Roots and Fruits

Television? No good will come of this device. The word is half Greek and half Latin.
—C. P. Scott
I have never eaten a quince. I have, however, savoured the word ever since I first heard how the Owl and the Pussycat dined on “mince and slices of quince”. Mince I knew, but quince was a tantalising mystery, so, as soon as the opportunity arose, I rushed to our big old Macmillan dictionary and looked the word up. This was quite momentous in several respects: not only did I discover it was a small, bitter fruit (a baffling choice for a picnic, “nonsense poem” or not*), but it was also the first time I had ever used a grown-up dictionary. The italicised n. for noun and the actual definition I could just about understand; it was the bit between square brackets at the end of the entry that stumped me. I still had a few years before I was to be thrown into the hieroglyphic morass of algebra in secondary school, but this –

[ME, pl. of obs. quoyn, coyn, f. OF cooin f. L. cotoneum var. of cydoneum (apple) of Cydonia in Crete]

– was what my ten-year-old brain imagined deciphering an equation must be like (what you see is a reconstruction, since the already dilapidated dictionary didn’t survive my new-found mania for word-checking).

With the help of the dictionary’s own guide, I worked out that the strange, bracketed cipher was a short account of the etymology of the word (with abbreviations for Middle English, plural, obsolete, from, Old French, Latin and variant). To this day, I find it impossible to look up a new word without checking its derivation as well. Etymology, of course, is the study of the history and origins of the meaning and form of words. And given the massive word-repository that is the Internet, it should be no surprise to learn, then, that the patron saint of the Internet is Isidore of Seville, an early medieval etymologist.

Although technology has moved on since Isidore’s day, a quick trawl through the Internet shows that we’re still as fascinated by language as any 7th century philosopher. Indeed, there’s an abundance of websites dedicated to the origins of English words and phrases. I have a bookmarked list of relevant blogs and online dictionaries as long as my arm and I tend to use them as much for entertainment as research. My go-to sites include – in no particular order – the wonderful Online Etymological Dictionary, Bradshaw of the Future (run by a chap known simply as ‘goofy’), Anatoly Liberman’s OUP blog, the mashed radish and – and many, many more (just follow the links; you won’t be disappointed).

One thing which all of these sites have in common is the acknowledgement that they don’t have all the answers. A major drawback of the Internet in this respect, however, is that far too many people think they do. And they aren’t particularly backward in coming forward with their certainties about language. The reanimated Queen’s English Society (reports of its demise a few years ago were, unfortunately, premature) have been advocating an Academy of English along the lines of the Académie Française for years now in order to ‘fix’ the language – to protect it at a time when it is “under unprecedented attack”. And who better to maintain the purity of English than the members of the Queen’s English Society?

The claims, of course, are nonsense. At the risk of countering one cliché with another, the English language is a vibrant, living thing, versatile and adaptable; it does not need protection. The standard techniques developed by etymologists and others in the field of Historical Linguistics allow us to see how our language has evolved. We can see various mechanisms at play, whether it be semantic change (‘meat’, for example, used to refer to food of any kind), borrowing (eg ‘restaurant’ from French, ‘pyjamas’ from Persian) or simply the reanalysed forms known as folk etymologies (‘cockroach’ was an attempt to anglicise the Spanish ‘cucaracha’).

It’s this constant lexical inventiveness and expediency which informs English that makes the study of its development so stimulating. In that spirit, then, I can’t resist ending with the immortal words of James Nicoll:

“The problem with defending the purity of the English language is that English is about as pure as a cribhouse whore. We don’t just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary.”

And that is a peach of an epigram.

*Before anyone jumps in, I did find out later that the poet was talking about quince jelly (similar to the Spanish membrillo).



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