working out an etymological puzzle

Paul Johnston paul.johnston at WMICH.EDU
Sun May 8 16:21:33 UTC 2011

This reminds me of some of the transformations from Irish you get in Traveller's Cant, i. e. Shelta, which is an encoded language--nothing to do with taboo per se, but with keeping outsiders from understanding it (for instance, "monicker"= name from Irish ainm and the suffix -og), or for that matter, Pig Latin.  I can't see the Greeks doing this with this term unless they had some kind of play language we don't know about formed along the same lines, and even then, as you say, they weren't exactly puritanical about (male) nudity.  Other than that, could the "no" part be re-analyzed as a prefix (as if from <IE n-) and dropped?  Or the first vowel deleted and the initial ng-, disallowed by Greek phonotactics >  g- ?  Could be talking a whole bunch of crap here, but these were my first reactions.

Paul Johnston
On May 8, 2011, at 10:36 AM, Laurence Horn wrote:

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> Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
> Poster:       Laurence Horn <laurence.horn at YALE.EDU>
> Subject:      working out an etymological puzzle
> -------------------------------------------------------------------------------
> 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.)
> LH
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