December 08, 2006

Crimson = worm?

I've been slowly making my way through Pynchon's Against the Day. It's been slow because I've been busy, and also, well, it's just slow, at least so far. However, a few days ago I got to page 156, where Kit Traverse meets his would-be benefactor Scarsdale Vibe in New Haven on the weekend of the Yale-Harvard game at some point shortly after 1900:

Pre-game passions were running high. Venerable professors of Linguistics who had never so much as picked up a football had been earnestly reminding their classes that, by way of the ancient Sankrit krimi and the later Arabic qirmiz, both names for the insect from which the color was once derived, "crimson" is cognate with "worm". Young men in striped mufflers knitted by sweathearts who had duitfully included rows of flask-size pockets ran clanking to and for, getting a head start on the alcoholic merriment sure to prevail in the stands.

The business about "crimson" and "worm" seems to be sort of true, like a lot of things in this book. The American Heritage Dictionary's etymology for worm:

Middle English, from Old English wurm, variant of wyrm. See wer-2 in Appendix I.

The reference to the Appendix takes us to:

Conventional base of various Indo-European roots; to turn, bend.
Derivatives include stalwart, weird, vertebra, wrath, wrong, wrestle, briar, rhapsody, and worm.

The AHD's entry for crimson gives the etymology as:

Middle English cremesin, from Old Spanish cremesín, Old Italian cremesino or Medieval Latin cremesīnus, all from Arabic qirmizy, from qirmiz, kermes insect. See kermes.

And kermes, in turn, is from

French kermès, short for alkermès, from Arabic al-qirmiz, the kermes, probably from Sanskrit kṛmi-ja-, (red dye) produced by worms. See kwṛmi- in Appendix I.

And when we go to Appendix I (the list of Indo-European roots) we find:

Worm. Rhyme word to *wṛmi-, worm (see wer-2). carmine, crimson, kermes, from Arabic qirmiz, kermes, borrowed from Sanskrit compound kṛmi-ja-, “(red dye) produced by worms” (-ja-, produced; see genə-), from kṛmi-, worm.

Wikipedia has a more elaborate discussion, including some relevant chemistry and biology.

Posted by Mark Liberman at December 8, 2006 09:13 AM