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May 17, 2019  |  Friday words #172  |  575 hit(s)

People everywhere tend to believe that their language is the finest of all the languages. This natural inclination can sometimes extend to a belief that their language must therefore be the mother of all languages.

If you also have a theological bent, this belief can take on religious overtones. What language did Adam and Eve speak in the Garden of Eden? This was a question of interest to scholars in the Middle Ages. And a 16th-century Dutch doctor named Johannes Goropius Becanus (born Jan Gerartsen van Gorp) reckoned he'd figured it out: they spoke Brabantic. By amazing coincidence, Brabantic—a dialect of Dutch—happened to be the good doctor's native tongue.

Gerartsen spent considerable effort on his theory, which included supposedly Brabantic origins for the names Adam and Eve. The theory did not find a lot of backers. In fact, it was so poorly received that it spawned this week's new-to-me word: goropism, based on the doctor's Latinized name. (The term goropism was supposedly coined by Leibnitz himself, who had unkind words for the doctor's work.)

Goropism actually describes two ideas. One is the notion that some language known today must have been the Ur-language. (Pro tip: no.) Goropism can also mean a madey-uppy word origin, which derives from Gerarsten's strained efforts to make names in Genesis seem to derive from Dutch.

One does encounter the first sense of goropism occasionally among particularly chauvinistic speakers of a language.[1] As for the second sense, you'll find plenty of examples of that. Has anyone ever told you that crap came from the name of the dude who invented the flush toilet, Thomas Crapper? Or that the word posh comes from "port outward, starboard home"?[2] Those are fabricated word origins, or to honor our boy today, goropisms. False etymologies. Another name for these, as coined by the linguist Lawrence Horn, is etymythologies.

I learned a bunch of this from a highly entertaining and very informative blog post by Brian Powers, who also tweets as Languages Around the Globe. A recommended follow.

Speaking of word origins—real ones this time—today I have fifth column. I’m reading Kate Atkinson’s novel Transcription, and ran across this:

… in which one of the characters says, "I presume you are familiar with the ins and outs of the fifth column."

I knew more or less what fifth column was, but I didn't know where the term came from. The generally accepted origin is in the Spanish Civil War of the late 1930s. The story goes that as Nationalist forces converged on Madrid in four columns, the general Emilio Mola Vidal talked about a "fifth column" (tho in Spanish: quinta columna) that was undermining the Republican government from within the city. The expression got into English when it was used in 1936 by a New York Times reporter who was writing about the war.

There's some dispute about whether Mola Vidal actually ever talked about a quinta columna, or whether it was in fact used by a Communist leader about the Nationalist sympathizers. As if that didn't muddy things up enough, apparently the term might have been used as early as 1906 by an Austrian official about Serbian nationalists. For our purposes—that is, how we got the word in English—we can safely assume that it came from somewhere in the Spanish Civil War, and probably via the New York Times article.

As an aside, it's interesting to me that fifth in fifth column really has no significance in itself; it was just based on the number of military forces in play at the time. Now I'm wondering how many other numerically based terms we have (like fourth estate) that are the result of just … counting up.

[1] For example, I have personally tangled with some folks who maintained that Sanskrit was not just an ancient language, but the original language, and certainly the source of all European languages.

[2] The lexicographer Kory Stamper has this thought: "Acronymic etymologies are, by and large, total horseshit."

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