Three Etymological Oddities.

1) Greek ἄνθρωπος ‘man’ is of uncertain origin; Wiktionary says:

Scholars used to consider it to be a compound from ἀνήρ (anḗr, “man”) and ὤψ (ṓps, “face, appearance, look”): thus, “he who looks like a man”. […] Rosén defends this etymology […] Beekes argues that since no convincing Indo-European etymology has been found, the word is probably of Pre-Greek origin; he connects the word with the word δρώψ (drṓps, “man”) […] Garnier proposes a derivation from Proto-Indo-European *n̥dʰr-eh₃kʷ-ó-s (“that which is below”), hence “earthly, human”.

Now, via Laudator Temporis Acti, I learn of another suggestion: Gregory Nagy (Greek Mythology and Poetics, pp. 151-152, n. 30) connects it with anthrax and says he interprets it as “he who has the look of embers.” Sounds implausible, but Nagy is a respected scholar, and I’d be curious to see more details.

2) I was recently reminded of the word tesseract (when I were a lad I used to try to visualize them), and on looking it up in the OED (entry published 1986) I discover that it was invented by C. H. Hinton (an odd duck) in his 1888 New Era of Thought: “We call the figure it traces a Tessaract.” But wait, it’s got an -a- in that citation! Etymology: “< tessara- comb. form + Greek ἀκτίς ray.” The citations show a mixture of forms eventually settling on the current one with -e-:

1888 C. H. Hinton New Era of Thought ii. iii. 118 We call the figure it [sc. a cube] traces a Tessaract.
1919 R. T. Browne Mystery of Space v. 134 The hyper~cube or tesseract is described by moving the generating cube in the direction in which the fourth dimension extends.
1960 Electronic Engin. 32 347/1 Fig. 8..shows a four-dimensional ‘tessaract’ (the four-dimensional analogue of a cube).
1968 Listener 15 Feb. 201 He likes to see A gulping of tesseracts and Gondals in Our crazed search.
1974 S. Sheldon Other Side of Midnight xviii. 332 For Catherine time had lost its circadian rhythm; she had fallen into a tesseract of time, and day and night blended into one.

(God only knows what Sheldon thought he meant by “a tesseract of time.”) Greek had both τέσσαρα and τέσσερα (neuter plural and combining form of τέσσαρες, τέσσερες ‘four’). So why did tessaract get changed to tesseract?

3) Russian туз ‘ace’ is borrowed from Polish tuz which is “From Middle High German tūs, dūs (‘deuce’) (German Daus), from Old French dous (‘two’).” How did ‘deuce’ give ‘ace’?


  1. David Eddyshaw says

    I doubt whether there is any language in the world where the ordinary word for “human being” is demonstrably derived from the word for “embers”, but hey, there’s always a first.

  2. Giacomo Ponzetto says

    A guess for n. 3.

    The Great Dictionary of Polish of the Polish Academy of Sciences defines tuz as “the highest-ranking playing card in a certain type of playing card deck (corresponding to the ace in the set commonly used today)” — or so translates Google: I know no Polish myself. Apparently, the normal Polish word for ace is the banal-looking as.

    What deck gave Polish tuz? There’s a fair chance the word is old enough it came from an ace-less 48-card deck used to play Karnöffel. We don’t know precisely how that game was played. Considering forms of it have been played continuously since the 15th century, it seems impossible there was a single consistent set of rules for it across space and time. Yet David Parlett, who’s as much of an authority on card games as anyone, reports that in its scandalous (anarchic, bishop-disapproved) trump suit “the highest [card] is the Unter, itself the eponymous Karnöffel. Next highest is the Six, called “the Pope”, followed by the Daus or Deuce, the alternatively eponymous “Kaiser“.” He concludes:

    Karnöffel is remarkable for its early display of features common to many later games of different types. The superiority of the Jack of trumps appears in later games … , while the aim of winning at least three tricks out of five underlies the whole family of five-card games … . And, of course, the very fact that the lowest card (2) beats the highest is perpetuated to this day in the superiority of the Ace over the King in nearly all European card games.

  3. I doubt whether there is any language in the world where the ordinary word for “human being” is demonstrably derived from the word for “embers”, but hey, there’s always a first.

    Well, humans get ashen-faced at the thought of their own death. Or perhaps “dusky complexion” is the missing cognitive link, since the word arose before WASPs became a thing. This would have been an A-word before there was an N-word !

    # A pervasive theme of the Archarnians of Aristophanes is the ridiculing of the Acharnians’ feelings of solidarity and even affection towards the anthrakes ‘charcoals” (325-341), which they treat as animate beings, as their demotai ‘fellow district-members’ (349; cf. 333) #

  4. Giacomo Ponzetto: Fascinating stuff — I keep forgetting there are all those complicated and largely forgotten games and decks that influenced the lexicon!

  5. perhaps cf bogey in golf, which changed from meaning par to one over par

  6. David Eddyshaw says

    Well, English refers to the sixth hour of the day as the ninth …

    (Welsh prynhawn “afternoon” is from pryd “time” and nawn < Latin nōna, which presumably displays less impatience to get to knocking-off time than the English usage does. Or something.)

  7. David Marjanović says

    connects it with anthrax and says he interprets it as “he who has the look of embers.” Sounds implausible

    Yeah – why isn’t it anthrakops or at least anthrakopos?

    Garnier’s paper, in French, is here.


    Only known to me as the exactly parallel euphemism in the thoroughly obsolete curse Ei der Daus! “Hell!”

  8. why did tessaract get changed to tesseract?

    conflation with tessera~tessellate?

  9. @Giacomo Ponzetto: You are probably familiar with the German deck as used in Bavaria and parts of Austria and Switzerland – it has acorns, leaves, hearts and bells as the four suits. The highest-value card in that deck is still called the Daus. It must be a descendant or relative of the Karnöffel Daus.

    In addition to tuz, Russian has as, from German Ass or French as. It means an ace (fighter) pilot.

  10. Philip Schnell says

    I suspect the Sheldon reference to “tesseract” can be traced back to Madeline L’Engle’s “A Wrinkle in Time” (1962), which is where I (and I suspect many others) first encountered the word. There it is used to describe a method of travelling instantaneously from one point to another by folding the fabric of space-time through another dimension.

  11. Giacomo Ponzetto says

    @Alex K.: the Karnöffel deck definitely had German suits, or so do all my sources say. I’ve never played with a German deck myself, so I don’t actually know if it still lacks an ace.

    Relatedly, a very Hattic character and a significant influence on my childhood was Giampaolo Dossena, a rather prolific author of articles and books on card games, word games, and Italian literature. I suspect none of his works have been translated, but I still very much recommend them to readers of Italian.

    On card suits, he writes:

    On the “meaning” of the various suits and on their potential or actual correspondences, unchecked fantasies have been constructed. René Guénon (Symbols of Sacred Science, [1962]) chases through disparate cultures the connections between the Sacred Heart of Jesus (heart), the Holy Grail (cup) and the Rose (flower). Guénon notices with a shiver that the cups of Italo-Spanish card suits correspond to the hearts of French card suits. Guénon would have fallen to his knees had he known of Swiss cards, which close the circle of the three symbols: here the equivalent of cups or hearts is precisely roses.

  12. the thoroughly obsolete curse Ei der Daus! “Hell!”

    According to the WiPe, not so much a curse as a cry of astonishment (Verblüffung). When it’s not-well-pleased astonishment, it rings the same bell as “WTF” :

    # Ei der Daus! als Ausruf der Verblüffung ist seit dem 15. Jahrhundert belegt. … In Mecklenburg ruft man beispielsweise „Dus un Düwel!“ („Tausend und Teufel“) oder „Potz Dus!“ („Potz Tausend“) aus.[1] #

    It seems Tausend has a euphemismatic connection with Teufel. Talk about weird:

    # Möglicherweise findet sich in einem Teil dieser Bedeutungen ein für die galloromanischen Sprachen bezeugtes Wort für „Dämon“ wieder, das in mittellateinischer Sprache „dusius“ lautete.[3] Der in der Wendung angerufene Daus wäre demnach eine euphemistische Entstellung des Wortes „Teufel“ wie man sie zum Beispiel auch vom Wort „Tausend“ kennt. #

  13. Who was that etymologist who went bonkers, according to legend ? Have there been several ? Has any been spared ?

  14. David Marjanović says

    conflation with tessera~tessellate?

    That’s definitely what happened in Dr Who.

  15. “he who has the look of embers.” Sounds implausible, but Nagy is a respected scholar,

    ember also happens to be the Hungarian for ‘human being’.

  16. There you go — case closed!

  17. David Marjanović says

    So Nagy made one of the best etymology jokes ever.

  18. Stu Clayton: “Who was that etymologist who went bonkers, according to legend ?….”

    Were you thinking of Solomon Mandelkern (1846-1902)? Russian lexicographer, concordance-maker, Hebrew poet, and translator.

  19. I’m guessing it’s W. C. Minor.

  20. Yeah – why isn’t it anthrakops or at least anthrakopos?

    There seems to have been a semi-productive Greek nominal suffix -ak-, though many of the words it may appear in are etymologically obscure; there are a handful of clear cases like λίθαξ, poetic variant of λίθος “stone”. The -opos part is actually more formally difficult, I think: these “face” compounds are normally athematic (-ωψ), and the ones that are thematic seem to be always oxytone, -ωπός.

  21. Roberto Batisti says

    The -opos part is actually more formally difficult

    Not really; compounds in -ωπός are adjectives, and if ἄνθρωπος goes back to one of those, substantivizing accent retraction would be expected.

    I agree that the absence of -ak- from the compound is not a problem, either: ἄνθραξ presupposes *ἀνθρο- anyway. But Garnier’s etymology seems semantically more plausible.

  22. I have issues with all three etymologies of ἄνθρωπος, with the caveat that I know little about Greek or IE. Beekes’ is his udual deus ex machina. “Looks like a man” seems contrived: are there any other examples of this kind of construction? “That which is below” seems one of many specimens of PIE poetic/metaphorical etymologizing, formally impeccable perhaps, but not sounding like what people would actually say.

    There is no equivalent in semantics of strict sound correspondences, which can be used to unambiguously accept or reject an etymology, but patterns do exist, and tortuous semantic paths without an equivalent are hard to be convinced by.

  23. David Eddyshaw says

    “That which is below”

    The Latin “homo” and its cognates seem to be derived from “earth”, and are thus cognate to Greek χαμαί “on the ground.”

  24. substantivizing accent retraction — fair enough, I hadn’t thought of that; such retraction is I think mostly productive in Greek with proper names, but there are some common-noun examples too. I wonder what if anything conditions the choice between -ωπός and -ωψ in these compounds.

  25. Homō, sure, as well as Hebrew ādām. But is “that which is below” used to mean ‘soil’? And, in Hebrew and in IE, there is a step of derivation between ‘humus’ and ‘human’; the former is not used as plain metaphor for the latter.

  26. For a fifth(?) etymology, I found this abstract by Richard Janko: Comparison with a word for ‘hornet’ (ἀνθρηδών, suffixed with ἔδω ‘eat’) shows that it came from *arthr- dissimilated into *anthr- (cf. *δέρ-δρεϝον > δένδρεον ‘tree’). It doesn’t look any more plausible than the others (“joint-face” > “human”??), but maybe the full paper would be more convincing.

    Garnier’s *n̥dʰr-eh₃kʷ-ó-s would literally mean “downward-facing”, not just “that which is below”; I’m not sure you can semantically bleach the second member as far as making it basically just a nominalizing suffix.

  27. David Eddyshaw says

    The Proto-Volta-Congo stem for “person” seems to have been something like *ni- or *ne-, judging by e.g. Kusaal nid, plural nidib, Mooré nédà, plural nébà, Samba Leko (Adamawa) nɛ́ŋ, plural nɛ́b, Twi onípa, plural nnípa, Gonja ènyɛ́n, plural bànyɛ́n, Yoruba sg/pl ẹni etc. The *nin/*nen forms are from reduplicated *nini/*nene, something that actually happens language-internally in Kusaal, where the stem of the word in compounds is nin-.
    [Even the Fulfulde neɗɗo (plural yimɓe, because Fulfulde) looks temptingly similar.]

    Unsurprisingly, given its brevity, it doesn’t look as if it’s derived from anything but itself.

    On the face of it, “person” is such a basic concept that it’s odd that it ever would be derived from anything else. Perhaps it’s particularly prone to getting replaced for some reason. (Happened in English, after all …)
    Or maybe the idea that it’s a very basic concept is more culture-bound than one might think …
    (For all that it’s on the Swadesh 100 list.)

  28. Speaking of etymologies, is there an etymology of щука that goes deeper back in time?

    I’ve come across this (in Finnish):

    Q: Is the fish name hauki ‘pike’ native or borrowed?

    A: Finnish fish names are generally native or loans from Germanic or Baltic. However, the predatory fish hauki is an exception; it is a loan, but from a different source. In the Slavik languages, there is a word that resembles the Finnish word hauki (cf. the Russian ščúka), but the problem with the assumed loan is a contradiction. Namely, there are cognates in all the sister languages to Finnish, that is, in the Finnic languages spoken around the Gulf of Finland (cf. eg, Estonian haug). On the other hand, due to the phonetic development of the Slavic word, the borrowing should have taken place only late. As a solution, it has been suggested that the word should have been borrowed in both Finnic and Slavic languages ​​from one of the now-lost ancient languages.

    In mythology, the pike has obviously played an important role. It was believed that pike could travel between the worlds of the living and the dead. In stories, the pike is a giant fish; after all, it may even attack a person in the water. The mythical abilities and powers believed of the predator—and perhaps the similarity between the fish and the muscle—are associated with the term <hauis ‘biceps’, the name for the arm flexor muscle derived from the fish name. In dialects, variants of the hauki word include eg haukiliha(s), hauisliha, haukisliha(s), and haukinen. Väinämöinen plays on a kantele made of a pike’s jaw, and Ilmarinen takes a pike’s head to the mistress of Pohjola as a sign of his victory.

    The Wiktionary basically gives the same etymology.

  29. On the face of it, “person” is such a basic concept that it’s odd that it ever would be derived from anything else

    Quite a few languages in northern Africa have replaced it with a phrase “son/child of Adam”: dialectal Arabic bnadəm, Tuareg awedàm, Songhay adamayze, Bambara hadamaden… It’s almost as if the term is a little too generic to count as basic-level.

  30. Roberto Batisti says

    Garnier’s *n̥dʰr-eh₃kʷ-ó-s would literally mean “downward-facing”, not just “that which is below”; I’m not sure you can semantically bleach the second member as far as making it basically just a nominalizing suffix.

    This is exactly the semantic bleaching that -ωψ/-ωπός does undergo in Greek, however: e.g. ξανθωπός, lit. ‘golden-looking’, is basically the same as ξανθός, ‘golden, blond’. And there in fact some indications that as a second compound member *-h₃(e)kʷ- underwent such bleaching already in the proto-language.

    By the way, from the strictly phonological point of view we do not really need a full grade in *n̥dʰr-(e)h₃kʷ-ó-s to account for the -ω-: the expected outcome of *-rh₃- in an unstressed syllable is precisely -ρω-.

  31. David Eddyshaw says

    It’s almost as if the term is a little too generic to count as basic-level.

    Yes, that seems very plausible.

    The original word for “person” has a tendency to get repurposed as “man” very often, too, leaving a gap to be filled by neologism or borrowing (though, curiously, I can’t think of any Volta-Congo examples.)

  32. David Marjanović says

    From Garnier’s abstract:

    De fait, ce prototype *ἄνθρωkʷος doit refléter uncomposé de date indo-européenne *n̥dʰ-r-e-h₃kʷ-ó- (« inférieur, qui se trouve sur terre »). Dès lors, il faut poser un ancien adjectif indiquant une position dans l’espace (soit *ἀθρωkʷός « tourné vers le bas, inférieur, terrien »), substantivé par le recul de l’accent (d’où « terrien, humain »). Enfin, il faut admettre que le -ν- doit être analogique de la famille de ἀνήρ, ἀνδρός.

    and on p. 5:

    Il semble opportun de partir d’un ancien adjectif grec commun *ἀθρωkʷός « tourné vers le sol » (<*n̥dʰ-r-e-h₃kʷ-ó-) qui serait à l’adverbe i.-e. *n̥dʰér « en-dessous » ce que le dérivé *h₂n̥ti-h₃kʷ-ó- (lat. antīquus « opposé »¹⁹) est à *h₂n̥tí « en face » (gr. ἀντί).

    Footnote 19: “Le sens ancien de *« qui est en face, opposé » se retrouve dans le dénominatif antīquāre « voter contre ».”

    p. 5 & 6:

    Le second membre du composé *°h₃kʷ-ó- est devenu un morphème suffixal peut-être dès l’indo-européen. […] Le sens initial en est vraisemblablement « dont l’aspect est tel ou tel ». Cette formation, jadis athématique, s’est constituée en une classe fermée : celle des dérivés adjectivaux sur thème d’adverbe […]

    Then I recommend the first half of p. 10, in particular “Cæs., B.G., I, 1, Belgæ…spectant in septemtrionem et orientem solem « la Belgique est orientée vers le Nord et vers l’Est »”, for why “looking down” came to mean “on Earth as opposed to in heaven”.

    Then comes a long buildup to the conclusion that Vedic púruṣa- ~ pū́ruṣa- is the one looking up, as opposed to the down-looking animals documented on the preceding pages. As Man differs from the beasts, so the gods differ from Man.


    “Looks like a man” seems contrived: are there any other examples of this kind of construction?

    Mensch < manisco < nominalization of *mann-isk- around the time when *mann- narrowed from “human being” to “adult male” (1000 years earlier than in English).

  33. David Eddyshaw says

    I wonder if “person” words are more stable in language families that don’t make a grammatical distinction between male and female?

    (This is based on exactly two data points, Volta-Congo and Eskimo, so I don’t have any great commitment to its actual validity. What’s the story with Uralic?)

    [Hausa preserves a form which must go all the way back to Proto-AA in mutum “person”, “man”, though.]

  34. Roberto Batisti says

    @ David M.:

    Exactly. Many of Garnier’s etymologies may be accused of being a bit far-fetched, but this one actually seems pretty solid to me.

  35. “Etymologist who went bonkers” — W.C. Minor doesn’t qualify, in my opinion: he wasn’t an etymologist but a collector of quotations, and he was already bonkers before he ever got involved with the OED.

    I thought of James Wyllie, who would have been the editor of the OED’s post-1933 Supplements if not for his mental breakdown. (Wyllie is no longer “unremembered in the OED annals”, as that link claims; his career is traced in Peter Gilliver’s The Making of the Oxford English Dictionary (2016), with a short version posted on the OED blog in 2018.) But he wasn’t an etymologist either.

  36. ξανθωπός, lit. ‘golden-looking’, is basically the same as ξανθός, ‘golden, blond’

    Well, yes, but that’s obviously due to the semantics of the first member. I haven’t read the Garnier paper yet, though.

  37. “Etymologist who went bonkers” — W.C. Minor doesn’t qualify, in my opinion: he wasn’t an etymologist but a collector of quotations, and he was already bonkers before he ever got involved with the OED.

    I suspect you’re being too literal; Stu is going on a vague memory, and may well have assumed that if he was involved with the OED he was probably ex officio an etymologist. The Simon Winchester book is extremely well known, so anyone who reads reviews will be familiar with W.C. Minor (that’s certainly how I learned about him); with all due respect to Solomon Mandelkern and James Wyllie, essentially no one has heard of them, so I still stand by my suggestion of Minor. But only Stu will be able to tell us.

  38. After reading about him, I don’t think it was Minor [but Hat seems to know more about how I think than is to my liking]. Whoever it was, supposedly lost it in connection with etymological speculation, where everything turns into everything else – in phonetics and semantics. I don’t remember whether the OED was involved.

    I trust none of the present company are at risk. I sure ain’t, because I don’t know squat about all that.

    Edit: what I remember may be merely a discussion of the Winchester book. So I must have got my chains of causality snarled up.

  39. Ah, well then I have no idea. But then I have no idea about most things, so it’s nothing new.

  40. Well yeah, I should’ve clarified that I didn’t actually think Stu was referring to Wyllie. It was just a free-association to the general topic of bonkersness of anyone involved with dictionaries.

  41. Italy’s still-produced Salzburg deck still has 2 as the lowest/highest card, oder?

    I have a set of these… I tried to learn the rules of the italian games scopa and briscola via phone apps but have yet to use the Salzburger cards for actual play…

  42. I discover that it was invented by C. H. Hinton (an odd duck)

    It turns out that Hinton was also responsible for the invention of the jungle gym, which he intended as an aid to help people (originally his kids) envision the fourth dimension!

  43. Speaking of the fourth dimension, one way is keeping your hands as if you are holding a ball (initially infinitely small, then expanding, and then again getting small). Then it is a four-dimensional ball, where the fourth dimension is time.

  44. “He said, you know, the reason these students can’t grasp the fourth dimension is because they were never exposed to the third dimension as children,”
    Hinton theorized that since we spend so much of our lives simply walking in straight lines, and not using all of the three-dimensional space around us, we have an even harder time making the mental leap to fourth dimension.

    Well, this makes sense, but is unexpected.

  45. Yes, I had the same reaction.

  46. David Marjanović says

    In Scientific American I once saw what was captioned as a 3D projection of a 4D hypercube.

    It was, of course, a 2D projection of a 3D projection of a 4D hypercube. Ceci n’est pas

  47. Stu Clayton says

    1D projections of arbitrary hypercubes are easy to visualize, and they are all isomorphic to each other.

  48. As are 0D projections. But what of −1D, eh? Imagine and go mad!

  49. John Cowan says

    There’s no doubt that L’Engle’s tesser ‘transport through the fourth dimension’ makes a far better English verb than *tessar. So we lucked out.

  50. the jungle gym … intended as an aid to help people (originally his kids) envision the fourth dimension

    A somewhat easier way in which jungle gyms may aid in understanding of geometry was proposed by the Finnish sculptor Osmo Valtonen: a series of separate gyms in the shape of different polyhedra, so that children would already recognize e.g. an icosahedron from their playground if it comes up later in their mathematical education. True enough, I’ve by now also seen a few models of this series appear in some parks…

  51. tesser

    compare le guin’s “churten” (from “The Shobies’ Story”). it’s hainish, but i can’t remember if she gives an etymology.

  52. Charlie Jane Anders just made the same comparison. (It steam-engines when it comes steam-engine time.) But I think churten is a Pravic word, from the conlang spoken on Anarres, rather than being Hainish. The phonotactics don’t feel Hainish, which is about all we get to go on. (Martin Edwardes’s notion of Pravic is nonsense, by the way; evidently he thinks anarchists would talk entirely in the passive, which is just silly.)

  53. @JC: you’re absolutely right, it’s pravic! i was thinking of the overall context, which is hainish, but part of why it isn’t rendered as an english word is that it’s not the baseline language.

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