The Russian Bear Growls
During the recent week when Dmitri Medvedev became Russian President, I wrote a column detailing the etymologies of his given names and surname. Since his surname Medvedev means descendant of an ancestor named ‘Bear,’ I had occasion to examine the roots of the Russian word for bear, medved.
Dozens of internet sites, purporting falsely to know Russian etymology, have been telling readers for months that the Russian word for bear, pronounced myedvyed means literally ‘honey-knower.’ No, medved does NOT mean honey-knower.
I received several emails, some polite, some rude, from our usual dear old friends, the e-experts who turn out to know very little indeed about the subject upon which they pontificate so vaticly.
First here is a passage from my column:
Медведь or Medved, a Honey of a Russian Name
The common Russian surname Medved is an apotropaic circumlocution for ‘bear’ meaning literally ‘honey-eater.’ This is an old Slavonic periphrasis for bear. Med is Russian for honey, and the ed root means ‘eat.’ The ed and yed roots are related to eсть [yest’] (Russian ‘to eat’) and are cognate with other Indo-European verbs like Latin edere to eat’ (which gives English the adjective edible) and even with the English verb to eat. Although the Russian word for honey is med, the combining form is medv- which becomes medu, a partitive genitive of med, so the literal meaning is “eater of honey.”
Another Russian word containing this Slavic root is the interesting and racist Samoyed, the name of a people and a breed of dog. Samo-yed means ‘self-eater’ in Russian, a synonym for cannibal! The Samoyed people do not call themselves by that name. They possess their own proper ethnonym, and it does not mean ‘eating people is fun’ or ‘cannibal.’ They call themselves Nenets (ethnonym: ненэця; Russian name: ненцы). They speak the Nenets language.
Russian Мед is Cognate with English Mead
The Russian word for honey ‘med’ is cognate with the name for a drink made from fermented honey, one of the oldest liquors made by humans, namely: mead.
Other Indo-European cognate relatives of mead and med are:
methu Greek ‘intoxicating drink made from honey’
madhu Sanskrit ‘honey, drink made from honey’
But the etymon or root maybe of Middle Eastern origin, because also apparently related are: m-t-q, a Semitic triliteral root, one of whose Hebrew reflexes is mathoq ‘sweetness.’ The m-t-q root also means ‘to suck,’ for mother’s milk is sweet to the nursing babe. One Arabic relative is matqa ‘sweetness.’
Now here’s one of the e-letters I received challenging my etymology:
“Dear Mr Casselman,
As you seem to be a proficient researcher, I would recommend that you verify my statements lest they be 'lay' (no pun intended) etymology, and if they prove to be true alter the entry accordingly.”
Kind of a snotty last paragraph, pal.
But, let's see how your bumptious contention stands up to scholarly scrutiny. (Heh-heh-heh)
Apparently I did not explain the etymology clearly enough.
Here’s part of my corrective reply to this walking Slavic encyclopedia:
The ed is Medved is indeed eat.
I will explain why medved means honey-eater.
This word is made up of two roots, but their spelling and their correct division catches up persons with no real knowledge of Slavic etymology.
The first root is medv. Note: the /v/ goes with the med, the 'honey' root.
The second root is ed or better, yed, the 'eat' root.
Hence the usual Russian pronunciation: myedv+yed.
A bear eats honey. It is far too smart to “know” it.
The Proto-Indo-European root is medu ‘sweet’. The /u/ or /v/ is part of the ancient word and that /u/ survives into early Slavic forms.
Yes, the modern Russian nominative is med or myed, but several of the other Russian cases of the word are medu, namely the locative, the dative, and the partitive singular, all medu, from which the compound word was made.
Medved partakes of a very common pattern of Russian compound nouns, namely the partitive genitive of a noun as the first element of the compound (medv, medu) and a verbal root (ed or yed= eat) as the second element of the compound.
The Slavic root ved ‘know’ is nowhere to be found in the Russian word for bear.
Etymology is not what you feel about a word, based on your particular genetic salad. It is what patient study knows. Try some study, before you go parading around the internet blowing a horn which may well turn out to emit not triumphant brass notes but meek and fecal drivel.
Copyright © 2012 William Gordon Casselman
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October 26, 2011
Welcome to the Enchanted Forest
By WB Johnston
This review is about Bill Casselman’s latest e-book about words: Where a Dobdob Meets a Dikdik: A Word Lover’s Guide to the Weirdest, Wackiest, and Wonkiest Lexical Gems (Kindle Edition)
“Wade Davis, lately of National Geographic, once described each living language as “an old-growth forest of the human spirit.” Once you decide to enter the kleptomaniacal woods of our mother tongue, what you need is more than a tour guide. This is no Disney-fied ‘keep-your-hands-inside-the-car-at all-times’, point A to point B, clear-cutting mining of language. You, here, are in the hands of Sir William of Cassel, a genuine shaman modestly posing as a simple lover of words.
Leave it on your desk at work and trust that someone will riffle through it when you are out at lunch. Shamans are magicians of the highest order. The work of their hands and hearts is game-changing. Or, hey, put it on your Kindle and just feel comforted that you can wander back out into the forest with Bill even in the middle of a boring lecture.
(Casselman replies: Thank you so much, Dr. J., for the kudos.)
Jenni French of San Francisco, California writes on her blog “My Corner of the Universe” for March 19, 2011:
Casselman, Bill. Where a Dobdob Meets a Dikdik: A World Lover’s Guide to the Weirdest, Wackiest, and Wonkiest Lexical Gems. Avon, MA: Adams Media, 2010.
And the author has quite a way with words, so I have found myself rereading many sentences in this book and slowing my progress through it.
My current favorite sentence is found in a discussion of dog hybrid breed names: “What a revolting concatenation of cutesiness and smarmy nomenclatorial treacle parading under the name of canine hybrid breed names” (19).
I’m sure I’ll have another favorite sentence in a day or two.
This book is just that good and just that entertaining.”
(Author Bill Casselman replies: “Thanks, Jenni!” )
Just a reminder that this book contains my ALL-NEW word essays, none of which are available anywhere else in print or online.
Cindy Lapeña on her blog “Creativity Unlimited” of July 19 ,2011, writes:
Posted by mimrlith in 365 Things to Look Forward to.
19. Starting a book
To a certified bibliophile like me, a.k.a. bookworm, one of the most exciting things to look forward to is to start reading a new book. In fact, sometimes the prospect of starting to read a new book is so exciting that I have to hurry to finish the book I am currently reading, just so I can start a new one.
If there’s one thing I can’t resist, it’s a book, especially if it promises to be a good one. Of course there are certain books I just won’t touch or be seen with, but at the risk of being hung by my thumbs by fans of such literature, I will not mention any genres in particular. . .
Seeing a book with a title that totally captivates me, like Where a Dobdob meets a Dikdik (yes, that is a book title!) has me so worked up, I just can’t wait to dive in. I imagine all sorts of deliciously fancifully outrageous words with a title like that. Is it obvious? I just love books on words. You won’t believe how many dictionaries I own. Or books on lexical oddities and other lexical explorations. Yes, I am a logophile of sorts. I love the new words I pick up from new books. I relish finding out the meanings of all manner of words and phrases and expressions. What could be more fun?”
(Replies author Bill Casselman: Please scroll to bottom of page or click here to link to a free seven-page preview of my book, Where a Dobdob Meets a Dikdik.
Thursday, February 3, 2011
Dear Mr. Casselman,
. . . I revisited the paraprosdokian page, and have finally quit laughing again at “Casselman’s Conclusion.” You were not unkind to the “profligate prof-lets.” During my years as an acquisitions editor, in rejection letters I often quoted Prof. Moses Hadas, classicist at Columbia University, who wrote a young scholar in response to having been sent the prof-let’s first book, “Thank you for sending me your book. I will waste no time reading it.”
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