or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow

Today I got an e-mail which read, in its entirety,

Did you ever reveal the answer to the hair dye clue?

Luckily, I knew what it meant. In an early posting in which I was talking about cryptic crossword puzzles, I mentioned what I thought was the best crossword clue I ever read:

Age without a hair dye is hell (7)

to which the solution (it's in the comments, which someone just browsing wouldn't have seen) is as follows: "age" without "a" gives you "ge-"; "henna" is a hair dye; and, put together, they form "Gehenna", which is a Greek word derived from Hebrew "ge ben Hinnom", the valley of the son of Hinnom, and used figuratively to mean "Hell".


If you're the kind of person who reads this blog on anything like a regular basis, then trust me, you'll enjoy FreeRice.com, which is a vocabulary quiz. You can read about it at Snopes.com, which you probably should be reading at least once a week anyway.

The words in the quiz start out pretty easy, but within a few minutes, you're looking at things like "leveret"* (which I knew), "lyddite"** (which I guessed correctly based on the evidence), and "cenote"*** (which I had no idea about and guessed wrong). It's fun! For a certain kind of person, anyway. (My kind of person.) The vocabulary is ranked in levels which go up to 50, and I am a stubborn cuss, so I slogged away at it until finally I hit level 50 (without cheating) through a combination of knowledge, analysis, good guessing (a "felucca" is a sailing-ship!), and dumb luck, a quartet which will get you through most of life's problems. The word that got me there, as it happens, was velleity.

And I donated 1150 grains of rice to someone! And there's more to come! Eat well, anonymous stranger.


English and German used to have more or less the same tiny problem, and they each solved it in a different way.

In Old English, the word for "morning", as it is in German, was "morgen". The dative case form of "morgen"--if you don't know what "dative" means, don't worry, it isn't important--was "morne", which eventually turned into "morn"; then, later still, it took the "-ing" ending so common in English (also so common in German as "-ung", which is where we got it from in the first place) and became "morning".

A variant of "morgen" in Old English was "morwen"; one of those things that crop up in a dialect, perfectly usual. This became "morwe", then "morowe", and then "morrow", and in Shakespeare's time still meant "morning", as in Much Ado About Nothing. The trouble is that it had come to take on another meaning: if you're talking one day about something you'll do the next day, you need a word for that next day, and a logical candidate among words that already exist is "morning", because that's the start of the next day in question.

So "morrow" was one widespread version of a word that meant "[this] morning", and it also meant "the day after this one", and it would be nice to have a way to distinguish them. What to do? In English, the solution was, I think, elegant; collapse the phrase which sprang up, "to morrow", into a single word--first "to-morrow", and then "tomorrow". At about the same time, the use of "morrow" to mean "morning" was drying up and disappearing, which means that, in essence, two words vanished from the language. As a result, we can say "tomorrow morning" without any problem, or even any realization that the words are essentially the same thing.

German also has an elegant solution to the problem; they kept both words the same, but added a twist. "Morgen" means both "morning" (as in "Morgenstern", "morning star", a poetic name for the planet Venus) and "tomorrow" ("morgen Abend" means "tomorrow evening"). It's clear in context which meaning is intended: if you add an article or other modifier to it, then it means "this morning" or "the morning" or "yesterday morning" or whatever; otherwise it means "tomorrow". If you want to say "tomorrow morning", you could in theory say "morgen Morgen", but that sounds odd, if not actually stupid, and it won't do. What German does instead, when it wants to say "tomorrow morning", is to say "Morgen fruh", which means "early tomorrow". (If it wants to say "early [in the] morning", then it reverses the order, adjective-noun: "frühen Morgen".)

*A leveret is a young hare: "levere", the Middle English word for a hare, and the French "-ette" ending, abbreviated. "Levere" comes from Latin "lepus", which means, of course, "hare". You didn't think rabbits and hares were the same thing, did you? I sort of did, but a hare is larger and stronger than a rabbit, and its young are born fully furred and seeing, whereas rabbit kits are born naked and blind. It's good to know such things.

**It's a kind of explosive. It's named after the English town where it was first tested, Lydd, and has the "-ite" suffix we give to various chemical compounds such as "pyrite" and "cavorite"****, not the "-ite" ending that means a person, such as "Israelite", or the "-ite" ending used to transform a word into another part of speech, such as "composite" from "compose".

***According to Dictionary.com, it's a "water-filled limestone sinkhole of the Yucatan". Not really the sort of word I carry around with me. I've already forgotten it.

****Cavorite doesn't really exist. H.G. Wells invented it for his novel "The First Men In The Moon": it's an antigravity substance which enables the astronauts of the title to make it to the Moon, and it's named after its inventor, Dr. Cavor.


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