Noises off? A preserved tribute to onomatopoeia and seasickness


When trying to solve etymological puzzles, we often come across references to sound imitation where we don’t expect them, but the basic examples come as no surprise. It seems that nouns and verbs describing all kinds of noises should illustrate the role of onomatopoeiaAnd in fact, umending in mis reminiscent of quiet singing (crooning) and perhaps invites peace, while drumwith his doctor-, probably evokes the idea of ​​the noise associated with this instrument. Very usefully, some dictionaries inform us that monotone is a word of unknown etymology. Maybe, but if both um and drum refer to acoustics, why is monotonous existence so devoid of its sweetness and noble fury?

Admittedly, the origin of even the simplest words describing sound can cause problems. Abuused in Irish war cries, ended up in English as part of the word hubbub, an onomatopoeia certainly, but with a history that had to be reconstructed. A similar case is English babble, gurgling, rattle, babble, crash, to crush, and their tastes. Although their nature is obvious, each has a story to reconstruct. Some have indisputable related in other Germanic languages and even beyond. Compare the post on waste (March 24 and 31 March 2021). One often wonders if such words can be borrowed. Several examples show that they can. Compare hoarse. This adjective is a late borrowing from Latin, which means that the distance between the primitive sound imitation and the word we know and use increases. I have also emphasized more than once how bookish and “unnatural” our interjections are (ah, bah, Oh, eh, Oopsnot to mention the upsyDaisy Things).

A particularly instructive case is rowdiness “a noisy fight; line.” The word has been “known” (i.e. common in texts) for about a century and a half. It has surfaced in American English, but no one knows where it came from. care about his shady heritage either, judging by the lack of rowdiness and his parents (rowdiness “disturbance,” ruction “fight” and exuberant “turbulent, violent”) in my huge database of English etymology, which, by the way, is full of the most exotic regional words (compare ruzzum “an ear of grain” rykelot “a bird” and rynt “get out of the way”) and of course slang. For rowdiness I only have a popular rating in The Atlantic Monthly (1991). the original WD often uses the epithet whimsical such formations, and whimsical indeed they sometimes are.

(Image: “Persons suffering from seasickness on board a steamer.” Reproduction of an engraving after R Seymour, via Watch and learnCC BY 4.0)

The word that for a long time has been most prominent in my mind and whose story is the subject of this blog post is noise. A classic case of sound imitation? No way! The etymology of the word is supposed to be “known”, but its development raises many questions. The Greek had two forms corresponding to the English “seasickness” (pay attention to the “sea” component!): nausea and boating. Latin borrowed the second of them (we recognize its root in English nautical; and remember Captain Nemo Nautilus “small boat”). The word has remained in all modern Romance languages ​​and has reached English in the form nauseabut in old (and modern) French it also gave noise “outcry, trouble” and was taken over by Middle English. Elsewhere in the old Romance languages ​​the meanings are “prejudice, dispute; wound” and even “dung” (thus in old Italian).

Frederic Diezfounder of Romance philology and author of the first etymological dictionary of Romance languages ​​(1853), suggested that noise was derived from the Latin nausea “seasickness, disgust”, the “disgust” producing a “great outcry”. All students of English etymology seem to have accepted this idea. The direct source of noise (already if in Middle English) was Old French noise ~ nose. Moreover, the English adjective repugnant was formed from Middle English Nopefor boreda borrowing from Old French anoi “vexation.” So the English annoy seems to have nothing to do with noise. However, it may be useful to consult Dictionary of the Century and Cyclopedia.

This multi-volume work had the misfortune to be launched when the first volumes of the WD began to appear and was thus destined to fall into oblivion. Today, few people open it, but it is an excellent reference work. One of its many editors was Charles Scott, responsible for etymology. His detailed explanations deserve praise, and consulting them often pays off. This is what he wrote on noise:

(By Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1538, via WikiArtspublic domain)

“…according to some, from the Latin nausea ‘disgust, nausea….’; according to others, from Latin noxia ‘injury, damage, damage, injury…’; but neither explanation is satisfactory in form or meaning. Confusion of form and meaning with some other words, such as those represented by repugnant [‘hurtful, mischievous, noxious’ (obsolete)] and noisy [‘harmful, troublesome’; obsolete], annoy, Nope [‘trouble, affliction’ also obsolete], boringetc seems to have taken place.

He was the eminent philologist Leo Spitzer who made the most serious attempt to trace the path of a Romance word to French and English noise. Old French source of English noise already had the meaning we know of it. Early Romanesque texts show that the idea of ​​’sickness, languor’ often led to ‘grief’, and here is Spitzer’s main point: in the extant medieval texts, grief is inseparable from lamentation. So is English lament relative to misfortune (by many steps, but the connection is safe). Throughout the Middle Ages, we find ritual lamentations, that is to say scenes of violent lamentation following the death of a loved one. It should be added that this custom of inviting professional mourners (“mourners”) to the family reunion of a deceased person has been recorded in many countries, and we have vivid descriptions of the rite dating back to the XX century. In the words of Spitzer, “We can…assume that noise in the ‘noise’ sense came from a background of loud moaning or mourning.

Saint Jerome at work.
(By Domenico Ghirlandaio, 1480, via Wikimedia Commonspublic domain)

The evolution of the word, as Spitzer presents it, went through the following stages: “seasickness, vomiting”, going hand in hand with “disgust, boredom” (thus in classical Latin), “disease” or “grief” ( thus in the canonical text of the Bible of Saint Jerome, known under the name of Vulgate), and finally, “lamentation (strong)” and “quarrel, quarrel, discord; noise.” He cited a partially parallel development in Portuguese nojo: from “disgust, vomiting” to “sorrow” and “mourning”. It is an impressive example of reconstructing an otherwise incomprehensible semantic shift. One might wonder why the starting point for the long road he (along with Diez and almost everyone else) envisioned was such an unexpected concept as seasickness. My doubt is in Old French rather than on Middle English, for, as noted, English borrowed the French word wholesale. It is partly for Romance scholars to decide whether Charles Scott’s doubts were somehow justified. At this point, we won’t dispute Spitzer’s etymology and won’t be annoyed by a few noisy details.

Image selected by Raphael Ishkhanyan on Unsplashpublic domain


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