Migratory words

Every language I know has them: the same word with wildly divergent meanings, so much so that lexica list them as I, II, III … But I always wonder at the connections between these words, especially in light of what might be called the semantic cluster. For example, in Danish, kort means map, card and short. Why short? Or nød means necessity (cognate with ‘need’), emergency and nut (cognate again). But why nut? Or rather, to ask the lateral question: why necessity and emergency, for they are by no means primary meanings?


11 thoughts on “Migratory words

  1. I think your question assumes a kind of category error. Language systems are arbitrary (as nobody denies, but de Saussure pointed out so clearly). So to ask “why” nut, “why” necessity etc. are absurd questions. “Why” do we spell “bomb” with a ? We just bloody do, so get used to it!

    1. Karl, you miss my point (apart from the fact that language is not purely arbitrary, so I am one of those ‘nobodies’): words like these whould be separated into separate categories, for these meanings apply to one and same word, the same semantic field.

      And your slip is more telling than a mere lol. Why do we write bomb and not aomb, or at least feel that one is correct and the other not?

  2. Hi Roland,

    regarding the two first examples, there may be a Spanish connection: “short” is “corto” and “nut” is “nuez”. I understand that a Spanish army occupied southern Denmark for some time in the 19th cent., perhaps this is evidence of loanwords. Also, the Danish store “Panduro” (“hard bread”) has a Spanish origin.


    1. Or the other way, since armies shared many things – syphilis included, which the French called the ‘Spanish disease’, the Spanish, ‘Portuguese’, the Germans ‘French’ – or something like that. The words also turn up in Fries, and thereby in English.

  3. I think a lot of peculiar etymologies stem from the transmission of words between languages orally rather than literally. As such, I would assume (always a dangerous thing to do, I know!) that the first two meanings of kort that you provide stem from the Latin carta, while the last probably shares a common root with the English short. Orally-transmitted words seem to have a lot of these slight differences – e.g., b often finds itself changed into v, c into t etc.

    For the record, gift in Swedish means both “married” and “poison”…

  4. A lurking fan of blog and books replies: would it be satisfactory if there really was a simple etymological answer? I don’t deal with this stuff, but it looks to me as though kord is the Germanic/Indo-European word (German kurz; Spanish corto; French court etc.) Our short retained the s from an earlier sceort — you can see where the s/c/k spit happened. Kort as card or map must surely be a Danished version of the words from Latin charta (carte = paper, map etc in French.) Similarly nød just has two seperate derivations of its current spelling. I suspect this won’t help!

    1. Ah now it becomes fascinating, although the search for a common root on the putative origins of words is fraught with peril. To begin with, ther eis no guarantee that there are many paths to current words rather than a single stem that branches off. Further, the old Indo-European hypothesis, strong enough to bring Sanskrit into classics depts (where I studied it along with Latin and Greek), bears the heavy weight of reactionary, nationalist agendas focused on the Volk.

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