The Lying Whale.

I ran across a reference in a Russian passage to “Тау Кита,” and immediately recognized it as the nearby star Tau Ceti. I thought with amusement “Hey, Кита [kita] is a lot like Ceti!” and then did a classic double-take: of course it is — both the Russian and Latin words are borrowed from Greek κῆτος ‘whale’! (By the time the Slavs got around to borrowing the Greek word, eta had long since become /i/, hence кит [kit].) The Greek word is an s-stem neuter, so the Greek name of the star is Ταυ Κήτους. And when I checked the Russian etymology in Vasmer, I found this hilarious bit at the end: “Начиная с Иоанна Экзарха встречается также русск.-цслав. лежахъ κῆτος – ложная калька по созвучию ср.-греч. κῆτος с κεῖμαι ‘лежу'”: “Beginning with John the Exarch, we also find the Russian–Church Slavic лежахъ [lezhakhъ] ‘whale,’ an erroneous calque based on the similarity of Middle Greek κῆτος [kitos] with κεῖμαι [kime] ‘I lie (down).’” John the Exarch writes “кѵтьстіи животи еже сѧ рекутъ лежаси”; I don’t know where it was subsequently used, but I’m glad it didn’t survive — that’s the kind of silly mistake it’s embarrassing to have cluttering up one’s language, like English author for what should be autor.

Comments

  1. The word survives in everyday English in brand names such as Cetaphil or less familiar Cetavlon (cetyl trimethyl ammonium). But Tau Ceti seems to evoke just one association in contemporary Russian – Vladimir Vysotsky’s 1966 classic song about the pitfalls of automatic translation software (and fears that Mother Earth, too, will in time move on from sexual reproduction to budding). Do you know it, LH?
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4Lb3UaBGT2o

  2. If the biggest animal in the sea, the whale, was once “the lier, the one lying down”, then it is interesting to consider that the biggest animal on land, the elephant or слонъ, might be “the leaner, the one standing up all the time”—if we adopt the etymology from a *sloniti sę “to lean” that is one of the etymologies mentioned in Vasmer. I gather this is based on the account in the Physiologus according to which the elephant had no knees or other joints in its legs and it could not get up again if it lay down, as seen here. Accordingly, it sleeps leaning against trees.

  3. PS
    I don’t know where it was subsequently used

    As I understand, nobody else used it afterwards. John the Exarch used it twice, both times in plural, so the singular form is a kind of a guess. (The other time he used it in a comment to John of Damascus Theology, to elucidate the [folk] etymology of Greek work for “whale”)

  4. Do you know it, LH?

    No, I didn’t, so thanks for that!

    As I understand, nobody else used it afterwards.

    Bah, so that “Начиная с Иоанна Экзарха” is just sloppy writing.

  5. No, I didn’t
    Vysotsky hints at another folk etymology there, in jest of course, linking Ceti and Cathay (Kита & Kитай). But you should not be surprised that Tau Ceti residents are known as тау-китайцы (Tau-Chinese)

  6. Not only am I not surprised, I’d be disappointed if they weren’t called that.

  7. Aristotle already knew the elephant had knees; he certainly heard about the beasts in detail from the scientists who went with Alexander to India, and may have seen one first-hand if Alexander sent him one. We know that Alexander sent him 800 talents of silver (more than 20,000 kg, or a cool $12 million today, or about ten Nobel Prizes), and perhaps this was partly meant for maintenance of the elephant.

  8. In Ukrainian whale is кит /kɨt/ and cat is кіт /kit/, which should make the translation of Boris Zahoder’s little gem even funnier.

  9. The situation in Ukrainian at the turn of the third decade of the last century, from Bulgakov (my translation from a German version on Google books, I don’t have any East Slavic):

    ‘.. The day before yesterday I asked this scoundrel Dr Kurizki, who since last November, suddenly, can’t manage Russian anymore. Before he was Kurizki, now, he’s the Ukrainian Kuryzky. So, I asked him what the Ukrainian for “cat” was, which he managed, but when I asked him what the Ukrainian for “whale” was, he gawped at me and said nothing. Since then he doesn’t say hello to me.’

    Nikolka let out a belly-laugh and said:

    ‘Ukrainian doesn’t have a word for “whale,” because there aren’t any whales in Ukraine. There’s lots of everything in Russia, though. There are whales in the White Sea.’

    Now as an educated White I don’t know how good Bulgakov’s Ukrainian was, to be able to say that. 🙂

  10. Ian Myles Slater says:

    John Cowan:
    “Aristotle already knew the elephant had knees; he certainly heard about the beasts in detail from the scientists who went with Alexander to India, and may have seen one first-hand if Alexander sent him one.”

    L. Sprague de Camp picked up the idea for a 1958 historical novel, “An Elephant for Aristotle,” detailing the problems of the officer ordered to escort the beast — and the silver — from India all the way to Athens. (de Camp was dubious about the idea of Alexander actually sending an elephant, but thought it was plausible enough to make a good story.)

    By the way, rather to my surprise, “An Elephant for Aristotle” is currently available in paperback and Kindle editions, with a new introduction by Harry Turtledove.

  11. Michael Allin’s Zarafa describes the journey of one giraffe, in 1826, from Ethiopia down the Nile, across the Mediterranean, and on foot from Marseille through rural France to Paris.

  12. L. Sprague de Camp picked up the idea for a 1958 historical novel, “An Elephant for Aristotle,”

    Indeed. I’ve mentioned it here a few times.

    By the way, rather to my surprise, “An Elephant for Aristotle” is currently available in paperback and Kindle editions, with a new introduction by Harry Turtledove.

    Excellent! The free sample includes the introduction, Book (i.e. chapter) I, and a little of Book II, so interested people can get the flavor of it and those who have read it can read Turtledove’s comments.

  13. Speaking of κήτος, I’ve always found funny the Finnish word for “Thank you.”

  14. @JC, quite OT, but Chester County Interlink closed your home page earlier today, and with it the Recently Commented on list. So much for the permanence of internet links.

  15. Re-reading the Zakhoder book mentioned above, I came across the word полундра(polundra) and was curious about the etymology. The dictionaries seem to think it comes from either Dutch “val onder” or English “fall under”. Is this really the case? In Russian it’s used as “look out below”, but I’m having trouble seeing how an English speaker would scream anything resembling “fall under!” to warn people?

  16. Chester County Interlink closed your home page earlier today, and with it the Recently Commented on list.

    ccil.org is no longer providing shell accounts, so I have moved my Web stuff, including the Recently Commented-on list, to another site temporarily. The Hat knows where, he just needs to update his WordPress installation.

    Update: I re-sent the link to the Hat, so hopefully things will be fixed soon. If not, here it is: . This may not be permanent, but is working now.

  17. Fixed!

  18. January First-of-May says:

    According to one version I’ve read – can’t recall the origin – the Ukrainian for “whale” is veloryba, supposedly a Polish loan, and literally meaning “great fish”.

    The Polish for “whale” is, apparently, indeed wieloryb, but I wasn’t able to find any further confirmation regarding the rest of the story.

  19. I often wondered about words for things like ‘sea’ in languages which are very far from the coast, for example most Turkic languages.

  20. Genghiz Khan literally translates as Sea King

  21. Dalai Lama – Oceanic Monk

  22. Interesting. And how far back do the etymologies go for these two?

  23. Re-reading the Zakhoder book mentioned above, I came across the word полундра(polundra) and was curious about the etymology. The dictionaries seem to think it comes from either Dutch “val onder”

    “van onderen!” which is also semantically expanded from “Below!” to “Beware! / Watch out!” in Dutch. Quite a few jokes and comics come up in searches for this phrase, too.

  24. The Hat knows where — and I hoped to be able to guess based on the home page link in your latest posts, but that’s still pointing at ccil.org.

  25. Regarding Dr. Kuritsky, the Russian spelling of his last name is Курицкий and the canonical Ukrainian spelling is Курицький so the only visual difference in Bulgakov’s Russian text is the soft sign. This gets lost in the German translation. To the Russian reader, the ь is a useless, purely symbolic addition: there is no soft ц in standard Russian.

    Read in Ukrainian, however, Курицький differs from its Russian version, Курицкий, in two major respects: the first и is realized as /i/ in Russian but as /ɪ/ in Ukrainian; ц is /t͡s/ in Russian while ць is /t͡sʲ/ in Ukrainian. The ending “ий” is read much the same in Ukrainian as in the Russian of my 1950s orthoepic dictionary.

    Bulgakov uses the “кит и кот” theme three times in The White Guard: first in Alexei Turbin’s anecdote and then twice in his young brother’s reaction to the thought or mention of Kuritsky, echoed by Lariosik’s canary. Running out to get a doctor for the wounded Alexei, Nikolka mumbles:

    “But we can’t call Kuritsky, no matter what, that is perfectly clear… Кит и кот…” The bird was tapping deafeningly inside his head: кити, кот, кити, кот!

    Later on, when Lariosik mentions that his mother asked Dr. Kuritsky to help her son (“протекция была”), Nikolka reacts:

    “Kuritsky?” Nikolka exclaimed pointedly. “Hmm… – кот and… кит. We’re certainly aware of him.”

    Кити, кот, кити, кот,” dully echoed the little bird behind the doors.

  26. According to Boryś’s etymological dictionary, wieloryb is a half-calque of Middle German walvisch (today Walfisch), where the first element was associated phonetically with the adjective wieli ‘big’ and the latter was translated.

  27. David Marjanović says:

    Interesting. And how far back do the etymologies go for these two?

    /t͡ʃiŋgiz/ < Tatar /tiŋiz/ < other Turkic /deŋiz/ > Turkish deniz “sea”, e.g. Karadeniz “Black Sea”, Akdeniz “Mediterranean”, literally “White Sea”.

    Where the ancient Turks got the word from, I have no idea. But in IE the sea is sometimes confused with other bodies of water: northern German die See “sea”, das Meer “lake” vs. southern German das Meer “sea”, der See “lake”; or Scottish Gaelic loch “lake, fjord”.

  28. My Древнетюркский словарь [Old Turkish dictionary] defines teŋiz as море ‘sea.’

  29. David Marjanović says:

    Sure; I was wondering how far back that meaning goes. Old Turkic is pretty much Proto-East-Turkic (or so I’ve read), so I’ve now scrolled up and down the Wikipedia list of languages… there is no Chuvash article on the sea. 🙁

    Thanks for reminding me that I had no reason to “reconstruct” /d/, though.

    BTW, the Ossetic word turns out to be денджыз, an interesting borrowing, and the represented East Caucasian languages (Awar, Lak, Lezgi, Chechen) each have a unique word. Mongolian and Buryat have тэнгис, suggesting a separate round of borrowing…

    …and the Tatar form is in fact диҥгез /diŋgəz/. I should even have expected the second vowel, given the infamous Tatar vowel flip-flop.

  30. no Chuvash article on the sea
    тинӗс

    BTW, is the Hungarian tenger a borrowing?

  31. David Marjanović says:

    тинӗс

    Oh great. Now I’ll need to look up if this is one of the cases where Proto-Turkic shows the mainstream Turkic development even in Chuvash.

    If not, this is simply yet another East Turkic loanword – and the original West Turkic cognate could instead be preserved in Hungarian! (Assuming the vowels fit, of which I have no idea.)

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