working out an etymological puzzle

Laurence Horn laurence.horn at YALE.EDU
Sun May 8 14:36:57 UTC 2011

According to all sources, the root of "gymnasium", "gymnastics", etc.
is cognate with that of "naked", "nude", and "naan", viz.
Proto-Indo-European _NOGw_ 'naked'.  The derivations in the other
(non-Greek) cases are clear, given Grimm's Law and other
well-attested processes.  The tricky one is Greek, where the root
_gymnos_ or _gumnos_ (depending on your upsilon-transcription
preferences) literally meant 'naked'; the gym was where you worked
out in the nude.  Makes sense, but how did _NOGw_ (or, in the
suffixed form, _nogw-mo-_) turn into _gymnos_?  Aha! says the
(Watkins) AHD Dictionary of IE roots.  It was a case of metathesis
resulting from "taboo deformation"!  The idea seems to be that even
though the Greeks had no problem working out at the gym, and
competing in the Olympics, in the buff, when it came to identifying
the activity and location they resorted to a lexical fig leaf. Now
taboo avoidance is all well and good, but I'm still wondering about
the exact process that turned "nog(w)mo" into "gymno", which looks
more complicated than the result of a simple metathesis (as in horse
< hros, Farv < Favre, pasghetti, or the usual pronunciations of
"iron" and "irony"). Maybe a double metathesis? They couldn't have
been *that* embarrassed! Does anyone know a more detailed story about
the origin of _gymnos_?  Are there other established cases in which
metathesis arises from taboo (rather than phonetic/phonotactic
factors)? Browsing the web didn't lead to any great insight, but
maybe I was looking in the wrong places.

(In any case it was noble of the Greeks to save us the trouble--if
they hadn't modestly opted to hide their nakedness lexically if not
physically, instead of going to the "gym" we'd have found ourselves
working out at the "nyg", and we'd no doubt have long since invoked
our own taboo avoidance.)


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