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The Curious Word “Thalweg” and Its Connection to “Dollar” and “Neanderthal”

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A civil engineer in Boston, Massachusetts, is puzzled by part of an assignment to design a driveway that traverses a stream to access a proposed development. The wetlands scientist he’s working with informed him that he’d need to design the thalweg for the section of stream they’re adjusting to accommodate their driveway. What’s a thalweg? A thalweg is “the lowest part of a valley” or “lowest navigable channel in a stream,” a key designation in boundary disputes. Thalweg, also spelled talweg, is usually pronounced TALL-vegg, and derives from two German words, Thal, or “valley,” and Weg, or “path,” cognate with English way. German Thal appears in the family names Blumenthal, or “flower valley,” and Rosenthal, or “rose valley.” The Neander Valley in Germany, or Neanderthal, is where the fossil remains of early hominids were discovered, inspiring their name, Neanderthals. In the Czech Republic, a small silver-mining town once went by the name Sankt Joachimsthal, or “St. Joachim’s Valley.” Silver coins minted there were called Joachimstalers. In German, the name of this coin was later shortened to Taler, a word that eventually found its way into English and applied to another silver coin, the dollar. German Thal is also the etymological kin of English dale, “valley” and dell, “small valley.” This is part of a complete episode.

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