etymology, Semantics

Road and Routes from Latin to English


Did you know that the English term route and Swedish rutt ‘route’, as well as French route ‘road’ comes from the Latin term via rupta ‘broken road’. At first I thought about the slowly decaying Roman roads spread all over Europe, but in fact, broken here means ‘broken through nature/the underbrush’.

The English term road is not from the same stem at all! It comes from Middle English rode ‘act of riding, journey’, and ultimately from Old English ridan ‘to ride’.


Buck, Carl Darling. 1949. A dictionary of selected synonyms in the principal Indo-European languages; a contribution to the history of ideas. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Grammar, Semantics

Word of the day: apokoinou

Awesome new linguistic term: apokoinou (from Greek: “in common”). It refers to the situation where a speaker changes her mind mid-sentence, and makes the last part of a sentence the first part of another. Like this:

“there were three crows sat on a tree”

“I can’t find my wallet is here”

Sounds weird? We do it all the time. Try saying the sentences above with some pauses in between segments, like:

“I can’t… find my… wallet is here!!

etymology, Semantics

The etymology of the word “bad”


I’ve just discovered the etymology for English bad ‘not good’ in Darling Buck 1949, and was going to write a postabout it – but the writers over at Online Etymology Dictionary have read the same chapter as I, and sum it up nicely:

bad (adj.) c.1200, “inferior in quality;” early 13c., “wicked, evil, vicious,” a mystery word with no apparent relatives in other languages.* Possibly from Old English derogatory term bæddel and its dim. bædling “effeminate man, hermaphrodite, pederast,” probably related to bædan “to defile.” A rare word before 1400, and evil was more common in this sense until c.1700. Meaning “uncomfortable, sorry” is 1839, American English colloquial.

Comparable words in the other Indo-European languages tend to have grown from descriptions of specific qualities, such as “ugly,” “defective,” “weak,” “faithless,” “impudent,” “crooked,” “filthy” (e.g. Gk. kakos, probably from the word for “excrement;” Rus. plochoj, related to O.C.S. plachu “wavering, timid;” Pers. gast, O.Pers. gasta-, related to gand “stench;” Ger. schlecht, originally “level, straight, smooth,” whence “simple, ordinary,” then “bad”). ”


When did hermaphrodite become something which such a negative sentiment attached to it in the west? Clearly post-Roman empire, since they have hemaphrodite gods…


Loops and self-reference in dictionaries

One of the things I wanted to use this blog for was to publish (and get incentive to keep writing) the summaries that I really should write as soon as I read an article.

Today I read this article:

Levary, David, Jean-Pierre Eckmann, Elisha Moses, and Tsvi Tlusty. 2012. Loops and Self-Reference in the Construction of Dictionaries. Physical Review X, 2, 031018.

It reminded me of my Magister thesis, where I (among other things) looked at the dictionary network around the two synonyms skarp and vass in Swedish. The result was not a surprise – we know that dictionary entries refer to each other in loops, making it very difficult to understand a new concept, without understanding related concepts.

The Levary et al (2012) article did some cool statistics on these self-refential loops in the dictionaries. One such loop is in figure 5 below


Figure 5 has examples of strongly connected components (SCCs)– where all nodes (words) point to all other words – such as precipitation, sleet and snow.

Previously, other researchers had found on that in a typical dictionary:
“It was found that dictionaries consist of a set of words, roughly 10% the size of the original dictionary, from which all other words can be defined. This subgraph was observed to be highly interconnected, with a central, strongly connected component, dubbed the core.”

This should mean that if you know this core, you can use it to define all other words (now, your sentences would be awkward and long, with red or green fruit on bough of tree that you can eat and that you can make sauce and pie out of, instead of apple – and, of course, the definition you might end up with from the dictionary might not uniquely identify an APPLE at all – in this case, maybe grape would also be fitting). It would also, on the surface, mean that to understand the core, you have to understand basically all of it. Hmm…

Levary et al (2012) discovered that if you concentrate only on SCCs with loops less than or equal to 5 words), this core decomposes into several hundred SCCs, that are independent of each other. Here are some examples of SCCs:

{emotion, spirit, dejection, melancholy, feeling}
{height, end, dimension, length}
{bark, trunk, tree, lumber}

And then the authors looked at _when_ words had first been recorded. And they found that the words in SCCs (such as the ones above) tended to appear closer together in time than average words do. So once you start talking about a semantic field (maybe you move from a desert to a place with trees) lots of interdependent words appear in a relatively (150 years or so) short time span. The words co-eolve. This is cool. You don’t need to use trunk to define what a tree word mean, but conceptually bark and tree seem to be close.

etymology, Semantics

Where did our color names come from?


Did you know that brun ‘brown’ once also covered the lila ‘purple’ color area? And that even further back it also meant ‘shining’. That lila ‘purple’ and rosa ‘pink’ are named after or possibly gave name to flowers (Syringa and Rose respectively). That orange ‘orange’ comes (via German) from French, meaning ‘gold’?. That turkos ‘turquois’ comes from the French expression pierre turquoise (stones from Turkey – the stones of this color found there and used for jewellry). That the term blå ‘blue’ once also covered more svart ‘black’ color nuances. That grön ‘green’ is probably derived from ‘vegetation-color’. And that it’s highly likely that there was no unique name for the rosa ‘pink’ color region back in Viking terms – it was just considered a red color.

Oh, I’d love to make a much longer post about this, but as it is I’m just going to post some brief research notes on the origin of Swedish color terms.
Svart    ’black’    Proto-Germanic, possibly also connected to Latin sordes ’dirt’?
Vit    ’white’    Traceable to Indo-European
Röd    ’red’    Traceable to Indo-European
Grön    ’green’    Traceable to Germanic, from ’grow’ > ’grow-colored’? From color of vegetation?
Blå    ’blue’    Traceable to Germanic ’blue, black’ > ’blue’
Gul    ’yellow’    Traceable to PIE, g̑hel- ‘, ‘yellow, bright color’, Possibly yellow-green? Also found in Sanskrit, Greek.
Orange    ’orange’    First attested 1640. < German < French or ’gold’
Turkos    ’turquoise’    First attested 1538, < French pierre turquoise
Brun    ’brown’    Traceable to Indo-European: ’brown, shining’
Lila    ’purple’    First attestted in 1805, < French, name of the Syringa flower
Grå    ’grey’    Traceable to Germanic
Rosa    ’pink’    First attested 1773, < Romance language (French?). Gave name to, or got form, Rose flower.


Are there true synonyms? “Shore” and “coast”

Huh, never thought about this before – but the difference between the words “shore” and “coast” is pretty cool. Both have to do with the strip of land closest to the sea. You can say:

I can see the shore from here!

I can see the coast from here!

Evans (2009) claims that the former has a predominantly sea-to-land based perspective. You’re likely to say it if you’re on a boat look towards land. The latter has a land-to-sea based perspective. You’re more likely to say it if you’re on land, looking towards the sea.

And – consider that “coast-to-coast trip” means a trip over land, while “shore-to-shore trip” means a trip over water.


Evans, Vyvyan. 2009. How words mean lexical concepts, cognitive models, and meaning construction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.