Tag Archives: etymology

Close encounters of the etymological kind

I talk a lot here about encountering new words and expressions in the course of learning German, but I hadn’t thought much about the English word “encounter” itself until starting to use the German word begegnen to describe my encounters with new words. According to Duden Online, the word begegnen has its origins in Old High German and is related to the word gegen – “against.” According to Google, the word “encounter” has its origins in the Latin word “contra.”  Both Gegen and “counter” can be used as prefixes with the meaning “against” as in words like “counterattack” – Gegenschlag – or “counterbalance” – Gegengewicht.

Imagining my encounters with German in terms of coming up “against” something has a certain amount of resonance for me. A German word, even when it has a nearly one-to-one correspondence to a word in English, can make me feel like I am swimming against the tide as I try to learn it. Happily, the satisfaction I get from learning something new nearly always “counteracts” this and gives me renewed energy for a “counteroffensive.”



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Ever wondered why it was called a swede?

On top of German, I am also working on reviving my Spanish. Yesterday I was working on a lesson about country names and nationalities and I came across the Spanish name for people from Sweden sueco/a. Not immediately recognizing this as the word for Swedish people, I looked it up with dict.cc’s Spanish-German site. When I typed the word sueco, it offered nabo sueco – literally “Swedish root vegetable,” but what is more commonly known in much of the English-speaking world as “swede” (for readers in the US, this vegetable is the rutabega and I am still in the dark about the origins of this latter name). Curiously (well as a non-botanist it seems curious to me), nabo gallego – literally “Galician root vegetable” – is “rapeseed” or what is called “canola” in North America. According to wisegeek.org: “The name of the plant derived from the Latin rapum, which means ‘turnip,’ and it has been used since the 14th century. In the other sense of the word, ‘rape’ is derived from rapere, ‘to take by force,’ and it dates to 1481.”

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Meaningless Coincidence?

Sometimes I notice a relationship between two words that do not in fact share etymology or morphology. When I make such a connection, I worry about whether I should persist in using it to help me increase my vocabulary or avoid using it because it doesn’t reflect reality. Today’s example involves noticing that both verwirrt and geirrt have »irr« inside them. To me, the meanings of “confused” and “mistaken” seem quite similar and so it made sense for these words to have a common morpheme. That is not, however, the case. The »irr« in verwirrt comes from the stem wirr which also means “confused,” while the »irr« in geirrt comes from irre, which means “mad” (in the sense of “insane”), via the verb irren – “to err.” According to Duden online, the roots of these two words are also different.

So, what do I do with this discovery? It feels helpful to me to see them as related and yet I worry what confusion it might bring or what mistakes I might be led to make, given the relationship exists in my head and not in the structure or history of German. And mistakes are probably very likely as according to dict.cc, there are 371 words which have »irr« as a component and 61 of these contain »wirr.« Many of the words with »irr« are unrelated to the concepts of confusion and error, for example, das Geschirr – “dishes” – while others like der Irrgarten – “maze” – do share some components. And the same goes for »wirr.«  Das Geschwirr is a “buzz” or a “whirring” sound, while wirrköpfig means “muddleheaded.”

My sense is, therefore, that I should tread somewhat carefully when the commonalities I notice comprise only a few letters/sounds – as in the case of »irr« – while feeling on firmer ground with those such as (der) Zufall appearing in the adjective zufällig – in this latter case, it is no “accident” that “coincidence” and “random” share components.

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Negative growth?

Since fostering growth is a key part of what I do professionally, I learned the words die Entwicklung and entwickeln – “development” and “to develop” soon after I moved to Germany. What I didn’t notice until this morning is that in both languages the words for “development” are prefixed with something that typically indicates a negation of the meaning of the stem. For instance, this is the definition of “de-” from the Cambridge dictionary: “used to add the meaning ‘opposite’, ‘remove’, or ‘reduce’ to a noun or verb.” Duden offers a number of meaning for ent- : “something is undone or returned to its original state, the removal or displacement of something, or taking something away.” The German Language page of about.com relates it to the English prefixes “de-” and “dis-” and gives its meaning as “away from.”

Now “*velop” appears in both “develop” and “envelop” but it is not currently a standalone word with a meaning that can be negated (Google gives the etymology as arising from Latin “dis- ‘un-’ + a second element of unknown origin found also in envelop,” which became the French word développer – “to unfold, unfurl). Wickeln, on the other hand, is a standalone word with the meaning, according to Pons, “to wrap something around something” and colloquially “to change a baby’s diaper.” This is a rather productive stem with one word from the family, einwickeln, being one possible translation for “to envelop.”

When I think about development or die Entwicklung now, I will pay even more attention to how it must involve paring away and replacement rather than simply accretion of the new.

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If it’s all the same to you…

We have just finished a holiday weekend (Pfingsten – “Ascension” – see suggestions for how to celebrate here) here in Hamburg and during it people were frequently wishing each other well to which one reply is Danke, gleichfalls – “Thanks, same to you.”

As an adverb, gleichfalls also means “likewise,” “equally” and “in the same way” which makes sense as gleich can mean “same,” “equal/ly,” “similar” and “alike.” According to German is Easy, both gleich and the English word “like” come from the same root. The word falls on its own is a conjunction and can mean “if” or “in case” “or in the event/case of” and it appears in at least two other useful compound words:

jedenfalls – “anyway” or “anyhow” or “in any event”
ebenfalls – “also” or “likewise” or “ditto” or “as well” or, like gleichfalls, “same to you”

There is an additional family of meanings for gleich that refer to time: “in a minute,” “straight away,” “just” or “right.” It can also mean “immediately,” although I’ve usually seen this translated as sofort (or as I just learned from dict.cc schleunigst) and perhaps also “soon,” although again, I’ve more typically seen this translated as bald.

Since I opened with a farewell (der Abschied), I’ll close with another – bis gleich! – meaning in this case “see you here on Earthquake Words tomorrow, similar bat time, same bat channel!”

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What’s the point? Pünktlich and punktuell

This is an intriguing pair because of the false friend status of punktuell  – according to my Pons Wörterbuch für Schule und Studiumit means “selective” or “dealing with certain points” rather than “punctual” which happens to be the meaning given by Pons for pünktlich.  Duden 5 (Das Fremdwörterbuch, more about this series of books in a moment) includes an entry for Punkt and gives it origin as Latin. This makes sense to me for punktuell (that uell ending screams loan word and is similar to another false friend aktuell which doesn’t mean “actual” but instead “current” or “topical” or “relevant”).  What is probably confusing me with pünktlich being a loan word is the –lich ending which is typically German and sounds a bit like and can correspond to the meaning of the English suffix “-ish.”It goes on to give the meaning of the Latin word as something like engraved (das Gestochene) or punctured (der Einstrich, now there is a resemblance with punkt).

Other German Fremd– or Lehnwörter (foreign or loan words) given are:

punktieren – “to dot, to stipple and to aspirate”
die Punktion – “puncture, tap” – as in draw out)
die Interpunktion and interpunktieren – “punctuation” and “to punctuate” – an alternative would be die Zeichensetzung which is interesting as das Zeichen can mean “mark” or “tick” which are a little like “point”
Kontrapunkt – “the counterpoint”
kunterbunt – “motley” or “multicolored” or “higgledy-piggledy” collection of things
die Pointe
– “punchline” or “nub”
pointiert –
 “trenchant(ly)” pr “pithy” or “pointed(ly)” – more at some point soon about this devilish slipperiness in German where one word is both adverb and adjective
pointieren – “to emphasize” or “to stress”

Now this was so much fun that I pulled another book down from the library shelf, Kluge Etymologisches Wörterbuch der deutsch Sprache, to see what it might have to say about pünktlich and punktuell. Here I learned that pünktlich entered German in the 15th century and comparable words are punctueel (Dutch), ponctuel (French) and punktlig (Norwegian and Swedish). Even more intriguing were a few the words related to der Punkt. The first is der Spund which had two entries, namely 1. “spigot” or “tap” and 2. “whippersnapper” or “young pup” or “greenhorn.”  The second is die Akupunktur which means “acupuncture.” And finally, it is suggested that there is a possible connection with der Pygmäe – “Pygmy” – through the Latin pungere (a combination which, via Google, led me to Origins: A Short Etymological Dictionary of Modern English by Eric Patridge but I resisted that rabbit-hole, although not before noticing the connection to “pugilist” and “poignant”).

Okay, Duden.  There are 12 volumes.  Now we do have the multi-volume OED, but how many people do you know who have this (and don’t count your friends who are linguists, etymologists, etc.)?  And of course there are English language books with synonyms, with common sayings, with quotations, etc., but I’ve not seen them sold as a series like the Duden, which is advertised as Das gesamte Spektrum der deutschen Sprache – which I will translate rather colorfully as “Running the whole gamut of the German language.”  Volume 5‘s tagline is Unentbehrlich für das Verstehen und den Gebrauch fremder Wörter – “Indispensable/Essential for the use and understanding of foreign words” (I like “indispensable” as the “in-” prefix matches with the un– prefix and I swapped “use” and “understanding” because somehow that order felt more like English to me). Other members of the Duden Series will star in future posts.

I can’t say that knowing that pünktlich and punktuell come from a Latin root really helped me to see how or why their meanings diverge from the English meanings, though spending this much time with them while composing this post has helped to cement their meanings that little bit better!

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