Glossed in Translation

This week’s video is about the development of a country name that also became a common noun, “Japan”:

This video originates in the fact that the English name Japan appears to be an unrelated exonym to the native name Nippon, when actually they come from the same Chinese origin. By the way, the name is sometimes more fully given as Nippon-koku meaning “the State of Japan”, and this might be reflected in some of the early versions of the name in Europe such as Marco Polo’s Chipangu. There are conflicting stories as to who first started to use the phrase meaning “sun’s origin” to refer to the region. According the the American Heritage Dictionary, it was Japanese scholars who had studied Chinese who began to use the phrase around 670 CE (during the Tang Dynasty). Alternatively, Henry Dyer reports (see sources on the show notes page) that in 607 (during the Chinese Sui dynasty) the Emperor of Japan is supposed to have sent a letter to the Court of China with the greeting “A letter from the sovereign of the Sun-rise country to the sovereign of the Sun-set country”. However, another story claims that it was the Chinese Empress Wu Zetian of the later Tang dynasty who ordered the change of name. Of course the sun is an important cultural symbol in Japan, and one of the most important deities in Shinto religion and Japanese mythology is the sun goddess Amaterasu. The Emperors of Japan were held to be descended from her.

The European aruquebus first arrived in Japan in the hands of the Portuguese aboard a Chinese ship which came ashore on the island of Tanegashima in 1543. After a demonstration of duck shooting, the Lord of the island purchased the guns at great expense, and after a few initial technical hiccups, they started manufacturing and even improving on them. The European guns arrived in Japan during a time of civil wars called the Sengoku period from around 1467 to 1603, which ended with the Tokugawa shogunate and the ensuing Edo period, a time not only of isolationism but relative peace, and much has been made of the fact that the Japanese henceforth gave up firearms and returned to the sword, so that when in 1854 Commodore Matthew Perry led the US fleet to forcibly reopen Japan to relations and trade, they seemed to have little knowledge of firearms. You can read about this story in detail in Noel Perin’s Giving up the Gun: Japan’s Reversion to the Sword, 1543-1879, or have a look at Jabzy’s excellent on-the-scene videos about Europeans in Japan and Guns in Japan. Of the Japanese improvements to the Portuguese arquebus, Perrin writes: “They developed a serial firing technique to speed up the flow of the bullets. They increased the caliber of the guns to increase each bullet’s effectiveness, and they ordered waterproof lacquered cases to carry the matchlocks and gunpowder in … Japanese gunmakers were busy refining the comparatively crude Portuguese firing mechanism — developing, for example, a helical main spring and an adjustable trigger-pull. They also devised a gun accessory — unknown, so far as I am aware, in Europe — which enabled a matchlock to be fired in the rain.”

Now there were a number of etymologies I didn’t have time to include in the video, but the words for the various goods that led the Europeans to Asia are quite interesting and instructive. First the word "lacquer", one of the main focusses of the video, which comes not from Japanese or Chinese but ultimately from the Indian language Sanskrit word lākṣā referring to a red dye (not black, you note), which becomes Hindi lākh, then Persian lāk, which becomes lacre in Portuguese, Spanish, and French to refer to a kind of sealing wax, before moving into English as "lacquer". The source and meaning of the word is somewhat debated. It might be a variant of Sanskrit rahk and thus come from a Proto-Indo-European root meaning “colour, dye”. Or it might come from Sanskrit laksha meaning “salmon” (and thus be related to English "lox") in reference to its colour. But I think my favourite explanation is that the Sanskrit word means literally “one hundred thousand” in reference to the large numbers of insects that are needed to produce the lac. Called lac insects, they infest a tree in large numbers and secrete a resinous pigment which is then harvested and processed to produce shellac — yes that’s where that word comes from, because the lac flakes are kind of shell-like in appearance.

Shellac also used to be used to make gramophone records and some kinds of hard candies (so beware, vegans, as they contain animal products). Shellac is a calque or loan translation of the French laque en écailles. And the slang term "to shellac" as in “to beat soundly” probably comes from the idea of “to finish (off)”. And on the subject of slang terms, "to be japanned" also has a slang sense, to be ordained into the church, in reference to the black coat of the clergy, reminiscent of the black finish on that japanned furniture.

Silk was another draw to Asia, along what is referred to as the silk road, an over-land trade route. Early on it carried silks from China to ancient Greece, and that’s a clue to the etymology of the word “silk”. Old English seolc comes from Latin sericus, from Greek σηρικός ‎(sērikós). Serikos is the adjective form of Seres, the Greek name for the people from whom the goods came from, presumably a group in China, and it has been suggested that the word might come from the Chinese word si meaning “silk”, in Manchurian sirghe and Mongolian sirkek, so from the trade good, to the name of a people, and back to the name of the trade good again, in an interesting parallel to the progress of Japan to japanning.

“Porcelain” has perhaps the most surprising etymology. It comes from Latin porcella “young sow”, the feminine diminutive form of porcus meaning “pig”, thus related to our modern English word "pork". The Italian porcellana was also used to refer to a kind of cowrie shell, probably because of its resemblance to a female pig’s genitalia. Yes, really. And the shiny finish of porcelain was reminiscent of the shiny shells, hence the name was transferred over. So think about that the next time you eat pork off of some fine porcelain!

And finally “spice”, which comes from Latin species meaning “kind, sort” and originally “appearance” as it comes from a Latin root specio “to see” from a Proto-Indo-European root *spek- “to observe” which gives us a large number of modern English derivatives, like "species", "spy", and "special". In the plural, Latin species went from meaning “kind, sort” to “goods, wares”, probably from the sense of a particular kind of merchandise, and eventually narrowed in meaning further still to the word “spice” as we know it today, perhaps an indication that it was the most particularly important trade good. Indeed the extreme value of spices from Asia would certainly support this. And contrary to popular myth, during the middle ages they never used spices to hide the taste of rotten meat. Spices were far too expensive to waste in that way and it probably wouldn’t work anyway. To coin a phrase, even a hundred thousand special trade goods can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s… well.

Don't have a cow with beef & don't have a beef with cow

In this week's video I have a look at the words "beef" and "cow":

This video was inspired by the standard example that everyone (myself included) uses to show how the Norman Conquest affected the history of the English language (watch this excellent summary of the history of English from The Ling Space). I often trot out these pairs of words, cow/beef, sheep/mutton, etc., when explaining the history of English literature during the middle ages. This reflects not only historical linguistics, but also another branch of linguistics called sociolinguistics, specifically how languages from two different groups (in this case with two very different levels of prestige and status) interact. What often happens in these instances of language contact between unbalanced groups is that a simplified language called a pidgin develops, to allow for communication between the two groups, which takes the structure from the lower-prestige language but imports much of its vocabulary from the higher-prestige language. The word "pidgin" itself probably has nothing to do with the similar sounding bird "pigeon" (unless it's a metaphorical reference to the brief messages carried by messenger pigeons, as has been suggested). Instead it's derived from the word "business" in the phrase "business English" which was used in the pidgin that developed from English and Chinese to allow those two groups to communicate for the purposes of commerce. If a pidgin language becomes the native language of a new generation of speakers, it develops a more complex structure and we call it a creole, and has the properties of any other fully formed language. Jamaican creole is a famous example of this process. This is what happened with the Old English spoken by the Anglo-Saxons and the Norman French of William the Conqueror and his fellow Normans. Initially a pidgin would have developed, which eventually became the creole that is Middle English and the Modern English we speak today. So a lot of French vocabulary came into English, leaving us in this case with these English-French pairs of words which reflect the social realities of life in England about a thousand years ago. The interesting twist here, of course, is that in the case of cow and beef, if you go back far enough all the way to Proto-Indo-European, the two words actually come from the same root, and that long history of the word inspired me to write what is essentially a story about war and conflict.

Since I've promised to point out in these blog posts some of the recurring nodes and connections that come up often in the videos, I'll draw attention to the Crimean War, which plays a more central role in my earlier video A Detective Story ( or click here for the specific reference in the video). A few other points to call attention to: Bulwer-Lytton was a wonderfully colourful figure, as his Wikipedia biography attests to. Have a look here and here for some more entertaining bits of trivia about him. According to the Wikipedia, Bovril is particularly associated with British football culture, since thermoses of the hot drink are a good way to keep warm while sitting in the stands watching a match, though apparently thermoses of Bovril are banned in Scotland due to their potential use as projectiles -- another link in the war and conflict associations with the word "beef"? And of course the Beefeaters, guards of the Tower of London who were apparently unusually well fed,  have become an icon of Britain as well, and it has been pointed out (see here and here for instance) that there is a similarity between the word "beefeater" and the Old English term hlaf-æta meaning "loaf-eater", which is an interesting parallel with the Old English hlaford or "loaf-warden" leading to our modern word "lord", which I discussed in my last video on the word "loaf". With videos on the words "loaf" and "beef", you can now make an etymological sandwich. You're welcome!

So I'll leave you with one last related etymology that I didn't use in the video. The Proto-Indo-European root that leads to beef and cow also leads to Greek βούς (or bous), which also means "cow". This is the first element in the compound boutyron which means literally "cow-cheese" and give English the word "butter". Butter is, of course, the first element of the word "butterfly". But why is a butterfly called a butterfly? It's been suggested that it comes from a folk belief that the insects or witches who have taken on the form of butterflies like to steal butter, which might also be supported by the German word for butterfly, milchdieb, which literally means "milk-thief". Or it might come from the supposed similarity in appearance between butter and the excrement of butterflies, a theory perhaps bolstered by the Dutch word for butterfly, boterschijte, which means literally (ahem) "butter-shit". And so I'll leave you with that appetizing thought!

Using My Loaf

After a month off, it's back to posting new videos, and this week's word is "loaf":

This video is one of the earlier ones I made, but for various scheduling reasons I haven't released it until now. As a result, the structure and pacing of this one is a bit different from the style I'm settling into now, and my apologies if the pace is a bit too quick -- you can have a look at the transcript if anything went by too quickly to pick up on. This video was inspired by my teaching of Anglo-Saxon literature and explanation of the comitatus society that lies behind early Germanic culture, and of course the key point is the etymological connection with the words lord and lady. As I keep putting out more and more of these videos, the connections between the videos will inevitably pop up more and more often, so I'll try to point out some the interesting ones. Both this video and the Yule episode mention the 1815 eruption of Mt Tambora which led the Year Without a Summer in 1816, and both videos mention the Old English poem Beowulf and the Roman writer Tacitus, an important source on early Germanic culture.

"Loaf" and as it turns out "bread" are examples of words that have become more restricted in their meanings over time. "Loaf" used to be a general word for bread, and "bread" could refer to morsels of any food. Another example of this is the verb "starve", which in Old English meant simply "to die" and only later narrowed to mean "to die due to lack of food". In linguistics this type of change in meaning is referred to as "narrowing". Another similar example of this is the word "meat", which in Old English meant "piece of food" or simply "food", but now refers mainly to food that is the flesh of an animal. Interestingly, it either comes from a the Proto-Indo-European root *mad- meaning "wet, to drip", referring perhaps to "fat", or it comes from the Proto-Indo-European root *met- meaning "to measure" and gives us not only the word "measure" but also "meter" and "meal", in the sense of food measured out into portions. So perhaps "bread", "meat", and "meal" all reflect the communal action of sharing food. Oh, and the word "mate" comes from "meat", so a mate is someone you share food with, much like the word "companion" that I mention in the video. I guess that's why go out on a romantic date you often have a meal together! Well, if all this discussion of loaves, bread, meat, and meals is making you hungry, make sure you don't starve!

If it's occurred to you to wonder about the other meaning of the word "loaf", in the sense "to laze about, be idle", it's not related to the bread word. Instead, it seems to be a backformation from the word "loafer". Though there's some disagreement as to where "loafer" comes from, one suggestion is that it's an Anglicization of German landläufer meaning "vagabond", from land and the verb laufen meaning "to run". Or it might be related to Old English laf which means "what is left, the remainder", which is related to the verb "to leave", and is an element of the name of the character in Beowulf called Wiglaf (literally "the remainder of battle"), who unlike uncle Beowulf himself, survives the final battle with the dragon (sorry for the spoiler). Either way, this sense of "loaf" has nothing to do with bread, but it may still be connected to the poem Beowulf.

When writing the scripts, inevitably some material gets left out, so here are a few extra tidbits that were interesting but didn't make the cut. The word "companion" which I pointed out as a interesting parallel for "lord" is particularly significant as a reflection of Germanic culture as well. Though the word is Latin, it's probably a translation of an earlier Germanic one, as it first appears in a Frankish text, an early medieval Germanic tribe, and the Gothic language has a word related to "loaf" that means something like "messmate". The expression "to take bread and salt" means to swear an oath, and may be related to an old, possibly eastern, tradition of eating bread and salt once an oath was taken.  In Slavic cultures bread and salt is a sign of hospitality and is offered to guests. The expression "to take bread and salt" was a new one on me, but it's listed in Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase & Fable.

The use of loaf to mean "head" (or by extension brain) as I've done in the title of this blog post with the common expression "use your loaf" is probably from rhyming slang: loaf of bread = head. Interesting, this rhyming slang also gives us loaf of bread = dead. All the discussion of the different senses of "loaf" and "bread", particularly with metaphorical senses related to money, were inspired by playing around with the OED, and particularly the historical thesaurus feature (also available separately as The Historical Thesaurus of English). It's lots of fun looking through various terms and euphemisms for basic concepts like money that were used over the years. If you know of any other bread expressions that I didn't mention in the video, feel free to share in the comments.

One final note about the bubbles in beer: I've been unable to find a satisfactory answer to the question of whether or not beer historically would have been fizzy. Today beer is usually artificially carbonated, but historically beer could be made fizzy by allowing it to continue fermenting in the bottle (as homebrewers often still do), but this would require bottles that could be properly sealed to maintain the fizz. But I would speculate that even in barrels that weren't fully sealed, some amount of fizziness might remain, particularly if the beer was consumed relatively quickly after fermentation, rather than stored for a long time. But if there are any food historians out there who could shed some light on this in the comments below, I'd be very interested to hear.