I just ran across the name of the late historian Kenneth Cmiel, and of course wanted to know how to pronounce it. A little googling turned up this page, which shows that the Polish pronunciation is (more or less) “chm(y)el,” though I don’t know how he pronounced it. But what struck me is that “it comes from the noun trzmiel, which means ‘bumblebee.'” Aha, said I, and that’s the same word as Russian шмель [shmel’], which means that Cmiel is etymologically the same name as Шмелев (Shmelev or Shmelyov), as in the unjustly neglected writer Ivan Shmelyov.

This goes into my mental list of pairs like Calvinist/chauvinist and Soraya/Subaru (the Persian and Japanese names, respectively, for the Pleiades [not etymologically connected, of course!]), along with one I just discovered the other day: the Russian city Chelyabinsk takes its name from a fortress called Chelebi, from a Turkish personal name meaning ‘prince,’ itself borrowed from Arabic and identical to the Iraqi Arabic name Chalabi. (There’s a saying “Halabi—chalabi,” meaning ‘a person from Aleppo is a gentleman.’) Isn’t etymology fun?

Update. (July 2008) The historian’s sister wrote me to say “We pronounce the name like the first name Camille, but my grandparents’ name was Cmielewski.” Thanks, Carol!


  1. I’ve heard the name Cmielewski before, this explains it nicely.

  2. Domen Kavčič says

    A bit off topic, but still: the apparently cognate Slovene word for ‘bumblebee’, čmrlj, is often touted (by non-linguists) as the word most difficult to pronounce for foreign learners of Slovene as it contains no vowels. This is of course true only for its written form. We pronounce it with two schwas, one (stressed) before and one after the [r].

  3. michael farris says

    I would take exception to the following (from the second link): “Polish CZ and accented C sound very similar. A Pole with a good ear can tell the difference, but they are very similar sounds and thus are easily confused.”
    True, for an anglophone cz and ć sound exactly the same (I still can’t hear the difference reliably or at all often enough) but for Polish speakers they are very, very different.
    Now the difference between cz and trz is slight in modern Polish and often disappears in everyday usage (so that czy ‘whether’ and trzy ‘three’ sound the same for many speakers in casual speech). But that’s not true of cz and ć. For your average Polish speaker, czeszę sie ‘I’m combing my hair’ and cieszę się ‘I’m glad’ sound at last as different as tin and thin do to an anglophone.

  4. The names mentioned above contain “mel” as in _Apis mellifluous_, the Linnean term for the honeybee derived from the Latin. “Mel” seems to be one of those interesting “travelling” words. For example, the Chinese word “mi” in Mandarin is, in certain southern Chinese dialects, seen as a glottally stopped entering tone with “t” being the pronounced glottal stop. This word was borrowed into Korean (Sino-Korean loanword) as “mit”; however, the final “t”‘s in such loan words went to “l” in Middle Korean, “mil”. The final “t” is preserved in the Sino-Japanese variant as “mi tsu” since Japanese has no final consonants and they carry over into another syllable. I bellieve that the Russian for honey is “myod” is it not? And this shows up as the loan in English in honey-wine, “mead”. This possible proliferation of borrowings across Eurasia suggests that beekeeping, i.e., honey-harvesting, may have been transmitted broadly across Eurasia by a group such as the Bulgars at an early time, but not before honey-harvesting occurred in parts of Western Europe (honig)?

  5. Doc, one of the arguments for a Uralic homeland west of the Urals is that PFU had a word for “honeybee”, namely *meks^i, which do not exist east of the Urals. Is honey commonly found in East Asia? I’ve never seen it in my travels in China.
    As for English “mead”, Russian “med”, this is from PIE *medhu “sweet”.

  6. “[…]and Soraya/Subaru (the Persian and Japanese names, respectively, for the Pleiades […]”
    And we learn something every day, don’t we? 🙂 I didn’t know about the Subaru-Pleiades connection, and now I know why Subaru’s logo has all those stars in it!
    Thanks for the fascinating language tidbits, I got here through LanguageLog a while back, and I’ve been reading you ever since 🙂

  7. Cmiel’s Democratic Eloquence is a fantastic book, by the way.

  8. “Is honey commonly found in East Asia? I’ve never seen it in my travels in China.”
    Haven’t seen it in China? China is a major producer, and a major exporter. Hmm………that may be why you didn’t see any in China itself.

  9. Terry Collmann says

    “As for English “mead”, Russian “med”, this is from PIE *medhu “sweet”.”
    Well, the ADS says “medhu- DEFINITION: Honey; also mead”, and the fine old PIE tradition of getting PIE-eyed on mead means “medhu” is the root of expressions for “drunk” from Welsh (“medd”)through Greek (where the amethyst is “the stone that stops you getting drunk”) to, I believe, Bengali, and other links include the personal names Maeve (“She who intoxicates”, supposedly) and Madhur (“sweetness”)

  10. Charles Perry says

    The origin of the word chelebi is mysterious. It can’t be Arabic because Arabic lacks the ch sound. (There’s a famous folksong “El-Bint el-Shalabiyya” — the pretty girl — showing how Arabic has to approximate this sound. In Arabic, the word also has senses such as dandified.) I don’t find any source for it in Steingass’s Persian dictionary (the only one I have to hand) and the Redhouse dictionary of Ottoman Turkish doesn’t label it a foreign word. On the other hand, it doesn’t look at all Turkic.

  11. Nişanyan says [Tü?].

  12. The honey bee’s scientific name is _Apis mellifera_, ‘honeybearing bee’, not ‘mellifluous’, which is Latinate English for ‘flowing, dripping with honey’. In Latin verse, _mel_, ‘honey’, is sometimes paired with _fel_, ‘gall’, as rhyming opposites — the sweetest and the bitterest substances.
    Ancient Greek _meli_ is ‘honey’, and _melissa_ or _melitta_ (depending on the dialect) is ‘honeybee’, so that’s two more English names that mean ‘honeybee’: one for humans and one for coffee filters. I’m told that Deborah is Hebrew for ‘honeybee’, which makes three.

  13. Cmiel’s Democratic Eloquence is a fantastic book, by the way.
    Looks right up my alley—thanks for the recommendation!
    The origin of the word chelebi is mysterious.
    Interesting; I learned it from Arabic, so it didn’t occur to me it might be borrowed. So it’s a Wanderwort?

  14. “The origin of the word chelebi is mysterious. It can’t be Arabic because Arabic lacks the ch sound.”
    Totally out of my depth in the Middle East, but can it have any connection with Hebrew or Persian as in Halevy/Halebi, etc., with the “ch” having been a variant of the sound represented by “x” in Russian?

  15. Charles Perry says

    Doc Roc: The ch sound I refer to is the dental affricate as in English. It’s only found in Arabic dialects under Persian or Turkish influence, such as Iraqi or northern Syrian.
    Nisanyan links to a dictionary entry which queries whether chelebi is a Turkish word. There’s good reason to doubt, since no native Turkish derivation looks possible.
    It’s remotely possible that this is a Turkicized form of the Arabic jalab (“imported”) or even jallab (“attractive”). Anyway, it seems primarily an Ottoman word. I haven’t found it any Central Asian dictionaries. Could have found its way to Cheliabinsk because of the nominal suzerainty of the Ottomans over other Turkish nations.

  16. To Michael Hendry: in Modern French too “miel and “fiel” are used as rhyming opposites: Roman Polanski’s 1992 movie BITTER MOON is known in French as LUNE DE FIEL (A coinage based on LUNE DE MIEL, “honeymoon”).
    To LH: here’s another fun etymological pair a fellow linguist once pointed out to me: “whore” and “care/charitable” (Why don’t they teach such fun examples in Intro to Linguistics classes?).

  17. (Why don’t they teach such fun examples in Intro to Linguistics classes?)
    Or just English classes: “If you thought that was fun, sign up for a linguistics course and learn how language works!” I swear, if linguistics had better P.R. everyone would want to learn it.

  18. “…honey-harvesting, may have been transmitted broadly across Eurasia by a group such as the Bulgars at an early time, but not before honey-harvesting occurred in parts of Western Europe (honig)?”
    Etymology is indeed facinating but prone to every kind of confusion. Does the “such as” here include the Scythians, earlier Indo-Europeans who were situated further east than the Bulgars? Heroditus, I believe, says that they lived on milk and honey.
    If the Scythians did not pass along their IE-based term for honey, are there any other candidates before Common Era Byzantium? They seem to have been the first to trade with regularity across the daunting Eurasian trade routes with China. The “m+vowel” combination might then indicate a relatively late borrowed word east of the Urals.
    Also, the occurence of “m” followed by a vowel is not sufficient by present rules to establish a relationship, is it? Are the Asian terms being forwarded here supported generally?
    Congratulations on the book, Hat.

  19. Speaking of bumblebees, you forgot Dumbledore!

  20. As an aside, I am not a “linguist”, never had a “linguistics” course, but am a literature-maven-translator who has studied a “few” languages as keys to doors. I speak out of interest and not trained-expertise. Best wishes for a happy Solstice celebration. Doc Rock

  21. Cher Rock. If my comment came across as implying any sort of accusation, I apologize. That was certainly not what I intended. Your comment raised questions with me, yes, but was interesting and well-considered. We were all just having a go at it. Your best wishes, that is to say, are returned with interest.

  22. It is often claimed that the name Pamela was invented by Philip Sidney for the poem Arcadia, & that he derived it from Greek παν (“all”) and μελι (“honey”). So there’s another name. If any group would know whether that claim is bogus, it is ye Madhatters.

  23. It was indeed invented by Sidney (who stressed it on the second syllable), but nobody knows how he came up with it—the παν + μελι thing is just a guess, as good as any other. Fielding said that the name was “very strange.”

  24. Gilbert, No, not at all–I just didn’t want to give any impression that I was speaking with any degree of expertise or ex cathedra for all of that.

  25. So long as you’re stressing cathedra on its first syllable, Doc. That’s the main thing.
    But now that we speak of Pamela, what about Polly? Somehow a diminutive of Margaret, or Mary, on the Pip-like infant tongue? What’s the current best thinking on this topic, folks?

  26. Polly is generally assumed to be a variant of Molly, by the same not very well understood process as Peggy comes from Maggie (short for Margaret).

  27. Yes but… it is rather hard to account for Molly as a variant of anything much, pace Joyce. There should a Grimm’s law for diminutives. Then we could have a systematic account of shifts like William > Bill, Margaret > Meg > Peg, Valerie > Fifi [the name we kids called our older sister], Emily > Edge [the name my son called my daughter], Edward > Ted.
    How well known elsewhere is our Australian way with names of the form *r*? Gary > Gazza, Barry > Bazza, Terry > Tezza? I’ve even collected Harry > Hazza and Dorothy > Dozza. I myself have perpetrated Maureen > Mozza.

  28. Really? Molly < Marion never seemed particularly implausible to me. Surely he didn’t just make that up? Or more generally < Maire / Mary.

Speak Your Mind