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EtymoMystery of the Day

November 29, 2010

This morning as I was consuming vast quantities of aspirin to kill my traditional morning headache one of the gods showed up invisibly, tapped me on the shoulder, and said, So Kate, what’s the deal with “swallow” (the verb) and “swallow” (the bird)? How did that all come about?

This was a welcome change from the visit I received the day after Grey Cup 2009. Last year, all the gods showed up and just laughed. You were cheering for that stupid team that won the game and then fucked it up at literally the last second by having an extra person on the field. You are stupid by association! Your home province is stupid! All your friends and relatives who were at the game must be so sad right now!  Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha haaaahhhh! This morning is a step up from that, headache notwithstanding. Thank you, Saskatchewan Roughriders, two-year Grey Cup second-place champions, for merely disappointing me instead of humiliating me last night.

Anyhow, this “swallow” thing was unable to work itself out in my head as I self-medicated myself, so I returned to bed with two reference books: The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots by my platonic soulmate Calvert Watkins (my real soulmate is Dorothea Lasky, a rapping classicist from America who, if you’ll forgive me a scrap of dramatic-teenager Degrassi vernacular, doesn’t even know I exist) and Joseph T. Shipley’s Dictionary of Word Origins, which I borrowed from a friend and is fascinatingly delightful, like a stream-of-consciousness linguist toying with your e(ty)motions. This is a sample entry:

boar. See Adonis.

What?! But now you totally want me to tell you what the listing for “Adonis” says, right? Otherwise you’ll be wondering about the connection between “boar” and “Adonis” all day. That’s how this book hooks you. (Turns out Adonis was attracted to a boar at one point. Love was a more open-minded concept back in the day. Man on man, woman on woman, swan on woman, man on boar. We’ve been through all this before. Anything went. No judgment. It was truly the Golden Age. Well, at any rate, the Golden Shower Age.)

What was I talking about?

Swallow. So first I consult Mr. Watkins because he knows everything. But he turns out to be as disappointing as the Saskatchewan Roughriders. There’s only one entry for “swallow” in the index–and it concerns the verb, not the bird. (Don’t you know about the bird, Calvert? Everybody’s talking about the bird.) “Swallow” the verb comes from swel, meaning “to eat, drink.” Related words include “swill” and “manticore.”

Q: What’s a manticore?

A: Obviously it’s this thing:

Mm hmm. On to Shipley.

Cinnamon cocks! His dictionary goes straight from

surtax: See overture


swarm: see answer.

Both of which entries look like excellent reads, but my question remains unanswered. Ooo, wait–I have a ridiculously huge two-volume, minisculely printed OED. That might help. Let’s just haul Volume 2 of that gigantic thing over and get the magnifying glass out…

Useless!! Re “swallow” the bird: “The etymological meaning is disputed.” Yeah, no shit! What’s the dispute? Where can I get a copy of it? How am I supposed to form a solid etymopinion if I don’t even know what the etymoptions are?

My head hurts…

One Comment leave one →
  1. April 7, 2011 6:39 pm

    I’m glad to see someone else who’s a fan of The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots.

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