BAD ETYMOLOGY.

I’m used to seeing dubious or just plain wrong etymologies, both online and off-, and usually I just ignore them. This site, however, is so bad that I feel the need to give it a public thrashing. It purports to list borrowed words by their languages of origin (and it’s the number one Google hit for “borrowed words,” so I’m not just picking on some obscure site no one will ever see). Let’s take Akkadian, for which the entry is:

Babel (ancient city – from babul, gate of God), Babylon (ancient capital city – from babul, gate of God), cherub (gracious), dragoman (interpreter), Orion (constellation – from Uru Anna, light of heaven), ziggurat

Now, ziggurat is an Akkadian word; no problem there. Babel and Babylon are also from Akkadian, but the etymon is wrong. Here’s the best description I’ve found on the early development of the name: “The Sumerian name for this small village was Ka-dingir-ra. In Semitic Akkadian it was called Bab-ilim. It seems that the name came not from Kadingirra, but from another name for the town, Babil, the meaning of which is unknown. Later the plural name Bab-Ilani ‘the Gate of the Gods’ was used.” It’s normal (if oversimplified) to say that Babylon is from Akkadian Bab-il/ilu/ili/ilani (take your pick) and define this as ‘gate of God,’ but “babul” seems to have been pulled out of a hat (perhaps by vague association with Kabul). The other entries are sheer fantasy. “Cherub” is, of course, from Hebrew. “Dragoman” is (via Italian and Greek) from Arabic tarjuman, which is from Aramaic turgemana [but this is probably from Akkadian targumanu]. And Orion, as any schoolboy knows, is a Greek mythological figure; this etymology is probably taken from the Online Etymology Dictionary, which says “perhaps from Akkadian Uru-anna ‘the Light of Heaven,’” but that’s a very big “perhaps”—what a Greek hunter would be doing with an Akkadian name is anybody’s guess, and “etymology unknown” is the only safe statement.
The Afrikaans entry lists “slim,” which is from Dutch or Low German. The Albanian entry reads, in its entirety, “Carpathian (Eastern European Mountain Range – from karpë, rock),” which is ridiculous; “Carpathian” is from Greek, and while the Greek name may well have come from a local Thracian or Illyrian word related to Albanian karpë, that’s like saying “Caucasus” is from “high” because there’s a possibility the name is related to the Germanic root of the English word. Under Algonquin is listed “Oregon,” which is of very disputed etymology; one theory is that it resulted from a French map engraver’s having put the last four letters of “Ouariconsint” (the Wisconsin River) on a separate line, thus creating an apparent “Ouaricon” River, and “Wisconsin” is probably from an Algonquin name, but that’s really pushing it. The next language listed is “American English,” and I won’t bother going through the words, because the whole category makes no sense—even if “raincoat” and “typewriter” were first used in the U.S., how can they be considered “borrowed”? An almost equally pointless category is “Anglo-Saxon” (more properly called Old English); most of the basic English vocabulary is “from” Old English in the sense of having developed from it by sound change, but the only words that could be said to be borrowed from it are scholarly ones like “witenagemot,” and none of them are listed. Under Amoy is listed “ketchup,” which is from Malay; under “Avetsan” (i.e., Avestan) is “bronze,” which is from Italian (via French); under Basque is “bizarre,” also from Italian; the sole entry for Beja is “bedouin,” which is from Arabic; and under Breton is a whole raft of words, none of which have anything to do with Breton (“branch,” “carry,” “hurt,” for heaven’s sake?). I could go on, but why bother? Furthermore, the page is littered with misspellings, for example racoon, cumquat, attrium, and the aforementioned Avetsan. I don’t blame the people who compiled the list, who are simply enthusiastic amateurs who love words and had no means of judging the validity of the etymologies they ran across, but it’s depressing to think this is what people looking for information online will find and cite.
Here is a much more reliable list: only one word per language, but at least you can be pretty sure that word is correctly listed.
Addendum. A correspondent has brought to my attention this silly site, which purports to list “some of Shakespeare’s many coinages!” What they mean, of course, is “words first attested in Shakespeare,” but that doesn’t sound nearly as sexy. And some of them aren’t even that; “accused,” for instance, is centuries older:
1297 R. Glouc. 523 “Sir Hubert de Boru.. Acused was to the king of mani luther prise ['wrongful takings'].”
Do these people really think Shakespeare made up the word “alligator”?

Comments

  1. “Bizarre” does come from the Basque. where it means not “strange”, but “brave, hardened” (probably from bizar, “beard”. The word was taken into Italian through the French bizarre, where it changed its meaning – probably due to the extravagance of the Gascon soldiers from whom the term was borrowed.

  2. In the words of the OED: “Littré suggests that the Spanish word is an adaptation of Basque bizarra beard, in the same manner as hombre de bigote moustached man, is used in Sp. for a `man of spirit’; but the history of the sense has not been satisfactorily made out.” Different strokes for different folks, but when it comes to etymology, I prefer mine pinned down and crystal-clear, especially when meant for non-specialists. Speculation is all very well, but it should be carefully distinguished from fact.

  3. Facts in language change? Historical linguistics as science? As my Germanic Linguistics teacher was fond of saying, “laws” in historical linguistics usually follow the form: “Element A becomes element B in context C – except when it doesn’t”.
    Attempts at turning historical linguistics into an exact science, I’m afraid, are as dead as Schleicher.

  4. By gad, I like a man who can toss the name Schleicher into a conversation! Makes me nostalgic for my days of poring through crumbling volumes of Indogermanische Forschungen and Kuhns Zeitschrift. We could spend the day arguing about the regularity of sound change and the importance of trying to account for exceptions even if the complete truth can never be recovered, but let me just ask you: don’t you accept that there’s a difference between saying “book comes from Old English boc” and saying bizarre comes from Basque bizar“—that one statement is considerably better-founded or more probable than the other?

  5. (Damn—add a quote before bizarre and delete the hyphen in “better-founded.” It’s time to go home; I’m getting sloppy.)

  6. Enter the Newbie. Allo. I just came across the clique that is the linguistics blogs, and from there, your site. I’m just a mere linguistics student as it stands, so any resource I can find is wonderful. I’m currently enrolled in a Historical Ling class, with an etymology project later in the term. I’d wondered if you could relay any -good- resources for such a project? Excellent weblog, I look forward to reading more. :o)

  7. Hi Sara! I’ve been out of the hist-ling game for a long time now, so I don’t really know what’s available (your professor is probably a more up-to-date source), but I’ll be delighted to answer questions or discuss anything that comes up — feel free to drop me a line! I love that stuff, as you can see.

  8. Shakespeare didn’t make up the word alligator? ((estimation of Shakespeare crumbles a teentsy bit))

  9. Yes, I do admit that the etymology of book appears – at first sight at least – to be much clearer than that ofbizarre. As is usually the case with English vocabulary, I might add. Being Spanish myself, I have always envied what Ted Hughes called the glottomania that pervades English-speaking societies. Whereas in Hispanic societies, linguistic curiosity remains well leashed in by the f*****g Royal Academy of the Language. You lucky buggers.

    However. Two more points:

    (1) Supposingbizarre comes from the Italian. How did it get there to begin with? Is it a Latin term which didn’t make it to any other Romance language? Or maybe it comes from the fabled Etruscan? And that b-z-r combination really does stink of Euskera…

    (2) The danger, and fascination, of historical linguistics is eternal retroaction. You begin by finding about some quaint, harmless etymologies of common English words, and end up with a Nostratic obsession, feverishly delving into Ivanov and Gamkrelidze (even if yout Russian isn’t up to much), and making insider’s jokes at Marija Gimbutas’s hypothesis that nobody else understands. Readers, beware.

  10. 1) You’re right, “bizarre” does have a Basque air, and I’m perfectly willing to accept that it may well be from Basque (in fact, I hope it is; I like Basque etymologies) — I just object to stating it as a fact.

    2) Too true! I actually attended a Gamkrelidze lecture once, in my salad days, though I resisted all Nostratic temptations. Actually, one reason I got out of IE is that two roads diverged, one leading to Nostratia and the other to impenetrable mist and endless repetitions of “perhaps” and its synonyms, and I thought better of the whole thing. Plus I didn’t enjoy teaching. But let’s have no jokes about Gimbutas — she’s a film Goddess!

  11. Quite literally, she is. I got a huge kick out of seeing a Kurgan as the baddy in the Highlander film – though he didn’t speak any sort of post-Anatolian PIE lingo, too bad… (Anthony Burgess must be the only one who had the guts – or the sheer recklessness – of trying his hand at that sort of thing, in Annaud’s Quest for Fire).

  12. As you said, I don’t think the claim is that Shakespeare created the words himself, but rather that he put them to paper, constituting one of the first written records of many of them in English. There is some lazy etymology going on there to be sure.

    Thanks always for your vigilance.

  13. I can’t find it now, but I once asked Larry Trask about bizarre and he persuaded me that it’s Italian; for one thing it’s abundantly documented (originally meaning `angry’ or some such) in Italian quite a long time before it shows up elsewhere.

  14. I would like some feedback on my etymology.As yet I have done no Epigraphy being only self taught.
    In sumerian ul,Il ,Ilu are related to some common root with Elu the verb “to raise” and Alalu “hang”. What is this common root?
    In any case this gives a working referrent of “raise up, high. lifted up on high, elevate, etc.”
    Thus Il is referring to “high, heights,in the sky, mountain top high, etc.”; and
    Ilu is referring to “high one ,one in the heights, one from on high, etc..”
    Ili is then referring to “those from on high, high ones,ones from the heights, etc.”
    Now an, Anu logogramatically is a star the referrent for an then is ” star in the night sky, night sky, the universe, heaven (old english) etc.”
    Anu is referring to “one like a star, one like the night sky, one in the night sky, one in the heavens etc.”
    Ani is referring to “the stars in the night sky. the milky way and galaxies,the heavenly host etc.”
    Both an and il act as determinants, and so prewarn of the astronomical nature of the logogram following. So Il-Marduk refers to “the high one Marduk”, and An-anu refers to “the star Anu. heavenly Anu,etc” .
    Thus Il-anu refers to “the high one Anu , the high one like the night sky, the high one like a star etc.”
    Il-ani refers the “high one like the stars,the high one like the universe etc..” or if a contracted form of Ili -ani then “the high ones like the stars,and the high ones the seed of anu{mythologically) etc”
    Now as for the mimmation of ilu I wonder only if this is some dialectic form for different speakers in Sumeria , hence Ilum instead of Ilu.
    Now a preposition L in front of Il gives Lil denoting ” to the Heights, to the Sky etc.” Hence referring to “the atmosphere ,the air ,to the storm systems etc”
    Hence Enlil “Lord of the air , Lord of storm clouds etc..”
    Dingir I do not treat of but wonder in passing if Igigi, gigi,are related to it by some common root.
    Now I want to treat of the transmission of forms into Hebrew through Akkadian /Ugaritic then Semitic and then on the basis of a dialect held by a group called the Habiru.
    firstly I do not treat of the mythological entitities of the Akkadians nor which one was ruling over the principal city in akkadia, and so determining who was primarily worshipped, lauded or fought for.Simply, by the cuneiform tablets translated to this time it is apparent that il/ilu were the principle determinant forms for astronomical referrents, with ilani being the principal term for their pantheon, or family of divine beings.In Ugarit we find that presumably by a cultural and social and religious process their supreme deity is substituted or grafted onto El{Ilu}. This process leads to El(Ilu) becoming a personal Name for the father of the gods in Ugarit. Now by dialetic transference, namely phonetic substitution Il/Ilu become El/Eloah in the general punic vocabulary , and the habiru vocabulary in particular. The referrent is the same , namely “High one”.
    As possibly evidenced in the Tell-el-Amarna letters (1400 B.C.E.). The Habiru called their mighty one “Ilani” (plural in cuneiform script).But only the Aramaic Habiru carried this over Into their vocabulary using the script Aloni/Alonim, This showing the formation of the plural developing in 2 ways : one transmitting from the akkadian, the other a local dialectic form using the nunation/mimmation to denote more than one. It is worth noting that the nunation was well established and proscribed in akkadian and was invariably the dual number. Mimmation on the other hand is less clear , but I wonder if it denotes a third plural type before uncountable , which I shall call familial. By this I mean a plural which reflects the numbers and relationships found within the reoproduction of Pairs.
    Hence Anak produces the Anakim, a familial multiple/plural
    Also Ilu produces Ilúm again a familial plural.
    In this scheme Ili and Anaki would be uncountable , non intimate plurality and so the kind of plurality seen in the development of viruses asnd bacteria and mass production schemes.
    Back to the transmission of Il/Ilu into the Hebrew among the Habiru. Seeing as the Aramaic accepted the forms from the Akkadian the fact that the hebrews did not accept Ilani indicates a cultural and religious difference in the transmission and usage.Certainly the hebrew accepted Il and its uncountable plural Ili and even the familial plural Ilim referring to the “family that derived from the High one”. Ili they turned to use as a construct form for their preferred Ilim.
    They also accepted Ilu and derived Ilui as a construct and Iluim as a familial plural referring to “the family that derived from the High one”
    Of the two they dialectically preferred Iluim. In this way they distinguished their High one; they linked their high one only to their language forms and they freed themselves from the mythology associated with the other forms. Their forms were the ground for the understanding of there being one and only one patriarchal High one who Exercised absolute sovereignty through a family structure of multiple high ones like him with no peer or consort or co-regent

  15. Dear Language Hat,
    Thanks for posting this etymology web page and bringing it to everyone’s attention. I read your criticisms of it and I looked at many of the etymologies it lists. I don’t have any strong, organized thoughts about it but one way or the other just some miscellaneous impressions.
    Overall, most of the etymologies he lists check out with sources I’ve read elswhere. Dr. Klein in his “Comprehensive Etymology of The English Language” mentions a Thraco-Illyrian origin for “Carpathians” related to Albanian karpe. Yet, a better example of an Albanian loan in English might be ‘besa’ – the code of honor among the Albanian clans.
    The author of the website is wrong about Choctaw being an Algonquin language and Sioux being an Iroquoian language (On the contrary Iroquois is a branch of Hokan-Siouxan) but I know that these differences are considered nits by people who hate Indians.
    In the Greek section, he has forgotten Modern Greek which has given English words like “bazouki, gyros, and souflaki.”
    “Gaelic” is a little too broad a term . In my opinion, he should list Irish Gaelic loans like banshhee, brat, galore and shamrock (maybe rookey?) separate from Scottish Gaelic loans like clan, kilt, plaid, raid, slogan and uncanny.
    It’s nice that he mentioned Gallic. Most English words with a Gallic origin are usually listed as Old French or Norman French first in the dictionaries rather than as ‘Celtic’. He left out two words of Gallic origin “cloak” and “gown” which appear to have entered Old English through Vulgar Latin. However, he might have discovered them through more thorough research along with Middle Irish brata ‘a child’s blanket’ which appears to be the real source of English ‘brat’.
    In conclusion, I agree which the majority of his etymologies but I understand where you are coming from too. The page still seems to have been created for popular consumption, however, and I can see where a highly specialized linguist or etymologist might shutter at it and think that his etymologies are too brief and not sufficiently explained.
    — Brian

  16. Brian: The problem is not that “his etymologies are too brief and not sufficiently explained,” it’s that too many of them are wrong. It’s not good enough for “the majority of his etymologies” to be correct (or at least plausible); if you’re going to be putting something out there as a resource for the public, you have an obligation to make it as correct as possible, and whoever compiled this site has not even tried. It’s a sloppy, unhelpful collection of words and should have been kept in a three-ring binder, where it would have kept the author entertained and not misled anyone else. It’s not just “highly specialized” linguists and etymologists who want correct information; anyone looking up word origins wants it.

  17. Dear Language Hat,
    Thanks for your reply. Indeed, you still sound very passionate about this (KryssTal) etymology list after almost two years. To get to the point, the majority of the entries are unarguably correct. I’m not a statistician unfortunately, but a statistician would probably conclude that only between 5% and 10% of the total entries are false, dubious or ‘fishy’. Let’s take a look at a handul of the Kryss entries including some that you have a problem with. Please bear with me:
    RACOON (Correct) Every dictionary I’ve seen says that racoon and raccoon are equally correct spellings.
    CUMQUAT (An Asian citrus tree/ shrub) (Correct). Kumquat is an alternate spelling according to the dictionaries but both are acceptable.
    AVETSAN (False) This is a typo, however any intelligent reader can probably figure out that the author meant to write Avestan. BRONZE of Avestan origin? Maybe, but I’ve heard that it comes from a Persian birinj. Both, however, are Iranian languages.
    GEYSER & SAGA – Icelandic? (Correct) VIKING – Icelandic? (dubious) Old Norse would probably be more accurate.
    BARBECUE, CANOE, CANNIBAL, MAIZE – Carib Indian? CANYON, GUITAR, PATIO, TORNADO – Spanish? SAUERKRAUT – German? CHALET – Alpine French? (Beyond all doubt. Nobody is going to argue these and most of the web page consists of rather obvious etymoligies of this kind.
    GARROTE, GABARDINE, VALET – Breton (Dubious). These ones get more dicy and go back to what I said about the need to be more thorough. They are from Old French but appear to have entered French through an earlier Celtic language called Gallic (Gaulish) not Breton. One source I read said that valet is from a Gallo-Roman vasseletius from Gallic *vassos ‘servant’. It is a cognate of Breton gwaz ‘servant’ but did not enter French or English via Breton.
    LIMOUSIN – from Provencal (Correct) but it would be even better to point out on the web page that besides being a car it is the name of a province in central France and that the name ultimately goes back to a Gallic tribe, the Lemogenes whose name is based based on lemo / limo ‘elm tree’. I think that the famous etymologist Dr. Ernst Klein would have done so.
    HORDE – Polish (Partially correct)but it’s ultimate ancestor was Old Turkic Ordu and it would have been little trouble for the author of the web page to include that slapdash of information.
    So, overall, we are talking about only a minority of entries where the people at Kryss are wrong. I know from reading lots of etymology books however, that a publisher would want an even smaller error rate before publishing it as a book and I’m sure you know that too. If I had to assign a letter grade to it as a web page I would give it a B- but that’s just my feeling. It would be interesting to see what kind of grade professional linguists or like Steven Pinker or Robert Beard would give it but that we may never know. Take care!
    — Brian

  18. jehovajah says:

    I have finally worked out how to get to this thread from the main page!I am sorry if my post is outside the thread’s main drift as I landed on the page via a search. Would you be so kind as to direct me to the right thread, or even forum as I would appreciate some feedback on my research so far, which i might add is formative not apologetic, even though I prefer to write in a declarative style.
    Sam

  19. Sam: I’m afraid this isn’t the forum you want; I hope you find an appropriate one.

  20. ok

  21. Does anyone know the etymology of the country name “Iraq”? The research I have done so far seems to indicate that the name “Iraq” was imposed by the conquering Muslim Arabs on Southern Mesopotamia around 650 A.D.

  22. According to Pospelov’s dictionary of place names it’s an Arabic word for ‘shore.’

  23. Dear etymology buffs, haven’t found “bad” + slang “badder, baddest” in any etymology dictionary. A friend has suggested it might have the same root as Persian “bed, beder” (bad, worse) – anybody any idea ?
    Thanks
    Doro

  24. No, that’s a coincidence; see this earlier post of mine. Or this LinguistList post by the late Larry Trask:
    Chance resemblances between languages are inevitable and really rather
    common. Here are a few that amuse me:
    English ‘bad’ and Persian bad ‘bad’
    English ‘much’ and Spanish mucho ‘much’
    English ‘day’ and Spanish dia ‘day’
    Dutch elkaar ‘each other’ and Basque elkar ‘each other’
    Hungarian fiu ‘boy’ and Romanian fiu ‘son, boy’
    French femme ‘woman’ and Romanian femeie ‘woman’
    Old English habb- ‘have’ and Latin hab- ‘have’
    All of these striking resemblances result entirely from chance. We know
    this because we have abundant information on the histories and prehistories
    of these languages, and we can trace the origins of all these words far
    back in time.
    In doing linguistics, mere resemblances in form and meaning are meaningless
    and worthless, no matter how striking.

  25. Hm, if a word from Sindarin or Klingon ever enters mainstream dictionaries, how much etymology will they show?
    Brian: raid is Gaelic?!

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