Announcing a new etymological dictionary

In past posts I alluded to a special project I have been working on. Indeed, after a year of work and countless delays, I am happy to announce the launch of the Spanish Etymological Dictionary! Noticing an absence of a free online etymological dictionary of the Spanish language, a friend and I worked hard in our free time to fill that void. We hope that the site will serve as a resource to the curious and the autodidact alike. Please enjoy!

Link to the site.

Update on me

Life has been crazy busy. Busiest it's been since 2014, which was my personal Year of (Work) Hell. 

I think one thing that is interesting is the growing public awareness of historical linguistics. We have much more work to do, but it's encouraging to see the use of Proto-Indo-European in popular media. 

Most famous is probably the use of Proto-Indo-European in the movie Prometheus. Featured heavily both by the android David and others (being intentionally vague for those of us who have not seen the film). 

Also worth a quick mention is that three "quasi" dialects of Pre-Proto-Indo-European were created for the video game Far Cry Primal

It's encouraging to see greater use of historical linguistics in the use of major artistic pieces.

A quick word

So yeah. The post on Latin stress was problematic and was subsequently criticized by my readers. Because I don't have time to address Shoni's comments and make appropriate revisions, I've decided to delete it. I suppose that's preferable to leaving it up.

Laissez-faire Linguist List

Here's a question: at what point is pseudo-science too outside the mainstream? I ask that because today I saw LinguistList's web resources page links to the Edenics webpage. 

LinguistList is sort of the back hub for linguists, both professor, student and amateur. They host the largest repository of linguistics resources and websites. LinguistList is sort of the directory of linguists for all. 

Now, because they simply catalog, you find a lot of varying quality among their sites, from top tier professor academic pages to a weirdo's page for silly people. Obviously some blogs are made by language enthusiasts which contain mistakes. Other pages are the pages of fringe linguistics theories. Hey, that's cool too. Fringe theorists keep the conversation going as well. 

But at what point does a theory cross the line? How about when a page is no longer about science but about religion masquerading as science? LinguistList links to the Edenics page. The Edenicists have no qualms about telling you that they believe all languages trace back to a "Garden of Eden" single language parent. Monogenesis is one thing, but these folks are the creationists of linguistics. Is this appropriate? 

Update: A modern philological society?

A belated Happy New Years to you all. 

My original intent of the Cranberry Letters was to popularize historical linguistics. In other words, to bring the facts of language change to regular folks. When I began, back when the Cranberry Letters was just a blog on Google, I just answered topics I thought were fun: confirming/debunking language myths, attacking pervasive "bad linguistics," answering popular questions I found on Reddit. As traffic increased, the blog became popular enough to warrant its own web hosting. 

I always wanted the site to be semi-academic. The Cranberry Letters could be a bridge between the linguist's desk and the amateur language lover's computer, akin to the Economist on political issues. But the site leaves me with more questions than answers.

How does one best engage the public? Or to the point, are websites enough? 150 years ago, there were philological societies in major cities. Could a regional semi-academic philological society thrive today? It would function like a club, perhaps aligned with a local college, and invite speakers (professors, independent researchers, learned enthusiasts) through voluntary donations, with time for questions & answers after. On other days, the work of amateur enthusiasts would be supported, and given a venue to advocate their ideas in a public forum. Is this even possible?

We would need a city with a metropolitan population large enough to support to interest in the niche field. As long as the number of interested members is sufficient, active leadership could maintain a modern philological society. With the tangent support of a local academic or of a university's existing undergraduate/graduate linguistics club, it could even thrive.

How American became the official language of Illinois

Hey, guys. I've been busier than ever these days, even if it's the holiday season. Please enjoy this classic article from the old blog, written September 12, 2013.

~ C.L.


Washington J. McCormick, was your typical 1920s congressman. A lawyer with degrees from Harvard and Columbia, and formerly a State Representative in Montana, he was elected to United States Congress in 1921. But when McCormick failed to win re-election in 1922, he decided to spend his lame duck months proposing unpopular legislation, and as a Republican with a strong independent streak, Representative McCormick argued that the United States of America adopt American as its official language. As quoted in The Nation:

I might say I would supplement the political emancipation of '76 by the mental emancipation of '23. America has lost much in literature by not thinking its own thoughts and speaking them boldly in a language unadorned with gold braid. It was only when Cooper, Irving, Mark Twain, Whitman, and O. Henry dropped the Order of the Garter and began to write American that their wings of immortality sprouted. Had Noah Webster, instead of styling his monumental work the "American Dictionary of the English Language," written a "Dictionary of the American Language," he would have become a founder instead of a compiler. Let our writers drop their top-coats, spats, and swagger-sticks, and assume occasionally their buckskin, moccasins, and tomahawks.

The bill failed.

Nevertheless, McCormick's firey passion stoked some coals in the hearts Illinois' congressmen, who thought it was a good idea. By the end of 1923, Illinois had adopted "American" as the official state language. Thus it was secured that the official language of Illinois was American and not English.

Drop your swagger-sticks: Representative W. J. McCormick of Montana's 1st District is in town. Image credit: Wikipedia and Library of Congress

Drop your swagger-sticks: Representative W. J. McCormick of Montana's 1st District is in town.
Image credit: Wikipedia and Library of Congress

Today it is controversial to adopt an official language. Many find it hypocritical, or even ignorant, to say the official language of America is a European tongue while none of us learn real American languages like Oneida, Algonquin, or Navajo. That was not a problem to Illinois representatives in 1923, who were more concerned with separating America from England.

Frank Ryan, sponsor of the bill in Illinois, intended the bill to be a patriotic symbol. Like McCormick said, it would serve as a declaration of linguistic independence from England. Ryan included anti-British language in the Illinois bill, saying American loyalists "have never become reconciled to our republican institutions and have ever clung to the traditions of King and Empire." Ryan's vitriolic words were removed from the final edition that became law.

The bill was amended in 1969 and "American" was changed to "English." Thus ending one of the weirder chapters in American legislative perspectives on language.

Read the 1923 Draft of the bill at the Language Policy archive!

Read further discussion of Illinois' policy at the PBS' transcript of Do You Speak American?

Read the history of the controversy of English as an official language in Language Loyalties.

Bad Linguistics #5

It's difficult to gauge the appropriate response to historical linguistics papers of poor quality. On the one hand, they are engaging substandard work and passing it off as scholarly. I've talked about how problematic this can be, and how it worsens public ignorance of historical linguistics,  in several posts here on the site. On the other hand, I don't want to shut the author down so much that they quit the field altogether. I just want them to stop publishing bad work. It's that simple.

When I saw the title of a new paper in the Journal of Social Science, "The Indo-Europeanization of the world from a Central Asian homeland: New approaches, paradigms and insights from our research publications on Ancient India" by Sujay Mandavilli, I confess I got a little excited. Basically there are two possible homelands considered by academics for the ancient Proto-Indo-European language: the south Russian steppes (the majority view) and Anatolia (the minority view). Anyone who advocates a different location is going to have their work cut out for them and I love authors who are willing to stake their reputations and do the heavy lifting. Remember when Casule argued Burushaski and Proto-Indo-European are related? Or when Forni argued Basque and Proto-Indo-European are related? (I'm still waiting for Blevins/Egurtzegi's publication on Basque and PIE, by the way). I read every paper from them and from their critics with a highlighter springing gaily from line to line. It's fun.

But this paper on a Central Asian homeland... this was just bad. Here are some busters from the beginning:

Jacob Grimm also demonstrated the regularity of sound shifts of Indo-European languages as they distanced from each other. The latter came to be known as Grimm’s Law of transformational grammar. 

No, Friedrich von Schlegel and Rasmus Rask demonstrated the regularity of Grimm's Law. The rule is named after Jakob Grimm for historical reasons, but it was Rask's accomplishment. I'm not sure who calls the sound change "Grimm's Law of transformational grammar," since a google search shows the phrase is exclusive to Mandavilli and no one else.

Romance languages such as Spanish, French, Italian (These are believed to have been
influenced heavily by Latin) are yet another sub-group of Indo-European.

Influenced?

Germanic languages such as English, Dutch, German (from Gothic which is an extinct East
Germanic language and Old English, which is a West Germanic language. The nature of
relationship between these and modern languages is to be probed further).

Wait, what? German derives from Gothic and Old English even though the author acknowledges that Gothic is East Germanic while English is West Germanic? "The nature of relationship"? "These and modern languages"? Except for Gothic, all of those are modern languages. What is going on in that paragraph?

Anatolian, including Hittite, Palaic, Luwian, Lydian, Lycian, Milyan, Carian and other languages of ancient Asia Minor (this is a mostly extinct group).

Melchert will be excited to hear only most of this family is extinct.

Alright, that's too much bad linguistics for me. I can't keep reading. By the way, those examples only come from pages three and four. Imagine the trove of factual clunkers in that publication. If you wanna go hunting for some doozies, feel free to leave them in the comment section below.

Velarde's harvest

I cannot recall why I found myself deep into the 1892 issue of the Almanaque de la ilustracion, a publication of Bohemian learning for well-read Spaniards, but it was with great interest that I found the poetry of one José Velarde. I must confess, I was not drawn to Velarde's writing because of its beauty or charm. The poems are typical of the pre-modernist style; traditional meter and rhyme occasionally broken for effect and to introduce other voices and characters, all very standard fare for the time. It was by chance that my eyes struck a strange allusion in Velarde's work:

Sembré alazor y me salió anapelo,
Y con la fe, perdida de esperanza,
No querer consolarme es mi consuelo.

"I sowed saffron and reaped wolfsbane, And with faith, lost hope, Not wanting to console myself is my comfort." (translation my own)

Sowing saffron and reaping wolfsbane. Where had I heard that before? The poem was published without a title, though the table of contents list it as Alegria, poema, canto V. Modern resources were of no use. None of them even hinted as to a reference. I had to dig deeper. 

Then I remembered a very unusual dictionary by John Stevens, published in 1726, a dictionary known of decidedly archaic spellings. Words like abuelo, are spelled aguélo. Under aguélo we find "Ay, aguélo, sembráste alaçor, naciónos anapélo," which Stevens says is a proverb when something expectedly good proves unexpectedly misfortunate. The origin, he recounts, is of

stevens2.png
...a grandfather who marry'd a granddaughter to one he had great conceit of, and he proved a meer rake; whereupon another granddaughter cry'd, "Grandfather, you sow'd saffron (which is rich and cordial, meaning he thought he had got an excellent son-in-law) and there came up poisonous wolfsbane;" that is, he proved a vile husband.

Stevens probably relied upon Covarrubias' 1611 dictionary, Tesoro de la lengua castellana o espanola or Franciosini's 1620 Spanish vocabulary (written in Italian). In both, the proverb, listed under anapelo, is defined as hoping for good correspondence but returned in kind with ingratitude. Both lack Stevens' etymology. Stevens' popular etymology is echoed in Caro y Cejudo's 1792 dictionary, under abuelo, though does not reference Stevens. Del Hierro's 1726 dictionary lists the phrase as popular, this time under avuelo, but does not trace its origins.

The phrase made its way into English, albeit briefly. Thiselton's 1889 The Folk-lore of  Plants records it in use in Devonshire, "You set saffron and there came up wolfsbane." Thiselton believed the phrase to native to England, relating its origin to Exeter farmers. But Exeter folk love to take visitors for rides and Thiselton may have been taken on one himself. The fact that the oldest attestations of the phrase occur in continental Europe discount's Thiselton's theory.

Thiselton's aside, the phrase seems to have died before the 19th century. I could find no mention of the phrase in writing after the 1790s. Velarde's reference was patently obscure even in his time. Velarde wrote Alegria at the end of his literary career. Most of his works came out in the 1870s and 1880s.  Velarde was evidently a low-key polymath in addition to being a poet. In the 1892 publication of the Almanac for example, Velarde translated the Sanskrit Ramayana into Spanish. Velarde died on the 22nd of February, 1892.

You can find more about José Velarde here (Spanish only).

Love, dock and rackets

Pictured is the dock plant (rumex obtusifolius), a common but valuable weed native to Europe. If you've ever had the misfortune to be pricked by stinging nettles, the leaf of a dock can be applied to the skin to relieve the pain. The hairs of a nettle prickle deliver acetylcholine acid and seratonin, which burn and irritate the skin, and a histamine, an irritant that encourages you to scratch and deliver the acid further into the skin. The leaves of a dock may be chewed and rubbed along the site; grinding the dock leaf releases antihistamines that soothes the irritation and saliva promotes healing.

The healing property of the dock plant is long established in folklore. The first mention of a dock occurs in Bald's Leechbook in reference to its ability to cleanse the bowels while a doctor attempts to cure a stomach ailment. 

"...sume þære readan netlan twigu grene, sume betan oþþe doccan on geswettum wine seoþað...(II, pg. 218 in Cockayne's). "[For the cleansing of a wamb], some seethe in sweetened wine the twigs of red nettles green, some beets or docks."

Bald was a Saxon doctor, writing during the time of Alfred the Great (925-955 CE). Dock was not easily identified, even in Bald's time, and may have stood for several plants. The translator Thomas Cockayne warned that the rigor of modern botany did not exist in the time of Bald. Dock most often referred to rumex, but may have referred to similar looking plants as well. The historian may recall William Turner's remark in 1562 on common folk, "We have a great manner of dock, which the unlearned take for rhubarb" (Herball). 

Because the use of the word "dock" could apply to a small number of plants, this may be why we see dock prescribed for so many medical problems. After Bald, dock is used in a dozen or so healing recipes of the Old and Middle English period for ailments as various as eye pain or stomach illness. Despite dock's appearances in many different potions and antidotes, use of the dock plant began to center around its use against the nettle.

In Troilus and Criseyde, oft regarded as Geoffrey Chaucer's finest work, we see the first reference to dock's use against nettle's bite:

"Thow biddest I shulde love another..and lat Criseyde go!..I wolde nat do so, But kanstow playen raket, to and fro, Nettle in, dok out, now this, now that?" (4.416). "Thou biddest I should love another and let Criseyde go! I would not do so, but canst thou play racket to and fro, nettle in, dock out, now this, now that?"

The meaning here is obscure to the modern reader. Obviously Chaucer's line is rooted in metaphor, but, less clearly, Chaucer is referring to ancient proverb as well. On the surface, the speaker Troilus is rebutting the advice of Pandarus. Pandarus advised that Troilus let Criseyde go, that he will return to fall in love with other women. But Troilus asks Pandarus rhetorically if he has reduced the act of love to a game of racket, loving woman after woman as one hits a weathercock again and again. Chaucer's direct intent with the phrase is to disagree with Pandarus, but this does not explain nettles' relationship with the game of rackets.

Geoffrey Chaucer by an anonymous 17th c. painter.

Geoffrey Chaucer by an anonymous 17th c. painter.

To solve this mystery we need to work backward by divining the meaning of "nettle in, dock out." The phrase was probably a charm spoken during the act of applying dock leaf to the site of a nettle sting. The words are recorded in 1851 as part of a larger folk charm, used in the Northumberland area, "Nettle in, dock out; dock in, nettle out." To his wit, the plant historian Roy Vickery found a number of similar charm songs, all recorded in the 19th century. The phrase was evidently repeated during the act of pulling out the nettle's stinger and applying the dock leaf: "in the past, it seems that the accompanying words were as important a part of the procedure as the physical process" (Simpson & Roud 2000). 

While the charm was used in seriousness during the remedy of a nettle's prick, it must have gained currency as a phrase in racket as well. For Chaucer to be able to reference the words in passing requires that the audience understood its application, both in the healing process and in the racket game. Thomas Usk, a contemporary of Chaucer's - they worked together in customs under the king - wrote in his Testament of Love, "I have not played raket, 'nettil in, docke out', and with the wethercocke waved." (Note the spelling differences of Usk's from Chaucer). The charm said during the extraction of the nettle became a metaphor for the back-and-forth nature of the game of racket. Thus Chaucer is able to extend this metaphor further, by applying it to the game of love. Love, to Chaucer, is not "to and fro" but a lasting relationship between two people.


Cockayne, Thomas Oswald. Leechdoms, Wortcunning and Starcraft. Longman, Green, Longman, Roberts, and Green. 1866.

Simpson, Jacqueline and Stephen Roud. A Dictionary of English Folklore. Oxford Universty Press. 2000.

Vickery, Roy. "Nettles: Their uses and folklore in the British Isles". Folk Life. Vol. 31, Is. 1. 1992.