Monday, June 30, 2008

tractum ex annotationibus

Drawn from comments.

Remarking on my previous post, Stephen inquires:
Do you have a source for this? I feel like it would be unlikely that the original [u:] sound of υ would be preserved in English. It would almost certainly have come into English via Latin, which merged it with 'i' at a fairly early date and other words that derive from Greek roots show the change already to have happened (The only example I can think of right now is "priest" which is from "presbyter", that doesn't show a remnant of [u], but that's gone through several stages before it got to "priest" so i'm not 100% sure about that).
He is right to wonder about a source; my etymological suggestion was rather speculative. The logic behind his concern is flawless, but I do not think not it applies here. There is a real lack of evidence that this came to English via Latin. The OED entry has "ptooey" attested only as early as 1930, with etymology and citations as follows:
ptooey, 19- ptui. [Imitative. ComparePFUI int., PHOOEY int., and also PTISH int., PSHAW int., etc.]

1930 O. LATTIMORE High Tartary xxvii. 273 Ptui! Wrong again! Will you ever be fit for Official life? Ptui!’ Thus the Great Man, pursuing his orderly with a flying gob of spittle. 1977 Rolling Stone 5 May 5/2 Ptooey! Who'd stand for it? 1993 Albuquerque (New Mexico) Jrnl. 26 Aug. F6/1 What do you think this is, Lollapalooza? Ptui.

This first form [pfui] only has roots in German. The rest are of even more uncertain origin, and often falsely attributed to Yiddish. The Latin verb "spuo-to spit," which is connected to Gothic speiwan (LSJ), seems to have no correlation to any of these forms. Nor does Latin have any alternative onomatopoeic rendering for this expression. In fact, the OED seems to have little evidence definitively showing the roots of "ptooey" in any language besides English.

And so I return to my initial point which, having been forced now to think it through more thoroughly, is in need of clarification. I should not have said this expression is derived from the Greek verb; there is no concrete evidence testifying to this hypothesis. But I do not see any evidence to the contrary either. Therefore:
  1. "Ptooey" was formulated in English independent of the Greek verb, and perhaps free of the influence of any other language. It is a direct onomatopoeic rendering of the sound of spitting.
  2. My original hypothesis was correct, and "ptooey" is a borrowing of a Greek onomatopoeic rendering, a best-possible English imitation.
I don't think I can prove either one. But a bit of further speculation, just for fun...

I would briefly draw your attention to the earliest attested form in English. What is is about that name that looks strangely familiar? The famous Owen Lattimore, post-WWII public intellectual, Far-East scholar, and notable author is the brother of Richmond Lattimore, the renowned Classics translator of Iliad and Odyssey among others.

Perhaps, and only perhaps, Owen Lattimore was well-versed enough in the classics to be familiar with the Greek onamatopoeic verb, and attempted to render the sound in English.

Before climbing out onto a yet thinner and more treacherous limb, I will rest my case here.

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