or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Flight of Fancy

From a comment on yesterday's posting:

You just made me feel a lot better. I am never a good speller but this is one word that always confused me. It will be 'judgement' for me from now on.

I like making people feel a lot better!

This illustrates why people ought to have as thorough an education in spelling, grammar, and etymology as the school system can provide. (Some people will never be great spellers--for most of us who are, I think, it's simply an inborn trait, like absolute pitch or red hair--but I believe that most people can learn to be reasonably good at spelling with enough practice.) Once you know the rules, you can break them with impunity and call it licence; conversely, if you don't know the rules, you find yourself victimized by people who do know them and lord it over you, even if they're wrong. "You can't end a sentence with a preposition!", they say, or "'The hoi polloi' is wrong, because 'hoi' means 'the' in Greek." If you don't know that these statements are wrong, and why they're wrong, then you're left without any ammunition. How much nicer to be able to say, "Yes, I know that most American spell 'judgement' without the first '-e-', but there's historical precedent for spelling it this way, and I prefer it." That sort of thing shuts people up pretty quickly, let me tell you.


There was a kite festival here in town recently, and of course all the signs are in both English and French, and I was reminded that the French word for "kite" is "cerf-volant". How lovely it would be if French "cerf" were related to English "surf", and the phrase somehow meant "wind-surfer"!

But it isn't so. "Volant" means "flying", and "cerf" means, of all things, "stag". How did someone decide that a kite looked like, or in some way was reminiscent of, an airborne stag? As it turns out, the name might descend from the child's game of leashing winged insects--in this case, a stag beetle--to a thread and flying them about. Or maybe that's a folk etymology, which would not surprise me, but it has an air of plausibility if not necessarily the ring of truth. (In case you were wondering, the German word for "kite" is "Drachen", which suggests, as you will notice if you say it aloud a few times and futz with the vowels, "dragon": the German word for "dragon" is "Drache", and Chinese kites are often dragon-shaped. Maybe you weren't wondering, but I'm studying German and I was wondering, and I love to share.)

"Surf" is one of those words that of extremely uncertain provenance; it started out as "suff" and acquired its "-r-" rather later, and it's not hard to see how this came about if you pronounce both words in the British manner. (It seems likely that the word came from a language in India, but that's all we know.) Originally, of course, it was a noun referring to the crests of the ocean, and only much much later became a verb meaning to ride such crests on a plank.


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