What is so rare as a day in June? And what is so common asa rhyme for it? Speakers of English through the century seem tohave delighted in the sound of the double o, rotund and warm,gently terminating in the soft glide of the n “as if it wereloath to cease.”1 Popular songs with the moon/June rhyme2were common enough earlier in this century to become a stock gagin meta-discourses about the entertainment business.3

June itself is from Juno, who was a native Italic goddess (EtruscanUni, later assimilated into the Greeks’ Hera) before shebecame an Internet server. The consort of Jupiter, she was theguardian of marriage (as Iuno Pronuba) and childbed (as Lucina);just as Roman men had, and swore by, their particular genius (originallythe guardian spirit of one’s birth; the gen- is the same”birth” root underlying generous, generation, and genesis),so Roman women each had an individual Juno, the feminine oathbeing Eiuno! The planet today called Venus was known to the Romansas stella Iunonis, “Juno’s star.” 4

A number of English words ending in -une derive from Latinunus, “one,” such as triune, “three-in-one”(a word nowadays found almost exclusively in hymnody referringto the Christian trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit). Commune,on the other hand, looks as if it ought to be a compound of con-“with” and unus, but isn’t: the root is mun-, whichhas the double sense of “charge, duty” and “present”– whence a wealth of compounds including immune (its initialmeaning was “free from cost”), community (originally”entity which shares the expense”) and communion, municipal(the -cip- is from Latin capere, “to take”), and remuneration.5

The Latinate -une of opportune, tribune, fortune, and Neptuneisn’t connected with the Roman word for “one” either,but is simply an adjectival ending, -unus, attached respectivelyto portus (“seaport,” an opportune wind being one whichblows you safely home), tribus (“tribe,” i.e. divisionof the Roman people; a tribunus (magistratus) was an officialof the Republic whose person was sacrosanct while in office andwho functioned as the commoners’ advocate, theoreticallyas a check against the power of the patricians), fors, (“chance”),and possibly an unattested word napta-/neptu- meaning “humid.”6

Prune has two origins, depending on the sense: the fruit comesfrom Latin prunum, which meant “plum.” The verb to prune,on the other hand, comes through Old French proignier, probablyfrom a Vulgar Latin verb proretundiare, itself derived from pro-“in front of” and rotundus, “round” (fromrota, “wheel”). Dune is a doublet with down (as in thesulky-racing track Scarborough Downs, just south of Portland,Maine), both words having apparently descended from a Germanicword dunaz, meaning “hill,” and related to town, whichoriginally meant “fortified (high) place.”

Several of the -oon/-une rhymes are of New World origin: cohune,originally ­khún, apparently a Spanish borrowing fromMosquito (a Central American native language) and the name ofa palm bearing feathery leaves whose fruit is pressed for oil,and raccoon, the familiar mammal with a mask and an attitude,whose fastidious hygienic habits induced the Germans to call itWaschbaer and whose American name English settlers learned fromthe Algonkian-speaking inhabitants of Virginia.

Lacune and lagoon are another doublet, both being derived fromLatin lacuna, literally meaning “pool” and figuratively”gap” (e.g. in a manuscript, in which sense it is stillused in English: “Wherever there’s a lacuna betweenextended passages in the Penguin Satyricon, its translator, thelate lamented J.P.Sullivan, put an asterisk.” Lacune is itsold spelling in English, a borrowing from French already designatedas “rare” and relegated to the bottom of the page inthe first Webster’s New International Dictionary publishedin 1933.)

Many -oon words in English are from Italian words ending in-one.7 Thus buffoon comes to us (through French buffon) from Italianbuffo, “comic (actor),” as in opera buffa (itself derivedfrom the imitative verb buffare, “to puff”); adding-one to buffo gives the specialized meaning, “clown.”A stronger pejorative is poltroon (“base coward”), fromOld Italian poltrone (“coward, idler”), which in turnis either from poltro (“lazy”) or derived ultimatelyfrom Latin pullus, “young animal” –whence alsopullet, suggesting that throughout the ages, chicken means chicken.(Poltroon is unrelated to poltergeist, which is straightforwardGerman: Poltern, originally boldern, means “to make noises,”and Geist (“spirit”) is cognate with English ghost.)

A cartoon (Italian cartone) was originally a drawing made forthe purpose of transferring a picture to, e.g., the wet plasteron a wall destined for fresco painting, generally by piercingthe design with pinprick-sized holes and then rubbing charcoaldust against the front of the paper with a pouncing bag so thatthe relevant lines were reproduced on the secondary surface asan array of tiny black dots. (This technique was called spolvero,from Latin pulvus/pulveris, “dust;” cf. “pulverize.”)

Another source of -oon words is the corresponding augmentativesuffix in Spanish: -­n: A quadroon was a person with threewhite grandparents and one black one (Spanish cuarter­n);picar­n is a great big picaro (“rogue,” a term borrowedinto English for the heroes of picaresque novels about lovableknaves), which gave us picaroon, “pirate (ship).” Theorigin of picaro is apparently a Vulgar Latin verb, piccare, “toprick” – which also is the source of the Provençalword picaioun, “piece of money” (via the verb piquar,”to clink, jingle”), which came into Louisiana Frenchas picaillon, “small coin” and came to be applied toboth the Spanish half-real piece and the American nickel, whencethe adjective picayune, “paltry.”

The rich silver mines and slow-sailing bullion convoys of imperialSpain played a significant role in furnishing hard currency throughoutthe New World, thanks to wartime privateering and peacetime piracyon the part of colonists from the other European powers.8 In additionto imported English coinage and indigenous mintings like Massachusettssilversmith John Hull’s Pine Tree shilling, British Americabought and sold its goods with a hodgepodge of specie includinggold doubloons (from Spanish dobl­n, “big [coin of thevalue] two [pistoles],” the gold pistole of Charles IV ofSpain issued in 1790 being 7/8″ in diameter and valued atapproximately four of the new U. S. dollars or 16 British shillings).Another coin in general circulation was the ducatoon (an Englishrendering of ducatone, from Italian ducato, “ducal [coin],”of which the first is said to have been issued by a Norman rulerof Sicily, Roger II, in his capacity as duke of Apulia on theItalian peninsula). A Venetian ducatone of the time of Shakespearewas valued at six British shillings and weighed 5/6 of a Troyounce, or about 5% less than the American silver dollar of theearly 20th century. In Italy the coin was sometimes called a giustina,because its reverse bore an image of St. Justina of Padua. Hollandminted ducatoons as well.

Since the French language is the immediate source of 60% ofEnglish etymons, it should come as no surprise that it suppliedus with a healthy proportion of our -oon words as part of themix. Baboon comes from Old French babuin, “gargoyle;”the lively dance in 2/4 time called the rigadoon is simply theFrench rigaudon, probably derived from the family name Rigaud.A gadroon is a type of ornament, either architectural or in metalwork,characterized by fluting, from goderon in Old French, which probablycame in turn from Latin guttus, “flask,” related togutta, “drop (of liquid).” The color maroon is fromFrench marron, “chestnut.” (This is unrelated to theother sense of maroon, “to abandon, especially on an island,”or a person so abandoned: French has another marron which means”runaway slave,” as did its origin, Spanish cimar­n;originally both terms referred to slaves in Guiana who fled tothe mountainous boondocks9 where they would be unlikely to berecaptured, cima – from Latin cyma, “young cabbage sprout”– being Spanish for “summit.”)

Of course, there are a few -oon words which appear to be indigenousto the British Isles. Spoon comes from Old English spon, “woodchip” (which speaks volumes about the state of the art offlatware manufacture among the West Saxons before the Normanscame); noon is from Old English non; 10 and croon is from MiddleEnglish crounen, possibly cognate with Middle Dutch kronen, “tolament.” Chaucer’s Middle English also had the wordwoon (sometimes spelled won or wone, and surely related to theGerman verb wohnen), “dwelling place” – but nobodylives there any more.

Notes:

1 While Arthur Sullivan’s famerests primarily on his felicitous operetta collaborations withW.S.Gilbert, there are two notable exceptions whose memory hasnot faded even to this day: the hymn “Onward, Christian Soldiers,”and the sentimental parlor-song “The Lost Chord,” fromwhose third stanza this line comes. The poet, Adelaide Anne Procter(1825-1864), was fuzzy on certain details of musical theory –technically speaking, even the greatest amen, when sung, is acadence, composed not just of a single chord but at least two– though Sullivan, who is said to have set Procter’swords to music while sitting by his brother’s deathbed, generouslyoverlooked such minutiae in writing a perennial favorite (e.g.issuing from the golden throat of tenor John McCormack, live oron shellac, early in this century) which retains the power tomove even men of habitually-stiff upper lips to shameless tears.

2 Versifiers and poetasters stumped for a rhyme habituallyresort to rhyming dictionaries, but for the true aficionado ofendings I recommend the Normal and Reverse English Word List,an exhaustive catalogue of words (without definitions) compiledunder the direction of A. F. Browne and published by the UnitedStates Document Center. Why the federal government felt it neededsuch a document is a mystery, but it’s unclassified –the inscription on the title page of the copy my brother, Alex,acquired two decades ago when he was compiling a dictionary ofsuffixes for Verbatim’s founder, Laurence Urdang, reads “Approvedfor Public Release, Distribution Unlimited” – and itmakes for wonderful browsing.

3 Examples dating from the 1960s include Frank Zappa’s”A Moonbeam Through the Prune/In June” from the secondMothers of Invention album, Absolutely Free, released by Vervein 1966, and Biff Rose’s ingenious “Moon, June, spoon,croon/Ale, eel, I’ll ole Yule,” in the song “SpacedOut/I’ve Got You Covered” on his 1968 Tetragrammatonrecord, Children of Light.

As a child I was always a little startled whenever my grandfather’scousin, a Yankee spinster who spent much of her working life ingreater Boston’s shoe-manufacturing business, used to pronouncethe double o of “spoon” like that of “hood.”In this column, however, I will ignore dialectic variants in favorof a standard pronunciation in which everything is presumed torhyme with June that looks as though it should.

4 See the exhaustive discussion of the verb geno and its spinoffsin Ernout and Meillet’s marvelous Dictionnaire étymologiquede la langue latine, to which I am indebted for most of the Latinorigins of words in this column. The Roman genius, as “tutelaryspirit,” passed into French as génie and so into English,where, according to the Century Dictionary, it became confoundedwith the similar-sounding but etymologically-unrelated Arabicjinn, a spirit of a rank lower than the angels, said to be madeof fire and able to assume the form of humans or certain animalsat will.

5 Buffoonery at the expense of the conspicuously overeducatedhas provided Europe with jokes since the age of Aristophanes,but particularly in the Renaissance, when Latin had long sinceceased to be a vernacular and had become a professional jargonof churchmen and scholars. Thus Shakespeare’s Costard, inLove’s Labour’s Lost (III.1), given a “remuneration”by Armado, exclaims, “Remuneration! O, that’s the Latinword for three farthings…. ‘What’s the price of thisinkle?’ – ‘One penny,’ – ‘No, I’llgive you a remuneration:’ why, it carries it. Remuneration!why, it is a fairer name than French crown. I will never buy andsell out of this word.” (An inkle is a thin strip of coloredtape, originally of linen, used as a trimming in dressmaking somewhatin the manner of rickrack. According to fiber artist and teacherJo Diggs, inkle looms are still a standard fixture in many schoolarts and crafts programs.)

6 On the other hand, the Etruscans appear to have had a divinitynamed Nethuns, and one scholar, Charles Dunn, suggested (in oneof his nested-parenthetical lectures to his Celtic 101 class atHarvard in the fall of 1966) a connection to the Irish sea-godNachtan.

7 The -one suffix, explains Nicoletta LaMarca, a New Jerseylanguage-skills coach who grew up speaking both English and Italian,”means ‘bigger version of [it],’ as in tortello(like a raviolo)…tortellone. Mangione [from mangiare, ‘toeat’] means ‘big eater.’ Chiaccherare is ‘tochat;’ chiaccherone is a chatterbox.” Her mother, GiovannaLaMarca, concurs, glossing the suffice -one as “large, disproportionatelyso, and in a negative sense” and citing such examples asnasone (“nose-and-a-half, schnozzola”), borsone (“fatpurse,moneybags” from borsa, purse) and ragazzone (“big boy”from ragazzo, “lad”). “All of these are masculine,”she adds, “even the ones where the original word was feminine.”

Analogous to the Italian suffix might be the British use ofthe intensified modifier “bloody great” (as in, “eatenby a bloody great crocodile”) and the American use, at leastin the northeast, of “big f—ing X” to mean “egregiouslylarge X.” An enormous statue of a Plains chieftain in fullwar-bonnet, originally erected as part of the signage of a long-departedsouvenir shop and an enduring landmark on U.S.Route 1 in Falmouth,Maine, is still referred to by euphemistic locals as “theBFI.”

The -one suffix need not be pejorative, however. Thus Italianmille, “thousand,” plus -one yields milione, “million”– literally, “great thousand,” while viola (dabraccia, “for the arm,” to distinguish it from the violada gamba, “viol for the leg,” since the latter was heldbetween the knees) is modified to make violone, “double bass,”whose smaller version is the violoncello “little violone,”generally today called cello for short. By contrast, the suffice-ine, which also means “little,” got affixed to violato make violine, “violin.” (The French call the violaan alto, as befits its range; in Germany, it’s called a Bratsche–not, as one might suppose, related to the sausage called Bratwurstbut simply a transliteration of braccia!)

8 “The system leaked at every joint,” writes J.H.Parryin his Spanish Seaborne Empire. “Some silver masters werevenal. Banditry, piracy and smuggling caused losses in the Indiesand at sea. Silver passed secretly to foreigners in the Azoresand in Cadiz, even in Lisbon, to pay for purchases of foreigngoods and to avoid the duties levied at Seville.” Moreover,Parry adds, the steady stream of hard currency arriving from theAmericas had its inevitable inflationary effect on the peninsulareconomy almost from the start: “The general level of pricesin Spain rose by about 400 per cent in the course of the sixteenthcentury.”

9 Bundok means “mountainous area” in Tagalog; boondockswas brought back to America from the Philippines by Pacific Theaterveterans of World War II.

10 A borrowing, however, from the canonical hour of nones,originally Latin nona hora, or about 3 p.m. – as it happens,also the end of the Roman business day, and therefore the timeat which prostitutes could legally come out and offer their sexualservices, which is why the polite term for a Roman streetwalkerwas nonaria, “woman of the ninth hour.”

 

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