Fun Etymology Tuesday – Abaft

Another Tuesday = another Fun Etymology!

Today’s word is abaft!

Slightly unusual in modern English (estimated by the OED to occur between 0.1 to 1.0 times per million words, nowadays mostly used in nautical terminology), this word, in its current form, is recorded from the late 16th century.

However, before that, we still see it in slightly different forms.

A native Germanic word, abaft comes from Middle English on baft, meaning “back, behind, to the rear”, from Old English on bæftan. Today, it refers to something toward the back of a ship (or at least something farther back than you currently are).

As I am sure you remember, I’ve previously talked about the element a- when it occurs in words such as these, to mean something like “on, in, into”, which indeed also appears to be true here1.

But what about baft?

Well, baft is actually a compound of two other words: be, meaning ‘by’, and æftan, meaning ‘aft’.

Old English be is Germanic too. From Proto-Germanic *bi and PIE *bhi, it came to be used as an adverb during Middle English, meaning “near” or “close at hand”.

Old English æftan is slightly more tricky. Although all the Germanic languages appear to have a similar word, the ultimate origin remains disputed.

We know that æftan shows a derivative form with a Germanic adverbial suffix. We also know that it is from the Germanic base of Gothic afta, but then… Things kinda stop.

It might be a suffixed form of the Indo-European base of an ancient Greek word (ἐπί), and might thus be the only non-Germanic element of abaft, but that remains disputed.

And that is our Fun Etymology for today!

Fun Etymology Tuesday – Abacus

Welcome back to HLC! Another Tuesday, and, as always, here I am with a new Fun Etymology!

Today’s word is abacus!

But first, what in the world is an abacus?

Well, an abacus is a simple device for calculating something. It consists of a frame with wires attached to each side and several beads that you can slide back and forth. You’ll probably recognise it when you see it, so here it is:

Image result for abacus meaning

However, originally, it referred to a type of drawing board, which was covered with dust or sand. On this board, mathematical equations or calculations could be traced and then erased. The word abacus didn’t actually refer to the kind of beaded frame you see above until around the seventeenth century (or potentially even later) in English.

But what about the word itself? Where does that come from?

As we’ve been on this trip for a while now, I am guessing that you can probably tell that abacus is not likely to be a native English word.

And, if so, you’re absolutely right!

The word abacus came to English around the late fourteenth century (then referring to the sand/dust board mentioned above). It was derived directly from the Latin word abacus. This, in turn, came from Greek abax (which in genitive form became abakos).

The Greek word, though, is of uncertain etymology. It might be derived from a Semitic source, such as Phoenician or Hebrew abaq, which literally means dust.

This might be derived from the Semitic root a-b-q, meaning to fly off. However, its origin has been questioned by some etymologists.

So, in the end, as many times before, we know it came to English from Latin and to Latin from Greek and there… the trail turns rather chilly.

But that is the life of a historical linguist! Join me on Thursday when we take a closer look at Old English syntax (or, if you prefer, next week when we look at the origins of the word abaft)!

See you then!

Fun Etymology Tuesday – Aback

It’s time for another Fun Etymology!

This week’s word is aback!

A contraction of Old English on bæc, meaning “backward, behind, at or on the back”, this word can be divided into two: a- and –back.

As is clear from its origins, a-, in this context a prefix, originated as a separate preposition: on. This is quite a common change, from Old English on to a, actually. Other words that share this origin are, for example, aloud, along and abroad. In this form, it is a word inherited from Germanic.

However, it might be easily confused with some words with Latin origin, such as accursed or afford. This a-, however, is a shortened version of Latin ad, meaning “to, toward”. In some other words, like abound, it might be easy to think that it should be divided as a- + bound, but it is actually from Latin ab- + undare.

Clearly, one needs to be slightly careful when determining where the a- in a specific construction comes from.

When it comes to back, it comes from Proto-Germanic *bako-(m), which has no known connections outside of the Germanic languages. It might come from a word related to spine or shoulder 1 though.

The word aback, in its current form, appears around the early 13th century, then meaning “toward the rear”. Nowadays, it mainly survives in the construction taken aback. This construction originally referred to something very specific: when a sea-going vessel’s square sails are flattened against the masts and stops the forward motion of the vessel due to a sudden change in wind.

Today, it is mostly used in its figurative sense: “suddenly or unexpectedly checked or disappointed”. This is a relatively late innovation and showed up for the first time around 1792.

And there you have it – the story of aback!

Join me again next week, as we take a closer look at abacus! See you then!

Fun Etymology Tuesday – Aardvark

Ah, the very first Fun Etymology of the new year – like new-car smell, it never gets old.

Today’s word is aardvark!
Image result for aardvark

This cute little animal is actually a South African groundhog!

Looking a bit more like a pig (sporting some donkey- or rabbit-like ears and a kangaroo-like tail), it is clear that our ancestors thought so too as the word aardvark comes from Afrikaans Dutch aardvark, literally meaning “earth pig”.

The name can be divided in two: aard, meaning “earth”, and vark, meaning “pig”.

Aard- comes from Proto-Germanic *ertho-, potentially an extended form of the PIE root *er-, meaning “earth, ground”.

-vark comes from Middle Dutch varken, meaning “small pig”, which comes from Proto-Germanic *farhaz, meaning “young pig, sucking pig”. This comes from the PIE root *porko-, meaning “young pig”.

However, the aardvark is actually not related to pigs at all (or donkeys, rabbits or kangaroos for that matter).
It is actually the only living species of the order Tubulidentata (or Orycteropodidae), a family of afrotherian mammals!

So, despite that its looks and its name’s etymology might appear to suggest otherwise, the aardvark is actually quite unique in the current animal kingdom!



aardvark (n.) with related entries in the Online Etymology Dictionary

The Aardvark in the National Geographic



M.L. Samuels – Patron Saint of January 2020

It’s the first weekend of the first month of a new decade!

Because it is the first weekend, I will introduce you to another amazing linguist. Today, I decided to go with a professor whose works are well-known in the community of historical linguistics. But, they might be less familiar to those who do not spend most of their life hanging around other historical linguists.

So, today, allow me to introduce you to
Professor Michael L. Samuels.

Professor Samuels was born on September 14, 1920. He tragically passed away on November 24, 2010, having been retired since 1990.

Retired or not, though, Professor Samuels kept working and his publications are among the most cited works in works focused on the English language 1. Quite a feat.

Projects of Professor Samuels that are, perhaps, most well-known are A Linguistic Atlas of Late Medieval English (which I talked about in more detail here) and the Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary.

Having already taken a look at LALME, let’s focus this post on the Historical Thesaurus!

The Historical Thesaurus is a unique, amazing resource. It contains almost every single word in English from Old English to present day!

So, what does it do?

It allows its users to discover synonyms for individual words in the Oxford English Dictionary. Then, you can trace their development throughout the history of the English language!

Samuels had announced the project to the Philological Society in 1965. Forty years later, the dream came true in October 2009, when it was first printed.

Unfortunately, Samuels passed away a mere six days before its launch alongside the Oxford English Dictionary Online. The launch, however, ensured a continued spread of his (and his co-creators/editors) amazing work.

As if these amazing massive projects weren’t enough, Professor Samuels contributed immensely to the study of medieval English through his many publications.

Perhaps most famous is his article “Some applications of Middle English dialectology“, first published in 1963. In it, Professor Samuels outlined four types of written “standards” in late Middle English. The word “standard” here has been problematic and heavily discussed in the linguistic community, but should perhaps be taken with a pinch of salt. (Jeremy Smith introduced a very helpful distinction between a fixed standard and a focused standard. The distinction could perhaps be kept in mind when reading Samuel’s suggested four types, but I won’t get into that now (see the references though).)

Professor Samuels’s contributions to the field of historical linguistics are, without a doubt, substantial, but they may not be as commonly known as other linguistic names, outside the field of historical linguistics itself.

So, when considering the very first Patron Saint of 2020, I felt it is more than appropriate to celebrate the many contributions that Professor Samuels made to the field and, I hope, introduce some of you to a (to you) previously unknown amazing linguist!

Hats off to Professor Samuels,
the first Patron Saint of 2020,
here at the HLC!



Michael Samuels obituary by Christian Kay (15 Dec, 2010)

Michael Samuels at the Historical Thesaurus of English

Michael Samuels in University News, June 2006, University of Glasgow

The Historical Thesaurus of the OED

Samuels, M.L. 1963. Some applications of Middle English dialectology. English Studies. 44: 1-6. 81-94. DOI: 10.1080/00138386308597155

Smith, Jeremy J. 1996. An Historical Study of English: Function, Form, and Change. Routledge. ISBN 9780415132725

Fun Etymology Tuesday – Santa Claus

God jul, dear friends!

Today, I celebrate Christmas with my family in Sweden. But not only is it Christmas (for me), it is our 200th post on the blog!

Isn’t that amazing – when we started this blog about 2½ years ago, there was no telling how this was gonna go, but here we are! With a steadily growing readership, I am very happy to continue to entertain you each week. If there is anything you’re missing on the blog – please let me know!

But, it is not only Christmas Eve and our 200th post: it is also Tuesday, and as always, here is your Fun Etymology!

Today’s word is Santa Claus!

First attested in the New York Gazette as St. A Claus in 1773, this name comes to English (specifically to American English) from the dialectal Dutch Sante Klaas from Middle Dutch Sinter Niklaas.

As you might have guessed, the Dutch word refers to Saint Nicholas. The bishop of Asia Minor during the end of the Roman Empire was named the patron saint of scholars, especially of schoolchildren, and of children generally, following his death.

Image result for saint nicholas
Saint Nicholas

Saint Nicholas is actually still visible in some variations of the Santa suit.

Santa is often associated with the red suit with white fur trimmings, which can be attributed to Thomas Nast. Nast first dressed Santa in a red suit in an 1881 illustration, but the Coca Cola Company, who started its campaign with Santa in a red suit during the 1930s, is often given credit for it. Santa may, however, sometimes be dressed in long robes and a bishop’s mitre – thus calling back to Saint Nicholas.

And that is the story of Santa Claus! He may, of course, be known by other names (Father Christmas is found in English since around 1650), but regardless of the name, I do hope he brings you a merry and joyful Christmas!


Fun Etymology Tuesday – Advent

Ladies and gents! We’re getting close to the Fourth Sunday of Advent!


So, in honour of that, today’s word is Advent!

Meaning the ecclesiastical season immediately preceding Christmas, this word was attested as early as 1119 in English and as early as the 7th or 8th century in Latin so it has certainly been around for a long time!

From Latin adventus, this word means “a coming, approach, arrival”. In Church Latin, though, it has the extended sense of “the coming of the Savior”. The Latin word comes from the past participle stem of Latin advenire, meaning “arrive at, come to” and can be divided into two parts:

ad-, a word-forming element that expresses direction toward something or in addition to something. The Latin word ad – meaning “to, toward” in space or time or “with regard to, in relation to” as a prefix – comes from the PIE root *ad-, meaning “to, near, at”.

ventus, which comes from venire, meaning “to come”. This word comes from a suffixed form of the PIE root *gwa-, meaning “to go, come”.

And that is the history of advent!

Next Tuesday is Christmas Eve, which means that I’ll be celebrating Christmas and have an armful of nephews to play with! But don’t fret, I am ever faithful to my dear followers!

Welcome back next week and learn the etymological origin of
Santa Claus!