August 30, 2013

Words of the Month - Twice-Borrowed

        As everyone knows, English loves to borrow words from other languages.  What you may not know is that sometimes we love borrowing so much that we borrow the same word multiple times over the years, giving us a different English word each time.

        My first example starts with Vitula, the Roman goddess of joy and victory.  She gave her name in Latin to mean "stringed instrument."  This word got borrowed into the Germanic languages and thence to Old English, and became the modern English fiddle.  (I should note that, like much etymology, this is not entirely certain.  Some think fiddle is from purely Germanic roots, but I like the Latin etymology better, because of the next piece…)
        The Latin word for stringed instruments wasn't just borrowed into the Germanic languages.  It also developed in the Romance languages, and centuries later English encountered the word again in its Italian forms, viola and the diminutive violino.  We cheerfully borrowed these words, too, giving us, obviously, viola and violin.  So English now has two different but synonymous words for this particular stringed instrument, both borrowed from the same root Latin word.

      While we're on the subject of stringed instruments, let's talk about the Persian sitar.  English borrowed this word (by way of Hindi) around 1845, I'm assuming when English-speakers encountered the instrument in India.  But our sitar is not the first time we borrowed that Persian word.  The Greeks borrowed it first, whence it eventually reached Spanish.  By this time, in the seventeenth century, the word looked a little different: guitarra.  And when English borrowed the word from Spanish we got guitar.  But it doesn't end there.
        The Greek word got borrowed into Latin, and borrowed from Latin into Old High German.  Around 1850 English struck again, borrowing the German word and getting zither.

        Here's a final pair, based on a Turkish word for a refreshing drink.  At the end of the sixteenth century English borrowed an elegant French word for a cool drink of fruit juice and water, which had developed out of that Turkish word.  That gave us sorbet (which didn't come to mean a frozen dessert until the middle of the nineteenth century.)
        Not long after borrowing sorbet, we went straight to the Turkish source and borrowed the word a second time, getting sherbet.  (I don't know why we bothered since it meant the same type of drink and proceeded to develop into the same sort of frozen dessert, the only difference being that sherbet may have dairy or eggs, but sorbet never does.)
        Just to sweeten the etymological deal, I'll include one more related word.  The Turkish word that gave us sorbet and sherbet derived from an Arabic word for a drink.  That Arabic word was borrowed into Old French and became sirop, from which, in the late fourteenth century, English borrowed the word and got syrup.

[Pictures:  Old King Cole, rubber block print by AEGN, 2001;
Washburn: the world's standard, anonymous artist from Ladies' Home Journal, 1910;
The Zither Player, woodcut by Tobias Stimmer, latter half of the sixteenth century (Images from NYPL Digital Gallery).]

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