Dave Wilton at Wordorigins.org has a post about a great etymology that I’d forgotten if I ever knew it:

Originally a noun (and still a noun in some isolated uses), the adjective dismal comes into English, like many of our words, with the Normans, a compound formed from the Old French phrase dis mal, which in turn is from the Latin dies mali or “bad days.” The noun dismal, meaning bad or unlucky days, appears in English c. 1300. […] The dismal, also called the Egyptian days because they were first calculated by Egyptian astrologers, consisted of two days per month on which it was unlucky to start a journey or begin a venture. […] By the fifteenth century the association with the Latin dies, “days,” had been sufficiently forgotten that people started referring to them with the redundant dismal days […] By the sixteenth century, dismal was being used as an adjective meaning unlucky or disastrous. By the seventeenth century it was being used to mean dark, gloomy, or cheerless.

(Visit the link for supporting quotes.) The American Heritage Dictionary adds that in the South Atlantic states of the U.S., “a swamp or marsh can be called a pocosin or a dismal, the second term illustrated in the name of the Dismal Swamp on the border of North Carolina and Virginia. The word pocosin possibly comes from Virginia Algonquian.”


  1. Goji Barnes says

    Did´nt know that, my friend is a member of Dismal family, some people living in southnern Brazil!

  2. And of course, the name “pocosin” survives in the name of the town of Poquoson in tidewater Virginia.

  3. The OED says it’s from “an unattested Algonquian word”:

    The analysis is unknown; there are many initial elements in related languages having the general shape required, but none commends itself semantically. Compare the following slightly earlier use as the name of a river in Virginia:
    1631 in Amer. Speech (1940) 15 296/2 A river called the Pocoson river.

  4. two days per month on which it was unlucky to start a journey or begin a venture
    This was very smart of the Egyptian astrologers, no one did anything. If they’d predicted two days that were lucky, they’d have probably had more complaints.

  5. You could say that those Egyptian astrologers were trying to institutionalize the urge to do nothing. I bet that got them a lot of flak from the slave-driving pyramid builders.

  6. >A.J.P. Crown
    We have a proverb that says: “En martes, ni te cases ni te embarques” (neither get married nor begin a journey on Tuesday) so four days. I’ve just read it was considered unlucky because this day was dedicated to Mars so a bad day to undertake anything else. Also the Egyptian and Turkish cultures thought these days were unlucky.
    The redundant “dismal day” reminds me our “Puente de Alcántara” (bridge of Alcántara, when “alcántara” came from Arab “the bridge”) and our rivers whose name start with “gua” (river in Arab).

  7. “but none commends itself semantically. Compare the following slightly earlier use as the name of a river in Virginia:”
    Rivers in Georgia and South Carolina, and presumably Virginia too, terminate in salt marsh estauries. I don’t see how a term for “river” does not commend itself to “salt marsh”. It’s like the situation in Khmer where the word for mountain refers to forest also, since mountains are forested and flat places are cleared and tilled.

  8. John Emerson says

    There’s a Dismal Swamp near where I lived in MN. I suspect it’s a common name, though not as common as Mud Lake (~90 in MN). The famous Dismal Swamp is in Carolina.
    When I was in Taiwan in 1983 I found that astrology was a real factor there, so that airline tickets were cheaper on “Egyptian days”. (Likewise rent were cheaper downhill from cemeteries and elsewhere with bad fengshui). I imagine it’s generational, but Taiwan was alread pretty much a developed nation by then.
    There’s an article by Derk Bodde which I can’t retrieve about a word (the ze of Maozedong) which means “lake” in one context, “marsh” in another context, and “meadow” in a third context — following the natural progression. The contexts are basically historical over about a thousand or two thousand years, though in later periods the archaic meanings could still be used.

  9. Jesús, thanks. For English-speaking architects, alcantara is a kind of artificial suede used on chairs and sofas. I like it (partly because it doesn’t involve killing animals, but it’s also very similar to suede, which I like). I’d wondered about the origin of the name.

  10. Does “pocosin” have anything to do with “water moccasin” (venomous swamp-dwelling snake)?

  11. >Empty
    At least both words came from Algonquian, as you know.

  12. It’s like the situation in Khmer where the word for mountain refers to forest also, since mountains are forested and flat places are cleared and tilled.
    That’s a common semantic relationship; as Buck says in his Dictionary of Selected Synonyms in the Principal Indo-European Languages, “Words for ‘woods’ are mostly from notions that were adventitiously associated, such as (wooded) ‘mountain’, (woodland) ‘pasture’, ‘promontory’, ‘wild land’…” The general Slavic word for ‘mountain’ is gora (it’s related to Sanskrit giri- and other Indo-Iranian words for ‘mountain’), but it means ‘forest’ in Bulgarian (cf. Ludogorie ‘region of wild forests’), as does Lithuanian giria (and Old Prussian garian means ‘wood’).

  13. marie-lucie says

    Jesús: our “Puente de Alcántara” (bridge of Alcántara, when “alcántara” came from Arab “the bridge”) and our rivers whose name start with “gua” (river in Arab)
    I am glad to know the origin of Alcántara, a beautiful, sonorous name which I remember encountering in Gil Blas and perhaps also in Cervantes.
    As for rivers such as the Gwadalquivir, the Arabic word is wed or wadi (or something very similar), so the name of that river is analyzable in Arabic as wad(i)-al-quivir. At the time of Arabic dominance in Southern Spain, there was no separate [w] sound in Spanish, but there was a sequence [gw] (as in agua) which was used to imitate Arabic [w].

  14. >Marie-lucie
    Yes, that is the etymology of this word. I only wrote the start of the name in Spanish. Other example is the mine of Almadén since the name of this town came from Arabic and means the mine. (I apologize for my spelling mistakes).

  15. Monte often means “forest” in Spanish as well.

  16. When I saw the Teutoburger Wald it looked more like a long strip of (wooded) high ground than like anything I would call a forest.

  17. Indeed, the association of forest with woods is also adventitious: the original forests were Norman hunting preserves, and might or might not be wooded. When Epping Forest first became a royal forest, it was only partly wooded, as shown by the fact that the rights of common included grazing as well as wood-gathering and mast (the right to feed pigs on fallen acorns). Cattle are still grazed there, though the right to collect wood is now limited to one bundle of deadwood three feet long and two feet around per day per adult inhabitant; the area today is a mixture of woods, grassland, heath, and wetland. Similarly, much of the New Forest has never been wooded, the soil being unable to support anything but grass.
    Note that Old French forest is probably of multiple origins: Latin foris ‘outside’ (in other senses > forensic, foreign, but here ‘unfenced, unenclosed’) crossed with something Frankish cognate to German Forst, Dutch vorst ‘woods’. The direct English cognates of Forst are firth and by metathesis frith, now only dialectal, archaic, or poetic. In some German compounds it takes the form forch-, as in Forchdistel ‘milk thistle, Carduus marianus or more recently Silybum marianum‘; this form may be the source of mediaeval Latin frocus, Old French frou ‘wasteland’.

  18. I posted on “forest without trees” over a decade ago—how time flies!

  19. we also have unlucky or just to be paying more attention days called jas udur, different for each different lunar year animal, mine is thursdays for example, though lately weird things seem happen to happen to me on tuesdays mostly
    i dont know how they are calculated in the Tibetan style calendars though, maybe it’s not the same with the Egyptian days

  20. To supplement that 2003 posting, U.S. national parks are managed for preservation, whereas national forests are managed for multiple uses, including timbering, but also grazing, commercial fishing, mining, and recreation on foot or in vehicles. Only the last of these is permitted in national parks, and only under stringent restrictions (hey, two cognates in a row!)
    And the two Latin verbs iterare ‘travel’ (> itinerary) and ‘repeat’ (> reiterate) are indeed only coincidental, the first < ire ‘go’, ultimately < PIE *ei-, the second < idem ‘same’, ultimately < PIE *i-. Native reflexes of *i- include ilk ‘group < same’, (be)yon(d), yes, and if. Despite appearances, though, English it is not cognate with Latin id ‘that, it’; it is a weakened form of hit (still preserved in Appalachian English) and its true Latin cognate is cis ‘on this side of’, as in cislunar and cissexual (the neologistic antonym of transsexual). (And how many naturally produced sentences are there in which the antecedent of it, the pronoun, is italicized it, the word?)

  21. David Marjanović says


    I guess that’s kabir (not sure about vowel lengths), “big”, fitting for one of the largest rivers on the whole Iberian peninsula.

    crossed with something Frankish cognate to German Forst, Dutch vorst ‘woods’

    …Are you sure those are native? Because a Forst is very much a managed forest, supervised by a Förster. The default word for “forest/wood” is Wald. I always thought Forst is from (silva) forestis; for where the e went, see Fenster “window”.
    By firth, do you mean as in Firth of Forth and Firth of Clyde? That’s “fjord”, also Low German Förde (Kiel is at the end of the Kieler Förde).

  22. >John Cowan
    As far as I know, both “iterare” and “reiterare” are synonyms, meaning “repeat”. They are cognate with “iterum” (again). “Iter, itineris” is travel.
    >David Marjanovic
    Yes, “quivir” is in Spanish. Most authors write “kabir” as original word in Arabic.

  23. David: You may well be right about Forst being a borrowing. But this is a different firth altogether (and a different frith from the one meaning ‘peace, protection’, cognate to Friede).
    Jesús: There are two separate Latin verbs iterare: the classical one meaning ‘repeat’ and the postclassical one meaning ‘go, travel’, which replaced or supplemented ire; it’s derived from iter ‘journey’.

  24. I always thought Forst is from (silva) forestis
    Lutz Mackensen says “Herkunft ungeklärt.”

  25. >John Cowan
    Thanks. I didn’t find that in my dictionary. Nevertheless, then I’ve read there that the French word “erre” (ways; travel?), as “errer” and “errant”, came from Low Latin “iterare” , also according to the etymology given by the French CNRTL. Anyway, the verb “errare” is also a Latin word.

  26. marie-lucie says

    According to the TLFI: Du lat. class. errare « errer, aller çà et là, marcher à l’aventure; faire fausse route, fig. se tromper »
    = from Classical Latin errare ‘to go around aimlessly; to go the wrong way; fig. to make a mistake’.
    French errer still means ‘to go around aimlessly’, while the noun une erreur means ‘error, mistake’. The first meaning is the one in un chevalier errant, a knight like Don Quixote and his models.
    The feminine word erre, now archaic in most senses, is no longer part of common language but is very specialized, having to do mostly with the way a boat or ship moves, or the distance it travels, when the sails or the motor are no longer propelling it.
    The suggested origin from Low (= Late) Latin iterare could be a possibility if this word had developed into *itrare and the -tr- into -rr- (as in petra ‘stone’ > pierre), but I don’t know about the initial vowel. It is possible that both errare and itrare (?) ~ irrare (?) were in use at some point, and the common meaning ‘go around’ was the one that survived in French. Etienne would probably know about iterare as a possible origin for errer.

  27. >Marie-lucie
    It’s here: http://www.cnrtl.fr/definition/errant (“Étymol.) when I’ve found “errer”, “iterare” and “itinerari”.

  28. I think the English version of erre, at least when referring to distance rather than speed, is drift: ‘the distance to which a vessel is carried off from her desired course by the wind, currents, or other causes’ (Wiktionary). Looking at this showed me that drift is the noun from drive, which is one of those etymologies that is obvious in hindsight.

  29. David Marjanović says


    Well, there’s always German irren, with the same meanings as errare; sich verirren “to get lost”; irreführen, in die Irre führen “to mislead” (usually figuratively); Irrtum “error”; Irrlehre “heresy, heretical teaching”; Irrglaube “heresy”, “wrong/crazy belief”; irr(e), irrsinnig, irrwitzig “crazy”; Irrsinn, Irrwitz “madness”.
    Is Latin iter heteroclitic?

  30. Yes, definitely: nominative iter, genitive itineris. The only three surviving heteroclitic nouns in Germanic, by the way, are water, fire, and possibly sun, though the l/n alternation there may be a result of having two separate words, since it is unprecedented. However, all of these have lost their alternations except in Old Norse, where we have gen. funi alongside fúrr, fȳr, fȳri(r).

  31. marie-lucie says

    JC: erre = drift
    That sounds right, but I am not a sailor. I don’t think that erre refers to speed, only to the ship’s behaviour while still in motion.

  32. Am I misreading TLFI definition 2: It says in full:
    ERRE, subst. fém.
    A. Au sing.
    1. Allure, manière d’avancer, de marcher. Ils [les lapins] détalaient grand’erre et comme s’ils eussent eu les chiens aux trousses (GAUTIER, Fracasse, 1863, p. 360) :
    … j’aperçus une jeune fille qui se hâtait, je crus reconnaître son erre, je m’approchai, c’était Dina!
    BOREL, Champavert, 1833, p. 126.
    2. MAR. Vitesse, élan acquis par un navire lorsqu’il cesse d’être propulsé. Briser son erre. L’ordre de stopper avait été donné, et la frégate ne courait plus que sur son erre (VERNE, Vingt mille lieues, t. 1, 1870, p. 49).
    Prendre de l’erre. Augmenter sa vitesse. La barque, penchant, prenait de l’erre (LA VARENDE, Homme aux gants, 1943, p. 417).
    P. anal. Enfin, la voiture de Randoulet prit de l’erre, doucement à travers les terres meubles qui entouraient la ferme (GIONO, Joie demeure, 1935, p. 205).
    P. métaph. Vivre sur son erre. Vivre sur sa lancée, sur son acquis. À différents signes, je soupçonne que vous marchez simplement sur l’erre de votre éducation (GOBINEAU, Pléiades, 1874, p. 284). Si admirables que soient vos grandes « Odes », elles pouvaient me faire craindre que désormais vous viviez sur votre erre (GIDE, Corresp. [avec Claudel], 1899-1926, p. 159).
    B. P. méton., au plur., VÉN. Traces marquant le passage du gibier. Un chien vite et solide, et qui prend bien les erres sur la feuille (VIALAR, Pt jour, 1947, p. 247).
    Erres rompues. Traces effacées. Les erres sont rompues (LITTRÉ).
    Hautes erres. Traces anciennes. Aller de hautes erres. Être passé depuis longtemps. Il l’avait fait faire suite sur (…) de hautes erres, progressivement refroidies (GENEVOIX, Dern. harde, 1938, p. 173).
    P. métaph. Pas, traces. Il [un homme] zigzaguait souvent comme s’il eût voulu brouiller ses erres (ARNOUX, Paris, 1939, p. 227).
    Revenir sur ses erres. Revenir sur ses pas. Puis, perdu au labyrinthe de petits cabinets baroques, [au Louvre] revenant sur mes erres, on retrouve les Botticelli de ma jeunesse (ARNOUX, Paris, 1939 p. 19).
    Prononc. et Orth. : []. Homon. aire, ère, ers, haire, hère. Ds Ac. 1694-1932. Étymol. et Hist. 1. 1re moitié du XIIe s. « voie, chemin » (Psautier de Cambridge, éd. F. Michel, p. 2 [Ps. 1, 7] : l’eire des feluns), réputé ,,un peu vieux“ ds RICH. 1680; 2. a) 1160-74 « marche, allure, train » (WACE, Rou, éd. A. J. Holden, t. 2, p. 317, appendice, vers 266); b) 1687 mar. (DESROCHES, Dict. des termes de mar. ds JAL); 3. ca 1375 vén. (Roi Modus, éd. G. Tilander, § 50, 10). Du lat. class. iter « trajet, voyage, marche; chemin, route » ou déverbal de l’a. fr. errer « voyager » (v. errant1). Fréq. abs. littér. : 11. Bbg. JOURJON (A). Rem. lexicogr. R. de Philol. fr. et de Litt. 1915/16, t. 29, pp. 64-65. LA LANDELLE (G. de). Le Lang. des marins. Paris, 1859, p. 220, 221.

  33. nominative iter, genitive itineris
    The story here turns out to be that an inherited heteroclitic iter, *itin-is competed with a leveled iter, *iter-is until pre-classical Romans started to use the vaguely regular-looking second half of the latter with the stem of the former, producing itin-eris, which was then restructured as itiner-is, leaving the old nominative isolated within the paradigm.

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