Bill Casselman

At the Wording Desk

Throughout all the languages that sprang up from our Proto-Indo-European mother tongue, there is a vocabulary item, a reflex of the PIE root *me, like English meal or mill that first meant ‘thing ground up’ or, as in mill ‘place to grind (grain).’ Ablauts of the prime root *me are common. An ablaut is a change of vowels in related words or forms that stem from the same simple root word. Observe some of the ablauts in the next paragraph of examples.

Modern German has mahlen ‘to grind.’ The occupation name and its common German surname display ablaut: Müller.
Dutch windmollen was translated directly into English as windmill.

Russian has molot′ ‘to grind’ and, with ablaut, the common Slavic occupational surname Melnik ‘miller, owner of a mill.’

Classical Latin has mola ‘a mill to grind grain’ and we English have in our mouths molars ‘teeth whose function is to grind up food.’

Italian has the common surname Molinari ‘descendant of the miller.’ Spanish has molino as its mill word and Molina as a surname, both from post-classical Latin molina ‘millhouse.’ English had the sometimes regretted American president Richard Milhous Nixon, in which his Quaker ancestors tried to disguise the fact of their descent from a common miller by removing some letters from millhouse. It is a familiar ploy among persons ashamed of their ancestral name.

One of the most famous alterations in English surname history are those medieval Brits whose last name was Pygge, occupational surname for a pig-farmer. But that was too stark a reminder of the mucky pen, so their surname became Swine, Swyne, Swoin, Swehen. That too became infra dig. So, by the middle 19th century, the Pygge family had become the Swain family. Terribly la-dee-dah, don't you know?

The Creole of Haiti has moulen 'mill.'

French has the name of a world-famous Parisian cabaret, Le Moulin Rouge ‘The Red Mill’ shared with the title of Victor Herbert’s 1906 mawkish operetta with its Euro-Kitsch plot.

Common French for ‘miller’ is meunier and may appear to be unrelated to our PIE root. But it is. Modern French meunier had much earlier forms like molnier from street Latin molinarius ‘operator of a grain mill.’

Classical Greek had μύλη myle, μύλος mylos ‘mill, millstone’ and an apt folk adage widespread in antiquity and still valid today, given the law’s delay:
Ὀψὲ θεῶν ἀλέουσι μύλοι, ἀλέουσι δὲ λεπτά.
(opse theon aleousi myloi, aleousi de lepta: transliteration)
 "The mills of the gods grind slowly, but they grind exceeding fine.”

The general import? Divine justice may be slow, but it comes to all malefactors soon or late. Ha! Don’t we moderns wish that were always true?

Meal is the edible part of grain ground up in a mill. Note that the word meal as ‘eating of food’ is not from the PIE etymon given above, but from another PIE *me ‘measure of time,’ so that a meal was in its prime sense ‘time to eat.’ The word meal did not originally refer to eating something that was ground or milled like an edible grain.

This little word has reductive ablauts (vowel shortenings and changes) from its Germanic cousin Mühle which itself appears to be a very early borrowing from classical Latin mola ‘mill.’ The map of Great Britain is mealy with places named after a local mill. Milton has several meanings but one of them is ‘farmstead (Anglo-Saxon tun) with a mill.’ Milford names a place with a mill on a stream or waterway narrow enough for domestic animals and humans to cross the stream or ford it.

A pure, unaltered blast of Old English is found at Millom which is the Old English locative dative plural meaning “at the mills.” Milnrow is ‘mill with a row of houses.’ There’s a British private school named Mylnhurst. Hurst means ‘wooded hill’ and miln is the Old English nominative for mill. A bourn is a stream or brook, so Milborne and Milbourne mean ‘mill stream.’ I remember it as the first name of a wonderful character actor, Milburn Stone, who played the crusty town “Doc’” on the CBS television western “Gunsmoke.” Actually his true name was Hugh Milburn Stone but he thought Hugh was too precious a moniker for a surly actor.

Other English Relatives of Mill  
An emollient is something that softens or relaxes animal textures like your skin. Its Latin root is the verb emollire ‘to soften thoroughly as if it had been ground in a mill to a fine flour.’

An emolument nowadays is a monetary reward based on your job or some public office you hold. But in classical Latin emolumentum literally was the money you paid the miller for grinding up your grain at his mill.

Multure is a rarer bit of Scottish English referring to the fee charged by the miller for grinding your grain at his mill. It’s a contraction of the post-classical Latin molitura ‘a grinding’ based on the Roman verb molere ‘to grind.’

Rémoulade is my favorite ‘mill’ word in French but borrowed in English cookery too. It’s a cold sauce like mayonnaise often used as a salad dressing and usually made by beginning with the yolks of hard-boiled eggs. Its verbal source may be remoudre ‘to grind again’ referring to how finely chopped are some of the ingredients in this sauce.

Well, Zeke, that’s all the grist in my mill for this session. Sling that burlap bag o' learnin’ over that there mule. We gots to skedaddle.

Bill Casselman copyright 2016

August 16, 2016

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