I’m most of the way through Dennis Showalter’s Tannenberg: Clash of Empires 1914, one of those military history books that are way too detailed unless you happen to have an endless appetite for details on the topic, as I do. Furthermore, I’m familiar with the campaign entirely from the Russian point of view (first in Solzhenitsyn’s August 1914), so it’s good to get the view from the other side of the front line. As I wrote jamessal, who gave me the book (thanks, Jim!), “he does a superb job of showing what it was like to be a front-line soldier at the start of the war and the many ways in which actual combat surprised men who had been well trained in peacetime; it reminds me of Keegan’s magnificent The Face of Battle.” But there is no perfection in this world, and on p. 284 Showalter irritated me with the following coy sentence: “Time and again the familiar Hamburg rallying cry, ‘Hummel, Hummel,’ and the equally familiar obscene response, served as password and countersign for men blinded by smoke and sweat.” Fortunately, the internet came to my rescue; according to this page, the reply is “Mors, Mors!”—”an abbreviation of either ‘klei di an’n mors!’ (go scratch your a**e! or ‘Klei mi an’n Mors’ (Kiss my a**e! ) (there appears to be some dispute over the exact phrase).” Anybody know anything about this (presumably dialect) word Mors?


  1. Grimm have it as “nd. ars und mars” (Low German ars/mars) under arsch, m., which apparently is related to everything from English arse to Polish rzyć. Don’t ask me where the initial m came from.

  2. I thought for a moment that they were crying Kümmel, Kümmel. That would have been jolly spirited of them.

  3. It is definitely Plattdeutsch, but I can’t find an etymology. My conjecture:
    am Orsch > m’orsch > mors

  4. Trond Engen says

    Yes, or from the dative indefinite, einem Arsch -&gt eine Marsch?

  5. I think M. Wagner has it right here on ProZ:
    ‘This is an abbreviation of low-german “Klei mi an Mors”, meaning “up yours” or “lick my a…”.’

  6. Sorry, make that W. Wagner.

  7. So do you think Showalter is just a linguistic prude? I’m remembering the clever final sentence of that passage you sent me (might as well copy the whole thing):

    Another problem, one generally overlooked even in the biologically obsessed literature of a later era, involved calls of nature. In the German army men were expected to relieve themselves during the regulation halts of five or ten minutes in the hour. But the emotions accompanying a trying night march, with a battle certain to follow, had an inevitable effect on bowels and bladders. At least one company commander ordered that all short-taken privates be accompanied by a corporal who was responsible for seeing his charges back into the ranks by the next halt.

    “Short-taken privates” works really well; withholding “Mors, Mors!” . . . not so much. And it would almost be disappointing to think that he’d come up with the first phrase merely because he wanted to avoid any and all obscenities.

  8. J.W. Brewer says

    When I was a teenaged exchange student in West Germany way back in ’82, I discovered the rock band Schwoißfuaß, who sang their songs in Swabian dialect. Their “big hit” was “Oinr Isch Emmr Dr Arsch” (= standard Hochdeutsch „einer ist immer der Arsch“). I found it amusing that “Arsch” was the only word not to get a dialect respelling, although obviously Plattdeutsch may be a whole other thing.

  9. Mors, Mors is explained in the German Wipe articles on Hans Hummel and the Hamburger Gruß. They can be gootered.

  10. Low German also has a variant Nors (as here), presumably resulting from metanalysis of phrases with case marking in -n in the same way that Mors resulted from phrases with case marking in -m. (In fact, it’s the example the Low German Wikipedia provides for its entry for metanalysis). This work assigns the variant Nors to Holstein.

  11. I am new to this blog so please forgive any missteps, but I am wondering whether the search here is for an etymology, definition, translation, or literary reference?
    The root search is obviously the etymological. This reconceptualizes our understanding of the word ‘Mors’ in profound ways if we agree, as I’m certain most etymologists might, that language is a concrescence of historical usages, and as such layered in ways that only the most erudite of narratologists, hand in hand with etymologists, might begin to explore.
    That said, the ubiquity of the word ‘Mors’ makes it among the more familiar utterances ever to have traveled vast expanses of time and space; there are close to 30000 substrings of ‘mor’.
    A longstanding analyis reveals: The deepest root for “Mors’ is arguably ‘mo’, a proto-word. The oldest applications can suggest a shallow water. (Yes, parallel to the way we say ‘Mother Earth’, the ancients might have said ‘Mother Water’.
    It stands as counterpoint to the masculine, ‘po’, which refers to comparatively deeper and larger bodies of water, perhaps those with stronger tides and currents. Etymologies re ‘po’ as root of Poseidon, for one example, are easily researched in support of lesser known ‘mo’ theory proposed above.
    “Mors’, ancestor of our modern ‘Moor’, relates to land occupied by humans. We can find verification of this in the definition of ‘mooring a boat’. Land/water proximity is implied, that is, the ‘mo’/’moor’/”Mors” is an place known for both aquatic and land-based activity. (‘Po’ equivalant is ‘port’.)
    Moving on. Water ways were ancient highway equivalents. Likely as not, invaders approached by sea. Battles were held on fields, which is to say moors, that is, adjacent land, possibly farm land, but maybe uncultivated. There still exists in the word a sense of the wild and untamed, but highly contextualized. It is a designated wild, a ‘known uknown’.
    Historical associations arise that lead to battlefield names for pain relievers administered in the heat of battle such as ‘morphine’. Ergo, could “Mors, Mors!” reflect a cry for the ancient battlefield medic to bring some pain reliever to a wounded soldier? (I categorically reject the reverse-engineered etymology of morphine as having been named for a 19th century French doctor; clearly it is related to Morpheus, god of sleep and dreams, and as such, the root etymology is ‘mor-fe’, with the post-positional possessive, meaning ‘of the fields’.)
    Slant rhyme within the mind now retrieves Mars, god of war. Was “Mors, Mors!” a dialectical battle cry, an attempt to invoke the blessings of the war god himself? And please don’t get me started on the antiquity of non-rhotic languages that pre-dates the arrival of words like Mars and Mors, because then we’d be staring at the faces of fallen soldiers calling out something akin to, ‘Mo! Mo!’, or maybe “Mama!’, which, come to think of it, makes perfect sense.
    We already see that as far as the suggested references to ‘Klei di an’n mors!’, one can not settle for superficial analyses. There is an etymological urgency rising here, and more to be discovered.
    First, ‘klei’ can be an antiquated or dialectical word for ‘clay’. (It remains active in Dutch). As such, ‘klei’ can be observed to have various offspring; one is ‘klein’, meaning small, which suggests that one originates from humble origins.
    Another is possibility is a verb that derives from an attribute of clay as having adhesive qualities, hence the word ‘klei’ in “Klei di a’an Mors!’ can mean ‘cling’.
    We can then decipher the phrase(s), “Klei di (or mi) a’an Mors” as the imperative, “Cling to the field!” which could mean anything from ‘Don’t die!” (as in ‘Hug the earth!’, “Stay alive!”, or “Hang in there!”
    Sidewinder here is that the word ‘moor’ can also suggest the ‘rope’ or ‘cable’ which binds the boat to the shore, so the phrase in question could also mean, ‘Hold to solidarity!’ or “Work together!’
    (BTW ‘an’n’ is a contraction of ‘an den’, meaning ‘on the’. No mystery there.)
    Additionally, it is common knowledge that ‘klei’ (clay) is a colloquial word for feces. We canthen mount the possibility that the phrase in question can also suggest something more graphic, such as ‘Shit yourself/myself on the field’.
    Finally, it is also common knowledge that the slave field hands were called “moors”, hence the possibility that there was a racial slur and insult conveyed by these words. “Mors”, in this understanding, might have been a loathsome variation on the contemporary N-word. (Moors is not, as some suggest, an ethnonym, but in the first order of linguistical business, a locative.)
    If this reasoning holds, then the phrase in question would not have meant ‘Kiss my ass’, which at best is a euphemism and as such holds absolutely no etymological water, but more specifically, ‘Defecate upon those lowly opposing forces!’ or maybe, ‘Shit on you bastards!’
    My sense is that any or all of these possibilities exist as etymological palimpsest, but without greater understanding of the moment in time (both historically and then specifically within a text), it is impossible to say which is most accurate.
    One might posit that it is possible that in the heat of battle, there was humor and fortification of spirit to be found in using a phrase that was understood to be double entendre.
    It is also important to keep in mind that these palimpsests with such ancient roots can hold meanings and subtexts which vary within each time frame, with bleed-through of historical and/or cultural under-layers varying by degree from minor to major.
    Therefore all of the above interpretations might have applied at one time or another, as well as others that I am overlooking as I improvise this post.
    Apologies in advance as in the heat of writing my eyes and mind glaze over and I am often grammatically, typographically, and spelling challenged.

  12. The mind reels, even when fishing in murky waters. Otherwise you never know what’s at the other end of the line.

  13. I’m not sure, but I think Hally just proved that Plattdeutsch is related to Basque.

  14. Trond Engen says

    Obviously. Both are Dravidian.

  15. I was going to say “and Sumerian,” but then I realized that went without saying.

  16. Re Plattdeutsch as related to Basque, Sumerian, or whatever other languages, all I can say is that I research and archive relationships between words that are not typically noted or endorsed by academics. Universities would have to reinstate the discipline of philology to do justice to these theories, but to quote Leonard Cohen, ‘that don’t make them junk.’
    Of course it is possible that the comments were tongue in cheek. If so, I hope the amusement continues in good sport.
    Further, I’m a bit more awake now than when I wrote my first post so perhaps it is of interest to add that I find it highly likely that the call, Hummel, Hummel gained universal usage due to one local water carrier. As theories go, it wreaks of a folkloric etymology to me.
    More likely is that the water carrier worked under an umbrella or generic trade name very close to the word Gamel, meaning ‘camel’, and over time, the gutteral G eventually softened into the current H spelling.
    If so, the Gamel component would seem to support a theory that this dyadic call and response was tied to some kind of street gang or hooligan type behavior. Intriguingly, it might initially taunts exchanged between two immigrant groups as principle players which gained notoriety and acceptance to the extent that it later generalized into the local society where it remains deployed today.
    Summing up as concisely as possible: my best guess is that Gamel! Gamel! was a typical or nearly ritualistic taunt of the water carriers which was then answered with the equally pro forma, Mors! Mors! which in the old days would have meant something akin to the N-word, or otherwise translated as Bastards! Bastards! or Lughead! Lughead! or some other equivalent.
    However, when I think of Moors, my own mind might go immediately to Othello, for one example. However, is there an historical record that many of Othelloesque kinship had emigrated to Hamburg at some early time? Perhaps not.
    However, it is not at all difficult to imagine that there was ethnic strife between migrant Hungarians and locals, or other minority groups.
    Therefore, Mors as local street slang could have been a contraction of one of two longer Hungarian words: either Gomorsid, that is one from Gomorah, suggesting a ‘degenerate’ person.
    Or it could have been a shortened form of komor, which runs a gamut of meanings from somber, big, hulking, funereal, depressive, dingy, as well as the straight ahead definition, black.
    This theory becomes plausible when we remember that Hamburg, as a port town, was a transit point in the late 19th and early 20th century for people looking to book passage to the US and surely there had been plenty of people passing through there from the Austrian Hungarian zones, which, in theory, at least, could have placed plenty of Hungarian speakers on the mean streets of Hamburg back then.
    If this sounds contradictory to anyone re my earlier theories of Mors as a reference to Morpheus, Mars, and/or cries for morphine on the battlefield, I say no, they are not contradictory at all. This is because my nascent inner philologist feels that the substrates of all of these languages shared the same history, however wide flung and undocumented that history might have been.

  17. The connection of Hummel with Gamel is brilliant and is surely the key to the whole problem. Once it is realized that the rival street cries were originally “Gamel!” and “Mors!” it is obvious that we are dealing with factions supporting two former Egyptian presidents. The well-known Semitic substrate of northern European languages makes this all but certain.

  18. The connection of Hummel with Gamel is brilliant . . . it is obvious that we are dealing with factions supporting two former Egyptian presidents.
    Surely events of the last few weeks would show that it is Hummers that have replaced Gamels on the streets of Egypt.
    The well-known Semitic substrate of northern European languages makes this all but certain.
    Where is Theo Vennemann when we really need him?

  19. Don’t forget the European Hummer Homarus gammarus (!). Coincidence? I think not! Not only is the European Hummer is found in Hamburg, its existence is mirrored, ironically, by the Amerikanische Hummer, which is (get this) found all the way down to the former slave state of N. Carolina. It’s all related. Which reminds me: Princess Di and the Kennedys all rode on camels and spoke two related dialects of English before tragically
    (cont. p.94)

  20. The salient aspect of my last post – which I had
    assumed was implicit but perhaps needed further
    exploration – (as evidenced by Capt. Amerika’s post), is Germany’s long and well-known history of marginalization and refutation of the rights of foreigners in their midst.
    The astute contemporary etymologist will note that the efforts to scrub foreign language influences from the dominator culture is a well-documented phenomenon. This includes not only the demand that all immigrants exclusively use the language of their new home base, but that all traces and acknowledgment of the influence of outside languages be minimized and denied.
    A striking example of this in recent years was the effort by the VVD Party in The Netherlands to ban the use of any foreign language on the Dutch streets. They proposed that only Dutch should be allowed.
    And this was in ‘tolerant’ Holland.
    In a country known for its history of social polarization, language bias could lead one to speculate that the local German preference at that time could have been to recast the players in any actual story at that time by mythologizing a sanitized Germanified Johan Hummel, water carrier, rather than acknowledging and enshrining the existence of immigrant workers, street gangs etc.
    Indeed, this tendency to sand away details is noted the further we look at standard treatises on historical linguistics from that era which demanded devotion to concept of the purity of their languages as depicted in their highly reductive ‘tree model’.
    Regarding this kind of thread and other similar endeavors, it’s a truism that goes without saying that the effort to establish etymologies which emerge long after the fact deploy aspects of forensic grade detective work combined with an educated guess.
    At some point the honest etymological broker comes to terms with the fact that even the best theory put forward is a gamble.
    In the hollow of the night my subconscious mind coughed up yet another interpretation of Mors! Mors!
    Several European languages hold phonemes related to Mors as a signifier of death. Muerte, morte, and so on. Romanian for death is ‘moarte’, for example.
    Duly noted is that the modern Hungarian words for death is ‘halál’and ‘halálset’ which suggest period influence that is datable. This does not preclude the persistence of the older ‘mor/morte’ meme in dialects.
    So it could be that the call of Hummel Hummel as suggesting ‘camel man’ was returned with shouts of ‘Death! Death!”
    As we move various pieces of this puzzle around the Comments Box, I am disinclined at the moment to yield the suggestion that there could possibly be a Hungarian link here due to Hungary’s proximity to Germany and the fact that the two countries have a long shared history which pre-dates the Middle Ages. To this day, Germany is Hungary’s most important foreign trade partner, both as a customer and as a supplier, although along the way, the relationship has not been without notable conflicts.
    Mors than this, I can not say right now.

  21. Several European languages hold phonemes related to Mors as a signifier of death. Muerte, morte, and so on. Romanian for death is ‘moarte’, for example.
    As long as we’re going to the ma(r)t on this, it’s only appropriate to recall that mavet/mot מות (Strong’s 4191 and 4194) means death in Hebrew and other Semitic languages, and in fact is the source of ‘mate’ in the chess expression ‘checkmate.’

  22. Indeed, Mr. Ogden. An important contribution to this thread.

  23. For a parallel case: my narse for mine arse is not unknown in Early Modern English.

  24. I have several comments to make. I hope it will not interrupt the flow of ideas too much if I simply dump them all here in a heap:
    1. Hally writes “the efforts to scrub foreign language influences from the dominator culture is a well-documented phenomenon”. A striking Dutch example of this same tendency was documented in the very first Languagehat post, Beginnings.
    2. What can it mean that the typical Hummel Hummel Mors Mors figurine is fashioned of metal instead of the usual porcelain?
    3. Das sind die amerikanischen Hummer.

  25. Empty’s Wikipedia page notes that though hummingbird is now limited to the Americas, a fossil has been found in Baden-Wurttemburg, (or at least I think it does, my German is crap). The ‘humm’ part is clearly onomatopoetic, and therefore universal, so it’s only natural to reconstruct the word *Humm’l, or little humming thing, as the native southern German name for the same creature, subsequently lost when the bird went extinct in Europe. The motions of a water-carrier, ducking from house to house and back to the well again, are quite similar the erratic flight of a hummingbird from flower to flower, so it seems possible that immigrants from Baden-Wurtemburg to Hamburg, seeing the resemblance, affectionately applied the name of the one to the other.

  26. Empty, aren’t those porcelain figures just made by someone whose name was, coincidentally, Hummel? The metal one has Hummel, Mors and Hamburg written on it, but since it’s in the same style as the others maybe it was made by someone who wanted to appeal to both groups of Hummel lovers.

  27. Homedog, until recently all I knew about the porcelain Hummels was that there were many varieties of the ghastly things and that people inexplicably paid good money to collect them, and that at one point my ex-wife had some reason to think that her brother was involved in a Hummel-smuggling ring with their father.
    Having done my googling this morning I now know that the Porzellanfabrik that makes them named them after a nun on whose drawings they were based.
    Regardless (heedless, really) of whether the people responsible for the metallic water-carrier were playing on the name of the other kind of Hummel, I was hoping to randomly stimulate Hally and others to more flights of creativity.
    I didn’t know the word “Kolibri” or “colibri” until today, either. It’s oddly attractive. I must try to remember it.

  28. Trond Engen says

    You’re clearly onto something, but careful examination of the evidence reveals that the extension to male watercarriers must have happened before the migration to Hamburg. The fossile bird was found in Frauenweiler, “ladyrester”. But there’s more. On the route from Frauenweiler to Hamburg is the town of Hameln. We all know the tale. Traditionally at payday, in a ritual mimicking their legendary forebear, the Hameln of Hameln would go from house to house playing the flute for the ladies and gathering sweet drinks in their buckets. As one may imagine, a hospitable house would be blessed with many children. But when no “nectar” was given to them they would take the “seeds”, the children of the house.

  29. Hameln? Really?
    Could Glückel have been transformed into Gamel?

  30. one point my ex-wife had some reason to think that her brother was involved in a Hummel-smuggling ring with their father
    So there’s money in Hummel smuggling, is there? They are pretty ugly. Are you sure they aren’t just used to camouflage plastic bags full of heroin? Was her suspicion unfounded or did her father & brother subsequently disappear into some kind of mafia? Was all this taking place in Edinburgh?

  31. I didn’t know the word “Kolibri” or “colibri” until today, either. It’s oddly attractive.
    It’s the Russian word as well (колибри), and yes, it is oddly attractive.
    I have to thank Hally for inspiring a truly memorable thread.

  32. Hm.
    Re Glückel, Mr. Ogden. With respect may I share with you that I have spent a lot of time studying words in and around the cluster in which Glückel comfortably can be said to reside, and for what it’s worth, conclude that it has absolutely no connection to Hummel. Different root. It’s not really easy to offer a fuller explanation right now; simply put, it’s a bigger story than can fit in a comment box.
    Re Hummel figurines and questions about materials in which they have been made etc etc. I will allow for the fact that I’m missing something, but it seems obvious to suggest that even students who have only mastered the rudiments of onomastics would argue, convincingly, that over time, the larger populations grew, the more extensive the proliferation and distribution of surnames. As per the commentary about the surname Woodworth in a previous post, eventually there would be less direct connection to the original name based upon occupation.
    If that understanding situates itself as a guidepost, then it’s possible to dismiss the pre-occupation with Hummel figurines as irrelevant and misplaced. Even if by some long shot it was proven that there were family ties, Hummel the nun and the figurines would appear to add nothing of merit to the quest to decode the story of Hummel the water carrier.
    A similar dismissal is possible for the suggestion that Hummel is related to hummingbirds. Am I taking the bait to even comment upon it? Surely it seems that people were joking when they entered it into the thread.
    Or maybe they weren’t joking. Either way, I don’t personally see it as part of the play. One is mixing apples and oranges to even mention hummingbirds. Germans are noted for their attachment both to Nature and the pride taken in their culture, including language. That hummingbird is not a German name for the species would appear to disqualify it for discussion.
    I would be surprised if anyone could deliver documentation that proves that residents of Hamburg had the peculiar habit of calling the bird by this anglo name.
    My feeling is that both of the above theories are insufficient to warrant further pursuit.
    But the real reaction I have re this theory is that there appears to be a certain tone-deaf quality as to the emotional nature of language evolution. There is something frivolous about this suggestion relative to the context in which the word Hummel is being explored.
    I intend no harm intended by saying this, but it’s just a sense I have that that a lot of etymological research has to do with feeling what arises associatively from the subconscious layers of the mind and then being willing to sort through that information according to some kind of selection criteria.
    How does one hone that selection criteria in order not to waste time? I’m not sure. It might not be the same every time. But here? Yes, I could offer deeper critical analysis but really why go there? It’s a gut feeling I am having that hummingbirds are straw dogs in this discussion.
    Feel free to disagree but, again, please take no offense.
    I had a similar response when post referenced Sumarian and Dravidian. A bit of ribbing? If so, my response is that a radical approach to etymology includes and does not ignore universal sound symbolism. Is it everyone’s cuppa? Maybe not, but if not, and this approach is not comfortable to explore on this site, then maybe I am about to realize that I wandered into the wrong tent.
    Re the Robert Irwin article referenced ‘Beginnings’. Thanks for this but the link is not currently active. Google did not deliver it, either.
    Is there a direct URL you can post?
    Re Goropism and commentary about various people or groups claiming antiquity and primacy of their language as the mother tongue.
    Like others, I don’t necessarily agree with the particulars of the Goropistic approach as it explained on line on the handful of sites I have had time to check before writing this post.
    Operative phrase: the particulars.
    Therefore it’s easy to empathize with skepticism and rejection as a response, but my own feeling is this: it is highly unlikely that the foundational approach to historical linguistics in all its many peregrinations over the centuries will see any dramatic alteration in our lifetime. Incremental changes? Yes, inevitably, but whether LH needs a major rethink or not, such change will remain a no-go zone.
    However, were it to happen, a time might come when Goropism would likely be re-examined, re-evaluated, and re-contextualized. Until such time, studying Becanus might be fun, even satisfying, whatever, but it won’t directly lead to new breakthroughs or substantive revisions in the LH curriculum.
    Overall I’d say that the idea of a site specific mono-genetic interpretation of the origin of language is dubious. Claiming Antwerp as The Place is likely a view that is too circumscribed. Something is missing. Maybe a lot.
    However, there’s so much to this subject that one has to be cautious in saying anything at all. Yet certainly, Goropism should not be dismissed out of hand; one can easily imagine that the text must holds a measure of historical data which had been previously overlooked, marginalized, or otherwise discarded. I’m not suggesting that I personally support a re-opening of the vaults and the imposition of a subsequent set of questions; just making a point.

  33. “Video Character Wayang Bali kingdom era of Mahabharata on YouTube funny”: surrealism in action. Surely there’s a link between Wayang and Colibri, something like this: Wayang > Yang Ming > Marine > Inland Marine > Inland Library > Ex Libris > Colibri. Of course this is only tentative, but I can’t help feeling there’s something in it.

  34. Re ‘inspiring a truly memorable thread.’
    Thank you for the comment. I have been an etymological singleton for a very long time and was surprised to stumble upon this site.
    I realize it was likely a chide that someone had written, ‘Nice article’, but I take it in stride. There is pop, folkloric, misleading, misguided, and all other forms of etymology out there.
    In my experience, a good etymology takes time to develop. I’m sure others feel the same way. For fringee’s who are superficially intrigued by etymology, it might suffice to consult the OED on line site, but to refer to its quality about as etymologically nutritious is beyond me. Sure, it might deliver the occasional hit, but for the most part it’s etymological junk food.
    Same goes for bound volumes like Klein’s. He might have been a Herman Hesse-like figure laboring in his study for ten years to produce his tome, but shifting metaphors from the above reference to the OED site, I cling to the notion that etymology is closer to the study a pebble dropped in a pool of water and then following the rings as they spread out. Sometimes they encounter other rings. Then what do you do? Surely the report is not a truncated 20 word max entry in a book jammed with other 20 word max entries.
    My own approach is that each word is a work of art and needs to be respected as such. Who or what is the author of said work of art is beyond my scope. I only study deployment from first observable moment.
    Last night I worried that I had arrived at the wrong place. This morning I woke up and looked at this comments column and felt like a child on Christmas morning. So many incredible gifts under the tree kind of feeling. It will take me a while to explore all of them but will quickly mention that ‘ladyrester’, at very best, might be seen as a truncated and dare I suggest twisted take on Frauenweiler. Time permitting, it would deserve greater parsement.
    Re John Cowan’s meander from Wayang to Colibri, what can be said other than a person is always entitled to speculate. Good, also, to label such speculations as ‘tentative’, I also always say.
    Couched as it is within the safe harbor of tentativity, this particular string roams inventively. In this case, the more inventive, the more tentative, perhaps. Actually, I personally like it a lot, but please don’t top it off by jumping to the conclusion that Colibri is to Cuba Libra what the madelaine crumbs in the cup of tea were to the cityscapes of Proust’s youthful imagination, Mr. Cowan, because it just ain’t so.
    Just a thought.
    (I’m naive enough not to recognize a red herring when its tossed on my path so I just keep kicking it down the road.)
    Colibri is indeed an intriguing word and I certainly feel expository (that is, narratological) etymologies fluttering in my own mind.
    However, experienced practioners of the craft might agree at some point that not all etymologies should be made available for general consumption. By definition, some must remain masked, concealed, and cowering for an eternity behind locked doors. In these instances, only the most obvious, truncated, and superficial, albeit honest analyses, can be put forward.
    Or put another way, for reasons which shall go unmentioned, it’s not always possible to take an analysis to the ‘mat’, as Mr. Ogden might say. (That is, analyze them to the end point, ‘to death’.)
    After all, what would etymology be if it lacked secrets, doors that can not be opened publicly, and doors which haven’t been opened since the year of who knows when?
    Maybe the Kleins and OED’s etc were onto something after all. Is there a crime in this? Where is the Hercule Poirot of etymology when we need him?
    Or maybe the real question is whether anyone can ever make the sometimes sweet but oft times shocking study of etymology sexy enough that a Spielberg-type would consider making a lousy but provocative movie about it all..(Dan Brown need not apply. He’s not on my own long or short list. In fact, on no list at all in my book.)
    PS. For what it’s worth I had intended to write HL not LH to represent historical linguistics in the previous post. I hope the dyslexic moment did not confuse or obscure anyone who was interested in what I was trying to say because really a full gut-wrenching review of historical linguistics in its totality, and nothing less, is the key to the kingdom, colibri notwithstanding..

  35. However, experienced practioners of the craft might agree at some point that not all etymologies should be made available for general consumption. By definition, some must remain masked, concealed, and cowering for an eternity behind locked doors. … After all, what would etymology be if it lacked secrets, doors that can not be opened publicly, and doors which haven’t been opened since the year of who knows when?
    I agree. Etymologists should be permitted to imagine that they are more important than they are. And of course deep mysteries should be kept from the public. If people knew the Truth About Colibris, all hell would break loose.

  36. Mr. Clayton: Is your comment tongue in cheek or could it be that you perceive a problem with housing some etymologies off list?
    I’m not talking about the well-known side pockets within etymological practices, ie the private preserves of shibboleths, liturgical esoterica, and what not, but more generally.
    In fact, the truth might be that if the rootsy etymological/narratological knowledge about the word colibri were to be sprung upon an unsuspecting public, indeed all hell might break loose.
    Let’s not underestimate the power of words. Look at the events of the last 24 hours. Regardless of one’s political affliction, all might agree that storming the offices of a well-respected news organization to retrieve words speaks to their power. Yes, words.
    I’m not saying that I personally have any special understanding of colibri beyond my general, sustained, and passionate interest in all words that begin with a ‘co’, manifest a syllable resembling a ‘lib’, a ‘lob’, a ‘lim’, or a ‘lum’, etc, and end with a ‘bri’.
    Despite what appears to be your skepticism and humor, I know fire when I see it. I do realize that I might end up identified in the blogosphere as the Cassandra of all things etymological, but an arsonist I am not.
    So take it for what it’s worth if I report that often I can even smell the sulphur rising from the first mind-rousing sparks during an etymological investigation, however far off in the distance they might seem to others.
    As far as the self-importance of this etymologist? In my view the word ‘me’ is a hyponym of ‘meh’. Not so important, in other words.

  37. It’s a gut feeling I am having that hummingbirds are straw dogs in this discussion.
    I have absolutely no idea whether you’re serious or if it’s all a put-on. If the latter, congratulations: your poker face is of professional caliber! (Hmm… caliber… colibri… must think upon this…)

  38. I think the extension of my derivational chain from Colibri to Cuba Libre is an excellent one, and as for Proust, who are we to know what was in Proust’s mind at the time? Cuba libres may well have been passing through his thoughts on their way to Tumbolia (which is where hiccups go after you are done having them, and where George Washington was when the lights went out).
    I should perhaps explain that it’s common on this blog, when your eye lights on a particularly memorable spam, to make a copy of it with a suitably trenchant comment, because otherwise it will be lost when the esteemed Hat clears out the spam. That’s the original source of the Wayang reference above.
    But I cannot agree with you about etymology as an esoteric pursuit. What cannot be conducted in the full light of day, whatever else it is, is neither science nor scholarship. If the Age of the Internet (foreseen by Hesse as the Age of the Feuilletons) has shown nothing else, it has shown that. After all, here you are on this blog! A mere twenty years ago, we would never have been vouchsafed the benefits of your learning.

  39. “I have absolutely no idea whether you’re serious or if it’s all a put-on.”
    It’s possible that a desire to explore words takes many forms and humor can be seen as simply another arrow in the etymologist’s quiver.
    At least to me it seems to come with the territory.
    So, yes, I was playing.

  40. Oh, good!

  41. Re the Age of the Feuilletons and secret etymologies.
    I don’t see the existence of seemingly secret etymologies as all bad. Some of it is inevitable. I have educated friends who would have difficulty following this blog and they are not dummies. Nor would they feel they are missing anything.
    So there are all kinds of clubs and memberships, some established by choice, others de facto. Not to go too mystical sounding, but some call it ‘self-secret’ – the ability of something to hide in plain sight until it’s ready to be seen.
    If everything were totally open to everyone, would the end result of knowing and not knowing the same? Of who knows what, when? I’m not necessarily talking about the politics of scale here and current hot issues in the news.
    I’m talking about the large scheme of things.
    Myself, I’m not sure.
    It’s what we can call the persistence of nested hierarchies in information fields. Impossible to eradicate because, for whatever reasons, some people can handle a lot of , depth, and detail in their mental processes while others can’t.
    As for the rest, I do read you closely, Mr. Cowan, and yet what is there to say? We do not live in an ideal society. Some things are kept under lock and key and woe to those who would propose to change the status quo.
    This raises a question: I’m new to this blog so I have no idea whether this has come under discussion or not, is allowed or not allowed into discussion, but is it possible that etymologists, historically, have also been known to take an interest in numeric codes, Gematria, and such?
    Of course I know the answer to this. Of course they did and do.
    Personally, I want nothing to do with numbers. My mind is too slippery to adhere to the strict standards demanded by the manipulation and interpretation. I’m an intellectual impressionist and gestural, not truly draughtsmanlike. I just do not have the precision that numbers requires. I also find the numbers environment too arid for my temperament.
    But the actual theories behind numbered codes must certainly relate to a certain branch of etymology even in Western society. Does anyone know a name for this?
    Back to the point about secrecy, at the moment that the ultimate deciphering of information has taken place, one would presumably be standing on an eschatological precipice where all information is totally understood and there is no more to learn, or… or otherwise? What?
    A mention of this eschatological question presents another form of secrecy which we can’t crack on demand. It doesn’t stop me from speculating, however, that there must be etymologists out there who have converted their study of language into either something approximating a religious quest or else a search for divinities within the language itself. Yes, Glass Bead Game and all that.
    I recall a post related to this but not specifics. All I know personally is that, achievable or not, the study of etymology feels, at its base, like a search for (brace yourself, drum roll….) the eternal, or put another way, some irreducible bit of somethingnothing that shines like a diamond and lights the freaking worst parts of the path.
    But then, is it really etymology we are talking about, with or without its secrets, or poetic and prophetic reckoning? Again, who among us would ever be willing to lay claim to knowing it all? Only a fool. It’s an absurd thought.
    So somewhere, somehow, there are always secrets. Healthy or unhealthy, you want to know? My best guess? Unhealthy. You’re right, Mr. Cowan, but who knows? Maybe the entire planet was founded upon some kind of galactic sub-prime loan that leaves us closer and closer to foreclosure. Build scenarios around that, if you can. We’re talking Big Unhealthy Secrets if we go that route.
    But everything has limits. Even the miracle of the internet about which you seem so enamored. Don’t we all know the emerging story all too well. I’m afraid that all manner of information control operates in every realm of the universe.
    My best guess is, secrets be damned, that information comes to us on a need to know basis. Thus and only thus, coupled with a lot of hard work on our part, of course.
    But if one wants to discuss the morality of keeping secrets, that’s yet again another story, and one which doesn’t necessarily pay dividends for mature adults. One quickly understands that there is always more to know and that we ourselves are probably not as squeaky clean as we would like to believe we are. It all comes back to the desire for immortality.
    Or at least that is how I see it right now and that’s why I’m just a worker ant toiling in the etymological fields. That is, my love affair with language keeps me going. No matter what anyone else has to say about anything, and as long as there is conscious mind with, at minimum, a subconscious that is structured like a language, there will always be something for me to do with my time.

  42. I don’t see the existence of seemingly secret etymologies as all bad. Some of it is inevitable. I have educated friends who would have difficulty following this blog and they are not dummies. Nor would they feel they are missing anything.
    But that doesn’t make it secret. The fact that I don’t know the names of Lady Gaga’s songs (and don’t care to) hardly makes them a secret. If I cared to learn their names, I would trivially learn them, and that’s that. On the other hand, the identity of the substance codenamed FOGBANK truly is a secret; I can’t by any means available to me find out what it is (short of threatening Jim Mason, and he’s a friend of mine).
    Hat: One may be playing and yet dead serious, as I suspect is the case here. The question is, what rules are being applied?

  43. Same goes for bound volumes like Klein’s. He might have been a Herman Hesse-like figure laboring in his study for ten years to produce his tome
    More like 30 years all told for his English and Hebrew etymological dictionaries. As a kid I walked by his home almost every day for a decade.
    I don’t know his English dictionary. His Hebrew dictionary sits on my desk and I consult it regularly. I was recently saddened to learn from a linguist who knows these things that it’s not considered a work of great scholarship.

  44. Secret? Rules? What rules? What are you on about, Mr. Cowan. Looks to me like the whole world is flying by the seat of their pants, making up the rules as they go. Besides, if there are rules, by now we know that even the rules are secret.
    Re this playing dead motif. There’s no playing involved. I’m simply dead to provocations that do not serve me. Marching to my own beat and all that.
    I’m just someone who spends a lot of time reading books and taking notes. And that’s OK with me. Let’s say it’s palliative care for the dead part of me; to ease tension, I sink myself deep into frothy word baths. Life could be worse.
    And as you know, I’m new to this blog, so I hope you don’t mind if I pause to ask a question here. Did anyone ever think of this?
    Etymologists are actually close cousins to entomologists. After all, we both like to nit pick and we both revel in the tiniest detail. Isn’t that incredible? It’s no wonder that people always get the two disciplines confused, but guess what? I’m actually a bit of both. Yes, it’s true.
    All this came about because I was influenced by V. Nabokov’s affection for butterflies. I mean, who hasn’t been? But in my case, I’ve actually followed his lead and become a bit of a lepidopterist on the side.
    So right now I’m going excuse myself and go put some iridescent butterfly wing specimen under my etymological microscope. Found them on line this week and I want to study up on their nomenclature.
    It’s a rare species called the Lustrous Brazilian Border Patch. A marvelous example of its type. Broad wing span. A noble flyer. Could be facing extinction, I hear, but then again, what isn’t?
    Historically native to the Schwarzen-Greenwald, where it usually mates, but curiously, it was recently spotted entering the UK.

  45. Re I was recently saddened to learn from a linguist who knows these things that it’s not considered a work of great scholarship.
    Precisely my point, Mr. Ogden. With all due respect to the late Rabbi, his work leaves a lot to be desired.
    But his life itself remains a sterling model of what lifelong dedication to a project can achieve. I admire him all the more now that I understand it was closer to 30 years rather than 10. That kind of devotion deserves sincere acknowledgment. Quite amazing.
    Even with its failings, however, it’s worth keeping on the shelf. In a pinch, when blanking completely on possibilities, his work is worth consulting as a starting point. I would never toss Klein out or anything.
    Nice story that you lived near him.

  46. “Secret? Rules? What rules? What are you on about, Mr. Cowan. Looks to me like the whole world is flying by the seat of their pants, making up the rules as they go. Besides, if there are rules, by now we know that even the rules are secret. ”
    It seems to me like anyone’s free to decide what rules to go by, whether they make up your own or follow some establishment’s, and anyone else is free to judge the validity of what someone comes up with by whether they see the sense of the rules being followed.

  47. re Secrets and rules, Healthy and Unhealthy.
    We all understand that there has been a long-standing desire within certain communities, for a common language.
    Upon first inspection it seems like a safe, defensible, even romantic drive.
    Upon closer inspection, I’m not so sure.
    Imagining now a spectrum and off to one side, at an extreme, we see monks and nuns who have taken vows of silence.
    Moving toward the more neutral zones of the spectrum, we see people who identify all communication as a dyad requesting for something and a response agreeing or disagreeing that request, and so on. Reductive and robotic? I’m not sure. It’s a schematic. We can leave it at that.
    Still in the neutral zones, but with an uptick that is a bit New Age-y, we see those who consider all communication an ‘energy exchange’, or an ‘educational exchange’.
    Dimming any enthusiasm attached to this approach, we might acknowledge that no communication goes without a glitch; there will always be drop outs, lacunae, and misunderstandings It’s never so simple, perfect, or idealized.
    On the other end of the spectrum, we see those who will cynically exploit these naturally occurring lacunae in order to control communication as part of their push to position themselves hierarchically.
    But at that point, we’re no longer talking about secrets, lacunae, and communication styles, are we? We’re talking about gross manipulation of information in toxic and unfair ways. Other names for this would be lies or deceptions.
    I realize I’m preaching to the choir to go this route, but let’s note for the record that there are known remedies to these issues.
    For example, edgy, irritated, and clever folks might develop the use of codes as a safety mechanism, to privatize communication. Pigeons, dialects, and slang can fall into this category. There are also all sorts of ploys, feints, satires, spoofs, parodies, and so on, linguistically and otherwise, which serve as codes and code breakers.
    Surely, even within these threads, there are dances and posturings, however harmless in intent, which motivate the writers and color their presentation.
    My point is that secrets blossom on our lips with every utterance. There will always be the inner, outer, and secretive level to every communication, as well as hidden agendas. Nor is this spectrum of communication styles going anywhere. It is here to stay.
    So to answer your question, “Are there rules?” I would say, yes, and this is the rule: Secrets exist. Secrets come and go. Secrets can be toxic and hurtful, even catastrophe inducing, and secrets can be thrilling, seductive, and drive us up a wall with desire.
    Chop down one hedge of secrets and another grows back the next season.
    That’s the only rule I can see right now. Does it further side step your inquiry as to whether I am ‘playing dead’ right now? I think not. I have taken up my own position relative to data issuing, data shielding, data theft, and data destruction.
    Does this position hold a secret component? Difficult to say.

  48. Can you imagine the terrible chaos that would ensue if Murakami’s floats decided to pull a Cat In The Hat ’97 and go rogue, spreading destruction so wide that they send people into comas?
    So to answer your question, “Are there rules?”
    I never asked such a question, nor did anyone else that I can see. The question was what rules are in use. Around here we have one set that’s pretty generally accepted, and another set we don’t think much of.

  49. R. J. E. Bayliff says

    And as if all comments were not enough already, a Netherlands Railways train was daubed with the inscription ” Hummel Hummel – 52 ” when it was being stolen away to Germany during 1944. Its progress was halted at Arnhem due to the battle and it was photographed there after the German surrender in 1945.
    Whether a transit or destination code, or a daubing by soldiers in passing, it must have some literal or intended meaning . . . . .

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