Thursday, January 08, 2009



I subscribe to OED Online Word of the Day. Yesterday's word was Maliseet, meaning "A member of a North American Indian people of Quebec, New Brunswick, and Maine." The etymology is interesting:
< French Malécite (1722; 1692 in form Marisizis) and its etymon Micmac mali:sit, lit. 'one who speaks poorly or incomprehensibly'
Disparaging terms for foreigners in some other languages also reflect their unintelligible speech. The best-known example is Greek βάρβαρος (barbaros), about which John Heath, The Talking Greeks: Speech, Animals, and the Other in Homer, Aeschylus, and Plato (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), p. 199, says:
The word barbaros, we perhaps do not need to be reminded, originally described the incomprehensible speech of any foreign tongue. It is an adjective, a "reduplicative onomatopoeia" that captures how an exotic language sounds. A modern American creation would be something like "blah-blah-ous."
Hjalmar Frisk, Griechisches etymologisches Wörterbuch, compares Sanskrit barbara- (stammering), Sumerian barbar (foreigner), and Babylonian-Semitic barbaru (enemy).

For another example, see L.A. Waddell, quoted in The Gazetteer of Sikhim (Calcutta: Bengal Secretariat Press, 1894), p. 39:
As the term 'Lapcha' is of Nepalese origin, and the Parbatiya dialect of the Nepalese consists mainly of pure Sanskrit roots, the word 'Lapcha' may perhaps be derived from 'lap,' speech, and 'cha,' vile = the vile speakers—a contemptuous term with reference to their non-adoption of the Parbatiya language like the rest of the 'Nepalese' tribes.
See also Online Etymology Dictionary, s.v. gringo:
1849, from Mex.Sp. gringo, contemptuous word for "foreigner," from Sp. gringo "foreign, unintelligible talk, gibberish," perhaps ult. from griego "Greek." The "Diccionario Castellano" (1787) says gringo was used in Malaga for "anyone who spoke Spanish badly," and in Madrid for "the Irish."
I recently read a humorous anecdote about the Maliseet in Trevor Corson, The Secret Life of Lobsters (New York: Harper Collins, 2004), p. 103 (discussing the Cranberry Isles off the coast of Maine):
The first person to chart this group of small islands, in 1524, was the same man who discovered the bays off the island of Manhattan—the Italian explorer Giovanni da Verrazano. In Maine, Verrazano's landing party had been repelled by Native Americans wielding bows and arrows. In fury Verrazano had scrawled the name "Land of Bad People" across his map. When he left, the natives celebrated his eviction from their land—according to Verrazano's log—"by exhibiting bare buttocks and laughing."
See Verrazano's letter to Francis I (.pdf file), where Verrazano's "marginal notes are italicized and bracketed within the text":
The people were quite different from the others, for while the previous ones had been courteous in manner, these were full of crudity and vices, and were so barbarous that we could never make any communication with them, however many signs we made to them. They were clothed in skins of bear, lynx, sea-wolf and other animals. As far as we could judge from several visits to their houses, we think they live on game, fish, and several fruits which are a species of root which the earth produces itself. They have no pulse, and we saw no sign of cultivation, nor would the land be suitable for producing any fruit or grain on account of its sterility. If we wanted to trade with them for some of their things, they would come to the seashore on some rocks where the breakers were most violent, while we remained in the little boat, and they sent us what they wanted to give on a rope, continually shouting to us not to approach the land; they gave us the barter quickly, and would take in exchange only knives, hooks for fishing, and sharp metal. We found no courtesy in them, and when we had nothing more to exchange and left them, the men made all the signs of scorn and shame that any brute creature would make [such as showing their buttocks and laughing].
I believe the translation is by Susan Tarrow, in Lawrence C. Wroth, ed., The Voyages of Giovanni da Verrazzano, 1524-1528 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1970), although I have not seen Wroth's book.

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