What’s in a name? Quite a lot, it turns out, if you take a look at the etymology behind it. Words can often do much more than merely tell us what something is. We can use them to trace the development of languages and how people from different periods of human history thought, and the way languages change can even tell us when certain groups of people came into contact with one another.
Take our neighbours the Germans. We English speakers get our name for the language (as well as the country and its people) from the Latin germania – a term used by the Romans for the geographical region in northern and central Europe, and which may be Gallic in origin. The Italians also call the country Germania – but interestingly, the adjective is tedesco. This is analogous to the German term deutsch, from Old High German diutisc ‘popular’ (i.e. “of the diot”, ‘people’); a term that was once employed to differentiate the language of the common people from Latin. Its cognate actually pops up in English too – as teutonic.
French speakers, meanwhile, refer to the Germans as allemands – a word derived from the name of the southern Germanic Alemanni tribe, who lived in today’s Alsace and neighbouring Baden-Württemberg. That early first contact between the two peoples evidently left an indelible mark on the French linguistic consciousness, with the term allemands later coming to encompass all Germans. Indeed, France itself gets its name from another Germanic tribe who also lived along what is now the German–French border – the Franks, who also lent their moniker to Frankfurt and Franconia in Germany.
Finally, our northerly friends the Finns speak of the saksa – from the northern Germanic Saxon tribe, once again demonstrating that when it comes to bestowing names, it’s often who you know that counts.
But enough of people – how about the natural world? The word for “bear” in the Indo-European languages is particularly fascinating. The Romance language cognates: ours, orso, urso, urs, oso, uors, can clearly be seen to be related to the Latin ursus (from the Proto-Indo-European root *rtko, whence, incidentally, Arctic (via Greek ἀρκτικός): named after the helpfully North-pointing Great Bear, and not the other way around). In the more northerly branches of the European languages tree, however, it’s a different story. That PIE root is believed to have been ritually replaced with a selection of euphemisms: Bär, björn, *beron, ‘the brown one’, lokys, ‘the licker’, medved, ‘the honey eater’, melfochyn, ‘the honey pig’, mathúin, ‘the good calf’; likely indicating a strong cultural taboo against “summoning” bears by speaking their name. But what about those Romance languages? Were their speakers all just utterly fearless Obelix clones? Well, it’s worth bearing in mind that bears are not particularly common in areas where Romance languages are spoken – this probably negated the need for a taboo against speaking their name aloud, which could explain why the original root persevered.
So much for tribes and hibernating mammals (anyone else tempted to join them for a snooze now the days are so cold and short?!) – here at Diction we’re translators and proofreaders. We “carry over” the meaning of words, and then we evaluate the results. But we’re not scientists, we don’t ‘prove’ things – or do we? Have you ever wondered why the exception proves the rule, or why the proof of the pudding is in the eating? An Old English equivalent for ‘evaluate’ was pruven, from Latin probare, ‘to test’ (and you can see where ‘prove’ comes from) – but probare doesn’t quite equate to ‘prove’ in the modern English sense. You see, the Romans tried and tested their theories: some would be correct, while others would be found wanting. That’s why an exception proves a rule: it puts it to the test. This is exactly what happens when a text arrives at Diction for proofreading: we receive a proof copy, which we carefully check, triyng to find misspellings and unnecessary apostrophe’s. And this should also explain why the proof of the pudding is in the eating: it’s the old sense of the word, whereby we test our tasty treats to find out if they’re as good as they look.
With all that to digest – fancy a drink? The julep is a popular minty cocktail – but it wasn’t always so. The name comes from Persian gulab via Arabic julab and Medieval Latin julapium, ‘a sweet drink’. The stem of that noun – gul – can be traced even further back through Aramaic warda to Old Iranian *urda. This in turn is related to the Greek rhodon, which was passed down through the years to us in English as – you guessed it – rose.
Elaine Oliver, English team