on words and dictionaries

…e quando falo de diferença real estou a referir-me a algo que as palavras jamais poderão exprimir, relativo, absoluto, cheio, vazio, ser ainda, não ser já, que é isso, senhor director, porque as palavras, se o não sabe, movem-se muito, mudam de um dia para o outro, são instáveis como sombras, sombras elas mesmas, que tanto estão como deixaram de estar, bolas de sabão, conchas de que mal se sente a respiração, troncos cortados…

…não é verdade que o antónimo da presunção seja a humildade, mesmo que o estejam jurando a pés juntos todos os dicionários do mundo, coitados dos dicionários, que têm de governar-se eles e governar-nos anos com as palavras que existem, quando são tantas as que ainda faltam…

José Saramago, As Intermitências da Morte


…and when I say real difference, I am referring to something that mere words will never be able to express, relative, absolute, full, empty, still alive and no longer alive, because, sir, in case you don’t know it, words move, they change from one day to the next, they are as unstable as shadows, are themselves shadows, which both are and have ceased to be, soap bubbles, shells in which one can barely hear a whisper, mere tree stumps…

…it isn’t true that the antonym of the presumption is humility, even if all the dictionaries in the world swear blind that it is, poor dictionaries, who have to rule themselves and us only with the words that exist, when there are so many words still missing…

José Saramago, Death at Intervals (translated by Margaret Jull Costa)

the many meanings of a bow

According to Wikipedia,

In linguistics, a homonym is, in the strict sense, one of a group of words that share the same spelling and the same pronunciation but have different meanings (in other words, are both homographs and homophones), usually as a result of the two words having different origins.

Isn’t it fascinating that English has homographs which are not homophones, for instance lead (/liːd/ or /led/), live (/lɪv/ or /laɪv/), read (/riːd/ or /red/), row (/rəʊ/ or /raʊ/)… How one is supposed to know which read is used in the phrase:

  1. I read the book
  2. I read the book

In English, there are three homographs of bow, of which only two are true homonyms:

  1. bow /bəʊ/ (a) a weapon (to shoot arrows); (b) fiddlestick; (c) a type of knot
  2. bow /baʊ/ (a) to incline the head etc. as a greetings, assent, thanks and so on; (b) the corresponding noun
  3. bow /baʊ/ (nautical term) prow

Some languages, such as Dutch or Russian, use five different words where English uses just one!

English bow 1a bow 1b bow 1c bow 2b bow 3
Dutch boog strijkstok strik buiging boeg
French arc archet nœud de rosette révérence proue
German Bogen Bogen Schleife Verbeugung Bug
Italian arco archetto fiocco inchino prua, prora
Portuguese arco arco laço reverência proa
Russian лук смычок бант поклон нос
Spanish arco arco lazo reverencia proa

The Russian word for bow (weapon) is лук, of Proto-Slavic etymology (cf. Russian лука bend, saddlebow). It has a homonym of Proto-Germanic origin, meaning onion (cf. Danish løg or English leek).

In both Spanish and Portuguese, the opposite of proa (prow) is popa (stern). I don’t know about you, but I find this rather touching.

Wordle: bow