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Pre-Word History,
Or, Does the Buck Stop Here?

by Anatoly Liberman

Modern English is swamped with words borrowed from other languages. One does not have to be a specialist to notice the presence of the Romance element in it or to guess that samovar has come from Russian and samurai, from Japanese. It is the details that, as usual, pose problems. Not only does the source of a word often remain unclear (from Latin or from French? from German or from Dutch?); in many cases the central question-native or borrowed-cannot be answered. Words come in from the cold and are not in a hurry to reveal their past.

The verb pour was first recorded in 1330, and its pronunciation has not been stable: Tennyson still rhymed pour and flower; consequently, we are not sure how the original form sounded. An English word that first turned up in a text so late may have been borrowed from French. Yet no French, let alone Latin, verb with a comparable meaning is known, and none of its analogs seems to exist in the living Romance languages. The closest approximation to Middle English pouren is Latin purare “purify,” with some of its modern continuations in Romance meaning “to scum” and “drip, flow out.” But English pour never meant “purify” or “drip,” and the absence of a missing link makes the reconstruction–Old French purer to Middle English pouren–suspect. Although Walter W. Skeat, the author of the best English etymological dictionary (4th edition, 1910), was ready to trace pour to French, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) rejected his derivation and preferred the verdict “of uncertain origin.” All the post-OED dictionaries say the same. Pore “look intently” has nothing to do with pour. Perhaps pour is a native word after all. If so, its etymon, that is, the form from which it developed, has not been found. Or is pour an “echoic” (onomatopoeic) verb like purr and renders the sound of a liquid slowly flowing out of a vessel? I am afraid no one will accept this hypothesis.

In investigating the history of pour, we had practically nothing to choose from. In other cases we are baffled by the embarrass de richesse (I may perhaps be excused for using a French idiom in a story of borrowings). Buck goes back to Old English and has cognates in German, Dutch, and the Scandinavian languages. Old French bouc “billy goat” is believed to have been taken over from Germanic. The problem is that, wherever we look, we find the name of a male deer, bull, goat, and lamb beginning with the syllable bok ~ buk-, as in the Sanskrit bukka, Old Irish bocc, Armenian buc, Polish byk, and others. Are all of them related? Some researchers make do with the vague statement that we are confronted by a most ancient word. Others derive this animal name from an echoic verb for lowing. Indeed, the first sound in Latin bos “cow” and its cognates is also b-. One could have expected more animal names of this type to begin with m-, as in moo, but b- is also fine, as bellow, bleat, and German brüllen “roar,” show. The question is whether people in many places invented a similar word because they heard a similar noise or whether a root word was coined by speakers of one language and then spread to neighboring territories. Is buck Germanic or a migratory word of uncertain provenance? A definitive answer can hardly be given. To make matters worse, bull (along with its Germanic cognates) also begins with bu-, and there is an opinion that it, too, has a sound imitative root. But here most etymologists doubt the onomatopoeic connection and derive bull from ball “testicle”; the original meaning comes out as “producer.” Wherever the truth may be, at least it is good to know that once some young bucks sprang from native soil.


Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here each Wednesday. Next week, he will answer readers’ questions, so be sure to leave yours in the comments section.

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