In my nature photography blog I recently showed a picture of a four-nerve daisy, and in the accompanying text I couldn’t resist mentioning one of my longtime favorite etymologies: daisy developed from the Old English equivalent of day’s eye. A Spanish-speaking student of English has no trouble learning that day means día, and vice versa for an English-speaking student of Spanish. Given the words’ similarity in sound and their identical meaning, both students probably assume that the words are cognates. Wrong! This is one of those striking cases where words that almost anyone would assume are related turn out not to be. Sometimes a coincidence is just that, a coincidence. Spanish día developed from the similar Latin dies, so by Grimm’s Law of Indo-European sound correspondences we’d expect an English cognate of día to begin with a t- rather than the d- of day.

As for the second part of day’s eye, there we do find an etymological connection to the equivalent Spanish ojo. The Latin ancestor of ojo was oculus, where the -ulus was originally a diminutive ending. English eye developed from Old English eage, in which you can still see the guttural consonant that has disappeared from the modern language; that historical -g- corresponded to the -c- in Latin oculus. The Latin and Old English words had both descended from *okw-, which was the Indo-European root for ‘eye.’

© 2013 Steven Schwartzman

5 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Juan
    Jan 08, 2013 @ 15:41:14

    Interesting as always, but most dictionaries recognize the OE ‘dæg’ ethimology, very close to Old Saxon and Dutch ‘dag’, German ‘Tag’, etc. Why are you so sure that’s not the correct origin? Thanks!


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Jan 08, 2013 @ 16:28:40

      English day is certainly of Germanic origin and related to similar words in Dutch, German, etc., but those words did not come from the Indo-European root *dyeu- that gave rise to Latin dies, the ancestor of Spanish día. As I mentioned above, the English word would begin with a t- if it were descended from the Indo-European root *dyeu- (compare, for example, English ten and Latin decem, or English tooth and Latin dent-, to see the pattern of initial consonants).


      • Juan
        Jan 09, 2013 @ 11:45:22

        OK, and the German correspondents are zehn and Zahn, while day matches Tag, not *Zag, which confirms the system. Thanks again!


  2. shoreacres
    Jan 09, 2013 @ 09:52:22

    One of the words mentioned has contemporary usefulness. Now that the Legislature is back in session in your fair city, more than a few Texans already are longing for adjournment sine die.


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Jan 09, 2013 @ 10:35:21

      Mathematical me can’t resist the chance to adjourn by saying that I’d rather devote myself to the sine and let politicians go off and die.

      Now that I’ve gotten that out of my system, I’ll let readers from outside Texas and the United States know that Latin sine die, which translates transparently into Spanish sin día, is an American legal phrase that the person in charge of a legislative body uses to indicate that that body is now adjourned without a day being set for the members to reconvene.


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