Wednesday, February 28, 2007

ILfDT: Norn

Congratulations! You're reading the first entry in the weekly series I Live for Dead Tongues where I take a look at the languages that have long since shuffled off this mortal coil. Today we're looking at Norn which is not only dead but one of my favorite words...Norn. Norn!

Language family: Indo-European, Germanic, North Germanic, West Scandinavian
Where it was spoken: Shetland, Orkney, Caithness

When did it die: by the 18th c. (possibly early 19th c.)
What did it in: "Norn is an extinct North Germanic language that was spoken on Shetland and Orkney, off the north coast of mainland Scotland, and in Caithness. After the islands were returned to Scotland by Norway in the 15th century, its use was discouraged by the Scottish government and the Church of Scotland (the national church), and it was gradually replaced by Scots over time."

Living linguistic relatives: "Norn is generally considered to have been fairly similar to Faroese, sharing many phonological and grammatical traits with this language, and might even have been mutually intelligible with it."
Influence on English: "Fragments of the language and loan-words adopted into the local Lowland Scots and Scottish English survived the death of the main language and remain to this day."

Old Norse Language Map [Wikipedia]

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:: posted by David, 8:01 AM | link | 0 comments |

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

The Daily Hump: Of Kilts, Tartans and Tartars*

Kilt first makes an appearance in the English language as a type of tartaned skirt in the early 18th c. Our noun actually came from a now little-used verb form meaning "to tuck up." This word came to us via the Middle English kilten, meaning "to tuck up" (is "to tuck up" a Britishism for "to tuck in"? Anyone? Bueller?) Going back further kilt seems to be from a Scandinavian source as witnessed by the Old Norse kilting and kjalta meaning skirt or lap.

The word tartan likely comes to us via the Middle French tiretaine which referred to a "strong, coarse fabric." This can be traced back to Old French and then to the Medieval Latin tyrius meaning "cloth from Tyre." It's also possible the word was influenced by the Middle English tartaryn, also a type of cloth, which comes from Old French but is ultimately rooted in the word Tartar.

And speaking of Tartars, the tartar on your teeth is from the Greek tartaron which referred to the gunk settled to the side of casks. The Greek term is believed to be of Arabic origin unlike the proper noun Tartar which is said to be from Tata, a name the Mongols gave themselves, with some spicy influence from the Latin Tartarus, aka hell.

kilt [OED]
kilt [Online Etymology Dictionary]
tartar [OED]
Tartar [OED]
tartan [OED]
tartan [AHD]
Tartar [Online Etymology Dictionary]

*The Daily Hump is not really daily anymore--it'll now only be published on Tuesdays and Thursdays, so it really should be The Semiweekly Hump, but that name is dumb and plus I'd have to eat those rebranding costs, etc...thus, The Daily Hump it is. That being said, daily or not, there is still a new WordHumper post every weekday and thus you always have a good reason to come back now, y'hear?

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:: posted by David, 8:01 AM | link | 0 comments |

Monday, February 26, 2007

TWiEL: Wymysorys

You're familiar with the quasi-weekly Hump This and of course you know The Daily Hump, that weekday feature that's been more regular than a sixty-five year old full of prune juice. Well, this week I'm happy to introduce two new features: Mondays' This Week in Endangered Languages (TWiEL) and Wednesdays' I Live for Dead Tongues (ILfDT).

Endangered languages make me sad. Like endangered animals they're just steps away from disappearing from this earth forever. As Wikipedia notes
While there are somewhere around six or seven thousand languages on Earth today, about half of them have fewer than about 3,000 speakers. Experts predict that even in a good scenario, about half of today's languages will go extinct within the next fifty to one hundred years.
Sure, unlike extinct animals, we can occassionally resurrect an extinct language but it hasn't happened to often (Wikipedia shows only 13 examples). Some people even argue that language extinction is good
...fewer languages means better and clearer communications among the majority of speakers. The economic cost of maintaining myriad separate languages, and their translator caretakers, is enormous.
Humbug. Languages are invaluable; they are unique and hold within their grammar, lexicon and oral traditions thousands of clues about the identities of the speakers and how they live. To delete a language is to permanently destroy windows into these cultures. This line of thinking condones abuse of the minority by the majority and is nothing more than a form of cultural whitewashing.

TWiEL will be relying a lot on Wikipedia's List of endangered languages so I'll be using their definition for determining whether a language is endangered: it must have less than 1,000 speakers and be in rapid decline. I maintain this column as an appreciation for the shrinking universe which these languages describe. Today we're going to start with the waning Wymysorys.

Language family: Indo-European, Germanic, West Germanic, High German
Writing system: Latin alphabet

Where you'll hear it: Wilamowice, Poland

The origins: "Wymysorys appears to derive from 12th century Middle High German, with a strong influence from Low German, Dutch, Frisian, Polish and Old English. The inhabitants of Wilamowice are thought to be descendants of Dutch, German and Scottish settlers who arrived in Poland in the 13th century. However, the inhabitants of Wilamowice always refused any connections with Germany and proclaimed their Dutch origins."
Famous speakers: poet Florian Biesik

The beginning of the end: "After World War II, local communist authorities forbade the use of the language. Despite the fact that the ban was lifted after 1956, Wymysorys has been gradually replaced by Polish, especially amongst the younger generations."
And today: 70 speakers

Śłöf duy buwła fest!
Skumma frmdy gest,
Skumma muma ana fettyn,
Z' brennia nysła ana epułn,
Śłöf duy Jasiu fest!

Sleep, my boy, soundly!
Foreign guests are coming,
Aunts and uncles are coming,
Bringing nuts and apples,
Sleep Johnny sound

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:: posted by David, 8:03 AM | link | 4 comments |

Friday, February 23, 2007

The Daily Hump: Pate

Every once in awhile I stumble upon a word I've never heard before but really probably should know. Yesterday, while reading At Goldman, bald pate == big bucks I stopped and thought "Pate? Is that a typo? And if so, what should the word be?" Of course, it turns out pate is not a typo--it's a real word referring to the top of one's head and is believed to be a shortened form of the Old French patene which comes from the Medieval Latin patena, ultimately from the Latin patina meaning "pan, dish."

You loyal WordHumper readers will likely remember that we've seen pantina before, in regards to the knee; patina is the root for the kneecap's scientific name patella.

pate (1) [Online Etymology Dictionary]

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:: posted by David, 4:01 PM | link | 1 comments |

Thursday, February 22, 2007

The Daily Hump: Darn!

Today I was wondering; does the lame exclamation darn have anything to do with mending socks? Answer: no.

Darn, in the quasi-curse sense, is an American creation that was said to have originated in Puritanical New England where it was a punishable offense to say the word damn. It's thought that darn was likely influenced by 'tarnal (supposedly a favorite exclamation of Andrew Jackson), which is short for eternal, as in By the Eternal.

Darn, in the mending sense, is likely from the Middle French darner, meaning "to mend." This goes back to the Breton "piece, fragment, part," which ultimately traces back to the Proto-Indo-European root *der-, meaning "tear" (as in "rip"). And *der- also happens to be the root for our word tear, which came to modern English via Proto-Germanic then Old English.

darn [Online Etymology Dictionary]
tear (v) [Online Etymology Dictionary]

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:: posted by David, 8:03 AM | link | 1 comments |

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

The Daily Hump: Pith Helmets and Pythons

The pith helmet is often associated with the British Empire; we imagine the English gentry, soon to be dead from cholera, tramping through the tropical jungle while shaded by hats made from the dried pith of the Bengal spongewood. Pith is from the Old English piþa and like its modern counterpart referred to the core of a plant or, more generally, the essential part (thus our word pithy). Ultimately, piþa is from the West Germanic root *pithan-, which is also the source of our word pit, as in a hard seed or kernel.

And, no, *pithan- is not related to python, which is a Greek word named after the fabled serpent slain by Apollo near Delphi. Delphi's original name was Pytho, so named (possibly) because this is where the serpent rotted (the Greek verb meaning "to rot" is pythein). Per the OED
According to one form of the [Python] legend, the oracle originally belonged to or was guarded by the serpent, and, on the extermination of the latter, became the oracle of Apollo.
pith [Online Etymology Dictionary]
pith helmet [Wikipedia]
West Germanic languages [Wikipedia]
python [OED]
python [Online Etymology Dictionary]
Python [Wikipedia]

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:: posted by David, 8:01 AM | link | 2 comments |

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

The Daily Hump: Torpedo

The Latin word torpedo, coming from the verb torpere, meaning "to be numbed," entered the English language in the 16th c. as a name for the electric ray, so called for its ability to shock. The weaponized version of the torpedo was invented by Robert Fulton for use with his Nautilus submarine; but rather than a self-propelled underwater missile, these torpedoes were stationary mines that floated in the water (these are what Union naval officer David Farragut was referring to when he apocryphally exclaimed "Damn the torpedoes!"). It wasn't until World War I that our modern concept of the torpedo came into fruition. Related, we find the word torpor, meaning a lethargic state.

The Latin torpere can be traced back to the Proto-Indo-European root *ster-, meaning stiff, and is the source of our word sterile (which originally had the sense of rigidity--kind of funny).

torpedo [Online Etymology Dictionary]
torpor [Online Etymology Dictionary]
sterile [Online Etymology Dictionary]
torpedo [OED]
torpedo [Wikipedia]
electric ray [Wikipedia]

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:: posted by David, 9:03 AM | link | 0 comments |

Friday, February 16, 2007

The Daily Hump: Umpteenth

"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean -- neither more nor less."
I've recently been rereading Through the Looking Glass and this quote in particular got me thinking, not so much of its deeper meaning but rather the name Humpty, and by association, umpty. No, Humpty and umpty are not related but umpty is the root of our word umpteenth. In Morse code umpty is the slang term for the dash. In military slang this somehow also came to mean an indefinite number, usually large. Analagously, a dot is referred to as an iddy, thus the OED defines a strange-looking term iddy-umpty as a "conventional verbal representation...of Morse code."

Interestingly, Humpty Dumpty did not begin life as an egg. Rather it's an alcoholic drink we find in the later 17th c. made from ale boiled with brandy. But perhaps it's Digital Underground who best sums up the relationship between Humpty and umpty:
My name is Humpty, pronounced with a Umpty. Yo ladies, oh how I like to hump thee...The Humpty Dance is your chance to do the hump

Humpty Dumpty [Online Etymology Dictionary]
umpty [Online Etymology Dictionary]
umpteenth [AHD]
The Humpty Dance []


:: posted by David, 8:23 AM | link | 0 comments |

Thursday, February 15, 2007

The Daily Hump: Henge

I used the word henge yesterday to describe the structure of books I erected (heh) on my desk. One of my coworkers looked at me quizzically, obviously not understanding what I meant. When disambiguated from its usual primary element, stone-, I suppose henge looks pretty odd.

As I began my research I started to doubt whether henge is really a word; for one, it's not in the American Heritage Dictionary. The oft-cribbed (by me) Online Etymology Dictionary simply states henge, from 1740, is noted as a Yorkshire term for Stonehenge-like structures. I needed more hump fodder than that. Finally, the site English Heritage came through defining henge as
...a roughly circular or oval-shaped flat area over 20m in diameter which is enclosed and delimited by a boundary earthwork that usually comprises a ditch with an external bank. Access to the interior is obtained by way of one, two, or four entrances through the earthwork. Internal components may include portal settings, timber circles, post rings, stone circles, four-stone settings, monoliths, standing posts, pits, coves, post alignments, stone alignments, burials, central mounds, and stakeholes.
Ah, but what of the etymology? Thankfully we have the OED, which defines henge as "In particular reference to the name Stonehenge; something 'hanging' or in suspense." Notice the OED puts hanging in quotes; that's because henge, first coined with the use of the name Stonehenge in the 12th c., likely comes from the same Old English root as our modern word hang.

henge [Wikipedia]

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:: posted by David, 8:01 AM | link | 0 comments |

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

The Daily Hump: Where's Valentinius?

Humping and Valentine's Day go together like wine and stinky cheese: Accoding to the Catholic Encyclopedia, via Wikipedia,
...the saint whose feast was celebrated on the day now known as St. Valentine's Day was possibly one of three martyred men named Valentinus who lived in the late third century...The name was a popular one in Late Antiquity, with its connotations of valens, "being strong". Several emperors and a pope bore the name, not to mention a powerful gnostic teacher of the second century, Valentinius, for a time drawing a threateningly large following.
You (al)chemists in the crowd probably noticed that valens looks a lot like valence, as in the electronic shell that encases an atom. Valence electrons are the negatively-charged particles that orbit in this shell; the more of these (max 8), the less likely the atom will react with anything.

Another form of valens, valere (be strong), is the root of our word valiant. These words all come from Proto-Indo-European base *wal-, likewise meaning "be strong," which happens to also be the roots of the Germanic names Walter and Waldo.

Saint Valentine [Wikipedia]
valence electrons [Wikipedia]
Valentine [Online Etymology Dictionary]
valence [Online Etymology Dictionary]
valiant [Online Etymology Dictionary]
Waldo and Walter [Behind the Name]

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:: posted by David, 8:04 AM | link | 2 comments |

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

The Daily Hump: (Sea) Hag

As the title of this post suggests my particular interest in hags is with the sea variety. Anyone who has ever watched a Popeye cartoon is familiar with the Sea Hag; she's the tall witchy woman with a vulture for a familiar who suffers an unrequited crush on the our favorite roid-raged sailor. It's kind of pathetic, really. But I experienced no such empathy as a child; I just thought the Sea Hag was creepy and awesome in the way only nautical rapscallions can be (evidence: a, b and c).

Hag is a shortened form of the Old English hægtesse meaning "witch, fury." The word can be traced further back to the Proto-Germanic *hagatusjon-. The Middle Dutch cognate, haghetisse, was also shorted to form the German Hexe, meaning "witch;" and it's via the Amish we got our English hex. Now, here's where things get crazy:
[Hag's first] element is probably cognate with [Old English] haga "enclosure" [which is related to our modern hedge]...Or second element may be connected with [Norwegian} tysja "fairy, crippled woman"...from PIE *dhewes- "to fly about, smoke, be scattered, vanish."...Haga is also the haw- in hawthorn, which is a central plant in northern European pagan religion. There may be several layers of folk-etymology here. If the hægtesse was once a powerful supernatural woman..., it may have originally carried the hawthorn sense. Later, when the pagan magic was reduced to local scatterings, it might have had the sense of "hedge-rider," or "she who straddles the hedge," because the hedge was the boundary between the "civilized" world of the village and the wild world beyond. The hægtesse would have a foot in each reality...
Sea hag [TV Acres]
hag [Online Etymology Dictionary]
hex [Online Etymology Dictionary]
Häxan []
The Dreams in the Witch House [Wikipedia]

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:: posted by David, 8:01 AM | link | 0 comments |

Monday, February 12, 2007

The Daily Hump: Scythe

You may notice the humps this week are shorter; I've got a lot of work to do. Now that that's out of the way today we're going to (very gingerly) hump the scythe: whether reaping barley or souls it's the go-to tool. First things first, however; that initial sc- that we've come to know and love didn't show up until around the 15th c., likely influenced by the Latin verb scindere (to cut: think scissors). Before this time the we had the Middle English sithe and before that the Old English sigði. We can trace the word further back to the Proto-Germanic *segithoz and the Proto-Indo-European base *sek-, meaning "cut".

The base *sek- also happens to be the root of our modern words section, a "cutting off or division," and scythe's close relative, sickle.

scythe [Online Etymology Dictionary]
scythe [OED]
sickle [Online Etymology Dictionary]

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:: posted by David, 8:32 AM | link | 0 comments |

Friday, February 09, 2007

The Daily Hump: Venison

In yesterday's hump commenter Auntie Sarah pondered why the meat that we eat doesn't often share a name with the animal that it came from: examples being cow-->beef, pig-->pork and deer-->venison. Beef and pork are direct decendants of the Latin names for these animals, so the name change does not reflect another instance of the hunting taboo described in the last post. Venison is a bit more interesting, however.

Venison, too, comes from Latin, but does not follow the beef/pork pattern because venison's root had nothing to do with deer. Rather, venison is from the past participle of the Latin verb venari, meaning to hunt or pursue. When English first took the word from the Old French back at the end of the 13th c., venison actual referred to the flesh of any animal killed in a hunt. It's only in later centuries that the definition became restricted to deer meat.

The Latin venari is likely from the Proto-Indo-European base *wen-, which has been translated as "to strive after, wish, desire, be satisfied." This also happens to form the base for that goddess on a mountain top burning like a silver flame, on the summit of beauty and love; I believe Venus was her name.

Shocking Blue [Wikipedia]
venison [Online Etymology Dictionary]
Venus [Online Etymology Dictionary]
venison [AHD]
venison [OED]

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:: posted by David, 8:55 AM | link | 1 comments |

Thursday, February 08, 2007

The Daily Hump: Bears

Yesterday we discovered that the Arctic is named after the Greek root for bear, arktikos. Today we're going to look at the word bear itself and why the English and Latin are so incredibly unrelated.

Our word bear comes from the Old English bera. This comes from the reconstructed Proto-Germanic *beron, meaning "the brown one" (think bruin). Apparently, a large chunk of the northern branches (the Germanic, Baltic, Celtic and Slavic branches) of our linguistic ancestors had a taboo associated with the names of wild animals being hunted and either deformed or replaced the PIE term. As Wikipedia notes examples include
...the Irish word for "bear" translated means "the good calf", in Welsh it translates as "honey-pig", in Lithuanian it means "the licker" and Russian "медведь" literally means "one who leads to honey".
As my Persian teacher explained to me yesterday this substitution also occurs in many of the languages of northern Central Asia, in lands once populated by the Scythians. Given the Slavs' propinquity to Scythia it's not surprising that the Russians would also adopt this taboo as we see in the above Wikipedia quote. (Interestingly, Scythia was the first state north of the Black Sea to collapse to the Goths in the 2nd c. CE, but more on the Goths later.)

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:: posted by David, 9:09 AM | link | 2 comments |

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

The Daily Hump: Arctic

For you non-New Yorkers in the crowd, we're in the midst of a pretty nasty cold snap. Perhaps this is why I've spent the week so far humping reindeer and narwhals. Well, it's still freezing here, so why ruin a good pattern? Today we're going to look at the Arctic and hump the whole damn thing.

I've travelled beyond the Arctic Circle; it's an incredible place and I highly recommend it. Unfortunately, I didn't see any polar bears and that's a real etymological disappointment. See, Arctic comes from Latin arcticus, which comes from the Greek arktikos, meaning "of the bear." Bears? Yes. The Greeks were referring to the constellation Ursa Major which sits in the north. The Greek arktikos recalls the Proto-Indo-European root *rtko, which we also come upon in the Welsh word for bear, arth; this is a probable source for the name Arthur.

Interestingly, in Middle English the word was not Arctic, but rather Artic. This is because in Medieval Latin that first c sound ceased to be pronounced so the Old French, the source of the Middle English, dropped the letter completely. The c was restored in 1601 after the word was refashioned to adhere to the original Latin spelling.

Not surprisingly Antarctic comes from anti + Arctic; that is, "the opposite of the Arctic." And no, despite my graphic there are no polar bears in the southern hemisphere...I was simply trying to draw a connection between the word Arctic and bears. Nevermind. My genius is wasted on you.

arctic [AHD]
Arctic [Online Etymology Dictionary]
Antarctic [Online Etymology Dictionary]
Arctic [OED]
Arthur [Behind the Name]
Ursa Major [Wikipedia]

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:: posted by David, 8:37 AM | link | 0 comments |

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

The Daily Hump: Narwhal

Yesterday we humped reindeer and today we're going to hump another animal with an affinity for the cold, the arctic narwhal. The narwhal is a type of whale most notable for the extremely long tusk that juts from the left jaw of the male. These tusks can grow up to 10 feet long which is pretty impressive when you consider the whale itself is no longer than 16 feet.

In Inuit legend the narwhal was created when a woman holding onto a harpoon was dragged into the sea by a beluga and became twisted upon the weapon. In Medieval folklore many Europeans equated the narwhal tusk to the unicorn horn. Vikings and other northern traders sold the tusks for large sums of gold as cups fashioned from the ivory were believed to negate the effect of any poison which they held inside.

The word narwhal comes to us from the Danish and Norwegian narhval, which itself is from the Old Norse nāhvalr. It is generally assumed that the Old Norse name is derived from nār, corpse (from its whitish color) + hvalr, whale, although this is not known for sure. Another suggestion is that the narwhal was named "the corpse whale" for its ability to lie belly up and motionless for a few minutes at a time. Or, alternatively, nā- could be short for the Old Norse nál, meaning needle, an obvious reference to the male's tusk.

Here's a fun bit of mental masturbation: If we assume the first element nā- is from nār (corpse) this is a cognate with the Old English ne, neo, which is an element associated with things that are dead. Examples in Old English include neobedd (death bed), the root of our modern word need (surprisingly enough) and orcneas (evil spirits); orcneas is the likely source of our word orc and shares a Latin root with orca, another species of whale.

narwhal [Wikipedia]
narwhal [AHD]
narwhal [Online Etymology Dictionary]
narwhal [OED]
orca [Online Etymology Dictionary]
need [OED]
orc [OED]
orc [Online Etymology Dictionary]

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:: posted by David, 8:12 AM | link | 0 comments |

Monday, February 05, 2007

The Daily Hump: Reindeer

Loyal WH readers undoubtedly noticed there was no post on Friday. This is because I was spending a relaxing vacation up in southern Vermont where the gf and I made a brief excursion to visit some reindeer. Apparently unbeknownst to some people, reindeer are not fictional animals--they're quite real--and quite adorable as this video demonstrates.
The question is, of course, what does rein- mean? The word reindeer is from the Old Norse hreindyri where dyr means "animal" and hreinn refers to the type of animal. Per the Online Etymology Dictionary, this first element is from the Proto-Germanic *khrainaz and not rennen (to run) as folk etymology often associates it. The Online Etymology Dictionary doesn't define *khrainaz specifically, however it does point to similarities with the Old English hran, meaning "reindeer", and the German renn. As well, it suggests a cognate with the Greek krios, meaning "ram".

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:: posted by David, 9:09 AM | link | 0 comments |

Thursday, February 01, 2007

The Daily Hump: Anger

I'm worried that some of my more loyal WH readers read into the words I choose to hump. Sometimes this is okay, but you shouldn't make a habit of it; case in point, today's word, anger. I'm not angry, mildly frustrated maybe, but not angry.

But before we begin I need to get something off my chest. In elementary school I remember being told that there are three words in the English language that end in -gry. Two of them are angry and hungry; what's the third? Well, praise be unto thy Internet, as the Online Etymology Dictionary reports
...there is no third (except some extremely obscure ones). Richard Lederer calls this "one of the most outrageous and time-wasting linguistic hoaxes in our nation's history" and traces it to a New York TV quiz show from early 1975.
It's stupid questions like that that make me angry. Anyway, we trace our anger back to Middle English. Their anger, in turn, came from Old Norse (which is not surprising since I'm sure the Vikings made a lot of people angry). In Old Norse angr referred to strife or trouble and was from the root word ang which also meant "troubled" but could also mean "strait" or "narrow." We can trace this word even further back to the Proto-Germanic *angus, meaning "narrow" or "painful" and to the Proto-Indo-European *angh- meaning "tight" or "painful."

We have a word agnail which is originally from Middle English and refers to a corn on your foot. This is from the Old English angnægl which is nothing more than a compound: ang- + nægl. In this word ang- has the sense of painful and nægl translates to "nail;" hence, our word hangnail, a painful nail.

PS. I'm on vacation tomorrow, so no hump for you. Happy Groundhog Day!

hangnail [AHD]
agnail [AHD]
anger [Online Etymology Dictionary]
agnail [OED]
anger [OED]

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:: posted by David, 8:41 AM | link | 1 comments |