!? All language teachers (German, so mostly literature, and foreign languages) I had, admittedly in the college-bound kind of school, had had university courses on the history of the languages they taught.

  13. The Oral Approach or Situational Language Teaching is an approach developed by British applied linguists between the 1930s and the 1960s.

  14. Trond Engen says:

    All language teachers (German, so mostly literature, and foreign languages) I had, admittedly in the college-bound kind of school, had had university courses on the history of the languages they taught.

    The (college-bound) Norwegian courses included quite a lot of dialectology and language history in my time,but the foreign language courses had very little by way of diachrony or synchronic variation. All teachers were university educated in the subjects they taught (and I mean university, not ed school, which used to educate primary level teachers), and that would have included some language history. But that doesn’t mean they all understood it, or cared for it. University language courses were much more focused on literature than language even then. My French classes certainly didn’t include any of it, even if I had the same teacher in French as in Norwegian.

    I get the understanding that even if the curriculum has changed much in the last generation, the situation is pretty much the same now with my children. My son is in his final year in a special science program that didn’t exist in my days, It’s supposed to give a thorough grounding in the scientific metod and help the development of an academic mindset. But it’s only the natural science classes that are modified and enhanced. The language classes are shared with other college-bound programs and are not concerned with the scence of language in any way. My daughter is in her first year in a college-bound media studies program that also didn’t exist in my days. She’s frustrated that there’s no way to take more than minmum requirement maths and science courses. since she feels she’s wasting time doing repetition and will have to take a preparatory course for admission to university science programs.

  15. Trond Engen says:

    At university I once got the idea to take an afternoon German class with a couple of friends. We were just eight or so participants in total, and on the first day we (maybe I) got the teacher talking about German dialects and language history. One of my friends, who was quite proficient in German and took the course for repetition, told me afterwards that he found this immensely illuminating, since there had been nothing of it in his secondary level German classes. (The course didn’t lead anywhere. It was cancelled after the second day because of too few participants.)

    Generally, though, I’ll say that I’m in favour of usage based language teaching, The boring repetition of verbal inflections that goes for grammar doesn’t help anyone overcome the fear of making mistakes that holds people back from practicing, But diachronic and synchronic patterns should be used to illuminate points and make things look less foreign. And especially in college-bound programs.

  16. Apart from a few diacritical marks, the reviewer’s reviewer adds nothing to the original article. Not an iota (from the High Middle Galician, meaning “tiny portion of grain, suitable for poultry”) of new information.

    Except perhaps, an understanding of why some scholars are not invited to write for the TLS.

  17. I’m not sure what you’re talking about. Who or what is “the reviewer’s reviewer”?

  18. Trond Engen says:

    My daughter told today that her Norwegian teacher explained the word klisjé “cliché” as derived from klisj, a contamination of kliss “sticky substance; romantic sentimentality” and isj “yuck!”, like — she helpfully added — a romantic movie.

  19. The French word is onomatopoeic and I bet the Norwegian too. Sound of metal pressed against wet and sticky surface

  20. The French word is onomatopoeic and I bet the Norwegian too.

    You’re surely not suggesting that the Norwegian is anything other than a borrowing of the French? Or are you going to say English “cliché” is onomatopoeic too?

  21. The French verb clicher may or may not be onomatopoeic; it may also be < German Klitsch ‘soft mass’, which in turn may or may not be onomatopoeic or sound symbolic. Printer’s jargon is quite international.

  22. Trond Engen says:

    It was not the teacher who explained klisj as a contamination of kliss< and isj, That was me. The teacher just derived klisjé from klisj and gave the example,

    I won’t hold it against her. It’s the kind of error that makes you think. These days klisjé has a qolloquial uasage as an adjective, e.g. Det der begynner å bli ganske klisjé “That’s starting to become quite cliché”. If you have extracted just a tiny bit of the derivitional pattern in other French borrowings in Norwegian and English, you kan see klisjé as “characterized by klisj“, parallel to e.g. risqué or passé.

  23. Trond Engen says:

    Qolloquial

    From Eskimoic. Means some sort of snow.

  24. marie-lucie says:

    cliché

    As far as I remember I have known un cliché as 1) a photograph and 2) (much later) a word or phrase so common that it has lost any originality it might have ever had. It never would have occurred to me that it was originally onomatopoeic: what sound could it possibly imitate? But even the TLFI gives it origin as klisj, itself onomatopoeic, although it does not list a verb clicher (which is also new to me), so I won’t try to argue.

    Trond: the derivitional pattern in other French borrowings in Norwegian and English, you kan see klisjé as “characterized by klisj“, parallel to e.g. risqué or passé.

    The French words are not adjectives derived from nouns, they are originally past participles of the verbs clicher, risquer, passer respectively. Like many such forms, risqué and passé are also used as adjectives. Passé is the most versatile word of the three, also acting as a (grammatically) masculine noun, while cliché may be a form of the technical verb clicher but for most French speakers it is a noun with the meanings I cited earlier (especially the second one, since the progress of photographic technology may have made clicher and le cliché obsolete).

  25. Trond Engen says:

    The French words are not adjectives derived from nouns.

    Of course, but it’s not obvious for someone whose hyper-sensitive pattern-extractor has been fed with the loans.

  26. marie-lucie says:

    Oh, sorry Trond! I guess I am not trained to be a caregiver to pattern-extractors!

  27. Trond Engen says:

    We all have a hyper-sensitive pattern-extractor. There would be no grammar without it.

  28. David Marjanović says:

    explained the word klisjé “cliché” as derived from klisj

    See also: politics from poly- and ticks.

    German Klitsch ‘soft mass’, which in turn may or may not be onomatopoeic or sound symbolic

    Not knowing the word, I’m sure it is. There aren’t many other sources for tsch (deutsch is an ancient contraction with the adjective suffix -isch, which doesn’t make sense here), and there’s klatschen “to clap, or to make a similar noise by any means” and Abklatsch “lazily made copy” (almost always metaphorical).

  29. m-l: The original meaning of clicher was ‘to make a stereotype’, where stereotype originally meant a single piece of metal cast from an assemblage of movable metal type in order to represent a whole word, phrase, paragraph, or even page that was to be used more than once. The phonological shape refers to the clicking sound (click is analogous) made by casting the stereotype metal on metal. Later on, stereotypes were made by molding papier-maché around the movable type, separating the two, and pouring type metal into the resulting mold, so that the onomatopoeia was no longer apparent.

    The French word cliché and the English word stereotype then developed through the same sense extensions but at different times: first ‘a commonly used phrase’, one for which a stereotype might well be made, and then later ‘a trait commonly assigned to a group of people’. By the time stereotype took on the third sense, the second sense was mostly lost, and the resulting lexical gap was filled by borrowing from French. As a result, the historical relationship between cliché and stereotype has pretty much been forgotten.

  30. marie-lucie says:

    Merci, JC! Very enlightening on several levels! But I don’t think that le cliché in French has acquired the third meaning of stereotype as applied to a group of people.


  31. German Klitsch ‘soft mass’, which in turn may or may not be onomatopoeic or sound symbolic

    Not knowing the word, I’m sure it is.
    Kluge-Seebold has two entries – an interjection klitsch, signifying “a clear smacking sound, mostly caused by something wet”; with a derived verb klitschen “smack with the flat of the hand, strike making a clear sound”, which is attested in the variant klitzen since the 15th century, and an adjective klitschig “sticky, not fully baked”. There’s also the compound klitschnass “soaking wet”, not mentioned by K-S. K-S thinks it’s sound symbolic and mentions that “kl- is frequent in that kind of meaning (note from Hans: the meaning sticky), while the second part of the verb perhaps goes back to a formation in -itjan”.
    The second entry is Klitsche “pathetic / shabby company / enterprise”, for which K-S has two possible explanations, the first one that it belongs to the first entry, and the second, that it’s a loan from a Polish kleć “shabby house”, an origin that is supported by Klitsche being mostly Eastern Central German.
    Of these words, klitschig, klitschnass, and Klitsche are part of my lexicon.

  32. m-l: Yes, you are right about the third meaning not existing in French: I misremembered the TLFI (mens insana in corpore insano, thanks to the broken arm and rib or rather the pain of them). I suspect that the other sense ‘photograph’ comes from the click of a mechanical shutter, which must have been described as un cliché in the early days of photography, and then was extended from the means to the result in a typical kind of semantic extension.

  33. David Marjanović says:

    Oh yes, I know klitschnass and klatschnass from reading.

    Then there’s glitschig “slippery-slimy”; /kl/ and /gl/ have merged in a large area in central and southern Germany, so perhaps there’s been some crossover, or perhaps the distinction of the two words is even a reanalysis in the first place.

  34. > Yiddish glitshn ‘slip’ > English glitch ‘minor problem affecting the function of a system’.

  35. Abklatsch is used in epigraphy for a papier mache negative reproduction of an inscribed stone. It’s made by pasting the paper on the stone, waiting for it to dry, and then peeling it off. The result is a paper the reproduces the low points of the stone with high points, and vice versa.

    This is called a squeeze in English.

  36. Trond Engen says:

    I would think that glitschig is related to En. glide and ON gliða while klitsch is derived from the root of ON klina, Eng. clean. But cross-contamination is not impossible. The semantics is smudgy and slippery.

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