Tag Archives: Latin

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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That’s one for the books

As I was running yesterday, I noticed that the German words for “to publish” – veröffentlichen – and “public” (as an adjective) – öffentlich – are related. Which in turn made me realize that their English counterparts are also related. German also has the word publizieren for “to publish” as well as das Publikum for “audience” or “public” (used as a noun). According to Duden, these latter two are probably the result of an influx of Latin-based words into German from French and English.

I can recall having a conversation with a colleague about twenty years ago over publications in scientific journals – he argued that they really shouldn’t be considered published unless they found a public (that is they were cited by another author in one of her/his publications). I wonder what he’d make of the proliferation of blogs (like this one) or the myriad updates on Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat or Instagram through which so many of us seek to publish our thoughts? If they are without a public are they not really public?

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Week 7 Anniversary

Earthquakes make the ground tremble and according to Online Etymology, the word “terrible” comes from the Proto-Indo-European root *tres–  which means “to tremble.” What both earthquakes and trembling bring to mind for most of us is fear – think of the related word “terror” – thus, it can be rather confusing for people trying to learn English when they come across  the adverbial form of “terrible” – “terribly”-  as the former usually signals something negative and the latter something positive (think “terrific”).

“That was a terrible meal” VS. “That was a terribly good meal”

Similar issues arise with “awful” and “awfully,” which can be substituted above with no significant change to the meanings of these sentences. In both cases, the adverbial form has come to be used as an intensifier rather like “very” or “really.”

It turns out that there is at least one similar situation in German. Because German does not have a suffix like “-ly” to mark adverbial forms, disambiguating the two meanings/usages is perhaps even more confusing for a non-native speaker; one must rely on the surrounding words to get the correct sense. The word I’m thinking of here is unheimlich. As an adjective, pons.eu says it means “terrible” or “eerie” or “sinister” or “gives you the creeps” and also “incredible” and “terrific.” As an adverb, the meaning given by pons.eu is “incredibly” (or “eerily,” however this meaning is not given in the entry for unheimlich but only when you look up “eerily” itself).

Also note that unhelpful un at the beginning of unheimlich. This prefix usually signals negation as it does in English (you may recall unsichtbar from a previous post, meaning “not (or in-) visible”), thus increasing one’s tendency to believe this word has a negative connotation. However, appearances can be deceiving as heimlich also expresses something on the negative end of the spectrum, among the possibilities dict.cc gives are: “furtive(ly),” “surreptitious(ly),” “secret,” “clandestine,” “steathily” and “covert(ly).” Using heimlich with a verb adds a sense of sneakiness or doing something on the QT, for example, “to elope” – heimlich heiraten, “to plot something in secret” – etwas heimlich planen.

There is a German expression that plays off this pair – Lieber heimlich schlau als unheimlich doof – which means something to the effect of “It is better to be brilliant and keep quiet about it than it is to be an obvious and loud-mouthed idiot” (I did like this effort to preserve the word play: “Better guardedly canny than uncannily stupid” – although I altered the last word as the original made me uncomfortable).

So here’s wishing you an awfully, terribly, tremendously, earth-shakingly, unheimlich good week!

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Seeing and looking out

For me, one of the best parts of learning a new language is the way it leads you to wonder anew at your mother tongue. In Dialog in Deutsch this morning we were talking about the various compounds that can be formed by adding a prefix to the noun die Sicht – “sight,” “visibility,” “view” and “point of view.” Now this is a favorite word of mine because it was one of the first I learned as part of a compound because Ex, one of the characters in Warum Nicht? the language learning radio program from Deutsche Welle, is an invisible – unsichtbar – elf (and, yes, that this is rather odd really does help to fix the vocabulary in one’s mind!).

The compound that caught my attention today in terms of what it highlighted about English, however, was die Umsicht. This can translated as “circumspection” – the more formal option – as well as “prudence.” I don’t think I ever put “circumspection” together with its relatives “introspection” and “inspection,” nor had a I thought about its connections with “circumnavigate” or “circumscribe.” If you look at the etymology of “circumspection,”  you will find a Latin root meaning “to look around” which shows a clear relationship to Umsicht if you pull it apart into um – “around” and Sicht – “view”. (You can also find “*spect” in the “prospect” meaning of die Aussicht.)

Intriguingly, die Vorsicht, is also given as a translation of “prudence” – amazing what one can “see” if one is prudent enough to take the time to “look out!” for beautiful language “sights!”

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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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