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FROM THE TEEMING MILLIONS

Regarding your recent column on names for Germany [June 5], I once heard a story you may want to verify about how the Russians originated their word for Germany. Seems that in the late Middle Ages the czars invited Westerners, notably Dutch and German craftsmen, to settle in Russian cities because of their skills. The locals found they couldn't make the newcomers understand their language, so they naturally assumed they were deaf and dumb. Hence the Russian term for a German, nyemetz, which means "mute." This seems similar to the Polish word for Germany, Niemcy. Can you confirm?

More trivia: in Finnish (not related to any of the above), the word for Germany and the German language is Saksa. Looks familiar, especially since the German word for Saxony, in southeast Germany, is Sachsen. Interestingly (or maybe not), the Irish word for a Briton is sasenach. It's also an imprecation. --Steve McFarland, W. Lunt

You've got the right basic idea, Steveski, but the part about the czars and the craftsmen is apocryphal doodoo--the terms date back to prehistory. Nyemetz (often transliterated nemets) quite likely derives from Russian nemoy, a mute, as in "those guys who are so out of it they are incapable of talking like normal people," a sentiment to which many American tourists abroad can no doubt relate. Variations on this theme occur in virtually all Slavic languages, including Polish niemiecki, a German, niemy, mute.

Similarly, our word "barbarian" is believed to derive from the Greek barbaros--non-Greek, foreign, rude--which many scholars say comes from the Indo-European root baba-, a word "imitative of unarticulated speech," it sez here. The ancient Greeks evidently thought foreign chitchat all sounded like "ba-ba-ba," baby talk, although I suppose you could also make the case they'd just stumbled across some primeval ancestor of the Beach Boys. Baba-, in any case, is the source of our words baby and babble. Just to extinguish any lingering curiosity you may have on the subject, our word "infant" comes from Latin infans, "nonspeaking," incapable of speech.

As for Saksa and sassenach, both likely derive from the same root as our word Saxon. The Saxons, you may remember, were a German tribe that invaded Britain along with the Angles and the Jutes. By my count this now gives us five entirely independent names for the home of the Volkswagen: Germany, Deutschland, Allemagne, Niemcy, and Saksa. To these we must add a sixth: the Lithuanian Vokietija. I dunno where it comes from, and I don't want to know. This has dragged on long enough already.

What is the origin of the term "story" when applied to a building? --Vaughn Croteau, Scottsdale, Arizona

I hesitate to go into this, Vaughn, but what the heck, you're old enough. A century ago etymologists speculated that "story" came from some lost word "stairy," perhaps related to Gaelic staidhir, flight of stairs; or possibly from something along the lines of "stagery," derived from "stage." Others dismissed these as being obviously born of desperation, and for a time the experts settled on Old French estoree, a thing built, which they figured was so dull as to be almost certainly accurate. But doubts arose when researchers dug up such phrases as una historia octo fenestrarum, a story of eight windows, from medieval Latin history books. Historia in Roman times meant history or story, and by the Middle Ages had acquired the meaning of "picture." So the charming notion arose that medieval folk were in the habit of installing rows of painted windows or sculptures across the fronts of their buildings called "stories," which for all anybody knows may actually have told a story, and which term eventually came to signify a level of a building. Apparently as evidence of this practice, the authors of the Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins cite the fact that they once visited a Swiss-style hotel decorated thus in Lake Placid, New York. At any rate, conjecture has now hardened into conviction. Believe at your own risk.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.

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