I think etymology, the study of the history of words, is fun. That is probably only because I don’t have to study words. I am just curious about some words, when I suddenly have a question about one.
If you are reading this, you probably know the feeling and also probably recognize the similarity of some words that suggest they are related. For example: ship and skiff are both boats, although they now refer to very different types of vessels. Both words go back to a proto-Germanic root, skipam. Yeah, but you may ask: skiff, skipam, but with FF instead of P; and ship, with the P but with SH instead of SK?
English is a Germanic language, since 1066 heavily influenced by French, by William the Conqueror and his Normans (who were descendants of Vikings, north men). The Norwegians, the people in living up the north way, call themselves nordmann, and call a boat a skib.
The shift from P to B is easy to understand; we are all a little sloppy about pronouncing the end of words. An F is just a little sloppier: P > B > F.
Baby-talk for baby in the Deep South leads parents to calling a boy Bubba or Buffy, or at least it did decades ago. I knew grown men who were still called Bubba and Buffy, and not just by their parents.
In the same way, SH is easier to pronounce than SK, especially when followed by an I. Other languages also use the softer “fricative” SH or a fricative G in such words (e.g., “Gibraltar”).
So, ship and skiff have the same root. Early German had two shifts in the pronunciation of consonants. Some of them influenced English pronunciation, some didn’t, because the early pronunciation from the Vikings was already so well established. We say egg, for that reason, instead of the later German Ei, that lets us recognize that the G has slipped away, maybe once a fricative G, and then lost. Who always pronounces the G at the end of word ending in -ing?
Americans still say school and schedule with an SK. The Brits say shedule because the German-born Queen Victoria read and pronounced the SCH of schedule as it would be in German. At court and elsewhere that became the standard.
One can read a lot more about etymology on Wikipedia, if one is interested. For me, more fun is discovering the original meanings of words. The Online Etymology Dictionary is my favorite source, but it does not answer some of my questions.
We know about ship and skiff now, but what about ship (Schiff in German) and fish (German Fisch, fisk in the Scandinavian languages)? There must be a reason why the words for something in or on water are so closely related. It doesn’t seem so. The root for fish is the Latin pisces. We see the consonant shifts.
Does that suggest that fun descended from pun? It didn’t.
What about words that sound alike (homonyms) but mean the opposite, for example cleave?
Most of us immediately think of what a cleaver can do, separate something, then only remember the Biblical usage, oft heard at weddings, Genesis 2, 24:
“Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh.”
The words were not originally identical, but as explained here the changes in pronunciation and conjugation have led to to their being identical, just not in meaning, which is why the Biblical use of the word is now only heard in churches.
And what do creases in trousers and skirts have to do with the creases on an ice hockey rink, a hockey and lacrosse field, or a cricket pitch? Douglas Harper, who honchos etymonline.com didn’t tell me, justifiably so, since his definition is correct but didn’t answer my question. Another website does: originally the cricketing crease was a crease-like cut in the turf.
Two other pairs of words in English and German that mean the same thing intrigue me: pan and Napf, pot and Topf. Like with fish and Schiff, I want to see a connection, but haven’t found one. Maybe a lot of people back then suffered from dyslexia.
That kind of an explanation is a wild form of false etymology. If I could popularize it, it would become an urban legend.
This is sometimes called folk etymology, but linguists use that term in a specific sense, as explained with many examples on Wikipedia.
I hope this explains why I think etymology is fun and suggests to others to look into the background of words, but I am only a sophomore of the subject. Strange, I just learned something new: that word also is an example of folk etymology.
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