October 23rd, 2014

The picture to the left shows Castleton in the Peak District, North Derbyshire. On the skyline is Peveril Castle. What has this to do with the word in the title? All will be revealed.

My friend JDL has a copy of a work in Derbyshire dialect written in 1870. It has been in his family for many years. Its title is Owd Sammy Twitcher’s Visit tu ‘t Gret Exibishun e Derby. You may be interested in a PDF version of the tale to be found in the Salamanca Corpus.

The story, which involves a Castleton farmer and his wife who visit Derby to see the exhibition, was written by Joseph Barlow Robinson, who at the end of his preface tells us he is:

A Darbysher Mon,
Whose Ansisters wor nashon big foaks i’t
Peke, moor than foar hunded yere sin.

The word nashon puzzled both JDL and me. It’s clear what it means, because the author kindly included a glossary in which there is an entry defining nashon grond as “very grand”. But how does it come to mean that? The OED comes to the rescue. It says that the word nation is a pared down version of the word damnation and was used as an intensifying adverb quite widely, but is now rare.

Photo credit: T Chalcraft. Used under this license.

The Gue

October 12th, 2014


I was going to do a simple post about where I went yesterday afternoon. You can see it in the picture above. It is Porthleven. Nice clouds, eh? Anyway, I thought I’d check up on a few facts before posting — such as: it’s the southernmost port in mainland Great Britain. While doing so, I came across a reference to one of the streets in the village — The Gue.

Glue, I know about. If memory serves me well, a grue is a nasty beast that might eat unwary players of the old text adventure game Zork. But Gue? Google was no use. All I got was page after page of estate agents’ adverts for properties available (now or long ago) in the street. OED tells us that a gue is, or rather was, a stringed instrument used on the Shetland Islands OR an obsolete word for a rogue. Neither of these meanings seemed very relevant.

Further searching threw up the place-name Gue Graze, which is on the coast close to Mullion, not too far from Porthleven. Gue Graze is a source of soapstone (aka steatite) which was important in the early porcelain industry in England. None of the pages I found said anything about the meaning of the name, however.

Then came the aha! moment. Maybe it is a Cornish word that has undergone an initial consonant mutation k → ɡ. Off to the usual books. I was right. Kew is Cornish for “hollow, enclosure”, and has cognates cau in Welsh and kev in Breton. Once I found this out I realised that almost every day I pass by a street whose name in English is Hea Close. This now has a street sign which bears the Cornish name too — Kew an Hay.

Fire, place

October 6th, 2014

Phillip Minden’s comment on my last post prompted me to conduct a very cursory survey of varieties of Italian to see what they have for the words fire and place. You can see the result of this in the table below. A word of warning though — these are of course orthographic forms. I haven’t been able to find any online dictionaries which give pronunciations for non-standard varieties.

Standard Italian is the only variety I have been able to find which has a voicing mismatch for the intervocalic consonant in these two words.

It occurred to me whilst doing this survey that St. Italian has been fairly resistant to lenition, compared to some other Romance languages. Take for example the Latin word-ending -atum In St. Italian this has turned up as -ato, while Castilian Spanish has -ado.

So why there is a mismatch in St. Italian fuoco and luogo remains a mystery.

Hocus Pocus

October 3rd, 2014

This is one of those ‘why have I never wondered about this before?’ affairs.

Consider, if you will, the Italian word luogo and the Spanish word lugar, both meaning “place/position”. Both derive ultimately from the Latin word locus, though in the case of the Spanish word I would guess via the adjective localis, with a dissimilation l → r in the presence of another l. Be that as it may, both words show lenition of the original Latin intervocalic consonant.

Consider now the word for “fire” in the same two languages. These derive from Latin focus, meaning “hearth”. In Spanish we have fuego. All well and good. Same lenition. In Italian we have fuoco! Someone please tell me why.

Queen of the castle

September 29th, 2014

No, I am not coming down yet.