Wednesday 2 August 2023

Pedigree etymologee

 I secured my first proper job in a British University in NE England. I spent a lot of time in the University library. Reading to work out what I wanted to teach in my course Evolution: from primeval soup to hominid nuts; at evening book-binding class / workshop; scouring the stacks in search of something for the weekend. I was six years = 300 weekends in post, so by the time I jacked it in to walk up the coast of Portugal, I had borrowed a lot of books. Butterfly me never thought to keep a record of my butterfly reading until I was so many books under the bridge that it seemed futile. Part of me wanted to ask for a download of the electronic records of my borrowings but I was too shy and that never happened. I do remember looking at the date-stamp fiche in the fly of each book and reflecting that I was either a) the first person ever to borrow that book or b) it was years and years since the last person. Reading off piste gave an airing to so many minority books. 

I was reminded of those distant days when I ordered up a 50 year old book from Libraries Ireland towards the middle of July. It arrived (from Limerick) rather quickly because nobody else had wanted to read it since 1976! I was induced to read it by Brett Westwood talking to Michael Rosen in an episode of the latter's Word of Mouth podcast: Lords and Ladies: Folk Names for Plants and Flowers. And the book is Pedigree : The Origins of Words from Nature (1973) by Stephen Potter & Rev. Laurens C. Sargent, which is #56 in Collins New Naturalist series.

There are no car-chases or explosions in this book which was compiled from a ragged collection of Potter's notes after he died. Potter is better is better known for his book Gamesmanship or The Art Of Winning Games Without Actually Cheating (1947). Indeed, notwithstanding the book-plate [L] it is not the book to borrow from the library and read over the next 20 days: it is too dense with Indo-European roots and 17thC citations to be a breezy read. There is a microfont index at the back with 2,000+ entries you need to absorb that much detail over several sessions. Dang but I thought from the context that "from Willughby" was a placename in England but it turned out to be the naturalist Francis Willughby FRS (1635 – 1672). Taking notes from Potter's book of notes could be a Korzybski's Errand because the map will be the territory.

Still and all, I did learn a lot by judiciously plucking words, phrases and explanations from the data-deluge as it roared past my eyes. Potter notes that raven seems to be a long old way etymologically from corvus . . . unless you know that Anglo-Saxon hraefn shares a legitimate first syllable root with cor. That rang a bell because of a similar connexion between our and L. cor, cordis. Both derived from *ḱérd (“heart”):

  • either M.E. herte, from O.E. heorte  from Proto-West Germanic *hertā, from Proto-Germanic *hertô 
  • or L. cordis via Gk καρδιά

With great good timing Aedin Ni Thiarnaigh, of Bláthanna Fiáine Walking Tours was talking up the naming of plants on RTE on Dia do Santiago last week.

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