Sunday, January 31, 2010

Dr Johnson's Aardvark

It is variously said, including in Blackadder I think, that Samuel Johnson's Dictionary both does and does not include the words 'aardvark' and 'sausage'. Well, having finally got around to doing a little research I can confirm that 'aardvark' is not there but 'sausage' is.

This is perhaps not surprising, since, although the Dutch were in southern African over a hundred years before Dr Johnson published his magnum opus, and had presumably given their own name to the animal by then, the word did not enter the English language until British settlers arrived at the beginning of the 19thC. The earliest quote in the OED is from 1833, and curiously, the second edition of the OED (1989) still considers it to be a non-naturalized word, and hyphenates it (as aard-vark). The taxonomic information it gives is also known now to be highly inaccurate, since it is not a close relative of the anteater at all, but rather it belongs, as confirmed by DNA analysis, to the fascinating superorder Afrotheria, which also, rather surprisingly, includes the elephants, shrews, tenrecs, manatees, dugongs and hiraxes. Lots of rapid change going on there.

'Sausage' is recorded in English from the 15thC (the product is much older, and probably the word as well) and comes from the Latin salsicus-a, via the Vulgar Latin and the Norman French, whence the conversion of the lateral to a close back vowel (something similar happens in some London speech, where 'balls' becomes /bouz/).

I can't find a reliable etymological dictionary of Dutch or Afrikaans, to see how early the word 'aardvark' is, but it is safe to assume that it was coined in the late 17thC. All of which explains why I never get anything done, since a casual mention of a word has got me spending half the afternoon researching all this. The good thing is that, being 'Homo blogens', I don't have to let it go to waste.

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