14 June, 2006

Monkey puzzle

Stephen Skinner, Etymologicon Linguae Anglicanae (1671, Olms reprint 1970).

Walter Skeat, A Concise Etymological Dictionary of the English Language (1879-82; my second edition from 1902).

Hensleigh Wedgwood, Contested Etymologies in the Dictionary of the Rev. W. W. Skeat (1882).

In honour of my favourite tree (right), I offer notes on the history of English etymology, taking as examples the words monkey and puzzle. The OED chickens out on both counts with 'Origin unknown', venturing timidly in the former case that it is a Low German corruption of a proto-Romance word.

Skinner's Etymologicon was the second serious etymological dictionary of the language, after John Minsheu's 1617 Guide into the Tongues, which Skinner frequently cites. The Etymologicon was written in Latin, as was still the custom with serious linguistic texts at the time, but the works of Skinner and Minsheu would still be cited by English scholars until the end of the 18th century, for instance in Horne Tooke's Diversions of Purley. Skinner is inclined to derive a majority of English words from classical and Continental sources. A particularly cute example is his tongue-in-cheek derivation of elf and goblin from Guelph and Ghibelline, 'quibus olim terribilissimis nominibus infantes territare solebant nutrices'—with which most terrible names nurses were once accustomed to scare children. We neglect here the fact that these names are in fact Italianisations of German words. This custom can also be seen in his entry for puzzle, although he rejects Minsheu's fanciful Greek etymology of monkey. I provide my own translations from the Latin, below.

Walter Skeat was the great philologist of Victorian England, a specialist in Old and Middle English, a contributor to the OED, and author of the most famous etymological dictionary in English history, used for instance by Joyce in the compilation of Finnegans Wake. The book is still easily available second-hand; I picked up mine for a mere 5 pounds at a small shop in Bristol. Skeat was the first, to my knowledge, to apply to English etymology the Continental practice of assigning each word its Indo-European roots, listed in a glossary at the back. The same practice can be seen today in Calvert Watkins' enjoyable appendix to the American Heritage Dictionary. Many of his derivations still hold up, and can be found in the OED itself; however, he has an alarming tendency to find Welsh origins, which are in fact almost non-existent in our language.

Hensleigh Wedgwood, another notable etymologist and grandson of the potter Josiah, picked up on this tendency a number of times in his gripping riposte to Skeat's Dictionary, the Contested Etymologies of 1882, which a reviewer for The Nation described as 'full of appetizing curiosities for amateurs'. The book is now, alas (or not), extremely rare. But it's all you want from such a work, really: no long-winded theorising, just a list of contentious words and the relevant philological information. Wedgwood's writing is careful and balanced, and respectful towards Skeat even while taking issue with his conclusions. He stands outside the mainstream tradition, and his derivations are probably less widely accepted than Skeat's; but he reasons from a wide knowledge of European languages, on sound historical and morphological grounds, often trying to find extra-Indo-European origins, or else imitative English ones. These attempts are illustrated by his assessments of monkey and puzzle.


Skinner. Monky, Tailed Ape. Minsheu derives the word from [Greek] Mimomai, to imitate, or mónos [alone], since it is not found in the place where you are living. Ridiculous; for it comes obviously enough from the ancient Mon for Man and the diminutive ending Kin, q. d. Monikin or Monkin, ie. homunculus, leaving off the final n for euphony: for nothing is more like man.

Skeat. M. Ital mona, monna, ‘an ape, a munkie, a munkie-face; also a nickname for women, as we say gammer, goodie;’ Florio. Monna is a familiar corruption of Madonna.

Wedgwood. As monna, for Madonna, was also used in the sense of mistress, Skeat regards the order of ideas as "mistress, dame, old woman, monkey, by that degradation of meaning so common in all languages." But the animal must have been known in Italy by some name before it acquired such a sobriquet as Mylady, and it is very unlikely that a nickname of this kind should have extinguished the genuine appellation of the animal in so wide a range of languages: Fr. monne, monnine (Cotgr.), Sp. mono, mona, Breton mouna, mounika, E. monkey, Illyrian muna, munica. The animal must have come from the East with a name of its own, and as the Arabic name is maymoun, it seems to me far more probable that the word has sprung from the docking of the latter name than from an Italian sobriquet.


Skinner. To Puzzle, q. d. to Posele, a verb, to Pose: to confound with a difficult question, or q. d. Imbecillare, ie. to make weak or feeble [imbecilic], or from Italian Pucello, virgin, and from the verb Puceler; not from the defiling of the virgin—as this would disturb the sense—but more simply from [the idea of] making virginal, ie. suffusing with redness; for the virgin copiously blushes. Pucelle itself comes from Pulcelle, from Latin Pulchella, which is a description of the virgin in flattering words. This is the derivation in which I have the most faith, and with which I generally agree.

Skeat. Orig. a sb. [substantive, ie. noun], and short for opposal, spelt both opposayle and apposayle in Lydgate, with the sense of question. These are from the verb oppose, like deni-al from deny.

Wedgwood. [Skeat's] derivation appears to me very improbable. Apposal was never a familiar word, and no traces are to be found of the docked form posal, which is supposed to have been the immediate parent of puzzle. Nor is apposal itself ever found in the sense of perplexity or confusion of mind. It would, moreover, be a violent change from the long o of posal to the short u of puzzle. . . The same degraded pronunciation which changed muddy and muddle to muzzy and muzzle, has given us puzzle parallel with puddle, in the sense of mental disturbance.

NB. Wikipedia, as if it were the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, has this to say about the monkeypuzzle tree: 'As a practical exercise, a monkey trying to climb one would not be so much puzzled as injured by the razor-sharp leaf edges. However, as monkeys are not found in the species' native range, the question does not arise.' Brilliant!

1 comment:

Gawain said...

Conrad, my man, you are such a joy. keep them coming. (sorry, i don't always want to debate, sometimes I just want to read and be pleased, and you make that easy). I am travelling next couple days. and do watch that asthma, it would SUCK to lose you.