July 10, 2007

Annals of Exoticism

Robert Neal Baxter sent this quotation from Michel Malherbe, Parlons Maori (p. 20):

De plus, les associations d'idées conduisent à des emplois souvent inattendus: le mot "ihupuku" qui signifie frugal est employé pour dessigner la classe économique dans les avions. Tout aussi amusant, le mot "utu", signifiant prix, paiement, avait originellement le sens de vengeance, et s'appliquait au prix a payer pour laver un affront.

In addition, the association of ideas often leads to unexpected usages: the word "ihupuku", which means frugal, is used to designate economy class in airplanes. Equally amusing, the word "utu", meaning price or payment, originally meant "vengeance", and applied to the price to be paid in recompense for an injury. [translation by myl]

Robert comments:

I really do find it difficult to understand why people find such trivial facts as this so quirkily amusing obstensibly based exclusively on their being used in "exotic" languages by "exotic" peoples. Surely it's no more "amusing" than the fact that the French word for "work" ("travail") derives from an ancient torture device, the "tripalium"...

We've posted about linguistic exoticizing before, more famously in John McWhorter's "Mohawk philosophy lessons" (11/18/2003), and (with a different twist) in various posts on "Etymology as argument".

This case is especially striking because the first semantic extension cited for Maori -- "frugal" used for "economy class" -- seems remarkably unremarkable, being more or less identical to the European-language equivalents.

And Robert's reference to the etymology of travail is a good point. The OED says that travail, v. is

... held by Romanic scholars generally to represent a late pop.L. or Com. Rom. *trepāliāre, deriv. of trepālium (582 A.D. in Du Cange), an instrument or engine of torture (prob. f. L. trēs, tria three + pālus stake, being so named from its structure). The etymological sense was thus 'to put to torture, torment', passing at an early stage into those of 'afflict, vex, trouble, harass, weary'. Through the refl. sense 'to trouble, afflict, or weary oneself', came the intrans. 'to toil, work hard, labour'. Thence also (as is generally thought) the verbal ns. OF. travail m. and travaille f., ME. travail, -aile:

This made me idly curious about what a trepalium actually was. Lewis & Short seems to have no entry for that word; in fact, search of the whole Perseus site for "trepalium" turns up nothing. And Google's index didn't turn up much besides references to a French Death Metal band.

There's a fantasized picture here, sure to appeal to robot-fetishizing masochists, but the fact that the name of the device is misspelled doesn't fill me with confidence that its structure is rendered in a historically accurate way. If you have better information, let me know.

[As for English work, its etymology is not much fun at all, being merely derived from Indo-European *werg- "to do". Though the AHD does tell us that other English words derivatived from this same root include allergy, surgery, wrought, and orgy. ]

[Update -- Robert N. Johnson and Eulàlia de Bobes both pointed out that Lewis & Short has an entry for "trĭpālis,  that has, or is propped up by, three stakes or pales: vineae, Varr. ap. Non. 219, 18". But this would have been a structure for holding up grapevines, though I suppose it might have been repurposed for punishment.

Eulàlia also reported on changes over time in the (Spanish) dictionary of the Real Academia de la Lengua:

They first (1739) refer to 'tripalium' and they mention it is a torture instrument;

then, in the following editions, they don't inform about the etymology (1780-1789);

later on, then they change their mind and they say it comes from a gothic word "dreiban" (1884);

in 1914 they stop mentioning the etymology of 'trabajo' or 'trabajar' (they just give the italian and french translation);

in 1950 they don't even give those translations;

and in 1956 they inform again it comes from 'tripalium' but they say it is an instrument to fix the horses;

they keep this version until 1984, but in 1989 they remove the etymology.

Finally in 1992 edition they mention again it comes from 'tripalium', but don't say anything about the meaning of this word in Latin.

She also observes that "'tripalium' and 'tripalus' in Google find quite a few occurences and explanations".

Marie-Lucie Tarpent informs us that the Petit Robert gives a horse-restraint meaning for (French) travail, but specifying construction in stone:

- meaning 1 ((summarized)): a) painful state, suffering, including that of a woman in childbirth; b) work [a long list]
- meaning 2: ((quote)) Techn. Dispositif servant à immobiliser les grands animaux (chevaux, boeufs) pour pratiquer sur eux certaines opérations. "On ne les ferre ((les chevaux)) que dans un travail des plus solides non en chêne, mais en granit." (Hugo)
A contraption serving to immobilize large animals (horses, oxen) in order to perform varions procedures on them. "They shoe them (horses) only within a very strong 'travail', made not of oak, but of granite".

James Russell turned up J. Cary Davis, "'Trabuculu >> Trabajo' the Case for and against", Hispania (60)1 pp. 108-110, 1977. This paper cites some sources using the spelling "tripalium", so I should not have complained about the artist's spelling merely on the basis of what's in the OED.

More to the point, Davis begins

To those of us who once blithely accepted in good faith that model of phonological development first suggested by Diez -- Latin TRABACULU(M) >> Sp. trabajo, Port. trabalho (et al.) -- it came as a rude shock to find most later authorities summarily dismissing this etymon in favor of the Latin TRIPALIUM. The evidence for the latter choice, in various forms and languages, was clearly overwhelming.

but concludes

Do we not have here a confusion or contamination between trebejo-trebelho-trabelho, from whatever source, and trabajo-trabalho from TRIPALIUM (TRABACULUM??), influenced surely by the various derivatives from TRABE itself?

In other words, if I undersand his argument, he's suggesting that the Romance words for work were... eggcorns! ]

[Update #2 -- John Cowan writes:

I think, based on a bit more research, that no post-Roman ever bothered to describe a trepalium, and everything we think we know about it is based on context and etymology.

You can get a bit more, and better, information by googling for the classicizing spelling tripalium; however, that form not anywhere in Perseus either, probably because it postdates their cutoff point.

I was a little bit familiar with the word through a passing mention of it in T. H. White's lesser known novel Mistress Masham's Repose, in which the Professor is trying to figure out the Latin word trifarie (having lost his du Cange somewhere in the piles and piles of books all over his study) and briefly wonders if tripalie is meant.

In case the backstory doesn't instantly spring to mind, here are some of the relevant passages -- on pp. 75-76:

and on p. 248:

I'm afraid you'll need to (re)read the book in order to understand how this fits into the story.

Boy, they sure don't write children's books the way they used to. Or wait, maybe they do. Sort of.]

[Update #3 -- Chris Coon sent in this passage from Jonathan Raban's 1993 NYT review of Lars Eighner's Travels with Lizbeth ("T he View from a Literary Dumpster", 10/10/1993):

In the mid-1980's, Mr. Eighner, who had no college degree, was working as an attendant at what he calls "the state lunatic asylum" in Austin, Tex., when he quarreled with his supervisor and lost his job. Passing effortlessly through the wide mesh of the welfare system, he was soon evicted from his rented shack. With his dog, Lizbeth, he camped out on the floors of friends' apartments, and when his welcome ran out he slept in parks and on roadsides, foraging for food in Dumpsters. For three years he zigzagged between Austin and Los Angeles; a fat, fortyish hitchhiker in badly torn jeans with a dog, for whom few of us would have stopped on the hard shoulder. This wasn't Robert Louis Stevenson with his donkey or John Steinbeck with Charley: Mr. Eighner and Lizbeth's "travels" restore the word to its roots in travail and trepalium, the triple-staked torture of the Inquisition.


[Update #4 - Steve from Language Hat writes:

Interesting post! I have to say, though, it puzzles me that people (I'm not singling you out, I've seen it all over the place) continue to refer to Lewis & Short as if it were "the dictionary" for Latin. It may have been state-of-the-art when T.H. White published Mistress Masham's Repose in 1946, but it was rendered instantly obsolete when the first fascicle of the Oxford Latin Dictionary appeared in 1968, and ever since the OLD was published as a complete book in 1982 there's been no excuse for referring to L&S except as a fond memory or a historical curiosity. It's as if people approached questions about English by referring to Dr. Johnson rather then M-W or the latest Oxford dictionary. Again, this is not aimed at you (except insofar as one might expect linguists to be more aware of such things) -- it seems as if L&S has been so ingrained in the culture (of those aware of the classics, anyway) that it can never be replaced.

True, Latin does not "change" in the way English does, so my Johnson comparison is hyperbolic, but needless to say they've discovered a lot of material and changed their minds about a lot of meanings and etymologies since 1879, when L&S was first published -- not to mention that the latter is in large part based on a translation of Wilhelm Freund's Wörterbuch der Lateinischen Sprache (1834-45)!

However, in this case the OLD wouldn't have changed anything, since they too have tripalis but not tripalium.

I like the availability of Lewis & Short to everyone for free online via Perseus, and I guess that I did unconsciously accept the idea that classical Latin hasn't changed recently. But I'll take pains to check out OLD in the future.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at July 10, 2007 06:32 AM