Friday, August 27, 2010


It's not a really modern sounding word, is it? Nevertheless, it's come up several times in the course of my reading these last few weeks in contemporary works, always a sign that I should consider a word more thoughtfully. I think I know what it means--resolute, resourceful, plucky, stalwart. (Not that I know what those last two words really mean either.)

But what's it from? It certainly can't come from dough, can it? Because all I can think of in that context is the Pillsbury Doughboy. And doughty he may be, but he's not exactly a role model. Well, let's check it out..

Okay--stouthearted and resolute, we get the drift. It goes back to the Old English dohtig--competent, good and valient, and it's got one of those PIE roots, namely *dheugh-  --to be fit, able or strong.

What's interesting is that according to the Online Etymology dictionary, doughty is rare after the seventeenth century (!), and when you see it now, it's usually in an archaic or mock-heroic form, which I must admit seems to have been the sense of the uses I've seen of it. Apparently, if it has survived into modern currency, it would be rendered as "dighty".

Which doesn't sound very doughty at all. 

Monday, August 23, 2010


I know--seriously? I don't know what Flemish is? Well, much as I would like to report otherwise, I'm afraid I do not. Don't get me wrong, I have some sort of vague idea. Problem is, that vague idea may be wholly wrong.

Okay, here's what I think I know. Flemish refers to that belonging to a European region that became incorporated into some larger state, like Holland or Germany or maybe Belgium. I might not win the pin the tail on the donkey prize, but at least I'm not guessing Spain, or, for that matter, Africa. The other thing I think I know is that there was a famous Flemish school of art. Van Eyck? Even Vermeer? One of the things that got me thinking about this, though, was that among the many, many language resources that are available to anyone walking into the bookstore I work at, I have yet to see anything labeled "Teach Yourself Flemish".

Well, let's see.

So, not to brag or anything, but I'm pretty much right. Right about what, you ask? Well, everything. Okay, maybe not Vermeer. Actually, as it turns out, I might be a little bit wrong about that Spain bit too.

But first things first. Let's start with this whole language issue, because it opens up a lot. Here's a nice site that explains this in a clear and simple way, but basically, to all intents and purposes, Flemish and Dutch are the same language, somewhat different in pronunciation, but by and large mutually understandable. According to the above  mentioned site, a good way to think about the difference is to compare it to the difference between Brit-speak and American-speak. We, of course are separated by an ocean. But the Flemish and the Dutch live right next door to each other. So what happened?

History, of course.

The Netherlands, Belgium and Luxemborg were once and sometimes still are called the Low Countries, a name given to them by the simple geological fact of sharing the same coastal delta region between higher ground. The region was held by a succession of foreign powers, including, yes, the Spanish Hapsburgs. but in the later part of the sixteenth century, the people of the northern provinces, or Holland as it came to be known, were able to make a break for independence. Meanwhile their brothers, cousins and significant others down south continued to live under whatever occupier happened to be in control, so they were more or less rubbing shoulders with Spanish, Austrian or French speakers on a daily basis, until Belgium too gained its independence in 1830. But well into this last century, French was the language to know in that country.

It was also the language of education, which is to say that the French speaker in what came to be Belgium could go far, while the Flemish speaker, well, not so much. Remember Hercules Poirot? French speaking, not Flemish. The Flemish, though, are understandably proud of their own native tongue and have been fighting for linguistic and cultural equality all along.

The other big and probably obvious thing to know is that the region of Belgium where the Flemish live is Flanders. I'm pretty sure that most people have heard of Flanders before, even if they haven't known exactly where it is. One of the main associations to this area is that many of the most important battles of both World War I and World War II were fought here. And of course one of the most famous poems of WWI was written about this very place. I'll link to a site where you can read In Flanders Fields if you have a mind to. There is a nice facsimile of the handwritten poem there which is very poignant to behold.

Okay, last thing--Flemish art. Yep, Van Eyck is their very famous representative, though he comes out of a whole school of admired Flemish painters. That's one of his at the top of the blog.  But there's another name from a later school that most people have heard as well. Do you know it? Would a picture help?

      Right. That's Peter Paul Rubens, the one and only.

Friday, August 13, 2010


Disgruntled Employee Kills 8, Self in Connecticut

Sadly, this is the kind of headline that no one who even glances at a newspaper can be unfamiliar with, and this is not just an example, unfortunately this one was real. But I found myself wondering when I saw it just exactly what disgruntled could possibly mean in this context. Aggrieved? Resentful? Full of primal rage? Or just peeved? The more I thought about it, the less I knew about the meaning of this word, its origins or its proper use.

Of course it means at its most basic level "not gruntled". Has anyone ever heard of someone being gruntled, though? If gruntled is good, it can not possibly have a connection to "grunt", which is the only association I can make. Without further ado, then, let's see what it means...

Well, originally I was a bit disgruntled with the results, but I think that I've finally got some kind of a handle on this. "Disgruntled" is one of several words that have a missing opposite root word--not necessarily never there, but vanished from our vocabulary if so. (Interestingly, P.G. Wodehouse managed to let Jeeves bring it almost singlehandedly back into the language, which would be well nigh impossible if it were anyone but Jeeves. You can read an interesting piece on this here.)

A new piece of information for me in a general sense was that dis-, though usually signifying "a lack of" something--disgrace, disgust, distaste-- can occasionally act as an intensifier of something bad already. So "disgruntled" doesn't mean "not gruntled", but extremely gruntled. Hence the "disgruntled employee kills" trope.

But originally (sorry, P.G.) "gruntled" just indicated the repeated action of grunting. And on second thoughts, grunting doesn't always necessarily signify complaint. But perhaps I'm taking this too far afield...

Sunday, August 8, 2010

What would the Proto-Indo-Europeans do?

In my last post, I was quite heartened to find that the modern word "ply" shared a common root with a lot of other words. And what is that root? Why, a proto-Indo-European root, of course. "Plek" lies in the distant ancestry of "ply".

However, it isn't really "plek", but "*plek". Is this because they were very fond of the asterisk in proto-Indo-European times? No. As I slowly gathered and hazily remembered, proto-Indo-European isn't really a language at all. It's a reconstructed language. It comes from what our present languages imply about a past "mother tongue". Because, you know, no one was exactly  writing this all down back in the day. Not to mention the fact that they were hampered by an appalling absence of sound recording equipment. But that's just my own rough sense of all this. It's time to apply (*plek) ourselves to the task at hand and find out a bit more...

Okay, the reason I was never cut out to be a scientist is that when I read a sentence like "The following traits of the Proto-Indo-Europeans and their environment are widely agreed-upon but still hypothetical due to their reconstructed nature", it makes me laugh. Not because I have an alternate theory, but because I picture a bunch of replicants (*plek) wandering the earth.

I know, I know--the kind of analysis and deduction that goes into reconstructing not just a language but a whole civilization isn't just pure whimsy, but to the layperson, it can certainly sound like it at times. Especially when the descriptions I've come across of proto-Indo-European culture (or proto-Indo-European pretty  much anything) are littered with adjectives like "putative" and "unattested" and "hypothetical".

Here's an example from what I assume is a pretty representative paper. By the way, the authorities in all this seem to call Proto-Indo-European "PIE", which also makes me laugh, but which seems fitting somehow:

PIE refers to the putative ancestor of the Indo-European language family, or to our reconstruction of it. There is no clear agreement on exactly where or when the speakers of PIE lived, but a fairly popular theory places them at approximately 3000-4000 BC in what is currently the Russian steppe north of the Black Sea.  

Now, having just recently learned from the Rachel Maddow show that an "argument ad populum" is an argument that says a proposition is true because many or all people believe it to be true, and is actually a logical fallacy, I know that the popularity of the Russian steppes as the cradle of our language is not really to be relied on. The rest of the article, by the way, is here, and I hope I haven't implied that it is a bad article, as this sort of tentativeness about certainty is pretty much the hallmark of this field of study. 

If you really want to get into some of the rules, though, here's a more thorough look at how languages are compared and then used to reconstruct a common past. I include it partly because there's a fun quiz at the end that tests how much you really learned.

Funner if you actually pay attention to the article before taking it,  I'm guessing. But as they say, it's just a theory...

Sunday, August 1, 2010


I'm not quite sure why these thoughts occur to me after I've reached some irrevocable point, but it's not at all unusual that well after I wrote the last post on the Merchant Marine, it occurred to me that I'd gotten a phrase wrong. I know the phrase plying one's wares works, but plying one's way? I start to grow confused.

The more I thought about it, the more I found to ponder. What about '"reply"? "Plywood"? "Pliable"? Are these words related to each other, or not at all? I am going to guess a suffix route that branched out in many different directions. But what do I know? As we all have seen, not much...

Well, apparently, those Merchant Marines do ply their way. They may even plow their way. Turns out this is a word with a lot of permutations and ramifications. It all comes back to (yes!) an Indoeuropean root, namely *plek. Plek leads in many directions, and not only "ply", "plait", and "plight", but possibly "flax" and "flex" are also distant cousins.

Let's not wander too far out into those flax fields, though. "Ply", at least, comes pretty directly through Middle English back through Old French (plie, anyone?) to Latin plicare. What all this stuff has in common is the broad idea of folding or bending.

Now, personally, I wouldn't have thought that the idea of folding would have been so very promising as a root concept. I mean, you say "folding", I say "ironing". But out of it, we have "apply" with the general sense of bringing something into close contact with something else, we have "reply", which is "to fold back, and out of that "replicate", we have "implicit"  and "explicit", with their general sense of to be folded in with or to unfold. (A fascinating factoid from the Online Etymology Dictionary is that "explicit" comes from explicitus est liber-"-the book is unrolled". The term came up at the end of Medieval manuscripts, which were, of course, rolls, not bound books. It didn't come up in our current sense of "explicit sex" until 1971.)

And so on and so on and so on. Taking up this word is a bit like picking up a dinosaur bone in the desert, only to find that it's still attached to a whole dinosaur.

But to try to get back to the subject at hand--Neither plying one's way or one's trade would seem to have very much to do with folding. In these cases, it seems to be a shortened form of 'apply'. If you look at the, uh, applications of the word "ply" at, you'll see that what many of them have in common is diligence, practice and regularity. Apparently the word "ply" was first used in the sense of "to travel regularly" in 1803.

If you'd like to see how this word has mutated, you might check out this thread at egghorns. Egghorns looks like a good one to know about in general. But anyway, from the simple term "to ply one's trade," you'll find "plow one's trade", "plight one's trade", even "ploy one's trade". I'll leave it to any Northern Irish commenters who might chance by to either agree with or refute the idea presented there that in Northern Irish, "plough" and "ply" are near homophones.

Finally, I chanced upon yet another usage in a book I'm currently reading, written about an incident aboard a ship, perhaps plying its way through Aegean waters:

They said I was the strangest American they had ever met. But they liked me. They stuck to me throughout the voyage, plying me with all sorts of questions which I answered in vain.

Henry Miller, The Colossus of Maroussi