Word of the Day: eye

Word of the Day: eye.


You go to an oculist to see about your eyes. Are the words related?
They don’t seem to be, at first glance.  We get oculist from Latin oculus, eye, and it’s hard to see how you get from there to here.
But wait, look again! Latin oculus is trying to fool us with its diminutive suffix –ulus.  That’s a common suffix in Latin: Romulus Augustulus was the last Roman emperor, a mere lad when the German warlord Odoacer came with his army and said, “Young fellow, you’d really rather be a monk, wouldn’t you?”  And Little Augustus squeaked, “Yes, sir!”  So we really have to look at the oc-.  Now, Grimm’s Law tells us that you shouldn’t dismiss those magic beans.  Actually, it tells us to look for an h where Latin has a c.  So we are looking for a word with a vowel and a hard h, like the German ch in Ach, du lieber!  But funny things happen to that throaty old consonant when it comes in the middle of a word.  It can turn into a guttural g, a voiced glottal spirant.  It’s voiced – you let your vocal cords vibrate.  It’s glottal – you pronounce it with your tongue pushed backward toward the glottis.  And it’s a spirant – you force a stream of air through the narrow opening you’ve made, so that you can hold the sound.  Pronounce the ch in German nach or Scottish loch.  Now do the same thing, but use your voice.  It will sound as if you are gharghlingh.  That’s what happened to the consonant; and so we get Anglo Saxon eage, and Modern German Auge.

But funny things can also happen to back-consonant g when it’s harassed by front-vowels e and i.  In Late Latin, the sound turned from g to what we denote with a j: hence Italian gelo, cold (cf. English gel, gelid).  Or it turned into the very hard h we hear in Spanish Germano: Hherman.   In French it came to rest at zh: gentille, zhawn-TEE.  In Late Old English, it turned into a hard y: so Old English geard, earth, becomes Modern English yard.  If that seems strange, consider the y-j confusion that some Swedish and Spanish speakers suffer: Swedes singing Yingle Bells, Yingle Bells, Yingle all the way, or Dominican ballplayers answering jes, they yust want to do what jew know will help the team.  So that is what happened to eage: it was pronounced a-yya, and eventually became Modern English eye. That didn’t happen in the Krautic tongue, because German favored the guttural sounds.  Their guttural moved forward and became a normal g: Auge, ow-ga.

And yet: German has Ei, meaning egg, pronounced like our word eye.  Is there something more going on here, Dr. Watson?  I don’t really know.  The ancient word for egg is basically just a vowel or a diphthong.  It’s prime for confusion.  We do know that in some places in early modern England, an eye was an egg, so to speak, and an egg was an eye (or a yegg!).  For a while, the pronunciations for the white thing from the chicken competed with one another, so that, shortly after the advent of the printing press, we have in one of the published books a pleasant account of a man from the “egg” area putting up at an inn along the southern coast of England.  He tries to order eggs, but the landlady doesn’t understand what the heck he’s talking about.  It turns out, though, that she knew what eyer were – that’s what other customers would order.


So we may make Dr. Seuss’ meal even more unappetizing, thus:


I do not like green eyes and ham,
I do not like them, Sam-I-am!

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