Saturday, April 05, 2008

Catahoula hog dog

At the FT, Christian Tyler considers Henry Hitchings' The Secret Life of Words:
Almost every spadeful yields an etymological nugget, something to send the sceptic rushing to the OED in disbelief. (You will need the big one.)

Did you know, for instance, that “cushy” has nothing to do with cushions but is from khush, Hindi for “pleasant”? Or that “margarine” is from the Persian for “pearl” on account of its appearance? It was the Dutch, not the Scots, who gave us “golf” from their game of kolven; they also supplied “nit-wit” (from niet weet, meaning “I don’t know”). More recently, Romany gave us “lolly”, “gaff” and “chav”.

In fact about half of all English words are borrowed; our language is both highly absorbent (as it is so little inflected) and made voracious by the English appetite for trade, travel and conquest. Perhaps unnecessarily, Hitchings includes adopted as well as adapted words. So “cappuccino”, “spritzer” and “jihad” get in – not forgetting the ever-useful “schadenfreude” – as well as naturalised immigrants such as “crayfish” (from ecrevisse) and “mayday” (from m’aidez).

It’s intriguing to note that the movement of words has not just been one way: Swahili has the charming kiplefti for a traffic island, and Japanese engejiringu for an engagement ring. The game “Pokemon”, meanwhile, is a re-export: the word came originally from “pocket monster”.
Hmmm, it is a long time since I thought of the OED in terms of "big one" and "small one," the electronic version is supremely delightful to me...

1 comment:

  1. That's odd about "cushy" as I always thought that the name 'Hindu Kush' of the mountain range in Eastern Afganistan meant 'Hindu Slaughter'.

    "Pleasant" and "kill" is a lot of work for one syllable.