November 6th, 2015

Today's Activities Include: words for window

When I was first learning Dutch, it struck me as very odd that the Dutch word for window is "raam". Especially since (which I must have been aware of at the time but had since forgotten until recently), the German word for window is the Latin-derived Fenster. I commented on this to R. as we were headed out to dinner on Thursday (I cannot remember why), along with a rambling monologue about how odd it is that sometimes Dutch has germanic words where the German equivalent word is itself Latinate.

R. then proceeded to look up some of these words in various languages using online tools (which I had not ever done. No, I don't know why) and noted that Rahm in German is "frame". From there, he went, "raam = frame". And in the sense of, "raam is sometimes used to mean what we would mean by frame" he is correct. But I violently objected to the idea that raam is etymologically related to frame, thus leaving me with the puzzle of how to explain _why_ I felt this way.

I guess the first observation I would make is that I don't really understand where my etymological instincts come from, because the vast majority of my etymological instincts predate when I learned to pay attention to sourcing. So I can generally tell you that I spent hours and hours and hours one a fairly regular basis for years on end as a child reading etymologies in dictionaries (and the New World Cyclopedia. Yum.), and I had some specific curricula in school about etymologies. But beyond that, everything is a haze.

The second observation I would make is that R. and I _frequently_ have these kinds of disagreements (where he goes, hey, frame and raam -- kinda similar, just that pesky f, probably come from the same place, right? and I go, no way, no how and I can prove it just give me a few hours/days). Since I'm operating off of instinct and he's operating off of a bunch of theories about word similarity that turn out to have nothing to do with how languages evolve, his explanations invariably seem a lot more reasonable than my objections. But I am much more likely to be correct.

In this particular case, the core insight turned out to be that "raam" is all about the edge (rim). And "frame" is a nounization of a verb, and it is all about the action of going around. All of a sudden, many things make sense.

What you or I might call a window can be thought of in at least three ways: the pane of glass (piece of paper, shutters), the hole covered by same, and the edge around that hole. So the German word for window frame is precisely correct: a Fensterrahmen is the edge around the hole. (This was the word that put R. onto the theory that frame = rahm, and again, from a definitional perspective, sure, but from an etymological perspective, absolutely not.) And then I went off onto a huge tangent about how the Greeks and Romans were all about the static load and we didn't have frame construction until the middle ages, and that's when a word finally had to be invented for the building technique and its most obviously wonderful artifact, the modern window. (The most wonderful artifact of framing is roofs that don't slide out and then fall in, of course, but that's not obvious because things which are absent are never obvious in their absence.) That's when the noun (rim) intersected with the verb (frame, which goes around). Because that's when the edge started actually _doing_, instead of just _being_.

Also, R. is correct when he says that Dickens' use of the term "the little window" when referring to the guillotine was in fact a direct translation of a contemporary French phrase used by the Jacobins, altho to find that, I wound up digging around in google books.

Also, classic New England sash windows are called "guillotines" in French.

Finally, all those wikipedia comments about how the Romans had all the techniques necessary to do timber construction (in the framing sense) are Missing The Point. Framing construction is not about the techniques used to do the joinery. Framing construction is about the central insight of tying together static loads that should point down but have a component which goes out, and needs to be balanced. And I very belatedly remembered that we learned about this in school at some point, starting with people literally using rope to tie together roof structural members to prevent the characteristic out then down roof collapse, then the rope rotting/mice eating it (roof falls down) and then new practice became using carpentry instead of the rope. And the rope AND the carpentry techniques, along with the important engineering insight about the nature of the loads came from shipbuilding.

R. is trying to figure out if any of the words came over from the boat builders. I haven't attempted to research that, because if there is one thing that is true about language, it is that the land lubbers win when it comes to words.