“Well,” said Montgomery Starling-Byrd. “That’s startling.”
“A startling?” I said. “Would that be from start plus ling, meaning a little start? Perhaps a rough start?” (I knew perfectly well that startling is from start plus the suffix le plus the suffix ing and that, at any rate, what he was looking at was not the word startling.)
We were four at a table – Montgomery, Philip McCarr (of Scotland), Albert Denton (of Yorkshire), and I – at the Order of Logogustation’s autumn international meeting. For this session, words were pre-set at tables in envelopes, and the participants chose spots freely, then had to taste whatever word had been set at the place they chose.
“More to the point,” Montgomery said, holding up the slip of paper from his envelope, “that’s starling.”
“Weel, man,” said Philip, “you should have a bird, then.”
“I think I see a pattern,” I said, holding up my slip of paper. “Mine’s starlet.”
“That’s a little bird!” declared Albert. “In fact, a little darling,” he said, producing his slip of paper, on which darling was written.
“Oh dear,” said Montgomery, knowing that we all knew that darling comes from dear plus ling – the same ling as in starling, which may be a diminutive (as in gosling) or an indicator of membership or relation (as in earthling).
“Your little dear,” said Philip, “may earn a scarlet letter.” He held up his slip of paper: scarlet.
“She will if we pass ‘er in,” said Albert. (Starlings are passerine birds – built for perching like sparrows.)
“Aren’t you the cunning linguist,” I said to Albert.
“He’ll go wherever you let him,” Montgomery remarked.
“There’s room to let,” I replied. “Or room for two lets, anyway.”
“Not that they’re the same let,” Montgomery pointed out. True: the let in starlet is a diminutive suffix, but the let in scarlet is not a suffix at all; scarlet appears to come originally from a Persian word for rich cloth.
“Just as your stars aren’t the same,” I said. “You’re star-crossed.”
“I certainly know that,” Montgomery said. “I had it drilled into me quite sternly that our star is related to Latin sturnus, which refers to the same kind of bird.”
“You had it drilled intae yer sternum?” Philip said. “That would produce a scarlet! Or a full-sized scar!”
“Nothing to sneeze at,” said Albert, leaving it to all of us to connect sneeze with its Latin translation sternutare, seen in English sternutatory and sternutation.
“Look, man,” declared Philip, “it isnae quite fair that ye’re tasting yer own name.”
“I think you’re just stalling,” quipped Albert to Philip.
“Better that than Stalin,” Montgomery said. “But enough larking about; the bird’s the word. Like it or not –” he held up the slip admonitorily – “it’s myna.”
A lark is not a kind of starling, by the way – but a myna is.