"Isn't a Word":

Every so often I run across commenters, on this blog and on others, complaining that something "isn't a word" -- thus, for instance, a few minutes ago a commenter posted, in response to a post that mentioned "copyeditors,"

Uh... "copyeditor" isn't a word.

Uh, check here (which commenter Steve P. promptly did, and promptly posted about). Likewise, a blogger who was unhappy with InstaPundit's reference to "beclowning" asked, "Why are people making up words?" (He later retracted the question; thanks to Tim Blair for the tip.) See also this apparent attempt to deny the wordosity of "childlike."

I don't want to get in to the prescriptivist/descriptivist debate here; for now, can I simply ask that, if people want to claim that something "isn't a word" -- not just is an ugly word, but isn't a word at all -- or that someone is "making up words," they just do a bit of checking? I can understand how someone can miss "beclown," which doesn't show up in onelook, though it's in the less easily available Oxford English Dictionary. But a onelook.com query or a dictionary.com query will quickly find "copyeditor." It just helps to do a little fact-checking lest you -- well, you know.


On the "isn't a word" thread, Sasha points out:

What irks me is how people just make up neologisms rather than use the good traditional words that are perfectly available. Plus, rather than learn proper English, they mangle the language in ways that "simplify" grammar and spelling, and this is drifting into the written language too. They don't even recognize good grammar and spelling and traditional words if they see them written on the page!

In fact, just the other day, when I tried to use perfectly good English, to wit: "Hwæt! Wé Gárdena in géardagum þéodcyninga þrym gefrúnon, hú ðá æþelingas ellen fremedon" -- no one knew what I was talking about!

Damn kids.

Ask Etymology Ethelwulf:

A gentle reader asks, Where the heck does the word "umbrella" come from?

This story takes us on a fascinating etymological odyssey, which only became clear to me when, while reading the Alliterative Morte Arthure today in my medieval reading group at Georgetown Law, I came across the verbs umbeclap and umbelap. (You can find them by searching in Part 2 of the e-text here.) After Sir Berille is killed, Sir Cador "umbeclappes" the corpse (line 1779), meaning "embraces." And, later, in a battle, the King of Libya "umbelappes" some of King Arthur's army (line 1819), meaning "surrounds."

The etymology isn't that difficult: "Umbeclap" begins with the prefix "umbe-" — this is a combination of the prefix "um-" meaning "around" (think of the modern German preposition "um"), and the general-purpose verbal prefix "be-", which is used for a variety of purposes, like intensifying the verb, making it figurative, making an intransitive verb transitive, etc. (consider "become," "befall," "beclown"). And the second component, "clap," is the same as the verb we use to clap our hands, in its less common meaning of "to pat fondly." As for "umbelap," it's the same "umbe-" prefix with "lap," meaning to fold or envelop — this was a term originally used with clothing, so that parts of the garment can "overlap," but acquired a metaphorical sense of surrounding (hence the concept of running "laps" around a racecourse). (All this is in the OED.)

So clearly "umbrella" comes from the Middle English combination of "umb-" with "rella."

To get at the derivation of "rella," we have to look to Latin. In ancient Rome, when you went out in the rain, you would "repluviare" yourself. This is derived from "pluvia" (meaning "rain") and the prefix "re-" (denoting reversal or opposition, like "revocation" or "rebellion" — or "reversal"!). Examples of repluviatio included wearing a hood, or (for the upper classes) having slaves stretch fabric over your head on sticks. (And hence the debates among Catullus scholars over what Catullus actually meant when he wrote "Repluvio te, Lesbia mea" — is he protecting her from rain, or is he using her as his symbolic umbrella?)

When Roman armies invaded Spain in 218 BC — and as Romans colonized the new province — they brought their repluviae with them. Virgil memorably described precipitation in the Iberian lowlands in his collection of love odes De mea pulchra domina: "Pluvia in Hispania praecipue in plano manet." Moreover, when it wasn't raining, the sun shone down pretty hard, so the repluviae doubled as useful parasols.

The Iberians adopted and adapted the repluviae, and in the process the name became Hispanified. As we know, "pl-" words tend to become "ll-" words in Spanish, so "pluvia" becomes "lluvia," "planctus" (the past participle of "plangere," meaning "to lament") becomes "llanto," "planus" (meaning "a plain") becomes "llano," and so on. (You can see the same thing happening with "cl-" in the movement from "clamare" to "llamar.") So, in the outer provinces, repluviare became relluviar.

Of course, not everyone could afford slaves to stretch the fabric over their heads, so in the later Empire, it became more common to actually carry a stick oneself, which would hold the outstretched fabric in place. The main innovation in repluviation technology happened in the fourth century, when a hermit, possibly in the Tyrolean Alps, figured out that you could protect yourself from the elements better if the repluviae (or, as they were now called, relluvias or relluas) stretched their fabric out around your head, not just in a flat surface over your head. With slight modifications having to do with the stability of the curved spokes, this is the same technology we use today.

This innovation quickly caught on. South of the Alps, the technology was called circumrepluviatio, though this bit of technojargon, to put it mildly, didn't pass the test of time. North of the Alps, where weather conditions were quite a bit harsher, the Germanic tribesmen had already been enthusiastic users of "Relluen," and by addition of the transitive prefix "be-", we get the verb "sich berelluen," roughly meaning "to repluviate oneself." As they adopted the "around-the-head" technology, "sich berelluen," through the addition of the "around" suffix "um-", became "sich umberelluen."

Archaeologists still don't know whether the "umberelluen" came over to England in the fifth century, at the time of the Anglo-Saxon invasions, or with the Normans at the time of the Conquest in 1066. (Bede did report that Cædmon wrote a popular hymn called "Dryghten umbrælleþ me," but some commentators think this was scribal error.) But one thing's for sure — better umbrellas than circumrepluviators!

UPDATE: Thanks to a correspondent who reminds me that the "umbe-" prefix is alive and well in other modern English words. To fill someone all around with rage was, in Middle English, to "umberage" him (cf. Chaucer's "This churl me umberageth" from The Haberdasher's Tale), and hence the expression "to take umbrage" at something. However, attempts to link "umbrage" or "umbrella" with the Italian region of Umbria are just pop etymology. And don't even get me started on the "umbra" old wives' tale!

Ask Etymology Ethelwulf, Part 2:

In the comments to the previous Ask Etymology Ethelwulf post, In Which I Gave The True Etymology Of The World "Umbrella," a commenter asked me to explain "agnostic," "helicopter," "amnesia," and "pregnant." I did so in the comments, but who reads the comments anyway? So I thought these new etymologies (with minor alterations) were worth posting in the main text:

"Agnostic" is from "agnus" (lamb) + "stick" — lamb on a stick; this is a derogatory term for unbelievers, dating back to ancient times in the Middle East, similar to the modern derogatory term "cafeteria Catholicism."

No, just joking! That was obviously made up. Actually, the "agnus" part is real, but the second part is from "Stygis," the river Styx of the underworld. Originally the label "agnostic" wasn't applied against members of all religions, but just those who thought that Christianity, with its specific miracles like the Resurrection, was unprovable. Early Christians were horrified by this, not because it was unbelief — that was of course the most common view in ancient times — but because it was the refusal to take a stand on an important spiritual question. Remember how, in Dante's Inferno, there's a special place just outside of Hell reserved for the cowards, rejected by Heaven and not accepted by Hell, who didn't take a stand in life? That has direct roots in the beliefs of the early Christians, who taught that those who neither believed nor disbelieved would be worse than damned — in classical metaphorical terms, stranded at the Styx (i.e., not allowed to cross the Styx into the underworld) — by reason of the lamb of God ("agno-Stygian" or "agnostycus").

"Helicopter" is from "helio-" (sun) + "Copt" — a reference to early Christian writings of the Patristic period (written in Coptic by Church Fathers living in Alexandria, and possibly inspired by ancient Egyptian sources) in which the souls of the dead were depicted traveling up to the sun in machines powered by angel wings ("heliocoptic transfiguration").

"Amnesia" comes from the Latin "amnis" (plural "amnes"), meaning "river." Recall that (while "denial" is not a river in Egypt) forgetfulness, to the ancients, was a river named Lethe; so to forget was to be "taken by the river" ("fluitare secundum amni Lethe"), and "amnesia" was just the abstract-noun form of that concept.

"Pregnant" is from "precor" (the Latin verb "to entreat, pray for, wish for," hence the Italian expression "prego!" and our modern word "prayer") + "nans, nantis" (the present participle of the Latin verb "no, nare," meaning "to swim"). This isn't too hard to understand — any expectant parents wish that their child will be born, and the traditional metaphor for birth was swimming (Ausschwimmung in the archaic Germanic sources).

You can check out the comments to the original post, where I also explain the etymology of the word "Shhhh."

Everything old is new again:

Emily Yoffe writes in Slate of the experience of being fiftysomething and joining Facebook. She writes: "I provided a photograph and minimal information for my profile . . . and waited for the 'friending' to begin. (You can try to resist, but friend is now a verb.)"

I did once try to resist, but then, in the early 13th century, the Guide for Anchoresses said: "Make no purses, for to friend yourself therewith." Then, around 1387, Thomas Usk wrote, in the last sentences of his Testament of Love: "Charity is love, and love is charity. God grant us all therein to be friended." Then, around 1425, Wyntoun wrote in his Chronicles: "And after soon friended were the King David of Scotland and Stephen, king then of England." In 1562, John Heywood wrote, in his Proverbs and Epigrams: "Friend they any, that flatter many?" In the late 16th century, Rollock wrote in a sermon: "Thou shall never get regeneration before God be friended with thee: thou is his enemy, thou must be friended with him."

At first I was all "Who's ever heard of these clowns anyway?" But then, in 1599, Shakespeare wrote, in Henry V: "Disorder, that hath spoil'd us, friend us now!"

It just kept coming: In 1600, Philemon Holland wrote, in his translation of Livy: "They had undertaken the warre upon king Philip, because he had friended and aided the Carthaginians." In 1622, Michael Drayton wrote in the Poly-Olbion: "But friended with the flood the barons hold their strength." In 1676, William Row wrote: "Reports came that the King would friend Lauderdale." In 1721, Thomas Southerne wrote in The Spartan Dame: "There the street is narrow, and may friend our purpose well."

Finally, in the Victorian period (1867), I read Matthew Arnold's St. Brandan: "That germ of kindness, in the womb / Of mercy caught, did not expire; / Outlives my guilt, outlives my doom, / And friends me in the pit of fire."

Yes, Emily, you can try to resist, but "friend" is now a verb. I stopped trying a couple hundred years ago.