Thursday, June 28, 2007



British Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott is the butt of laughter and mockery because he referred to Demosthenes in a speech as Dame Osthenes. The name Demosthenes comes from two Greek roots:

As a curmudgeon and student of etymology, I was interested to hear what Anatoly Liberman, the Oxford Etymologist, had to say about the etymology of curmudgeon:
Walter W. Skeat compared curmudgeon with Lowland Scots murgeon “mock, grumble” and mudgeon “grimace.” Both words fit the idea of a peevish, disgruntled man well. Not improbably, curmudgeon was first applied to an unpleasant, unsociable person and by extension to someone who stays away from jovial company for fear of being robbed or asked to help the less fortunate. Some light on the origin of mudgeon falls from the history of the verb mooch, which has been attested in numerous variants, including mouch, motch, and modge. It is, naturally, modge that is closest to mudgeon. (The voicing of -ch is the same as in hotchpotch versus hodge-podge and in Greenwich, pronounced greenidge.) The root of mooch and its variants occurs in words of several languages, for instance, in meucheln “murder (treacherously)” (German) and muchier “conceal, lurk” (Old French, still known in some modern dialects). Cognates have been found in Old Irish and Latin. Similar Italian words (mostly regional) appear to have been borrowed from Germanic, and the same may be true of French mouche “to spy” and mouchard “police informer, stoolie.” In English, Hamlet’s miching, the first part of the cryptic phrase miching malicho “sneaking mischief,” belongs with mooch and mouch, and so do, possibly, mug “waylay and rob” and mugger in hugger-mugger. Wherever one of those nouns, adjectives, and verbs turns up, it refers to secret, underhand dealings. There seems to have been a large group of words, part of international slang or underworld cant, designating actions that shirked the light of day.

Cur- in curmudgeon is a reinforcing prefix, widely known in sound imitative words (kerbang, kerbunk, kerplank, kerwallop) and in words like kerfuffle “disorder, flurry.” They occur with numerous spelling variants, the most common of them being ca-, as in kit and caboodle. The original curmudgeon was, it appears, a big “mudgeon,” whatever the exact meaning of mudgeon might be (“someone with an ugly mug”? “a grumbler sitting on his wealth, a penny pincher”?).

I've known for a long time that vermicelli meant "little worms," but I only recently learned that another type of pasta, lasagna, also has somewhat unsavory etymological connections.

The Online Etymology Dictionary s.v. lasagna says:
1760, from It. (pl. is lasagne), from V.L. *lasania, from L. lasanum "a pot," from Gk. lasanon "pot with feet, trivet."
But Greek λάσανα (plural) also has another meaning, according to Liddell & Scott:
night-stool, Hp.Fist. 9, Cratin.49 (cj. Mein. for λαχάνοις), Pherecr.88, Eup.224, Ar.Fr. 462: also in sg., like Lat. lasanum, Hp.Superf.8, AP11.74.8 (Nicarch.):—
hence λᾰσᾰνοφόρος, ὁ, slave who had charge of the night-stool, Plu.2.182c, 360d:—
also λᾰσᾰνίτης [ῑ] δίφρος BGU1116.25 (i B.C.).
Those who grew up with modern conveniences might not know that a night-stool is a chamber pot, a portable vessel used in a bedroom as a toilet.

Latin lasanum is rarely attested, occurring only at Horace, Satires 1.6.109, and Petronius 41.9. In Petronius it clearly means chamber pot. I have not seen B.L. Ullman, "Horace Serm. I.6.115 and the History of the Word Laganum," Classical Philology 7.4 (Oct. 1912) 442-449.

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