Leafing through Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, I happened on the word standish “a stand for writing materials : inkstand.” Well, that’s an odd word, thought I, and turned to the OED, where I found it qualified as “Obs. exc. Hist. or arch.” with the etymology “Commonly believed to be f. STAND v. + DISH n.; but evidence is wanting for such a use of dish as would account for the assumed combination.” The latest citation is from 1864 (Athenæum 11 June 801 “When the veteran,.. is about to lay his pen to rest in the standish”), and given the way the world has turned since then, it is unlikely to experience a resurgence in popularity. What on earth is it doing in M-W at all, let alone unattended by an “obsolete” sticker?

The frighteningly literate Conrad pointed me to the revision of the OED’s entry for paparazzo. The former etymology read, in its entirety, “[It.],” and the first cite was from 1968; the revision (from last December) takes it back to 1961 (two quotes, both from Time) and adds a much fuller etymology:

[< Italian paparazzo (1961) < the name of the character Paparazzo, a society photographer in F. Fellini’s film La Dolce Vita (1960). See also PAPARAZZI n.
  The selection of the name Paparazzo (which occurs as a surname in Italy) for the character in Fellini’s film has been variously explained. According to Fellini himself, the name was taken from an opera libretto; the comment is also attributed to him that the word ‘suggests.. a buzzing insect, hovering, darting, stinging’. It is also used as the name of a character by G. Gissing in By the Ionian Sea (1909), which appeared in Italian translation in 1957 and has been cited as an inspiration by E. Flaiano, who contributed to the film’s scenario. (For further possible expressive connotations of the name, it has also been noted that in the Italian dialect of Abruzzi, where Flaiano came from, paparazzo occurs as a word for a clam, which could be taken as suggesting a metaphor for the opening and closing of a camera lens; the Italian suffix –azzo (variant of –accio < classical Latin –āceus: see -ACEOUS suffix) also has pejorative connotations.)]

Finally, I’ve just started a well-reviewed history of war in the Napoleonic period, David A. Bell’s The First Total War, and on p. 26 he says the young Napoleon “not only read obsessively through the great works of the Enlightenment but also took copious notes and even kept a file of obscure expressions to sprinkle ostentatiously through his own writings (rhizophage, cacique, tomogun).” Now, rhizophage and cacique were child’s play, but what on earth was tomogun? It wasn’t in my dictionaries, so I hit Google, with not much success except that it seemed to be from Voltaire—in his Essai sur les Moeurs, he writes:

Voici un morceau des plus singuliers du Veidam: « Le premier homme, étant sorti des mains de Dieu, lui dit: Il y aura sur la terre différentes occupations, tous ne seront pas propres à toutes; comment les distinguer entre eux? Dieu lui répondit: Ceux qui sont nés avec plus d’esprit et de goût pour la vertu que les autres seront les brames. Ceux qui participent le plus du rosogoun, c’est-à-dire de l’ambition, seront les guerriers. Ceux qui participent le plus du tomogun, c’est-à-dire de l’avarice, seront les marchands. Ceux qui participeront du comogun, c’est-à-dire qui seront robustes et bornés, seront occupés aux oeuvres serviles. »

(“Veidam” is short for Ézour-Veidam, a fake Veda written by one P. Nobili.) So “tomogun” means ‘avarice,’ and is presumably Sanskrit… except that I can’t find any trace of it elsewhere. Fortunately a scanning error helps out; in a Google Books search I get a hit for this (Message of the Upanishads, p. 27), where the word turns out to be tamogun. Now things proceed easily; Platts has it under “tamas (in comp. tamo), s.m. Darkness (physical or moral), gloom; the quality of darkness incident to humanity,” with its subentry “tamo-guṇ, s.m. The third of the qualities incident to creation or the state of humanity, viz., the quality of darkness or ignorance (=tamas, q.v.).” So “avarice” was Nobili’s misinterpretation or distortion, and all is clear. But without the internet, I don’t know how I would ever have found out what that odd sequence of letters meant.


  1. Along with teach, French tache, all the -dict- words, and many more, dish is supposed to have a deep root in PIE deik-. The more immediate family is dish, disc, dais, desk, and German Tisch, is it not? So I speculate that the original sense of dish in standish is more a table-like support, transferred to any sort of a support. I’d like to know what the story is for Dutch; I find nothing that looks relevant in my dictionaries of the modern language.
    Best I can do!

  2. In keeping with the theme of the post, I will second the praise of the Internet, but with a caveat. In the case of Platt’s, my one-volume dead tree version not only uses an archaic font for its devanagari but lists all words by their Urdu spelling, which makes finding words a tiresome lottery for those of us who don’r know our alifs from our elbows. The online Platts threw me a curve ball too, though. When I went looking for the word (having missed your thoughtful link in my skimming of the post), I searched for words containing “tama”, but the search returned only words that contained “tāmā” तामा, not any that contained “tama” तम, so I still came up empty. I would have thought that if the Platts online disctionary used any transliteration rules for seasrching, they would have been standard ITRANS, which would have differentiated between “tama” and tāmā. Better yet would have been a search that ignored transliteration rules and returned any string that fitted the bill. Of course, it might have been intentional, designed to make sure that any search for “tamas” left me in that quality of ignorance incident to humanity.

  3. Tamas is pretty well known in mystical, yogic, and hippie new-age circles, along with the other two gunas, rajas and sattva. It’s related to tenebrae, temerity, dim, and Dämmerung, with PIE temə- as the Ursprung.
    It’s just tamas isn’t it Stuart? Not tāmās. Tama in Pali (see here).

  4. So probably, LH, tamoguṇa, tamagun, or some such form. The third guna, involving such dark turpitude as avarice, we might think.

  5. Aha: tamogun.

  6. O. You’d already got it! Oops. O well. Other sources.

  7. It’s just tamas isn’t it Stuart? Not tāmās.
    Yes. Sorry if my vebiage threw you off. My whinge was about the fact that Platts online returned “tāmā” when I searched for “tama”.

  8. Hey, no problem Stuart. I think we both needed to slow down and read! Oops.
    Incidentally, the tamogun link I found (see above) includes this text:

    The products of tamogun include laziness, sleep {Kãriyani-1.14}, anger, avarice, etc. {Vartal-20.2}.

    So another source connects tamas with avarice. Perhaps that was not, therefore, “Nobili’s misinterpretation or distortion”. A Google search on tamas and avarice gets a few interesting hits, too. But then others connect rajas with avarice.
    (Ich vais?)

  9. None of this has anything to do with ptarmigans, I suppose?

  10. No more than it is about termagants, temenggongs, tommy-guns, or transmigration, AC.

  11. my one-volume dead tree version not only uses an archaic font for its devanagari but lists all words by their Urdu spelling, which makes finding words a tiresome lottery for those of us who don’t know our alifs from our elbows.
    Ah, but it makes finding words a breeze for those of us who know our alifs better than our visargas!

  12. Yes, thanks, I was going to ask about the tommy-gun.

  13. but evidence is wanting for such a use of dish
    Yes. I was at school with a Standish. I can’t believe his family is named after an ink-dish, it would be like changing your name to iPod.

  14. According to the Dictionary of American Family Names, the family name is “from a place in Lancashire (now part of Greater Manchester), so named from Old English stān ‘stone’ + edisc ‘pasture’.”

  15. In my family we always referred to the Miles Standish as Miles Stand-off-ish. Language at it silliest.

  16. John Emerson says

    Then you have “tundish”, a dialect Irish word for “funnel” which Stephen Dedalus found out is just an archaic Anglo-Saxon word.

  17. John Emerson says

    “Funnel for filling a tun”. It’s still used for some kind of only slightly funnel-like thingy used in foundries.

  18. “I’d like to know what the story is for Dutch.”
    The Dutch cognate is DIS: a table set for dinner, or the dinner itself.

  19. Thanks gd. I’ll explore that lead too.

  20. I can’t believe his family is named after an ink-dish
    Well, if a city can be named after a kumiss-whisk

  21. The OED entry for “standish” was revised just last June, and the etymology now reads: “Origin uncertain. Perhaps < either stand v. or stand n.¹ + -ish suffix¹. Although it has often been suggested that the second element is dish n., evidence for use of dish n. in the sense ‘tray or table’ is lacking. The form stand-dish at α. forms probably reflects a later rationalization.” Furthermore, the citations have been extended in both directions; the earliest has been antedated from 1474 to a1350:

    Recipe Painting in Archæol. Jrnl. (1844) 1 64 (MED) Ȝef thin asure is fin, tak gumme arabuk i-noh ant cast into a standys with cler watur vorte hit beo i-molten..ant sture ham togedere, ant..thenne writ.

    And the last is now from 1992:

    ‘J. Gash’ Lies Fair Ladies (1993) x. 69 He showed me a lovely rectangular standish, silver, with its inkwell and pounce pot absolutely unblemished.

    So I guess I have to retract my snark about what it’s doing in M-W, though it still seems pretty marginal.

  22. ktschwarz says

    “1992 (1993)”? I guess that means they checked the original publication date but didn’t think it was worth the bother to find a first edition to cite. This is a cozy mystery and the viewpoint character is an antiques expert, who doesn’t expect the reader to know what a standish is and slips in just enough explanation to make it go by smoothly.

    They could have given more 20th- and 21st-century citations, if they’d wanted. It’s now a word used only by historians, museum curators, antiques dealers, and historical novelists, but it’s in regular use in that context. (To avoid being swamped by the proper name Standish, search for the phrase “a standish” or “the standish” plus “ink” and “desk”.)

  23. “arabuk”? “watur”? “sture”?

  24. David Eddyshaw says

    Pretty sure that’s not from 1844.

  25. The article is quoted correctly. I’m not sure about the manuscript.

  26. Pretty sure that’s not from 1844.

    As I said, it’s from 1474; 1844 is the date of the cited publication.

  27. Corrected to a1350.

  28. Woops! Yes, as I said, it’s from a1350. Please ignore earlier mis-snarked message.

Speak Your Mind