June 06, 2007

Roots, roots, roots for the home team

Hello, readers who I swear I have not abandoned. Recently I was contacted by author Murray Suid with an interesting proposal: he's doing a "virtual book tour" for the recently published Words of a Feather, which is to say, he's guest-blogging at various sites, and he asked if I'd like to be one of the hosts. I agreed, and I fortuitously scheduled him for a day smack in the middle of a massive blog lull on my own part, which I must say was very inadvertently savvy of me. Anyway, it's a pleasure to have him here. Ladies and gentlemen, Murray Suid.

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Thanks, Francis, for inviting me to Heaneyland, which is filled with as many surprises as Alice's Wonderland. [Except with much, much more profanity. -- Ed.] After surveying your past posts -- on topics ranging from Pringles to Indonesian hiphop -- I get the idea that almost anything goes here. So why not etymology?

Last year I wrote Words of a Feather, which explores the surprising -- but true -- links between word pairs such as "anger" and "angina," "message" and "missile," "erudite" and "rude," and "flatulence" and "inflation." Excerpts can be found at www.wordsofafeather.net, along with an interactive quiz. [I got 8 out of 10, which leaves room for some of you to one-up me, or even two-up me, if you're especially savvy. -- Ed.]

Originally, I believed that etymological pairs, which linguists call "doublets," were a rare breed. But now I know that they're common and can be found everywhere.

For example, look at the title Holy Tango of Literature. Did you know that "holy" relates etymologically to "whole"? Both go back to an Old English word "hal," meaning "health." This suggests that your book would make a fine gift for people in the hospital. After reading a few of your poems, patients should be on the way to recovery. (A note from my lawyer: Always consult a physician before swallowing any etymological health tips.)

Back to your title: For a moment I thought -- hoped -- that "tango" was a doublet of "tangible." After all, both words start with the same four letters; and "tangible" comes from the Latin "tangere" (to touch). There's a lot of touching in tangoing, right? And literature often makes the intangible tangible. But sadly, "tango" and "tangible" come from different sources. Although the etymology of "tango" is not certain, the Online Etymology Dictionary traces it to an African word "tamgu" meaning "to dance." The point? Word study can break your heart.

On solider etymological ground: "anthology," which you cleverly anagrammed into "holy tango," is a doublet of "pyracanthus." Both words are based on the Greek word "anthos" (flower). What do flowers have to do with literature? The "logy" part of "anthology" goes back to the Greek "logia" (collecting). Thus, "anthology" literally means "a collection of flowers," but by the 17th century the word had acquired the metaphorical meaning of a collection of poetry. Eventually the meaning expanded to mean a collection of all sorts of writing.

The etymology of the last word in your title -- "literature" -- takes us to the Latin "littera" (letter). An interesting doublet of "literature" is "obliterate." I like the connection because I believe -- perhaps too optimistically -- that good literature destroys ignorance. Or maybe, as an aspiring screenwriter, I simply like explosions. But that's another story.

For now, if anyone wants to ask a question about etymology -- or anything else in the universe -- go ahead. But know this: I'm easy to stump.

Posted by Francis at 01:36 PM

In the past, I've looked up potash to discover that it derives from pot and ash and not from potassium. It was only now that I thought to look up potassium, which turns out to derive its name from potash. (My grandma was onto something when she pronounced it "po-TASH-yum.")

Posted by: Orange at June 6, 2007 02:26 PM

(P.S. I've added the book to my Amazon wish list. My birthday's coming up soon!)

Posted by: Orange at June 6, 2007 02:27 PM

This is a divine book! Perfect for anyone's Amazon wish list. I wanted to be clever and write an anagram of WORDS OF A FEATHER. But all I've come up with is: A sword for the, um, fea. So that's no good. Maybe after a bit more coffee, or possibly brandy, I'll have a better one!

Posted by: Alison Tyler at June 6, 2007 03:36 PM

For Murray: Does "to blave" really mean "to bluff"?

I suppose "The fear of a sword" is a far too simple anagram but I thought I'd stay on etymological ground with it and try to find if there was a listed phobia for "fear of swords" and I was disappointed. Not finding it does raise another question. Can't there be a -phobia word for anything or does someone have to be medically diagnosed as having that fear before it becomes an official word?

Last note - nice website, I'll have to pick up the book.

Posted by: Jim Schraven at June 6, 2007 04:18 PM


I love your potash story. I wish I had known about that etymology when I was working on the book. Thanks for sharing it.

Posted by: Murray Suid at June 6, 2007 04:20 PM

The vast majority of -phobias are pure literary inventions with no medical support.

Posted by: Rubrick at June 6, 2007 04:28 PM


I have no connection to the medical establishment (except as a patient), but I do have an opinion about phobia naming.

When it comes to coining phobia labels, I'd rather defer to poets or novelists or ad writers. Or even just plain word lovers.

So "Yes, there should be a phobia word for whatever you or I fear, and "No," we needn't wait for a diagnosis to go public with the word.

As for the meaning of "blave," I'm going to think about it, but I have learned that one definition of "blaver" is "black raver" (http://vice.typepad.com/vice_magazine/2007/02/blave_new_world.html)


Posted by: Murray Suid at June 6, 2007 04:38 PM

I have this book and truly enjoy it. It's great fun and I think it would be something fun to give to graduating seniors. I think that they'd get a chuckle out of some of the meanings and connections between words.

About holy/whole -- when i was 10 or so, my dad and his friend were sailing their catamaran with me on it. we (unexpectedly) flew the hull and then capsized and my dad's shirt went into the lake. he said "there goes my holy shirt." That's how *I* heard it, anyway. but truly, i figured out much much later, it was not WHOLE - it was in pieces. and actually, now that I'm actually typing it out...it was probably HOLEY which now makes no sense to what I was trying to say, and so I'll just stop...*wan smile*

Anyway, it is always fun to read what you have to say! I look forward to seeing you guest blog at other sites.

Posted by: kristen at June 6, 2007 04:47 PM

Am I wrong, Jim, or is this a Princess Bride reference?

Posted by: alison tyler at June 6, 2007 04:51 PM

Yes - it most definitely was a Princess Bride reference. I never knew if the word was something made up or if what he was saying was factual.

Posted by: Jim Schraven at June 6, 2007 05:53 PM


My books have been called a lot of things before, but never "divine." If you knew me, you'd know that there is nothing godly about me (other than the fact that God might be in all of us--but this probably isn't the place to launch a religious discussion).

I'm vamping here because I'm not good at taking such praise--but still I'll take it, and maybe get my publisher to quote you.

I do know--thanks to John Ayto's marvelous DICTIONARY OF WORD ORIGINS--that divine comes from a hypothetical Indo-European word "deiwos" which first referred to "sky" and "day," and perhaps meant "shining." Later, it acquired the connodation of God. Still later it spawned the Latin "deus" (god" and ultimate the Italian "diva" (prima donna).

Where was I? Ah yes, thanking you for your kind adjective.

Posted by: Murray Suid at June 6, 2007 06:10 PM

"Blave" is as made-up as Tammy Faye Bakker in her heyday.

Posted by: Francis at June 6, 2007 06:11 PM

Murray Suid's Words of a Feather is a great title, and a fun, important topic. It is said that all was created when the first word was uttered. Language are external markers of our struggle to understand what it is to be human. I am sure this book will add to that understanding.

Posted by: Howard Egger-Bovet at June 6, 2007 06:36 PM

And all this time, I thought a doublet was "a man's close-fitting jacket worn in Europe especially during the Renaissance." My tailor told me this . . . and I guess I was taken in.

(The quoted definition actually comes, not from a tailor, but from Merriam-Webster Collegiate 11th* [sense 1**], and it makes it sound like the same gent kept the doublet in his closet for century after century, trotting it out only for the occasional Renaissance.)

*I missed that reunion.
**As in "Sense 1, Nonsense 0 at the top of the 11th."

Posted by: Jonathan Caws-Elwitt at June 6, 2007 09:21 PM

When I was studying French linguistics, I was damned sure that the English word "gall" had come from "Gaul" (as in the Gauloise)since there had been so much bad blood between the French, Romans, and Anglo-types--you know, Asterix and Obelix and all that. It was pretty upsetting to learn I was wrong. It's true: etymology can, in fact, break your heart.

So tell me this: is there any significance to the fact that (in French) 'lawyer' and 'avocado' are the same word? ('avocat')

Posted by: Dianna at June 7, 2007 03:59 PM

I can field that one. "Avocat" is related to "advocate", which comes from the same root as "voice". The "avocat" that means "avocado", though, comes from the same root as our word for "avocado", namely the Spanish "aguacate", from the Nahuatl "ahuacatl", short for "ahuacacuahuitl"...which literally means "testicle tree". I guess they thought avocados looked like testicles, or vice versa.

Here's another testicle-related word I was previously unaware of: bollix. Seems obvious now that I think about it.

Posted by: Francis at June 7, 2007 04:13 PM

Im a firm believer in the spelling "bollix". I reckon that's from the Irish way of pronouncing and spelling it , instead of the way the English do ( as bokkocks is their word) , Roddy Doyle majorly influenced the changeover for writing it on school property by rowdy no-good punk teens. I especially like how over here you can be refuted with " ask me bollix"

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