Salt and Salary.

I love a good debunking, and Peter Gainsford specializes in them at his blog Kiwi Hellenist: Modern myths about the ancient world. I’ve taken the post title from Salt and salary: were Roman soldiers paid in salt? because it’s perfect LH material, being a thorough demolition of the idea “that Roman soldiers were paid in salt, or received an allowance of ‘salt money,'” an idea that is extrapolated wildly from the perfectly sound etymology that derives English salary from Latin salarium ‘stipend, money allowance’ (and a couple of misused quotes from Pliny the Elder and Livy), but there’s plenty more good stuff there, like Vomiting Romans: “So not only were vomitoria as vomit-rooms never a thing: vomitoria in theatres weren’t a thing either. Vomitoria weren’t a thing at all.” Explore and enjoy!

Comments

  1. > The allure of this myth comes simply from the link between salarius and salarium. Naturally everyone wants to have the true explanation of what exactly the link is. Unfortunately no ancient source tells us one. And so we end up in the situation where people invent explanations for themselves.

    What, you’re telling me that I can’t make up elaborate, romantic historical fiction about societies I don’t know by extrapolating out of isolated words and thin air, and then try to pass it as actual history? But then what’s the point?

  2. Greg Pandatshang says:

    By the way, Carrasquer Vidal has a short, fun article which ends up linking salt to the PIE *sem- root “to pour” (whence the French sable “sand” (a false friend of the English word sable) and apparently also the s in Irish tuismigh). The basic idea is that PIE *a is historically *emC or *eŋC (or, to be more precise, PIE *e was originally *a and conditions such as a following *mC or *ŋC blocked regular fronting). https://www.academia.edu/4199002/PIE_a

    While looking into these matters, I also learned the English word sabulous, which is new to me. This is going greatly expand the range of lyrics I can write to rhyme with “fabulous”, which were previously limited to “fantabulous”.

  3. The Portuguese form is cool: saibroso. Friulian went from L. sabulō to savalon, so I’m guessing savalonôs?, which is even cooler.

  4. Greg Pandatshang says:

    Nice. If you see a seemingly-new commenter “Savalonôs” popping up in the comments, that’ll be me.

  5. @leoboiko … romantic historical fiction about societies I don’t know …

    And why not historical fiction about societies we know pretty well: the (false) etymology of posh = Port Out, Starboard Home, alleged to be from the Peninsula & Orient liners.

  6. Greg Pandatshang says:

    … to say nothing of all those rumours, which I’ll admit I’m a bit skeptical about, that languagehat was originally short for Languid Amateurs Now Gathering Urgently And Gabbing Eloquently, Hardly A Trainwreck.

    For one thing, sources can’t even agree on the last word. Hardly A Tearjerker? Hardly A Tiefenpsychologe? There are more guesses than researchers. Hardly a theory.

  7. @Greg: Yeah it’s obviously a corruption of an earlier langaige-hād in the sense of “language clan; language tribe, clique” (one could expect “Language hode” > “the L ’hood”; but it probably had influence from Saxon hɛːd, cf. Swedish/Norwegian het, Danish hed ).

  8. (melodramatically) Beware, abuse not the name of Languagehat, or the pouvoirs étranges will be activated and the bān-hamor will strike!

  9. Trond Engen says:

    Greg P.: I also learned the English word sabulous, which is new to me. This is going greatly expand the range of lyrics I can write to rhyme with “fabulous”, which were previously limited to “fantabulous”.

    Can you think of a rhyme that would grab you less?

  10. Marja Erwin says:

    @AntC. Or deriving “okay” from “Oll Korrekt” and spelling it “OK.” (My pet theory is that it’s a derivative of PGmc “aukana,” possibly via Dutch “oken,” and that PGmc “aukana” is not a loanwork from Choctaw.)

  11. marie-lucie says:

    Greg: the PIE *sem- root “to pour” (whence the French sable “sand”

    1. The TLFI gives Latin sabulum, with derivatives e.g. It sabbia, Ptg saibro, etc. The adjective for le sable is sablonneux (referring to soil). There is an other derivative, used as either adjective or noun, sablé, used of a kind of cookie or the dough for it. I think it is the same or very similar as English shortbread.

    One of my linguistics teachers quoted a derivation of the Latin sabulum from *psabulum, probably from Greek. Anyone knows about this?

    As for PIE *sem- ‘to pour’, does it have other derivatives?

    2. English sable, an animal with beautiful fur, is in French la zibeline. The word has gone through a number of forms since its first attestation as a masculine word in the 12th century! (Thanks TLFI).

  12. @Leo ‘Language Hat’ obviously a corruption of an earlier …

    Seems pretty clear to me it’s a reanalysis of languid chat.

  13. Bathrobe says:

    Or languorously shat

  14. Ooh, shots (darts) fired in the current top post:

    — Alexander Pope, The Iliad 11.493-8
    (inspired by Homeric Iliad 11.385 and 388-90)

    (Speaking as a translator I would be 100% more burnt by this than by “you must not call it Homer.”)

    What, you’re telling me that I can’t make up elaborate, romantic historical fiction about societies I don’t know by extrapolating out of isolated words and thin air, and then try to pass it as actual history? But then what’s the point?

    What you need is a language—several, actually!—where the elaborate fictional etymologies are built into the writing system itself. Do I have a quadrant of Asia for you!

  15. onelook throws up “pabulous”, “tintinnabulous”, and “acetabulous”, as well as productive “‑tabulous” and brandnames “Scrabulous” and “Cabulous”.

  16. Speaking of salt, soldiers, and money – there is a theory that the gold of the Muisca tribe in Colombia, the basis of the Eldorado legend, was not some great mine in their neck of the jungle but rather, what they took in exchange for the salt that they had access to from local salt springs.

    Not that they were going to tell the Spanish that…

    See, Brigant, Archaeology of Salt: Approaching an invisible past pg 38

    https://books.google.com/books?id=yPOeBwAAQBAJ&pg=PA38&lpg=PA38&dq=Muisca+salt&source=bl&ots=jENtLzYFC0&sig=tB28gilbT0JofoGG_wgKdUjDT88&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwj5tdmT5bvVAhUTxCYKHdtRDGkQ6AEIWTAM#v=onepage&q=Muisca%20salt&f=false

  17. > fictional etymologies are built into the writing system itself. Do I have a quadrant of Asia for you!

    I present to you the English word “island”. (Yes, yes, I know, this is not news to anybody frequenting LH)

    On a more serious note, I assume you mean Chinese characters and/or Japanese, but could you be more specific? I know that there’s a lot of wordplay built into characters and their use (possibly more in Japanese than anywhere else), but it’s just not clear to me where this builds on fictional etymologies.

  18. I was thinking specifically of characters like 明 or 東, which have obvious visible etymologies (sun + moon = bright! sun behind a tree = east!) that are actually wrong (in fact, window + moon = bright, and word for “tied-up sack of stuff” happened to sound like word for “east”).

    And those are just two with a relatively respectable pedigree—it doesn’t even address the cottage industry of made-up pseudo-etymologies as mnemonic aids, which have a strong tendency to escape into the wild as “Did you know?” factoids. Folk etymology, uh, finds a way.

  19. dainichi says:

    > 明 or 東

    Oh, I see, I got the causality wrong, I thought you meant that the orthography was based on fictional etymology, not the other way around. Yeah, 東 is a well known example. For 明, Wiktionary lists it as a “Ideogrammic compound”, and applies the “window + moon” description to the alternate form 朙. Do you have reason to believe this is wrong?

    Japanese does have cases, though, where a “misspelling” presumably based on a fictional etymology became so common that it was actually accepted as the standard, e.g. 障害(obstruct-damage) for 障碍(obstruct-hinder), sho:gai, “impediment”. In this case, the meanings of the morphemes and the difference between them are a bit abstract and intangible, so it doesn’t really make a good joke.

  20. minus273 says:

    The misspelling for cases like 障害 is intentional after the war, in order to reduce the set of current Chinese characters.

  21. For 明, Wiktionary lists it as a “Ideogrammic compound”, and applies the “window + moon” description to the alternate form 朙. Do you have reason to believe this is wrong?

    Only appeal to authority, I guess—I’ve never seen a respectable kanji dictionary in the modern age say anything but “明 is derived from 朙”. (I just checked the one I have handiest, Tōdō et al’s 漢字源 (2002), and they agree.)

    I see that Wikipedia says in the “ideogrammic compound” explanation that 明 “was already found in the oracle bone script and was prevalent throughout the eras,” but this statement isn’t sourced. That said, there are clearly examples that look like sun + moon in the bone script characters on ChineseEtymology.org, so OK, factually at least the first half seems sound.

    Duan Yucai’s commentary on the Shuowen Jiezi sez, among other things.

    明,古文從日。云古文作明,則朙非古文也,葢籒作朙,而小篆隸從之。干祿字書曰:明通,朙正。顏魯公書無不作朙者。開成石經作明,從張參說也。漢石經作眀。

    … saying that 朙 is not found in old texts, and apparently blaming the Shizhoupian for the change. But that doesn’t seem right, because CE.org also includes some “window + moon” bone oracle characters…

    Ultimately I’m not qualified to sift the evidence character by character, but Tōdō and co. are; they’ve reached a conclusion and Wikipedia’s going to have to offer more than “Nuh-uh, does too” to convince me.

  22. Oh, I just remembered that I have access to Shirakawa Shizuka’s Jitsū too. He says:

    〔説文〕七上に「照らすなり」とし、また古文の明を録し、その字は日月に従うが、卜文・金文の字はすべて囧に従う。

    So Shirakawa claims there are, in fact, no oracle bone or bronze examples of “sun + moon,” but this seems too extreme in the other direction given the samples at CE.org. I guess Shirakawa was either working with a different set of examples or had a different interpretation of those samples that look like “sun + moon” to an untrained eye like mine.

  23. If we’re talking picto-gramish; aren’t the Phoenician letters ultimately pictures? I can remember Hebrew:

    aleph = ox: head with a couple of horns (facing sideways)
    beth = house: box with roof
    dahlet = door: doorpost + lintel

    (Must admit the Phoenician on wikipedia doesn’t look much like Hebrew, nor much like what it’s supposed to depict.)

    Or is that all fiction?

  24. No, it’s true, though you need some imagination to see some of them, as with the constellations, and the whole object is not necessarily depicted. If you look at the table headed “Variants” at Wikipedia, you can see the relationships more closely. In particular, the Palaeo-Hebrew aka Samaritan forms look much more Phoenician than the Aramaic aka Modern Hebrew forms, and the cursive forms (which are not cursive in the sense of Arabic or even Latin) more so than the printed forms.

    Everyone says vaguely that the Phoenician abjad was derived from hieroglyphics, but I have never seen even a proposal for the 22 specific hieroglyphics which supposedly were reused as letters. What is clear is that the shapes of the Phoenician letters have nothing to do with the single-consonant hieroglyphics that correspond in sound. Instead presumably a hieroglyphic resembling a house was chosen because the word bēt (written simply בת bt with no mater lectionis as in Hebrew) began with /b/, whereas the most common hieroglyphic for /b/ is a human leg in profile (why, I do not know).

  25. @AntC: There’s a most delightful little book about that; it’s called A is for Ox, by Lyn Davies, in a beautiful, tasteful orange-and-black-ink high-end edition by the Folio Society; it goes over the alphabet letter-by-letter, traces each one back to their pictorial origins (where applicable), and presents their evolution, with plenty of graphics elegantly arranged with good design and typography (unlike basically every other general-audience, pictorial book I’ve seen about writing systems); it’s a tad too light for linguists, but popularization is a noble thing, and the author did their homework, too; and they, blessedly, aren’t afraid of expressing uncertainty when things are uncertain, as they often are; Folio Society volumes easily get on the expensive side, but you can find this one reasonably priced if you buy it used; which I recommend for anyone interested in the topic.

  26. Nearly forgot- after the Crisis of the Third Century, when the silver content of Roman denarius was down to about five percent, the one category of government employee that got paid in gold was – soldiers.

    Well, they would be, wouldn’t they?

  27. Re: Chinese character subthread:

    1. Yes, they easily lend themselves to something analogous to folk etymology. Witness Shizuka Shirakawa, whose method is “by retracing oracle-bone characters by hand, I’ll be able to feel their original meanings, which I’ll assert to be all derived from ancient Chinese magic practices, even though I evidently have zero familiarity with the literature on Chinese archæology or religious ethnography”. So he claims, for example, that 口, “mouth”, which was shaped rather like a smiley at first (try pasting it at chineseetymology.org; I won’t post links because the spam filter hates me), isn’t a pictograph of a mouth at all, but a prayer box; some sort of ritual vessel where they put prayers for the gods. 言, “to speak”, rather than being something coming out of a mouth (tongue? words? a needle from early 辛 “sharp”, metaphorically “spoken sharp and clearly” (Tōdō)?), is a punishment implement in case you break your promise to the gods. 名 “name” is offering “meat” 肉 on the prayer box; a ceremony parents did when naming their children. How does Shirakawa know all those ancient mystical customs, you ask? Why, they’re all written right there on the characters! By retracing it all by hand and getting into the right frame of mind, it all becomes so obvious.

    And this guy isn’t (totally) treated as a quack; in fact, he has quite the cult following! That’s to be explained, I think, by the sheer audacity of contrarian interpretations, and in part by the cultural Japanese tendency to defer in authority (though, to be fair, these days I see more and more questioning of the “Shirakawa theory”).

    I agree with the above assessment that Tōdō is about reliable as it gets wrt Chinese character history; at least he pays due attention to linguistics, phonetics, and the existing literature; and he doesn’t try and write neopagan fanfics about what the Chinese were supposed to believe. But even Tōdō stretches it much further than I’m comfortable with. The right part of 暇 ‘leisure’, viz., 叚 “false, borrowed,” is, according to Shirakawa, an unpolished jewel sawed off a mountain; this is of course preposterous. The original shape (cf. above site) includes either two hands, or maybe a hand and an instrument, and something that could be, if you squint hard while drunk, a version of 皮, “animal hide”; so a traditional analysis is “a hand stripping hide with a knife”, though it’s unclear how that relates to “false, borrowed”. It’s a bit of a stretch, really, and I’m not talking about the hide. The original form looks like a covering over two lines, and Tōdō says they’re hands hiding a copy undercover; that also seems like a stretch to me. How are we to pick one over the other? Whoever devised these characters left no document explaining their rationale. 器 is “utensil, ware”, where 品 (“goods”) are clearly containers (I swear the next person to mention “prayer boxes” near me will be decapitated and buried to found a new city, which according to Shirakawa is what’s going on in 都), and 犬 is a dog. Why is there a doggo in the character for “utensil”? Who the hell knows? The traditional view is that these are expensive goods and that’s a guard dog. That’s a stretch. Tōdō’s view is that “dog” is a metaphor for “varied”, because of the diversity of dog races. That’s even more of a stretch.

    I think in most cases we can clearly see what are the components of oracle bone characters. And in many cases there’s a phonetic rationale, or a semantic rationale, that easily pops to mind and is congruent with how the characters are used. 木 is a pictograph of a tree, 林 are woods and 森 is a forest; I doubt anyone could dispute this. 暇蝦霞假瑕葭遐碬豭赮騢 are all pronounced identically; whatever the right-hand side is, it’s clearly working as a phonetic determiner. But in many many other cases there’s no such clear solution, and I wish people would just come out and say “we don’t know” more often.

    2. That said, what we dismiss as “folk etymology” or “fantasy” isn’t, like kanji haters sometimes imply (cf. the Unger/Hannas debate), a ridiculous delusion of Western weebs. The practice of making up meanings from kanji components has a long and distinguished history on East Asia itself. The “folk” analyses may not be historically accurate, but they’re culturally relevant. 仁, the Confucian virtue of Benevolence, is often explained as the natural, Heaven-ordained relationship arising between any two 二 people 亻. Its oldest forms, however, look more like a single person bowing or curved, with two marks on their back which may or may not be representing the numeral “two”. What’s more, 仁 and 二 are *nin and *nis/nih→ni, so its use may well be intended as purely phonetic. Be that as it may, it’s still a fact that 仁 has long been explained in the Confucian literature as “the [natural/proper] relationship between two people”; if you’re interested in Confucianism, that’s the analysis that matters most to you.

    A word on the use of characters to explain things of the world. This is the sort of thing that aggravates linguists terribly; just because some old dead bugger put “stop” 止 and “spear” 戈 together to make “military” 武 does not prove some deep truth that the purpose of armies is to stop violence. Nonetheless, this kind of rationale, what I jokingly call argumentum ad sinogramma, is also a well-established cultural practice. Shirakawa-style fanfiction is nothing new; people have been divining meanings from components since forever. Consider what’s basically the oldest source of character analysis, the Shuowen. Since it’s some two thousand years old, it’s easy to treat it as an authoritative reference. However, its author Xu Shen was at least a thousand years late to the origin of the characters; they were “ancient” for him as for us, and while he undoubtedly had access to resources we don’t, the opposite is also true. Armed with the oracle-bone evidence, we’ve disproved many of Shen’s hitherto authoritative explanations.

    However, this doesn’t matter one iota for the relevance of Shen’s analyses to Chinese history. To understand Shen, we have to keep in mind that his dictionary is, like most ancient ones, prescriptive. He lived in an age where characters were showing variations in their composition; which, for linguists, is perfectly natural, given that as long as you’re anchored to a useful phonetic determiner, any vague semantic hint is good enough, and anyway both sounds and meanings change over time, so it’s to be expected that the graphs would drift along. But in Shen’s culture, argumentum ad sinogramma is taken for granted. The characters were composed by the Ancients themselves; they aren’t “merely a tool for the visual representation of speech”, they’re statements on the nature of all things; if you live in an anti-progress linear time, where the Ancients are the source of all wisdom and modernity means decay, any drift from their original shape means corruption, mistakes, fallacies. How can your ideas be right, if your characters betray a wrong model of the world? How can your legal system be right, if your ideological system is corrupt? That’s the argument that Shen is making against his political adversaries; the dictionary isn’t just prescriptive, it’s government propaganda. (See: O’Neill, Xu Shen’s scholarly agenda: A new interpretation of the postface of the Shuowen Jiezi.; and also Bottéro, Revisiting the wén 文 and the zì 字: The Great Chinese characters hoax). What Shen is engaged in is very much analogous to premodern etymology, literally the search for truth; except that the truth isn’t in the words, it’s graphological; he’s “explaining the graphical structure” (wén 文) “to analyze the linguistic meanings” () 字) that are (in this world-view, not in reality) born out of the graphology, as proved – says Shen, in a delightful piece of meta-circular-argumentum ad sinogramma – by the fact that 字 includes the 子 “child” component! (In other words, 字 , characters in use, including their pronunciations and semantic nuances, are born out of 文 wén, graphical patterns, i.e. their composition – specifically the original, true, proper, correct composition, that Shen set out to recover).

    Lest anyone think argumentum ad sinogramma is just some funky historical practice, long since dead, I’ve seen a tea ceremony person prove that “tea” 茶 is the “plant” 艹 (historically accurate) that connects “people” 人 (historically wrong) to “heaven” 天 (historically preposterous). I’ve seen a literature teacher prove that a character from a novel was growing inhuman because he moved from fear 恐怖 and anger 怒り to 欲張り greed, and unlike the first two, the latter emotion is cold; it’s the only one without a “heart” component (心 or 忄), which clearly shows the emotion to be, literally, heartless.

  28. I wish people would just come out and say “we don’t know” more often.

    Hear, hear! And a great comment in general.

  29. (though, to be fair, these days I see more and more questioning of the “Shirakawa theory”).

    Where do you see this? My observations are complete silence on Shirakawa’s kanji theories from the academic community (certainly it’s telling that no-one seems to have even heard of him or his prayer-box theory outside Japan) plus uncritical acceptance from non-specialists. If people are writing academic critiques of Shirakawa I’d love to read them.

  30. complete silence on Shirakawa’s kanji theories from the academic community

    Maybe they can’t get past the Shirakawa Barrier. (Seriously, I’m sure it’s a matter of “This is too silly to waste time on,” with the result that soon the public all believe it.)

  31. January First-of-May says:

    (Seriously, I’m sure it’s a matter of “This is too silly to waste time on,” with the result that soon the public all believe it.)

    I don’t recall who said this, but, supposedly, it’s very hard (or even impossible) to explain to somebody who sincerely believes in, for example, astrology, why their beliefs aren’t right, because such an explanation would have to be formulated in the terms of their beliefs, which hobbles it enormously.

    In a somewhat notable example, the Time Cube author promised a large monetary prize (I think it was $10,000, but I don’t recall exactly) to anybody who could conclusively disprove his “theory”. Nobody actually took him on the offer.

    (The frequent inherent unfalsifiability of many such beliefs doesn’t help either.)

  32. Yes, I think academics rarely get much besides maybe a sense of personal satisfaction out of debunking popular crackpot theories. They’ll get hate from the followers and their academic colleagues will shrug and wonder whether they don’t have to do anything more useful, like publishing or writing grant applications. Now, if tenure would depend on having debunked at least one popular myth or one crackpot theory…

  33. Shirakawa’s case is a bit special in that he actually was an academic. Sometimes I do see his less, uh, speculative work about ancient Chinese texts cited by other academics. (Most recently in a paper about how the state of Zhou wasn’t feudal, for example.) And even Roy Miller praised his work on the Man’yōshū. But either way, you’re right—the incentives for saying “this is bullshit” aren’t there unless you really like to fight, which is pretty rare in Japan.

  34. David Marjanović says:

    What Hans said.

  35. @Matt: Oh, I meant more in a general-Zeitgeist (specifically the Internetgeist) kind of way, not in academia. I’ll readily admit not being familiar with Japanese academic developments on kanji history; the extent of my knowledge is reading Tōdō’s word-family theory and thinking “huh, this makes sense, but it’s too neat to be the whole story”.

    What I was talking about is, it used to be that, when I searched online for details on a kanji, I’d stumble on all those sites about the TRUTH of kanji as proved by genius Japanese scholar Shizuka Shirakawa, who has disproved all the misunderstandings of the past. Now more and more I see it blog posts presenting it cautiously as “The Shirakawa theory” (-setsu) – reified as such, rather than unspecified as “the” history of the character; and even extreme remarks like “it’s perhaps possible to conceive that the Shirakawa-setsu may be somewhat lacking on evidence”, which is Japanese for “this guy is full of shit”. ja.wiktionary used to have Shirakawa stories all over the place; now they’re safe cordoned off with “(白川)” tags.

    > certainly it’s telling that no-one seems to have even heard of him or his prayer-box theory outside Japan

    > Sometimes I do see his less, uh, speculative work about ancient Chinese texts cited by other academics.

    I know one good Western historian who considered Shirakawa to be a serious kanji researcher! And he’s a pretty skeptical guy whom I trust a lot, and who has shaken several of my own ideas about the history of the Japanese language. But when I described some of the most outrageous analyses as presented above, he was flabbergasted, and of course thought they were absurd. I told him about Shirakawa’s denouncing of phonetic explanations for kanji, and he was like, are we even talking about the same guy? Because I have one kanji dictionary under Shirakawa’s name, and it’s full of phonetic explanations in it.

    So I think Shirakawa did wrote reasonable things, too; probably in a sort of motte-and-bailey approach, where the unfalsifiable, speculative parts are safely cushioned behind plausible discussions (cf. the curious branch of Western Sinology who thinks China traces back to an offshot of Hebraic culture and validates the historicity of the Bible, finding evidence of that in Tiān worship, in character analysis etc.—but they believe that discreetly, among otherwise serious and valid scholarship). And, as Sear’s chineseetymology has shown, one doesn’t have to have familiarity with the academic literature to contribute something useful; simply poring over the historical record, cataloging the Bone and Bronze shapes, and discussing their composition, is in itself already useful work. I haven’t tried to test this yet, but my guess is that Shirakawa’s analyses probably get more outrageous the farther one goes back in time; maybe he provides decent explanations of late, composite characters, while letting go of every caution when discussing the archaic primitives (and ancient Chinese religion, clearly).

  36. marie-lucie says:

    Hans: A few years ago when Greenberg’s Language in the Americas came out and was panned by just about every known specialist in Native American languages, the eminent Algonkianist linguist Ives Goddard was asked why he did not debate Greenberg. He said something like “For the same reason that astronomers don’t bother to debate the Flat Earth Society.”

  37. David Marjanović says:

    To be fair, this kind of real-time debate on a stage is more of an American highschool thing. Creationists love debates and keep calling for more. The attitude of scientists is more like “debate is whatcha put on de hook to catch de fish”.

  38. But it should bother scientists that they’re letting the kooks win by default. It’s all fun and games until a legislature convinced by kooks defunds you and/or declares pi = 3.

  39. Trond Engen says:

    There’s no such thing as a legislature convinced by kooks. But there may be legislatures convinced by the popularity of kooks and the efficacy of their arguments.

  40. The story of the legislature considering setting the value of pi is much stranger than merely saying pi = 3. (It’s not clear that the description in the bill, which was sent in by a crackpot constituent, even identifies a numerical value.) The whole story is told in Petr Beckmann’s History of Pi.

  41. The story of the legislature considering setting the value of pi is much stranger than merely saying pi = 3.

    I know, but I was too lazy to look up the details, since it was only a rhetorical zinger.

  42. marie-lucie says:

    LH: But it should bother scientists that they’re letting the kooks win by default.

    I agree, but people who believe the kooks are not going to be convinced by scientists.

  43. I’m not that pessimistic — I don’t believe only scientists believe in science.

  44. January First-of-May says:

    It’s not clear that the description in the bill, which was sent in by a crackpot constituent, even identifies a numerical value.

    IIRC, it actually identifies (and/or implies) several numerical values in separate parts (don’t recall the full list, but definitely 3.2 and 4). On the way it also equates the square root of two with 10/7.

    Supposedly based on an article published in American Mathematical Monthly – and yes, said article was, in fact, published there (in one of the first issues)… as the AmMaMo equivalent of an anecdote from a reader.

  45. It’s ironic that the best parts of Beckmann’s book are his descriptions are the mathematical crackpottery, given that he turned into a huge crackpot himself in later life.

  46. dainichi says:

    > I don’t believe only scientists believe in science.

    It’s not that they don’t believe in science, it’s that they’ll believe anything is science. 😉

  47. David Marjanović says:

    But it should bother scientists that they’re letting the kooks win by default.

    Yes. What we should do, and some of us are doing, is to argue with them in writing, on the Internet.

  48. Rodger C says:

    It’s not that they don’t believe in science, it’s that they’ll believe anything is science.

    English language originated in Turkey, scientists say!

  49. Scientists prove. There was an animated map and everything.

  50. Greg Pandatshang says:

    Marie-Lucie,

    per the infallible Wiktionary, sabulum is from *sámh₂dʰos (no idea why this word supposedly has a rather than e vocalism). The rest of the entry reads: (compare Ancient Greek ἄμαθος (ámathos), ψάμμος (psámmos)), from *sem- (“to pour”) (compare English dialectal samel (“sand bottom”), Old Irish to-ess-sem (“to pour out”), Latin sentina (“bilge water”), Lithuanian sémti (“to scoop”), Ancient Greek ἀμάω (amáō, “to gather”), ἄμη (ámē, “water bucket”)). The purported Old Irish to-ess-sem continues as modern tuismigh that I mentioned above. Carrasquer Vidal actually gives the root as *semH- rather than *sem- and gives the following examples: (Gk. ἀμάομαι ‘sammle’, ἄμη f. ‘Wassereimer’, Lith. sémti ‘schöpfen, schaufeln’, etc.). He also adds in a footnote “The word sammeln ‘to gather’ itself may also be relevant in this context. It is derived from the root *sem- ‘one, together’, with an l- extension,” although since this involves a different root, it’s not clear what relevance he’s suggesting.

  51. Ксёнѕ Фаўст says:

    FWIW, in Polish the adjective słony ‘salty’ can also mean ‘pricey, large (about a check)’. I don’t know if this usage came about due to salt being expensive or by some other route.

  52. Lars (the original one) says:

    FWIW, Danish has pebret ‘peppered’ in the same meaning. I’ve never wondered why, but too much pepper makes things hard to swallow. German has gepfeffert.

  53. marie-lucie says:

    Ксёнѕ Фаўст: in Polish the adjective słony ‘salty’ can also mean ‘pricey, large (about a check)

    In French too, the adjective salé ‘salted, salty’ means ‘pricey’, especially in the context of discovering that the amount you have to pay (usually for a still unpaid bill) is quite a bit higher than what you expected, and you don’t have a choice! I have not thought about the origin but it seems to me that the payer’s reaction to this unwelcome discovery is as if they were faced with the fact that the food placed in front of them has been salted far more than normal. This explanation would also be right for the Danish and German peppered equivalents.

  54. Ксёнѕ Фаўст says:

    @up:

    it seems to me that the payer’s reaction to this unwelcome discovery is as if they were faced with the fact that the food placed in front of them has been salted far more than normal.

    Indeed, this makes sense to me intuitively.

  55. David Marjanović says:

    German has gepfeffert.

    Also gesalzen; food with too much food in it, however, is versalzen.

  56. marie-lucie says:

    Greg: Ancient Greek … ψάμμος (psámmos)), from *sem- (“to pour”)

    How did the p- get there? I mentioned earlier that I had been told *psabulum rather than sabulum for ‘sand’ and wondered about the same thing there.

    Also, is the *sem- here the same as the root meaning ‘to sow’, also found in words meaning ‘seed’ etc? After being collected for future sowing, the seeds were traditionally poured or thrown from the hand.

  57. How did the p- get there? I mentioned earlier that I had been told *psabulum rather than sabulum for ‘sand’ and wondered about the same thing there.
    I don’t see any good way how a PIE *sem- or *sam- could have led to the Greek forms with /ps-/. I only see two possibilities – either the PIE form was *psem- / psam-, with the onset being simplified to /s-/ outside of Greek (in which case the link to *sem- “pour” needs to be abandoned), or the Greek forms are not cognate to the forms of the other languages.

  58. marie-lucie says:

    Hans: either the PIE form was *psem- / psam-, with the onset being simplified to /s-/ outside of Greek

    I don’t know much Greek: is this common? Do Greek ps- initial forms commonly go back to PIE, or are they from a substrate language?

  59. Checking just Beekes, it seems that most Greek words starting in /ps-/ are loans or of unknown origin or from the Pre-Greek Substrate posited by Beekes (if you don’t acccept his views, you can mentally substitute “unknown origin” for the latter words as well). There are also some words from Doric where /ps-/ corresponds to Ionic-Attic /phth-/.
    According to Beekes, an origin from PIE Labial or Labiovelar stop + /s/ has been proposed for pseudomai “to lie, be wrong”, pse:n “to rub”, pse:ros “pebble”, psithyrizo: “to whisper”, psophos “noise”, psylla “flea”, psyche: “soul”, psychros “cold” (if it belongs to psyche:). For several of these the IE etymology is doubtful and Beekes declares them to be Pre-Greek instead, but that’s just what he does.
    So while there are few doubtless examples for Greek initial /ps-/ going back to PIE, the assumption wouldn’t be without precedent either.

  60. marie-lucie says:

    Thanks Hans.

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