You might wonder why this blog occasionally features words about words—and you might assume it does because I fancy myself to be a writer. True but not quite. Most of these posts arise from “morning conversations” as Brigitte and I commune about—well, Everything. But we’re two people who’ve both spent large parts of our lives, including our working lives, concerned with books and words. Today began with Brigitte asking: “How do you say but in French?” “Mais,” I said. Next she wondered how you said however, and there I felt a blank. Then Brigitte wondered if, perhaps, alas had however as one of its meanings, in English and in French? That’s how these things begin. Our conversations take place upstairs; my computer’s in the basement; two flights of stairs; such things cause at least five ups and downs; they keep me fit even on rainy days like today when I’m not much moved to go on a long walk.
Going down in search of however, it occurred to me that mais is an odd sort of word for but. What could be its etymology? As usually, in French, it is eccentric and oddly evolutionary—and because English is half French in origin, people from the European mainland have a hell of a time with English. Mais comes from the Latin word magnus, big (believe it or not), but from its adverbial form, magis. That word means more, better, and also rather. Now, oddly, the French have latched on to the last of these meanings whereas in Spanish, as más, the meaning of more has clung to this root.
However in French? Lordy lord. Just its use as a conjunction produces cependant, toutefois, néanmoins, and pourtant meaning yet, nevertheless, however—and for pourtant we can use all of the above and add the word still.
Both alas and alack mean roughly the same thing. The first syllable in each case is an ah, as in a deep sighhhh. The last syllable comes from the Old French, las, originally meaning weariness (note the related lassitude), later more generally unfortunate. In the case of alack, the second syllable, from Middle English, means just what it says, a lack—loss, failure, and even shame. The two together really do bear witness to the fact that English is a stew cooked from Latin and Germanic ingredients.
Alas and alack, language is like, hey, a forest, a jungle, a universe.