Balashon (Hebrew Language Detective) is back to postingheydad! — and provides an interesting, though to me unconvincing, etymology for skeleton, quoting Klein’s entry for the Hebrew word sheled שלד ‘skeleton’:

Syriac שלדא (=skeleton), from Akkadian shalamtu (properly meaning ‘the whole’ corpse), from shalamu (=to be complete), which is related to Hebrew שלם (=was complete). Greek skeleton (=skeleton) is a Syriac loan word. The explanation of Greek skeleton as used elliptically for skeleton soma (=dried up body) as if skeleton were the neutral verbal adjective of skellein (=to dry up) is folk etymology.

Now, this sounds like complete balderdash to me, but I thought I’d toss it out there and see if anyone thinks it’s plausible. The entry ends: “I’m still occupied with the projects I’ve been working on, but I’m going to try to put up smaller posts like this one (which require less research). I hope you still find them interesting!” I for one certainly do!


  1. ə de vivre says

    Etymology Online gives the source of “skeleton” as “from PIE root *skele- ‘to parch, wither,’” which has the advantage of explaining where the “k” came from. Also, I don’t see the Syriac link anywhere. The noun “šlāmā” has the usual NW Semitic peace-related meanings. The only death-related sense I see is for the verb “šlem,” one sense of which is “to be put to death,” probably an extension of the primary “coming to an end” sense of the verb. I can’t speak to the Hebrew, but it looks like the intermediate steps between skeleton and šalamtu don’t hold up.

    (PS/addendum: [from looking up “šalamtu”] boy did those Assyrians write about piling up corpses a lot!)

  2. Well, they came down like the wolf on the fold a lot.

  3. Yes, Assyrian is a paradigm case of “lovely language, nasty people.”

  4. “they came down like the wolf on the fold a lot.”

    Only one of them did.

  5. What about his cohorts?

  6. ə de vivre says

    Yes, Assyrian is a paradigm case of “lovely language, nasty people.”

    Or at least, the nastiest people left behind the most language.

  7. I doubt it’s from Semitic – Greeks borrowed š as s, not as sk, and the Greek-internal etymology seems perfectly plausible. But even if a Semitic etymology were tenable, it would definitely not be from Syriac – the word is attested in Greek at least from the first century BC, and Syriac hadn’t yet emerged as a distinct dialect of Aramaic at that stage.

  8. ə de vivre says

    Looks like I misread the proposed etymology. The claim is Akkadian “šalamtu” > “šalamdu” (which is an attested Middle/Neo-Babylonian spelling), which was then loaned into Aramaic as “šalad,” which ends up as the equally-extant Syriac “šaldā” – all of which looks pretty reasonable. The Aramaic “šalad/šaldā” ending up in Greek as “skeleton” seems much more dubious – for the š > sk jump is nothing else.

  9. This BMCR is good on the cultural context: some philologists are very eager to find Indo-European etymologies for Classical Greek words (even though Greek has a large percentage of words with no convincing PIE etymology) but aside from obvious ones like Akk. saqqu/Gr σάκκος “large fabric bag” Semitic etymologies are not always convincing. Of course the problem is that we know very little about most of the languages of the archaic Aegean, and we don’t know enough about Aramaic and Phoenician before the 5th century BCE or the Greek of Syria and Babylonia after Alexander. If we had 20,000 word dictionaries of half a dozen languages spoken at the ports of Cyprus and Ionia in the 8th century BCE, we might have strong evidence that more words had non-IE etymologies.

  10. Good point.

  11. Akk. saqqu/Gr σάκκος “large fabric bag”

    In the American South a sack is still a large fabric bag, but outside the South, to judge from salespeople’s language, “sack” means any bag at all.

  12. @Rodger C: That distinction in the meaning of sack seems to be dying out, even in the Old South. As old-fashioned agricultural sacks become less and less a part of people’s everyday experience, the word’s meaning has been expanding to include other kinds of bags. The only people I can remember meeting who scrupulously observed the distinction were actually in Michigan.

  13. David Eddyshaw says

    Seems robust in the UK: “sacks” are made of coarse fabric, whereas other saccoid things are “bags.”
    That’s certainly the case in my own idiolect, at any rate.

  14. I don’t recall having many opportunities to talk about them, but I do think of sacks as being made of coarse fabric.

  15. David Marjanović says

    In German, Sack does make me think of coarse fabric, but more important are size (large) and shape (absence of handles, closed by tying a piece of string).

    one sense of which is “to be put to death,” probably an extension of the primary “coming to an end” sense of the verb.


  16. @David Marjanović: Terminate, meaning “assassinate (a person, esp. an intelligence agent)” (per the OED entry, which is completely up to date), is first attested in 1969 in print, which agrees with about what I would have expected. Certainly, the usage must be somewhat older inside the intelligence community, probably both in speech and in secret documents. The OED‘s earliest citation for this meaning of terminate that does not include “with extreme prejudice” is from 1975.

    The meaning became especially well known in American culture as a result of this famous scene from Apocalypse Now. The word is used three times, by Harrison Ford, Martin Sheen, and Jerry Ziesmer, in three slightly different grammatical constructions.

  17. What about his cohorts?

    They just stood around gleaming. You don’t want to start rushing around like a wolf on the fold just after you’ve got your purple and gold looking nice and shiny. You might get mud on it.

    As old-fashioned agricultural sacks become less and less a part of people’s everyday experience, the word’s meaning has been expanding to include other kinds of bags.

    Interesting. As David Eddyshaw says, it’s still robust in the UK. A sack is a large fabric or woven plastic bag. I suppose you could have a paper sack, but I’d think of something about three feet across – the kind of thing that you put paper waste in for recycling.

    How far has this gone? When you buy groceries, does the supermarket give you a plastic sack to carry them in? Would you buy a sack of sweets?

  18. John Cowan says

    I wouldn’t, and I don’t think sack has this sense in NYC at all, though that may just be the Infrequency Illusion. However, a sack need not be large if it is heavy: a standard sack of cement holds only a cubic foot (28 liters) of material, but it weighs 94 lb (42 kg). I can testify that the first time you try to pick one up, it just sits there on the ground and stares at you indifferently.

  19. “Sack” for a paper grocery bag seems to be widespread in the US but not nearly as common as “bag”.

  20. I grew up in Michigan, and I think for me “sack” ordinarily implies cloth, but I do have the collocation “sack lunch” meaning “lunch brought in a paper bag”. I’m not sure if that supports Brett’s comment or not.

    I’m tickled to learn that “sack” is related to שק; I’d always assumed that the similarity was a coincidence. I suppose next it will turn out that “tag” is related to תג.

  21. Lars (the original one) says

    @JC, same in Danish, FWIW — a sæk is something large enough for serious amounts of stuff, like the paper ones in your outdoor household waste receptacle (now replaced by wheeliebins that can be upended into the truck). Sorte sække are plastic 100 liter ones without handles or drawstrings, and used for stuff you’re tossing or can’t be bothered to sort before you stuff it in the storage room. And then your jute coffee sacks, paper sacks for cement and so on, generally commercial quantities of stuff.

  22. David Marjanović says

    Oh yes, Müllsack “large garbage bag made of plastic”.

  23. Stu Clayton says

    Another example: alte Säcke have no love handles, and only a drawstring to hold their pants up.

  24. Terminate […] must be somewhat older inside the intelligence community

    I’m not so sure of that. Mole ‘spy’ is in Shakespeare, and the metaphor is obvious, but supposedly CIA never used it for ‘agent in place’ until they picked it up from spy thrillers.

  25. @John Cowan: I tracked down the earlier citation in the OED (from The New York Times, August 14, 1969, “Beret Case Details Reported in Saigon”), and the phrase “terminated with extreme prejudice” had a rather different valance than I was anticipating. The story was about a North Vietnamese double agent who was killed in a vigilante action by eight American green berets, including the former commander of all Army special forces in South Vietnam. The American soldiers had been arrested and were awaiting the military trial. In this context, the quoted “terminated with extreme prejudice” was from a source close to the Army’s investigation, and describing the killing that way makes it sound like job done in the heat of the moment—not like a skillful (albeit off the books) killing by intelligence personnel.

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