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Wednesday 5 August 2015

Nuts and Bolts: new words from the New World.

The English language is getting bigger all the time. Some words have been around ever since the English landed in England, but most have been borrowed (or made up) in the centuries since then. 

When English-speaking people arrived in North America, the first native people they met spoke Algonquian languages. 

So, did the English-speakers form a committee to think up good English names for all the new and wonderful things they saw around them? Or did they just pinch the Algonquian words that were already in use?

Or, did they take the Algonquian words, mangle them a bit in their stiff English mouths, misunderstand half of them, and use those?

Well, what do you think?

It's a bit of a shame about the mangling and misunderstanding, but English ended up with some brilliant words, all the same: caribou (it means snow shoveller); chipmunk; moose (which means stripper - with reference, I hasten to say, to tree bark); hickory (the English got this a bit wrong - they thought hickory was a tree, but it was actually a drink made with hickory tree nuts); moccasin; muskrat (here the English mangled things so much they ended up with a word that means quite the wrong thing: a muskrat isn't a rat at all. The musk bit was originally mo.┼ík, which means bob at the surface of the water, and the rat bit came, by devious paths, from exkwe, which means head. Unless the whole word comes from muscascus, which means it is red); then we have pecan; powwow (they got this wrong, too: it actually meant shaman); raccoon (the name probably means something to do with a weeing fox); squash; squaw; terrapin; toboggan (instrument for dragging); tomahawk (instrument for cutting) and woodchuck (a vaguely plausible attempt at ockqutchaun).

After all that, all I can really say to the Algonquian people is thank you.

Yes. Thank you all really very much indeed.

Word To Use Today: one from an Algonquian language. Pecan, perhaps. It means nut with a hard shell.

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