Sunday, March 23, 2014

Cobbling Together Some Etymologies

Cobb Salad: 
Cobb salad.  I love a good Cobb salad. The salad itself is relatively easy to put together — ham, eggs, tomatoes, avocado, chicken, Roquefort cheese, and greens.  It's the dressing that matters most to me, and I found a recipe I like.  While searching through recipes on-line, I also found Saveur's version, and it explained why the salad is so named. It is named after its inventor, Robert H. Cobb, part-owner of the famous Brown Derby restaurants in Los Angeles.  He came up with the dish in 1937 — it is said that he threw together what he could find in the kitchen for a late night dish, and a menu mainstay was born. Wikipedia gives even more detail on this, though a source is not cited:
The Hollywood Brown Derby is the purported birthplace of the Cobb Salad, which was said to have been hastily arranged from leftovers by owner Bob Cobb for showman and theater owner Sid Grauman. It was chopped fine because Grauman had just had dental work done, and couldn't chew well.
That is an entertaining, if possibly apocryphal, bit of information on the origin of the Cobb salad.

On researching the Brown Derby, I learned that there were eventually four Brown Derby restaurants in L.A.:
Brown Derby:
Wilshire Boulevard (the original, opened in 1926, and shaped like a derby hat), Hollywood, Beverly Hills, and Los Feliz. These restaurants figured prominently in Hollywood of the 1930s, 40s and 50s.  Stars flocked there to eat, and star-watchers flocked there to see them.  Sadly, the restaurants had all closed by the 1980s.

After researching the salad name, I began to wonder about other cobb- and cob-related words. There are several.  First is the surname Cobb, which is thought to have come from the Middle English nickname or personal name Cobbe/Cobba, related to Old Norse Kobbi. All of these are thought to derive from a word that meant "lump" — lump in this sense referred to a large (round) man.  This was curious, but interesting. However, it got more interesting when I looked up cob.  I knew this word to refer to horses, male swans, and to (sweet) corn, but the first sense in the OED is "a great man, big man, leading man" (from as early as 1420).  What could horses, swans, and corn have to do with big men or leaders?

Welsh cob:
Horses called cobs are stout, short-legged ponies.  A cob is also a male swan.  Further, a cob of corn is the seed head of the corn plant.  Two different senses are coming through here: a short, stout horse could be thought of as round, or lump-shaped.  On the other hand, a male swan is the head swan, and a cob of corn is the seed head.  Both of these senses can be connected with the body part known as the head.  It is often round (certainly so in humans) and it is, rather obviously, a head, and the figurative leader of the body.  The OED doesn't like to make this connection between the two senses of cob ("round" and "leader"), but John Ayto does (in his Dictionary of Word Origins, 1990). It is indeed an attractive suggestion, for an obsolete English word for "top of the head" is cop. This appears to have mutated into cob in the word cobweb, so couldn't it have mutated into some of the other cob words?   Cop is an old word for "spider," being short for attercop, which derives from Old English ator "poison" and coppe "head."  Ayto goes on to suggest that cop/coppe (and thus cob) could very well be related to Latin caput "head."  Other English words that derive from the Latin are cap (head covering) and cape (with the sense "hood," a type of head covering).

There are several other meanings of cob that include the round sense (some of these are dialectic): the stone of a fruit; a testicle; a small stack of hay; a knot of hair; a lump of coal; an apple dumpling.  Then there is cobblestone, referring to the rounded shape of the stones. Cobble in that sense is a diminutive form of cob. The head sense is found in an obsolete meaning of cob: "the head of a (red) herring."

Now, what about the other obvious cob/cobb words: cobbler (person) and cobbler (dessert)?  The dessert meaning is chiefly American and dates from around 1859 in the written record.  The OED does not suggest an etymology, but Robert K. Barnhart, in his Dictionary of Etymology (1995), suggests a connection with cobeler, "a wooden bowl or dish."  He dates that word to 1385, but the OED does not have it (though the OED, and the on-line Middle English Dictionary, to which the OED on-line links, have cobeler as an early form of cobbler "shoe mender"). Others have suggested the dessert is so named because it consists of fruit baked with lumps of dough placed on top, taking us back to the "round" or "lump" senses. As for the person called a cobbler, or a shoe mender, no one seems to know its origin (it dates from about 1362).  Cobble "to mend roughly" or "to put together roughly" is a back formation from cobbler "shoe mender" and dates from around 1496.

How about the UK expression cobblers for "nonsense"?  That is apparently from rhyming slang: cobbler's awls = "balls" (testicles) or "rubbish."  As I've tweeted before, Americans are not very familiar with rhyming slang, but we do use a bit.  Here's that tweet: 
Americans do use rhyming slang:raspberry (raspberry tart=fart) & dukes ([put up your] dukes=hands (Duke of York=fork (fork=slang for hand))).
The shorthand and somewhat cramped style of the above quotation were employed to keep the length at 140 characters or fewer, the cardinal rule of Twitter.

There are other words that start with cob-.  What about cobalt?  It is not related to those above.  It, instead, comes from German Kobold "goblin".  Early German miners named it thus because the mineral occurred with arsenic and sulfur, which often made the miners ill.  Further, as an impurity, it lessened the value of the silver ore being mined.  The miners attributed cobalt's presence to mischievous goblins.  Several etymologies of the German word have been suggested: that it derives from kuba-walda or "ruler of the house"; that it comes from kofewalt "a spirit controlling one room"; and that it comes from German elements meaning "spirit of the pigsty."  German supernatural creatures appear to have been quite specialized!

A cobra:
There is another cob- word that I did not think of immediately, and when I did, I felt sure it wasn't related to the words with etymological senses of "head" and "round."  Cobras are, after all, snakes that are not native to English-speaking regions (or even regions where Latinate languages were native), and surely, I thought, their name is derived from an indigenous African or Asian term.  However, that is where I erred.  The name cobra is short for Portuguese cobra de capello "snake with a little hood," referring, of course, to the cobra's ability to enlarge the appearance of its head by expanding its hood.  Cobra here derives from Latin colubra "snake." While it is not related to the above cob- words, it is Indo-European in origin, like the other cob- words.  It dates from 1817.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

T is for Texas, TOWFI and Twitter

We had some relatively wild weather in northern California this week. Some of you may recall that I have a B.S. in meteorology (weather, not meteors.  Greeek meteoron meant "something high or lofty" and came to mean "phenomena in the sky or heavens"), and I grew up with crazy weather in Texas.  When I moved to California, little did I know how much I would miss a good thunderstorm.  So when I saw an interesting cloud formation outside my office window last week, I snapped a photograph and promptly posted it to my local National Weather Service's Facebook page.  The cloud formation in question was mammatus.  If you follow TOWFI on Twitter (where I tweet links to language-related articles of interest to TOWFI readers, and I also provide brief etymologies), you may have seen the mammatus photograph when I tweeted it to Jim Cantore of The Weather Channel, followed by a tweet (to TOWFI followers) explaining the etymology of mammatus. I'll speak a bit more about mammatus later.

However, while my tweet referenced udders, the National Weather Service, on their Facebook page, responded to my post to them with the following:

The "utter" looking clouds ... appear to be mammatus from this picture.  The overall weather pattern and atmospheric stability would support this type of cloud today.  Thanks for sharing.
The word in quotation marks stands out.  Of course the writer meant udder.  How could such a mistake be made?  Utter and udder are two different words with very different meanings.  British English speakers must be particularly puzzled by this.  The key here is pronunciation.

In the U.S., we are what those of us here at TOWFI like to call non-tauic (this is not a technical term; it's just one we made up based on an existing technical term).  To explain this, we must start with the term non-rhotic (this is, in fact, a technical term and not one that we made up).  Most British English speakers are non-rhotic, that is, they do not pronounce r if it is followed by a consonant. To go with that, they have the linking r, where the r is pronounced if it is followed by a vowel (in the word roaring, British English speakers pronounce both r's, and in "far and away" the r in far is usually pronounced) .  In fact, many British English speakers also insert an r between vowels where one doesn't exist, and that is called the intrusive r.  An extreme example of this, for Americans, occurs with the Mike Myers character Simon, from Saturday Night Live.  This character is a child who likes "to do drawRings" (see the character on YouTube).  The r is inserted between draw and -ings.  Canadian Mike Myers' parents were both from Liverpool, England, and this may explain his fascination with accents of the British Isles (he also did a Scottish accent occasionally on SNL; his voice for the animated character Shrek was done in a Scottish accent, as well).  A less extreme example of the intrusive r would be a British English speaker calling someone named Amanda "AmandaR."

That's all well and good, eh?  What about utter and udder?  In America we are non-tauic, in that we often do not pronounce our t's as t's.  We sometimes pronounce a t within a word as a d, or we don't pronounce it all and substitute it with a glottal stop.  Mountain is a good example of a word where we substitute a glottal stop.  What is a glottal stop? An example of a glottal stop is the sound made when we say "uh-oh."  The dash can be said to represent the glottal stop. Many Americans say "mao-un" (or "mao-in") where the dash again represents the glottal stop.  Utter, on the utter hand (sorry), is a case where the t is pronounced as a d.  This is so common that it leads to some misspellings, such as in the case of the NWS Facebook post. The poster was apparently more familiar with the spelling of the word utter than that of the word udder, two different words that are pronounced exactly the same by many in the U.S.  Others make the same mistake: perform a Google image search for utter and you will get a few images of cows (along with many images of otters!).

Matthew McConaughey
A brief aside regarding rhotacism:  I'd like to point out that Texans are rhotic, that is, Texans pronounce their r's.  In fact, they sometimes insert r's where they don't belong (my grandmother used to say "tomater" for tomato and "pillar" for pillow, and she lived her entire life in Texas).  Actors trying to speak with a Texas accent very often decide to go non-rhotic.  This, unfortunately, is inaccurate.  There are a few dialects in the deep South of the U.S. that are non-rhotic (non-rhotic dialects also exist in New England).  The Texas dialects are not among them (and Texas is not considered to be in the deep South). Texans pronounce their r's with gusto.  Just listen to Matthew McConaughey in True Detective (a superb series on HBO in the U.S. and on Sky Atlantic in the U.K. - here's an interesting article on it). That is a real Texas accent (he is, after all, from Texas and appears to be quite proud of it).   There is apparently now an app for teaching actors how to properly speak with specific American accents.  It is called The Real Accent App: USA.  The app includes a Dallas accent, and I can't wait to hear it: I'm a Dallas native!

Now, back to mammatus.  One of the tweets in the screen shot above tells you that this cloud formation is so named because of the pendulous shape of the cloud, resembling hanging teats or udders.  You can read a previous TOWFI discussion of mamma-related words here.  Interestingly, back in Texas, I most often saw mammatus clouds in association with severe weather, which sometimes included tornadoes.  Here in California, tornadoes are rare (though they do occur), but mammatus does turn up here from time to time, without any accompanying severe weather.  However, it is an indicator of some pretty good atmospheric instability, a requirement for (but not always a producer of) severe weather.  (Here are some terms and definitions related to severe weather, from the National Weather Service.)

An udder
Since this is ultimately an etymology blog, we really should look at udder and utter.  Udder is an old word, turning up in Old English and Old Saxon, as well as several other Germanic languages.  In Latin it was uber, and Greek and Sanskrit had cognates.  The Latin form also gave us exuberant from the Latin adjective uberus meaning "fertile".  The sense went from "[lactating] teats" to "fertile" to "abundant or overflowing," and then "abundant or overflowing in emotion."  (Latin uber should not be confused with German ΓΌber "over.")

Utter means, etymologically, "outer" and is, not surprisingly,  cognate with outer.  Utmost is another relative.  Utter and utmost have the sense of "outermost," and the sense shifted to "going to the most outer (or utmost) point; extreme" (from the OED). Thus, an "utter fool" is the most extreme of fools.  Calvert Watkins suggests that the Indo-European root here is ud- "up, out", which also gave us ersatz (via Old High German) "substitute or imitation," the sense being of putting something "out" and replacing it with something else.

And with that, I am utterly exhausted and will now retire to catch up on True Detective.