Archive | December, 2010

A quirk of language – how ‘nice’ once meant the same as a swear word!

6 Dec
Extent of indo-european languages

Image via Wikipedia

(Warning – contains a swear word)

I remembered one of the classic wording pairings over the weekend …

Left long enough, any language evolves in very strange ways – and perhaps none more than the pairing of ‘nice’ and (*ahem*) the word ‘shit’, both of which originate from the same source.

The guilty parent is thought to be a proto-Indo-European word ‘*skei’, which is believed to have meant split, cut, slice or cleave.

Now, to be clear, there’s no written or spoken record of any proto Indo-European.  It is a purely hypothesized language, believed to be the common ancestor of the wide group of languages that belong in the Indo-European family.  This family spans most (but not all) languages spoken in Europe and the Indian sub-continent; see here for Wikipedia’s list.

The theory runs that as early people travelled out of Africa, and then slowly split up, moving to different regions, the original language they once shared also evolved, resulting in a whole group of related languages.

It was as early as the 1500s, European travellers noted similarity between some of the languages they heard in India with the languages they heard, or had learned, back home.  But the heyday of this field of study was in the 1800s; even the character Edward Casaubon in George Eliot’s Middlemarch (published 1871-2) is trying to work on a ‘key to all mythologies’, pointing to this sudden growth of understanding in common roots.

So, if we take the word *skei, we can see that, over time, it has evolved into a number of words, many of which have kept closely to the sense of ‘split, cut, splice or cleave’.

Tools for cutting:

  • Scissors
  • Scythe
  • Shears

The result of cutting:

Schism – a major division, such as a ‘schism in the Church’

Schedule – to separate out one’s time

Scar – the side effect of a cut

Schist – a type of mineral that can be easily split

Ship – some people also argue ‘ship’ comes from this root, as a ship would have originally been carved out of a tree trunk.

Schizophrenia – a mental illness resulting in ‘separate’ personalities.

Ski – ski comes from an Old Norse word meaning to separate one piece of wood from another

And, as mentioned:

Shit – the word makes some sense in this context as the act of defecation involves separating one matter from another.

Interestingly, there are a whole group of words relating to knowledge that derive from this root, arguably because knowledge is, in part, the ability to distinguish and categorise things.

  • Skill
  • Science
  • Omniscience
  • Conscience

The latter three words all derive from the Latin verb ‘scire’, which meant ‘to know’.

The opposite of ‘scire’ was ‘nescire’ – not knowing, and it is from here that the word ‘nice’ was originally thought to derive.  The verb turned into an adjective, nescius, with the meaning of ‘ignorant’.   After the Norman conquest, the word came into English from French as ‘nice’, and while the spelling has remained largely constant, over time, the meaning changed to ‘foolish’ or ‘shy’, and then into ‘moderate’, ‘reserved’ and by the time of Jane Austen in the early 1800s, ‘nice’ meant ‘exacting’ or ‘precise’.

Nice has then evolved to the modern meaning of ‘pleasant’ or ‘agreeable’ – but, interestingly, is almost coming full circle as an insult as we increasingly use it to mean something is banal or bland.

So, take one hypothesized word, *skei, add 6,000 years, and you end up with an interesting muddle!


On Carrie Bradshaw and “Eyes akimbo!”

2 Dec
b/w photograph of arms akimbo, cleaned up by Micze

Image via Wikipedia

I’ve recently been consigned to my bed with illness, with nothing for company but aSex and the City boxset.

In one episode, Carrie walks into a bar, flanked by her friends, and instructs them to look out for an ex-boyfriend with the command ‘Eyes akimbo!

In that instance, I was filled with love for the word ‘akimbo’.  You don’t hear it very often, and when you do, to my mind, we associate it with arms and legs.

And it’s such a strange word!  I can’t think of a word like it in English, other than the playful ‘Crimbo’ for Christmas and the rather ruder ‘bimbo’ and ‘himbo’.   It almost sounds African in origin.

I did also wonder if it bears any relation to ‘askew’, which means ‘crooked’ or ‘off kilter’.

So, on looking it up, ‘akimbo’ is much, much older than you might first think.  The OED records its usage as early as 1400.  And the definition isn’t what I was expecting.  I had thought it meant ‘all over the place’, but actually it means to stand with one’s legs apart, with one’s hands on one’s hips, with the elbows out at right angles.

The word actually started life as ‘kenebowe’ (“The hoost … set his hond in kenebowe” Tale of Beryn c. 1400), and other variations of the word include kenbow (c. 1611), kemboll (c. 1629), kenbol (c. 1600), and kimbow (c. 1678).  The earliest instance of the word being used in conjunction with ‘a’ is in 1629 (‘a kemboll’), common by the late 17th century where you see Hobbes’ Art of Rhetoric – “Setting his arms a-kenbold.’

The ‘a’ then becomes hyphenated to the front of the word for about two hundred years (“John was forced to sit with his Arms a-kimbo.” c. 1712), before James Joyce drops the hyphen in the early 20th century (“Folded akimbo against her waist” Ulysses, 1922).

I believe this is an example of … wait for the fancy linguistic term … metananalysis, which just means that the boundaries of a word change over time (an adder was once a nadder; an apron once a napron and so forth.)

But quite where the word comes from is another mystery.  The OED sounds positively foxed on the topic: “Derivation unknown”.  Of the theories put forward, that the word relates to Icelandic words for ‘crooked’ or a Middle English word for ‘crooked stick’, the OED says “None of these satisfies the condition.”

Wikipedia does speculate on a possible African origin of the word – ‘bakimba’ – which is word used by the Kongo people of west Africa that means exactly the stance described above.  But this does come with the delightful Wikipedia footnote of ‘Dubious – Discuss’.

So akimbo – a useful, delightful word with an entirely mysterious origin!