or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Tuesday, June 21, 2005


So I'm walking to the post office this morning, iPod funneling Edita Gruberova's radiant voice into my ears and the scent of freshly-cut grass wafting through the air, and of course this made me think of words.

First, the soprano. She's singing Alabieff's "Die Nachtigall", and if you don't know what that means, can you guess? "Nacht" is the German word for "night"; think about that for a minute while we talk about grasses.

As usual, English, which will never make do with one source for words when a handful will serve, has two entirely different batches of words for grass. There's "grass" itself and all its affixed cousins such as "grassy" and "lemongrass", and then there's the "gram-" cluster which contains such words as "graminaceous", "graminivorous", and "gramineous". Can you guess which root comes from Latin? Think about that for a minute while we get back to Miss Gruberova and her tune.

"Nachtigall" is "nightingale" in German. And you might well wonder where the "-gale" in "nightingale" comes from. We didn't just steal it directly from the Germans: we assembled it with our very own Anglo-Saxon hands from "night" and "galan", "to sing, to make merry". If this word looks familiar, it ought to: it shows up in such English words as "regale" and "gala". What about "galingale"? Can it be...?

Now, the grasses. It should be pretty self-evident based on those suffixes that the "gram-" group comes from Latin "gramen", meaning, yes, "grass". (The words above mean "grasslike", "grass-eating", and "belonging to the grass family", respectively.) "Grass" itself stems from the Indo-European root "ghre-", meaning "to grow, to become green", and in fact that root is also the source of both those words in English.

As for "galingale", no, unfortunately there's nothing revelrous about it. It's a gingery seasoning much beloved in the Middle Ages, and we took its name from the French "galingal"; they had previously pilfered it from the Mandarin name for the plant, "gaoliang-jiang".


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