Tuesday, January 21, 2014

A Walk Along the Guadalupe River

Map  of Guadalupe River System from silichip.org
San Jose, California is fairly progressive in preserving the riparian areas around the local creeks and rivers.  The Guadalupe River is a good example.  It flows from the north end of Lake Almaden in South San Jose and into the San Francisco Bay at the Alviso slough.  Much of the river's length is left in its semi-wild state, providing habitat to a diverse array of animals, including opossums, raccoons, otters, beavers and trout, and it is followed by a paved, two-way trail for bicycles, walkers and runners (as well as a skateboard here and there, and even a wiggle board or two).  We took a 4.5 mile stroll along the Guadalupe, and we returned with much fodder for this blog.

The most obvious etymology to start with here is that of riparian. Ripa is classical Latin for "river bank" and is cognate with English river.  So riparian is "of or related to the river bank."  There is also the cognate riverine.  Riparian dates from only 1810 in the written record, and riverine came a bit later.  We find riverain, too, which came the French route to English - it was originally a person who lived on the banks of a river.  It's the oldest of this group (not including river) and dates to the late 17th century in French.
Guadalupe River riparian area in San Jose from rhorii.org

Another interesting word related to our walk is slough.  In the U.S. we pronounce it "slew" (and sometimes spell it that way) but in the U.K. it is, of course, pronounced "slau".  The meanings are slightly different between the U.S. and U.K., as well.  In the U.S. a slough is a marshy or reedy pool, pond, small lake, backwater or inlet, or a seasonally dry channel, while in the U.K. it is soft or muddy ground, or a mire.  However, the basic idea of "wet" runs through both meanings.  It was slóhin Old English, but beyond that it's a bit of a mystery.  The OED suggests that it may be related to slonk, which has cognates in other Germanic languages and means "a wet hollow in the road or ground."  There is, of course, the town of Slough in England, made unhappily infamous by Betjeman's notorious poem.  It was so named as it was located in a miry area.  In 1195 it was Slo.

From openspacetrust.org
We saw some wildlife on the walk, including many Canada geese.  Note that some speakers hypercorrect that to Canadian, but the proper term is Canada geese. We also saw squirrels.  These busy fellows are apparently named for their plume-like tails, for their name derives ultimately from Greek words that mean "shade tail".  The word came to English from Anglo-Norman esquirel (écureuil in modern French). There are cognates in Provençal and Spanish, almost guaranteeing a Latin ancestor, and indeed it does derive from Latin (e)scurellus, the diminutive form of scurius, a metathetic form of sciurus, formed from Greek  skiouros (σκίουρος), a compound of skia and oura, "shade" and "tail," respectively (for the latter, cf. ouroboros).  In squirrel we find yet another word that separates U.S. speakers from those in the U.K.: in the U.S. it is pronounced "skwerl" (one syllable) while in the U.K. it is "SQUI-rull"(two syllables).

We close where we began - with the Guadalupe River.  Guadalupe is a curious word, and it is also
Squirrel, from quintessentialruminations.wordpress.com
macaronic, which may add to its curiousness - it is derived from two words from different languages.  The guada element is from Arabic guadi (we know it today as wadi; in Spanish, the g is silent) - "dry river bed."  The second element is from Latin lupus "wolf."  The combination means "wolf river bed".  Anyone who lives in coyote country is probably familiar with coyotes (wolf-like animals) yipping as they run up and down dry river beds  - these beds make excellent animal roadways, and perhaps this is the sense originally conveyed by Guadalupe.  The word is a place name in Spain, and the Spanish place name is likely the source of the name Our Lady of Guadalupe (Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe) of Mexico (though some theorize the name in Mexico came from an Indian word). The river in San Jose was named Rio de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe by the De Anza expedition in 1776.  Our Lady of Guadalupe was the party's patron saint.  Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe is also the source of the popular Mexican personal names Guadalupe and Lupe.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Words from the Road

Snowshoeing at Breckenridge, Colorado
I just returned from a week of winter sport in Colorado, where there was a great deal more snow than there is in California (drought!).  In fact, we almost got snowed in, as even more snow arrived in the form of a winter storm on our last day.  We escaped just in time, with some harrowing  moments of almost zero visibility and completely obscured roadways due to blowing snow.

Photo from http://www.schweich.com/imagehtml/1440-11.html
Yes, it was a road trip, because road trips afford so much discovery.  For example, I had heard of the word Zzyzx, but I actually got to see the sign on Interstate 15 in San Bernardino County, California, that bears the name Zzyzx Rd.  That road leads to the location of the original settlement of Zzyzx, founded in 1944.  Wikipedia says that the settlement was founded by Curtis Howe Springer, and he called it the Zzyzx Mineral Springs and Health Spa.  He made up the name Zzyzx, apparently so he would have the honor of having coined the last word in the English language, when taken in alphabetical order.  The U.S. Board on Geographical Names made the name official in 1984.

Photo from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/San_Rafael_Swell
Another discovery was made as we drove through Utah.  This is high desert country, with many geological features to observe.  We passed one such feature, called the San Rafael Reef.  It is an approximately 75-mile long outcrop of sandstone that has been weathered into some spectacular cliffs, domes, and canyons. When we saw the sign telling us that this was a reef, we at first assumed it was the fossilized remains of what had been a reef back when, up to 270 million years ago, the area was under a shallow sea.  That was the only kind of reef with which we were familiar.  However, some research revealed that in Utah, the word reef refers to "rocky cliffs which are a barrier to travel, like a coral reef" (from the National Park Service web site on Capitol Reef National Park). Interestingly, all dictionaries I checked, including the OED, define this sense of reef as something that occurs only in water.  However, there is also a sense of reef that means "a lode or vein of gold-bearing quartz."  This sense originated in Australia, but the OED provides an early citation that refers to mining in Montana, indicating that the mining usage appears to have made it to the U.S.  It may be that the mining sense and the ocean sense (which contains an implied sense of blocking travel or making travel hazardous) were combined in the Utah usage.

From http://www.vintagewinter.com/
Let us return to a subject mentioned above (in one of the above photograph captions) - snowshoes.  The snowshoes we are accustomed to seeing today, round or oblong and webbed, appear to have originated in North America, and the first instance of the term in English, according to the OED, dates from 1674 in the form snow-shoos.  A quick check of the Google Books Ngram Viewer (a fabulous tool that allows you to search Google's full-text book database for words and phrases) shows that most instances of snowshoe(s) come from North American books, though Google finds nothing before 1713.  Though the shapes varied quite a bit, all of the northern Indian tribes in North America used some sort of snowshoe.

From http://blog.artisanalcheese.com/the-fondue-blog/329
Finally, while in Colorado, we partook of a wonderful dish called fondue (it has been a favorite of mine for some time).  It is a delightful way to warm up after a day in the snow.  The word dates in English to only 1878, per the OED, but the Google Books Ngram Viewer finds it in a cookbook of 1808 "A new system of domestic cookery: formed upon principles of economy, and adapted to the use of private families" by Maria Eliza Ketelby Rundell).  Wikipedia says that the term appears in 1699 in a cookbook out of Zurich, Switzerland.  Fondue derives from French fondre "to melt," related to such English words as foundry and fondant.  These ultimately go back to the Indo-European root *ghud, source also (per John Ayto) of ingot, another word with a "melt" sense.  With that, we have come full circle: from frozen water (snow) to melting. 

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

The Etymology of a Couple of Famous Surnames

[Yes, Take Our Word For It is open for business again!  More later about what's been happening and what's in store.  For now, back to the fun stuff!]

Tom Hiddleston as himself
Actors with some wonderfully Anglo-Saxon-sounding surnames are seizing headlines of late. There's the delightful Tom Hiddleston, who plays Loki (swoon!) in the Marvel movie universe, and is soon to be seen in Only Lovers Left Alive with Tilda Swinton (must see!).  Then there's the enigmatic Benedict Cumberbatch, turning up everywhere from BBC's Sherlock (I'm addicted!) to providing the voice of Smaug in Peter Jackson's latest Hobbit installment (loved it!).  So what's a hiddle and why is it in town, and how does one get a batch of cumbers, and would that be cumbersome?

Surnames have origins similar to those of regular words.  My maiden name is Jeanes, and while some think it is simply a form of John, there are others who assert that it actually denotes a person from Genoa, suggesting that the original Jeanes folk likely went to England as mercenaries for William the Conqueror.  Jeans as in blue jeans has that same origin (fabric of Genoa).  So what about Hiddleston and Cumberbatch?

Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock
Hiddleston is a form of Huddleston, which is ultimately a place name: "the settlement of (a man named) Hudel."  Hudel is a diminutive form of the name Hud(d), from which we also get Hudson (son of Hud(d)). So this must mean that Tom Hiddleston lived with Paul Newman!?!?  (Derp!) The "settlement" meaning arises from the -ton affix. It was tun in Old English and meant "settlement or enclosure" (most settlements were enclosed by a wall or fence of some sort) and of course gives us the word town.  This suggests that Tom's family came from Yorkshire or possibly even Dumfries and Galloway in Scotland (both locations are home to towns called Huddleston; the one in Yorkshire is the original). Any road... (for us Americans, that's Yorkshirespeak for "anyway..."), if your name is Hiddleson, it's possible that your family dropped the T, but it's also possible that your ancestor was the son of Hudel (making Hiddleson a patronymic).

Cumberbatch is another place name, suggesting that Mr. C's family hails from Cheshire, where there was a stream of that name.  The stream got its name from the personal name Cumbra, which ultimately means "Cumbrian" or Welsh and was a popular given name, and Old English bæce "stream" or "beck".  Alternatively, the stream could have been named for the more general "stream of the Welshmen" (no potty jokes please!).  Some people prefer to minimize any Welsh family heritage, but the Cumberbatches should be proud to be the owners of such a venerable old surname (after all, the Welsh have had professional poets since the Dark Ages and they have a National Eisteddfod - they can't be all bad!). But, of course, since Cumbra was apparently a popular name at the time, there may be no Welsh connection here at all.

Do you have an unusual or perplexing surname?  Let me know and I'll try to sort it out for you.  Now for some fun involving both Tom Hiddleston and Benedict Cumberbatch: Dance Off!  There is also this Benedict Cumberbatch Anagram Generator!