10 January 2008

gouge your eyes out with a rusty etymology

A recent Dave Snowden article uses "synecdoche" in its title, and it hurt too much to read on without understanding this word. Google's definition lookup explains this word means referencing a whole by a part - a common example being "all hands on deck" to mean "all men on deck". Then I got to wondering if the English word "man" was somehow related to Spanish "mano"/French "main" ("hand") - which would give us an interesting path from "hand" to "human". Maybe "man" is already an example of synecdoche?

While I was there, I noticed that "man" is recent in English - up to the 14th century, according to etymonline , "wer" was used instead. From Latin "vir", also giving "fear" (pl "fir") in Irish. I had thought old English and Irish generally didn't derive from Latin - so was I wrong or do these all derive from some earlier common ancestor - from India?

"Wyf" was the Old English word for "woman". There must have been a time, maybe around the 14th century, when "wife" had the double meaning of "woman" and "female spouse", just as "femme" and "mujer" do nowadays, in French and Spanish, respectively.

Fun stuff, no? Alas, It didn't help me with Dave's article though ...

1 comment:

  1. You're reading it wrong. "Man" was in Old English, but it wasn't the usual word for men until Middle English. "Wer" and the Irish word aren't "from" Latin; both the Latin and English words have a common ancestry. The common ancestor is in "Proto-Indo-European," a reconstructed ancient language that is ancestral to most European and many North Indian languages. Nobody can say for sure where it was spoken.

    "Cf." means "compare," not "from."


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