I’m reading Janet Soskice’s The Sisters of Sinai: How Two Lady Adventurers Discovered the Hidden Gospels, a gift from the learned and generous bulbul, and thoroughly enjoying it. I do have to complain, in the mildest of tones, about this bit from p. 79: “As one of Henry’s inner circle, Parker had been able ro take advantage of the king’s dissolution of the monasteries to snoop around their libraries and remove many of the choicest treasures (giving rise to the English expression ‘a nosey Parker’).” Anyone who frequents LH will probably have the same dismissive reaction I did on reading that parenthetical, and sure enough, a moment’s investigation is enough to dispose of it: The Phrase Finder says “Was the first Nosy Parker a real person and, if so, who? We don’t know”; the OED s.v. nosy parker (entry updated 2003) says “Apparently < nosy adj. + the surname Parker. Compare (especially earlier) allusive use as a proper name, apparently with reference to a (probably fictitious) individual taken as the type of someone inquisitive or prying.”

But I can’t blame Soskice, who had no reason to disbelieve what she read either at the Wikipedia article I linked to for Parker (I’ve just corrected the section on the phrase, and I hope nobody reverts it) or in the Wallechinsky Book of Lists the article cites or some other source repeating the same story; people love a good story, and it takes special training—training (to beat my favorite dead horse) that almost no one receives—to realize how unlikely this particular sort of story is. I’m just mentioning it in the hope of making a few more people think twice before accepting just-so stories about eponyms. And while I’m at it, the same goes for acronymic origins (port out starboard home, for unlawful carnal knowledge, et hoc genus omne). Accept no substitutes for scholarly etymologies!

By the way, does anybody happen to know the origin of the name Soskice? The BBC Pronouncing Dictionary of British Names tells me it’s pronounced SOSS-kiss, but I can find no information about it in any of my surname references.


  1. A recent example of a presumably-bogus etymology was in a recent NYT crossword puzzle:
    where it was claimed that ‘silk’ was derived from a Chinese word with a similar sound. Well, maybe, maybe not, but the OED doesn’t think so. I linked, in the comments, to a post by Piotr Gąsiorowski on etymology, but I don’t think anyone noticed.

  2. Here‘s a direct link, and yes, it’s depressing that people think superficial similarity is prima facie evidence of etymological connection. (That’s not even getting into the fact that modern Mandarin si is being used as the comparator, as if you were trying to compare French eau to ancient words for ‘water’ without realizing you should be using Latin aqua.)

  3. Anybody know the Middle Chinese for ‘silk’?

  4. Garrigus Carraig says

    “For unlawful carnal knowledge“.
    David Soskice was a Russian journalist & Menshevik who emigrated to England in the 1890s & seems to have covered the Bolshevik Revolution for the Grauniad. That’s a start on the name at least.

  5. Garrigus Carraig says

    Said journalist’s Russian Wikipedia page should provide further clues to the Russian speakers among us.

  6. “For unlawful carnal knowledge”.
    D’oh! I was thinking “knowledge”; I don’t know why my fingers didn’t follow orders.
    Said journalist’s Russian Wikipedia page should provide further clues to the Russian speakers among us.
    It does indeed! So it’s a Jewish-Russian name, and the invaluable Unbegaun tells me that, like Sosin, Soskin, Sosis, Shoshin, Shoshkin, and Shoshkes, it’s derived from the Hebrew name Shoshana (Susannah).

  7. J. W. Brewer says

    The amazon blurb uses “dragomen” as the plural of “dragoman” which I couldn’t recall ever seeing before and which struck me as Just Plain Wrong. But wikitionary treats it as a known variant, albeit one based on mistaken etymology. So I’ve learned something new today . . .

  8. ‘Silk’ in Middle Chinese is , so using Mandarin actually is fine in this case, for once. Pulleyblank reconstructs the Old Chinese as *səɣ, and thinks that the Latin/Greek r (see below) is a misinterpretation of the ɣ. I suppose this means that the name was applied indifferently to the Chinese and to their trade item. As for the OED, it says:

    Old English sioloc, seoloc, etc. (for earlier *siluc) masculine, varying in form and gender from Old Norse and Icelandic silki neuter (Norwegian, Swedish, and Danish silke); not found in the other Germanic languages, but represented also by Old Church Slavonic šelkŭ (Russian šëlk). The ultimate source is commonly supposed to be Latin sēricus or Greek σηρικός silken, Sēres, Greek Σῆρες, the oriental people (perhaps the Chinese) from whom silk was first obtained. The change of r to l may have taken place in some language through which the word passed into Slavonic use and thence into the early Baltic trade.

    On the other hand, the Korean form is sil.
    Serge (< Fr), which is now a durable twill weave of worsted, is direct < sēricum; as the OED says, “names of textile fabrics often come to be applied to materials cheaper and coarser than those which they originally designated”. There is no trace of the meaning ‘silk’ in either English or any modern Romance language. (Worsted, by the way, is pronounced /wʊstɪd ~ wʊstəd/, and is < the name of a civil parish in Norfolk, now spelled Worstead).

  9. Garrigus Carraig says

    Is there a culture in which surnames derived from feminine given names are not very unusual?

  10. Similarly to Pulleyblank, but coming from a different direction, Schuessler suggests that ‘silk’ might derive from qín 秦 (Old Chinese *dzin); here’s his entry for its etymology:

    The western state of Qín and the dynasty. Qín is often thought to be the source of ancient European words for ‘China’: Lat. ‘Sina’ etc., modern Western languages ‘China’. Also the word for ‘silk’ may ultimately be derived from this name: Gr. sērikón, i.e. ‘the Chinese one, (the stuff) from China’. These ancient loans suggest that the original final was *-r, not *-n (Pulleyblank 1962: 229–230). The graph was originally intended for zhēn (tṣjɛn) ‘hazel’.

  11. So it’s a Jewish-Russian name, and the invaluable Unbegaun tells me that, like Sosin, Soskin, Sosis, Shoshin, Shoshkin, and Shoshkes, it’s derived from the Hebrew name Shoshana (Susannah).
    Shoshana is variously translated as rose or lily. The original name of celebrated Israeli lexicographer Avraham Even-Shoshan was Avraham Rosenstein. Even / אבן (both e’s are short) means stone.

  12. Clicking on Hat’s Amazon link to Janet Soskice’s book also brings up the wonderful Sacred Trash: The Lost and Found World of the Cairo Genizah. Authors Adina Hoffman and Peter Cole begin their volume with a description of the sisters and their activities, and credit Soskice as their source.

  13. Probably some matriclan names were originally women’s names.

  14. Garrigus: I don’t know, but Philologos at the Jewish Daily Forward says this in a column about how the Jews got their family names: “Some, in Yiddish-speaking areas where children were distinguished from other, similarly named children by their mother (e.g., Leib Sorehs, “Sarah’s Leib,” or Velvel Chayes, “Chaye’s Velvel”), took their mother’s names.”

  15. On the other hand, the Korean form is sil.
    I don’t know Korean except through exercises in introductory textbooks which often feature the regular and predictable [r/l] alternation in Korean: [r] before vowels (initially or medially), [l] before consonants or word-finally. The two are allophones of a single phoneme, which is why the Korean alphabet only needs one symbol for both sounds. So the final consonant in Korean [sil] is exactly what one would expect from the borrowing of a Chinese word ending in [r].

  16. Jewish last names based on female names
    I heard a talk about this a few years ago. Acording to the speaker, at the time when Jews in some parts of Eastern Europe were required to adopt last names, translations of father-based names (as in Mendelssohn) were not always considered suitable. Moreover, the most esteemed male role was that of a religious scholar, so that businesses were often actually run by women. So mothers’ names or even nicknames were often adopted as the basis for the secular names required by the government.

  17. Korean . . . introductory textbooks . . . often feature the regular and predictable [r/l] alternation in Korean: [r] before vowels (initially or medially), [l] before consonants or word-finally. The two are allophones of a single phoneme, which is why the Korean alphabet only needs one symbol for both sounds.
    Many years ago I published a guidebook to Banff and the Canadian Rockies in Japanese. I commissioned a text in English, had it translated and typeset (strike-on type, a story unto itself), and taken to the pre-press stage by a Korean graphic designer who had been born and raised in Japan. Despite careful proofreading an error slipped through: The same characters were used to represent Lake Moraine and Lake Maligne.

  18. m-l: Indeed, but the point here is that the Chinese word never ended in /r/, though foreigners may have heard it that way. That might have happened independently in Korea and on the Silk Road, to be sure.

  19. The sisters were quite the girls. I assume it is because of their dry sense of humour that Cambridge is blessed with the unlikely place name Castlebrae.

  20. Castlebrae was built and named by Agnes’s husband, Samuel Savage Lewis, who had the unfortunate nickname of “Satan” around the university:

    He occupied a warren of rooms that had been part of a monastic structure pre-dating the founding of the college. One of his windows looked not to the outside, but directly down into the chancel of St. Bene’t’s Church. Passing this window and noticing a wedding taking place in the altar below, Lewis peered down to have a look. The bride chanced to look up and saw Lewis, “a notoriously ugly man with a straggling black beard peering down into the gloom of the Church from above”; she cried “Satan!” and fainted. The story did the rounds of the undergraduates and the name stuck, reinforced by Lewis’s disheveled manner of dress, strange mannerisms and habit of leaving for distant parts of Europe and the Middle East as soon as the university term had ended.

    If anybody’s wondering about the odd spelling “St. Bene’t’s”—to be honest, until just now I assumed it was a typo—Wikipedia explains: “Bene’t is a contraction of Benedict, hence the unusual apostrophe in the name.” (My wife, by the way, does not think Lewis was ugly, though she’s not fond of his bushy beard; you can judge for yourself from the picture at the link for his name.)

  21. Soskice is actually the capital of Slovaria, a small nation northeast of Slovenia and southwest of Slovakia. Slovarians are predominantly Slavonian Catholics; they follow the Catholic liturgy and are under the authority of the pope, but use Church Slavonic as their liturgical language. Soskice is actually a fairly prosperous town because of the nearby bauxite-mining activity. There is a charming old city center, known as Svayty-Stefan, after the Baroque cathedral there.

  22. Oh, and it’s pronounced SOS-ki-tseh; Slovarian is stress-initial.

  23. It seems unkind to say that the Greeks and Romans “misinterpreted” ɣ as r. Since there was no ɣ in their languages, above all not finally, surely “interpreted” will do.

  24. St. Bene’t’s Church is (in part) one of the few Anglo-Saxon churches to survive the Norman passion for do-it-yourself.
    “Castlebrae was built and named by Agnes’s husband”: pah, fat chance. When did a Londoner call anything “brae”? Pull the other one.

  25. Nech žive Slovarija! (And wouldn’t it be nice if there were another bauxite source in Europe.)

  26. LH: “St. Bene’t’s”… “Bene’t is a contraction of Benedict
    I think this was discussed right here a few years ago.
    My wife, by the way, does not think Lewis was ugly, though she’s not fond of his bushy beard
    I don’t find him either ugly or handsome, and the long bushy beard was typical of male fashions at the time (like Darwin, for instance). Of course he would have cleaned himself up for his picture, but if he was usually unkempt and disheveled in hair and beard and that is how he appeared to the nervous bride below him in the semi-darkness of the church, her reaction might be somewhat understandable.

  27. Nech žive Slovarija
    Nech žive naša dežela…
    I forget the rest, but boy does that take me back to my year abroad there. Good, cheap beer. And lots of it.

  28. And as for the initial stress, that was imposed on the standard language by Jan-Hus Strnat in his First Grammar, published in 1840, for obvious personal reasons. The dialects retain the Proto-Slavic accent shifted one syllable to the left.

  29. My wife, by the way, does not think Lewis was ugly
    The painting is obviously airbrushed.

  30. I didn’t care to read through the Left Behind series; I read more book reviews than books; but one reviewer pointed out something I hadn’t noticed. Surnames are not derived from geographical terms. I wonder why not? Are there languages where surnames do come from geographical names? We have Hill, Rivers, Brooke, but we don’t have Ural, Danube, Dniester, Thames; and Nicolae Carpathia is an impossible name. It’s especially not Romanian.
    But why aren’t there people with those names?

  31. “I’ve just corrected the section on the phrase, and I hope nobody reverts it”
    If one simply deletes ‘spurious claim*[*ignorant source]’ it may not be reverted, but it will inevitably be reinserted later.
    If one replaces it, as you did, with ‘Some people have asserted spurious claim, but this is spurious.*[*authoritative source]’ there is some hope it will stick; although there may be a meta-dispute over the relative authoritativeness of sources.

  32. stephen: Last (or family) names like Hill, Rivers, Brooke, etc, or in French Dubois, Dumont, Dupont, Duplessis, Delarive, Delahaye/Deshayes, Desjardins, etc, refer to features located within a small geographical area such as a village, originally identifying families living near or within those local features. There would not have been any point in names such as Ural or Thames or Delaloire since such names would apply to all the families living in the same wide geographical area.

  33. J. W. Brewer says

    There are English surnames with specific-toponym origins, but I believe the standard theory is that they arose in locations other than the referent toponym. E.g. the surname “Welch” might have first stuck to a fellow in some English village not necessarily close to the Welsh border where being of Welsh origin was thus distinctive. Similarly, “Derbyshire” is an extant surname which presumably first arose not in Derbyshire but in other parts of England where being “the guy from Derbyshire” was usefully distinctive, and perhaps the earliest bearers of the surname “London” were from out in the sticks. If it had been customary in medieval England to refer to people’s geographical origin in terms of a specific river or mountain range (rather than by reference to city/shire/etc.), I imagine we might have some surnames with that sort of etymology.

  34. JWB, I agree with you about some geographical names referring to the place of origin of newcomers.
    For equivalents of “Welch” “Scott”, “French”, etc there are old French names such as Langlois ‘the English one’, Lallemand ‘the German one’, Lenormand ‘the Norman one’, Lebreton ‘the Breton one’, and even Lefrançois ‘the French one’ (probably meaning ‘the one from Ile-de-France’, the area just around Paris). Obviously such names would be applied to recent arrivals in the region of reference.

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