Monday, April 26, 2010

Etymology Monday: Reader Mailbag

The title is somewhat misleading, I suppose, as I didn't actually receive this question in the mail. Like many of these updates, it began with the First Mate yelling down at me through the sniper window in his office loft/nerdcave: "Hey, etymology question. How come..."

Today, the sentence ended "...the German word for poison is 'Gift' and the English word 'gift' is nothing close? Did one branch change the meaning and retain the word, or do they come from different roots? Or are they just being sarcastic?" This brings up a topic which fascinates me as a student of lexical borrowing: false cognates, which are terms that mean one thing in one language and something quite different in another. I first encountered these slippery words as a fumbling French exchange student discovering that confus actually means "embarrassed" (which, to be fair, I usually also was.) I haven't catalogued an exhaustive list, but I would guess that English was exceptionally prone to false cognates, given our propensity for absorbing foreign words and also for not really knowing what we're talking about most of the time.

So whence cometh the Gift/gift disparity? According to my new best friends, the American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European roots and the Online Etymology Dictionary, both words originate from the Indo-European *ghabh,  "to give or receive."  The suffixed form *ghebh-ti-, "something given or received," seems to lead fairly clearly to "gift." In English, "gift" is a gift from Old Norse, supplanting the similar Old English word giefu. ("Gift" existed in Old English, but it meant "dowry or bride-price.") The Germanic *geban, meaning "to give," is the more immediate ancestor of both of these words, so at some point after the divergence of Old Norse and Anglo-Saxon, the word for "something given" evolved in Germanic to mean something more sinister.

Here, the trail ends, at least the one I can find on the internet. Yahoo! Answers suggests that at one time, "vergeben" meant both "to poison" and "to forgive" (how's that for irony?) but it became too confusing and so poisoning became "vergiften." Then again, this is Yahoo! Answers, so I might just as reputably have used an Ouija board to contact Arminius and asked him. It seems a not unlikely jump from "something given" to "something given in your rival's ale while he isn't looking," and by that point the Norse, English, and German branches of Germanic were far separated from each other. I do have to wonder, however, just how much cynicism I am justified in reading into this evolution. I also have to wonder if German tourists are ever endearingly confused in gift shops.


Posted by Silent Five @ 9:04 PM

Word of the Week

gymnosophy [jim-NAH-so-fee]

n. Philosophical, amusing, or nonsensical insights realized when naked, as in the shower or in bed. (recent coinage: att. S. Galasso, 2010)

Victoria and Albert enjoyed a spot of postprandial concupiscence culminating in a night of gymnosophy and coffee and crumpets at dawn.

The Silent Top Five: Bacon-Flavored Desserts

1) Bacon cheesecake.
2) Bacon gumballs.
3) Bacon ice cream.
4) Bacon-orange bars.
5) Bacon apple pie.

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This is all in no way meant to incur copyright-infringement-related wrath. I'm harmless. I promise. Oh, and if you're offended by anything I may post herein, I guarantee I didn't mean to do so (unless, of course, you are a humorless prig. In which case, go right on and be offended, with my blessings.)