Sunday, February 27, 2011


Some Thoreauvian Etymologies

Henry David Thoreau, Walden, XVII (Spring), discussing "sand foliage," i.e. "the forms which thawing sand and clay assume in flowing down the sides of a deep cut on the railroad":
No wonder that the earth expresses itself outwardly in leaves, it so labors with the idea inwardly. The atoms have already learned this law, and are pregnant by it. Internally whether in the globe or animal body, it is a moist thick lobe, a word especially applicable to the liver and lungs and the leaves of fat, (λείβω, labor, lapsus, to flow or slip downward, a lapsing; λοβός, globus, lobe, globe, also lap, flap, and many other words); externally a dry thin leaf, even as the f and v are a pressed and dried b. The radicals of lobe are lb, the soft mass of the b (single lobed, or B, double lobed,) with the liquid l behind it pressing it forward. In globe, glb, the guttural g adds to the meaning the capacity of the throat. The feathers and wings of birds are still drier and thinner leaves. Thus, also, you pass from the lumpish grub in the earth to the airy and fluttering butterfly. The very globe continually transcends and translates itself, and becomes winged in its orbit. Even ice begins with delicate crystal leaves, as if it had flowed into moulds which the fronds of water plants have impressed on the watery mirror. The whole tree itself is but one leaf and rivers are still vaster leaves whose pulp is intervening earth, and towns and cities are the ova of insects in their axils.
Calvert Watkins, "Indo-European Roots," in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1979), pp. 1505-1550, isolates five different roots of the words discussed by Thoreau:
  1. gel-1 (pp. 1515-1516, "To form into a ball, with deriviatives referring to a compact mass or coagulated lump, and to the qualities of viscosity and adhesiveness"): whence globus and globe (with the qualification "perhaps")
  2. leb-1 (p. 1525, "Base of loosely related derivatives meaning 'hanging loosely'"): whence labor, lap, lapsus, lobe, λοβός (with the qualification "perhaps" for labor)
  3. lēi-3 (p. 1526, "To flow"): whence λείβω (cf. libation)
  4. leup- (p. 1527, "To peel off, break off"): whence leaf
  5. plab- (p. 1535, "To flap"): whence flap


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