Friday, January 25, 2013



Geoffrey Lewis, "Etymologist's Quicksand," Arabicus Felix: Luminosus Britannicus. Essays in Honour of A.F.L. Beeston on his Eightieth Birthday, ed. Alan Jones (Reading: Ithaca Press, 1991), pp. 236-239 (at 236-237):
But it often happens that 'the same word' in two unrelated languages fortuitously has the same meaning in both. Old Turkish ayıttı, like Latin ait, 'quoth he'. R.A. Fuller uses the term 'look-alikes' for 'forms that resemble each other in sound and meaning but in which the resemblance is totally without linguistic significance. Old Japanese kaF-u 'buy' certainly resembles German kaufen; and Old Japanese Fone means 'bone'' (The Japanese Language, Chicago 1967, p. 61). He goes on, however, to say: 'It is comparatively easy to persuade even the non-specialist that such coincidences between individual forms are sheer accidents'.

Here I must disagree. In the first place, it is sometimes very hard indeed to persuade non-specialists that English jubilee and jubilation are not etymologically related, any more than sorry and sorrow are, or that no etymological connection has yet been shown between English bad and Persian bad (meaning 'bad'). In the second place, Fuller has probably never had to deal with enthusiastic amateurs who have discovered in Turkish the key to Etruscan. 'If you admit that Tarquin is an ancient Etruscan title and that Tarkhan is an ancient Turkish title, why won't you go one step further and concede that they are the same word?' When I hardened my heart and told one such that her list of correspondences was of no use because all the Turkish words she cited were Persian or Arabic borrowings that had been unknown to the Turks before the tenth century AD at the earliest, she replied indignantly, 'How can you be so pedantic when the lives of whole peoples are at stake?' Though very much annoyed, she was quite undeterred, and for many years continued to bombard me with news of the progress of her investigations.
Hat tip: Ian Jackson.


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