Did the Ancient Greeks not have a word for 'blue'? Or is it a myth?

Blue is a cool colour (badum-tish!). But apparently, the Ancient Greeks didn’t know about it—at least, they didn’t have a name for it, so claims AsapSCIENCE in its video entitled Why The Ancient Greeks Couldn’t See Blue. I found it via Open Culture who also blogged about it in June under the title Why Most Ancient Civilizations Had No Word for the Color Blue and thought “wow, interesting!” But it appears it might not be strictly true.

The first red flag was this line:

“[…] blue doesn’t appear much in nature,”

Have you looked up lately? Or seen any of the blue flowers available on the planet? Then the comments took hold and critiqued the video a bit more. This from “Tom Neff”:

The Greeks had several words for blue: Kyaneos was dark blue and glaukos was light blue.

This article appears to have been substantially copied from a 2015 Australian Business Insider article.

Uh oh. A quick Wiktionary search throws up etymologies for the words “kyaneos” and “glaukos“:

kyaneos (κυάνεος), from κῠ́ᾰνος (kúanos, “dark-blue enamel”) +‎ -εος (-eos). According to Beekes, probably from Hittite (kuwannan-, “precious stone, copper, blue”), likely from Proto-Indo-European *ḱwey– (“to shine, white, light”) (compare *ḱweytós (“white”)).

glaukós (γλαυκός, “blue-green, blue-grey”). Uncertain origin. Barber reconstructs Proto-Indo-European *gleh₂w-ko-, noting that the root only appears in Greek (Homer, Aeschylus), but Beekes finds an Indo-European origin unlikely.

The more you read, the more you see that blue had lots of names and was very prestigious in ancient civilizations. I’d have expected Open Culture to do a bit more fact-checking and the video shouldn’t have been made in the first place.

Really hoping I’ve not been a hypocrite and spewed nonsense here so please correct me if any of this or the referenced links are wrong because I like to learn!

The etymological identity crisis of Arctic bears

A fascinating read about bears and the Arctic and how their etymological histories are based on anonymity and opposites. The link to the Slovak Studies program at the University of Pittsburgh where the below quote is from is dead so here it is from the Boing Boing article:

The Old Slavic people (the linguistic ancestors of today’s speakers of, e.g., Slovak, Polish, Croatian), Old Germanic people (the linguistic ancestors of today’s speakers of, e.g., English, German, Norwegian), and Old Baltic people (the linguistic ancestors of today’s speakers of Latvian and Lithuanian), who lived next to each other and interacted for many generations, came to believe that if you call the bear by his true name, he would hear and understand, and you would fail to catch him, or he would come to harm you. The bear was the only really dangerous animal in their woods. The original word artko was tabooed. Such beliefs about not calling prey and danger by their “true” names are not uncommon among hunters and people in general through the present.

And then there’s the etymology of the Arctic which basically means “the place of the bear” and Antarctica means the opposite of the place of the bear.

On the surface level, this makes for a rather literal and simplistic naming convention for the planetary poles. The Arctic, the place of the bear, has Polar Bears; Antarctica, the opposite of the place of the bear, does not have polar bears.

That all tracks. Until you remember that “bear” is just a placeholder name for That Big Furry Beast That We’re Too Scared To Mention. And so, the Arctic was technically named as the “place of the thing that shall not be named.” By extension, the name of Antarctica exists in direct reference to that signifier, which itself is a reference to something that shall not be named—literally, “the opposite of the place of the thing that shall not be named.”

I don’t know about you but I want to know what the bear’s real name is!

Cool word oddities and miscellany

I love interesting words and facts about them. Jeff Miller has 20 pages dedicated to them and they’re a joy to read if you’re an etymology fan. Here are a few of my favourites:

  • The Hungarian words újjáépítéséről (“about its reconstruction”) and újjáválaszthatóságáról (“about his/her re-electability”) have seven accent marks. Also in Hungarian alelölülő means “deputy chairperson” (lit.: “deputy fore-sitter”), although this is a made-up word that is not in use.
  • The name MUAMMAR KHADAFI has 32 variants according to the Library of Congress.
  • TWERK was added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 2015. Research by the OED has found the term was first used in 1820 as a noun spelled twirk, meaning “a twisting jerking movement” or “twitch.” It then emerged as a verb by 1848 and the modern spelling was adopted by 1901.
  • An entire book that does not use the letter e, a novel titled Gadsby, was published in 1939.

Read the other 20 pages from here.

Google celebrates the letter 'ñ'

Today’s Doodle artwork, illustrated by Barcelona-based guest artist Min, commemorates the consonant Ñ (pronounced “enye”). The only letter in the Spanish alphabet that originated in Spain, the Ñ is not only a letter but a representation of Hispanic heritage and identity as well.   

The Ñ’s story started with 12th-century Spanish scribes. While hand-copying Latin manuscripts, these scholars of the Middle Ages devised a plan to save time and parchment by shortening words with double letters. They combined the two figures into one and scrawled on top a tiny “n”—a symbol now known as a ”virgulilla” or tilde—to signify the change. Thus, “annus,” Latin for “year,” evolved into the Spanish “año.” 

When did 'damn' become a naughty word?

The folks at Grammarphobia were asked this question and this was the opening excerpt from their response (click the link in the title for the full version):

When the word showed up in Middle English in the 14th century, “damn” was a verb meaning to condemn. It wasn’t until the 16th century that “damn” was used profanely.

English borrowed the term from Old French, but the ultimate source is the classical Latin damnāre or dampnāre, meaning to damage or condemn. (In fact, “condemn” ultimately comes from the same Latin source as “damn.”)

In Middle English, according to Oxford English Dictionary citations, “damn” had three related meanings: (1) to doom to eternal punishment; (2) to pronounce a sentence; (3) to denounce or deplore.

See also: The origins of the “black sheep”

36,336 versions of the 'I know a place' meme

Remember the X be like ‘I know a place’ and take you to a Y meme? Well, Darius Kazemi decided to create over 36,000 variations of it using ConceptNet, a semantic network designed to help computers understand the meanings of words.

As Darius says, there is probably some bad stuff in here but that just adds to the charm.

One of my favourites:

180 degrees be like ‘i know a place’ and take you to the corner

Genius.

Meme related: Conflict in Literature with Daffy Duck and the opposite of ASMR.

Daughters, milking cows, and etymological debates

An Indian woman milking a cow

Victor Mair wrote a very in-depth piece on the etymological origins of the word “daughter” and its connection to milking cows.

I was just thinking how important cows (and their milk) are for Indian people and was surprised that’s reflected in such a fundamental word for a family relationship as “daughter” — at least in the popular imagination.

The etymology of ‘daughter’

Upon further investigation, Mair traced “daughter” back to its roots, via Middle English, Old English, Proto-West Germanic, Proto-Germanic, Proto-Indo-European, and finally Vedic Sanskrit—duhitṛ (“one who milks”).

But rather than take Wikitionary’s word for it, Mair posed two questions to a host of linguists:

  1. Is that analysis reliable?
  2. Is duhitṛ cognate with “daughter”?

Enter a mixed bag of responses for and against the cognate connection. I won’t list them all here but if the answers were on a spectrum, every part of it would be covered but here are two extremes:

duhitṛ is indeed cognate with Eng. daughter. While I’m no kind of Indo-Europeanist, I do recall hearing that connecting it with √duh, dogdhi, etc. is spurious. But I don’t have any references to hand.

Whitney Cox—Associate Professor in the Department of South Asian Languages and Civilizations at the University of Chicago

Vedic duhitár- does NOT mean ‘one who milks’! That’s a 19th-c. myth that was exploded generations ago.

Don Ringer—American linguist, Indo-Europeanist, and Professor of Linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania

Read the article over at Language Log and choose your own etymological adventure. And if you’d prefer articles on milk from other animals, check out pule, made from donkey milk, and cheese made from moose milk.

The origins of the "black sheep"

A black sheep amongst white sheep

Ever wondered where the term “black sheep”, to denote a bad character, came from? Well, language blog Grammarphobia answered that very question but not before taking a counterquestion first:

Q: You say the phrase “black sheep” has been used to mean a bad character since the 17th century. That might be true, but it’s only the result of an even earlier meaning. “Black sheep” is actually a very old weaving term. Black sheep were considered unlucky because you couldn’t dye the wool any other colors.

Grammarphobia couldn’t find any instance of that terminology before or after the bad character definition but suggested a possible link with the “disreputable usage”:

The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest example of “black sheep” meaning a bad character is from a 17th-century religious treatise about the conversion process in Congregational churches of New England:

“Cast out all the Prophane people among us, as drunkards, swearers, whores, lyers, which the Scripture brands for blacke sheepe, and condemnes them in a 100. places.”

They then go further back to the 16th century biblical texts and a passage from the 2013 edition of The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms which suggested that the use of “black sheep” for a person of bad reputation was “based on the idea that black sheep were less valuable than white ones because it was more difficult to dye their wool different colors.”

But a direct link between them? Nothing concrete but not totally implausible. Finally, Grammarphobia discussed the general etymology of “black” as a negative descriptor which would tie the two concepts together, albeit with loose string.

I can still remember the faux debate between White people over the alleged banning of singing “Baa Baa Black Sheep”. You can’t say anything these days. Or in 1997.