working out an etymological puzzle

Douglas G. Wilson douglas at NB.NET
Mon May 9 04:05:09 UTC 2011

On 5/8/2011 10:36 AM, Laurence Horn wrote:
> ---------------------- Information from the mail header -----------------------
> 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.

Here's a short article I happened to see (don't know whether there's
anything new):

Surely not every word in ancient Greek had Indoeuropean origin. If one
can invoke 'taboo' to explain this grotesque 'deformation', I suppose
one can also consider (among other possibilities) the possibility of
avoidance, consequent disappearance of the IE reflex, and replacement
from some (non-IE) neighbor language. Just woolgathering.

-- Doug Wilson

The American Dialect Society -

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