or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Monday, December 31, 2007

Rocky Road

In response to my posting a couple of days ago about, among other things, the word "jet", Frank wrote:

I was curious if "jet," as in the color/popular Victorian jewelry component came from "jacere" somehow, too. Not entirely unexpectedly, it does not (how "to throw" would turn into "a bit of coal," I had no idea, but stranger things have happened in language over the millenia). It actually derives from the name of an ancient town in Lycia (now part of Turkey) called Gagai, where it was presumably mined.

Good catch! The mineral "jet" hadn't even occurred to me at the time.

Everyone else may be idly wondering, as I was, just how "Gagai" turned into "jet", and according to Dictionary.com, it ran more or less as follows: "Jet" was rendered in Greek as "lithos Gagates", literally "stone from Gagai", what in English we would call "Gagatic stone". "Gagates" entered Latin in the same form without the qualifier, in exactly the same way as "the Greek language" can simply be called "Greek". "Gagates" eventually made its way into French as "jaiet", and this gave Middle English "jet".

That "gagates" looks so much like "agate" that I naturally wondered, very briefly, if there might be a connection, but of course there isn't, because as I noted quite some time ago, "agate" comes from Greek "agathe", "good", which also gave English the name Agatha.

Jim tells the story of how a new alumna, named Agatha but called Aggie, at his alma mater, Dalhousie, was reduced to loud public tears when she discovered that her diploma, inscribed of course in Latin, rendered her name as Hagnetha. At some point after that, the use of Latin in diplomas was discontinued. The story was told to Jim in the early eighties by the "hundred-year-old man" who, in the fifties and sixties, hand-lettered the names on all the diplomas, back when there were few enough students that such a thing would be possible. It strikes me as odd that the woman in question, who in those days certainly must have studied Latin in school, would have been unaware of the Latin transliteration of her name--isn't that one of the first things people do when testing out a new language?--but it's possible, I suppose, and no doubt she had been called "Hagatha" or something like it from childhood days, so it would have stung to see it in writing.

When I saw "lithos Gagates", I instantly thought of Janacek's Glagolitic Mass. I didn't think there could be a connection, but you never know. "Glagolitic" is actually the Latinized form of the Serbo-Croatian "glagoljica", which ultimately derives from "glagolu", meaning "speech" or "word"; "glagolitic" is a word referring to a kind of alphabet, like "cuneiform" or "runic".


Regarding yesterday's post on various throwing words, Clare went to another language and wrote:

This post reminds me of one of my favorite etymologies from ancient Greek class from two-plus decades back (I was horrifically bad at the grammar, but the vocabulary has stuck with me): our word "hyperbole," which when deconstructed to its root words, creates a very visual (one of my favorite attributes of the language) image that can be either literal or metaphorical.

1529, from L. hyperbole, from Gk. hyperbole "exaggeration, extravagance," from hyperballein "to throw over or beyond," from hyper- "beyond" + bol-, nom. stem of ballein "to throw." (http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=hyperbole

Yeah, that's a good one, isn't it? (I mentioned it a couple of years ago, but there's no reason you would have read that far back unless you're unusually dedicated.) Greek isn't one of the most important influences on English (French, German, and Latin have had much more sway), but it did give us a good supply of words nonetheless, some of which have the most fascinatingly twisted routes into our language. I'm going to talk about my favourite tomorrow, something to carry us into the new year.

As for recommendations for books or sites on Indo-European that Clare subsequently asked for, I have a few, but I rely on two of them almost exclusively. The book I use--not many days go by that I don't dip into it--is "The Roots of English: A Reader's Guide to Word Origins" by Robert Claiborne. It's out of print, but you can still have it, and I can't recommend it highly enough. Structured like a thesaurus, it consists of a list of word roots--nearly all Indo-European--followed by an alphabetical list of thousands of English words and their roots. Look up your word in the second half of the book, find the root, look that up, and Claiborne will give you a brief, often witty tour through the words that have sprung from or been influenced by the original IE word.

The website I use all the time is the Indo-European Root Index of the American Heritage Dictionary on Bartleby.com. Unless you're just browsing for fun or you have a really good memory, the site on its own isn't of much use; it's just an alphabetical list of clickable links for the roots. But when you know the root you're looking for, a single click will give you a marvelous array of words that descended from it. The easiest way to find the root is to use either Dictionary.com or the Online Etymology Dictionary, both of which are usually pretty forthcoming about IE roots; then Bartleby will give you much, more information on the subject.

Of course, now that you know my secrets, you don't have much use for me any more, but I live to give.


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