Deirdre Saoirse Moen

Sounds Like Weird

Random Linguistic Notes

10 January 2014

Phrase that annoys me: “tribal tattoos.”

Tattoo is from a Tahitian word, from tatau, meaning “to mark.” They were inherently tribal. Your ink, tribal or otherwise, is your ink. But ink that has cultural meaning isn’t tribal. It’s a tattoo.

Likewise, taboo is also a Polynesian word, though it’s been credited to Tongan (tapu), Fijian (tabu), or Maori (tapu). The Hawai’ian form of the word is kapu. (Some day, I’d like to write a long post about why Hawai’i has so few consonants. One aspect of the answer is that teeth were considered to have mana. So. Religious dentistry.)

While I’m on the linguistic tear here, I’d also like to put in a word for desert.

Apple’s dictionary gives the derivation as follows:

ORIGIN Middle English: via Old French from late Latin desertum ‘something left waste,’ neuter past participle of deserere ‘leave, forsake.’

And most dictionaries stop there (because everything stops at Latin or Greek, right?), but that’s not where the word comes from.

The Middle Egyptian word, transliterated dshrt (deshret), means the red lands beyond the area where the flooding occurred aka those lands that were desert. Kmt (kemet) referred to the black soil where the flooding occurred annually. More notes on this with hieroglyphs.

So, I get why, historically, the original meaning was lost — because we really did lose much of the meaning of hieroglyphs until the Rosetta stone was deciphered. It doesn’t really excuse the dictionary derivations being wrong past that point, though.


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