Wednesday, 28 November 2012

What's BALD about a bat?

On the TV the other night (last night at the time of writing, but later at the time of publication) I learnt that the name of the vector of puerperal fever was named after the Greek for a bunch of grapes, staphylos, because that's what the bacteria look like. (Bacteria, from the Greek for a small stick - because that's what the first ones discovered looked like.... this game could go on forever.)

On the journey from metaphor to regular lexeme (that's 'word' in plain English), accidents often happen - puns interfere, false etymologies affect spelling, and so on. But it's not so common for a simple manuscript miscopying to affect a word as radically as it affected the French for bat - chauve-souris. But before expanding on that I should justify my offhand use of the word 'metaphor' in my opening sentence - as if all words started life as metaphors.... the very idea!

Well, there is evidence that they did. Looking out of my rain-streaked window I see clouds - cumulus clouds. Cumulus is Latin for 'little heap' - which is what the cloud looks like. Now after the rain, a house-proud property-holder will go out and sweep the dead leaves on the new patio 'into a little heap' - ad cumulum. The Romans had a word for that - not for sweeping up dead leaves (which I'm afraid is a bit of a personal obsession at the moment), but for collecting stuff together: accumulare - whence our 'accumulate'. Guy Deutscher, in his fascinating The Unfolding Of Language: The Evolution of Mankind`s greatest Invention calls language (in a brilliant metaphor about metaphors - a 'meta-metaphor'?)  'a reef of dead metaphors'. In fact, Deutscher says more; it's not just words that were born phoenix-like from dead metaphors; dead metaphors are 'the alluvium from which grammatical structures emerge'. But that's the stuff of another blog. Revenons à  nos chauve-souris.

First, a little background:
The best-known collection of Latin glosses, certainly the most informative for the student of Romance philology. is the so-called Reichenau Glossary. The ...manuscript ... formerly belonged to the Abbey of Reichenau... [But] its most recent editor attempts to situate it... at the monastery of Corbie [Thinks - should I pursue a rathole about the Scottish 'Corbie', a crow (cf Fr. corbeau), a symbol beloved of Benedictine monasteries? No, better not, we'd be here all day...{but see Update}], in Picardie.
(Don't you just love that 'attempts'? I suspect W.D. Elcock, the writer of The Romance Languages , had his doubts.)

The word VESPERTILIONES was glossed in this document as CHAUVE-SOURIS. Elcock goes on:
.... In fact, bats are not noticeably bald ['Nor are coots!' "Down Knowles."], and one is tempted to infer that CALVAS SORICES is a product of 'popular etymology', hiding a quite different word. In most French patois bats are called 'flying-mice' or  'bird-mice'; it may well be that CALVAS is in reality *KAWAS [the asterisk is a convention used to mark a supposed, not attested, form], the Germanic word which survives as the root of Fr, chouette 'owl'.
'Owl-mouse' - for chauve-souris - would make much more sense. But what caused the change from *KAWAS to CALVAS? The careful Elcock doesn't suggest a mechanism. But Joe Cremona, mentioned in a former blog, postulated one in a private conversation (or lecture, to be entirely accurate, but you could have counted the audience on the fingers of one hand). And this idea - though unpublished - strikes me as pretty likely. In some scriptorium a monk asked  'What's this funny squiggle?' Latin and Gallo-romance, had no W: it was many centuries later that the French  borrowed the spelling of whisky and wagon-lits. The monk did his best, with the uneven pen-strokes of a beginner.
The Italian pipistrello
no longer shows the Latin
relationship with evening: vesper

A subsequent copyist, in the scriptorium of Corbie, or wherever, read the wobbly W as an LV, and a chimera was born - at the (misread) stroke of a pen. The Gallic 'owl-mouse' became a 'bald-mouse' (unlike the Italian pipistrello - derived from VESPERTILIO, and recognizable in the English 'pipistrelle bat' - or the Spanish murciego [that's Old Sp.; today it's murciélago]).

Anyway, time's a-wastin'.


Update, 30 November 2012:
The rathole I had in mind referred to this emblem of a school in the road where I grew up. The school was set up and run by the monks of a Benedictine abbey. (I still don't mean to develop the idea, but just throw it out as a talking point. It was at a youth club called 'The Corbie' that I made my debut as a folk-singer.)

PS A merry tale from the lexicographical world

The software that I use when compiling my dictionary is The Macmillan English Dictionary. A feature of this is that when you look up a word the computer pronounces it. When you search for a range of words it pronounces the first one it finds. Yesterday, while checking on the hyphenation or not of 'leasehold' I did a search for the string *se* .The first on the list of *se* words was arsehole (which the computer duly enunciated - but in a very polite voice, so I didn't take it personally.)


Update: 2015.06.14.10:20
Added picture.
Update: 2015.06.15.10:45
Added clarification in an appropriate colour (the colour of Bene... sorry, it just slipped out).
Update: 2018.03.25.19:55
Removed old footer

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