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Tit for tat, or, a chip off the old block?

Many words resemble mushrooms growing on a tree stump: they do not have common roots but are still related. I will use few examples, because if you have seen one, you have seen them all. Nothing is known about the origin of cub, which surfaced in English texts only in 1530 (that is, surprisingly late). It may have existed centuries before 1530, but there is no evidence. Now the mushroom metaphor begins to work. Cub resembles Old (and Modern) Icelandic kobbi “seal” and kubbi “block of wood” and, by the same token, Engl. cob, a mainly regional word, except in (corn)cob. Dutch has kabbe and kebbe “little pig”; its synonym kibbe also occurs in Dutch dialects. In German, Kibbe “ewe” has been attested, which resembles Scots keb and early English kebbe “refuse sheep taken out of the flock.” Danish kippe and Swedish dialectal kibb ~ kubbe mean “a (small) calf.” Even when it is not said expressly that such words are dialectal (regional, local), they usually are, though Icel. kobbi and Engl. cub belong to the Standard.

An earlier meaning of the kib ~ keb ~ cob ~ cub cluster may have been “a block of wood,” and, if so, those words may be related to Engl. chip “a small thin piece of wood” and Icel. kjabbi “a fat person.” In the remote past, the sound complex k-b, with some short vowel between the consonants, seems to have designated a formless object (hence perhaps “a block of wood”) and a small, cuddly creature. Engl. cub looks like a chip off that block. Later the idea of smallness could have been lost, and we encounter the gloss “ewe” rather than “lamb.” Small animate things often share names with creatures considered useless, so that kebber “refuse sheep” need not surprise us.

As always, the beginning of things is hidden. Why should the combination of consonants k-b with short a, e, i, o, and u between them have been chosen for designating a formless object (assuming that the reconstruction of meaning offered above is realistic)? The complex is not sound imitative and does not evoke any particular associations with shapelessness. Given our state of knowledge, the ultimate connection between sound and meaning, unless we deal with words like moo and chirp-chirp, is beyond recovery.

A similar case is the t-d group. The words belonging to it designate small objects and small movements. This is where tit for tat comes in. Some of these words are regional, while others have wider
currency: tad “child,” tid, best known as part of tidbit, tod “bushy mass,” tod ~ toddie~ todie “a small round cake of any kind of bread, given to children to keep them in good humor,” and tud “a very small person.” The last consonant is often t. The British English variant of tidbit is titbit. Both tottle and doddle exist, and tottle is a synonym of toddle. Among the glosses of tid in a dialectal dictionary, we find “teat.” Its vulgar variant (synonym) is tit, and dialects have tet. In tit for tat, both words are symbolic names for “some quantity.” Tit (a word with i, a close short vowel), naturally, stands for something smaller than tat. Tit is also “a small horse” and “girl,” and the titmouse is a very small bird (the idea of smallness comes from tit, not from –mouse, which is a folk etymological adaptation of a word that has nothing to do with rodents, as evidenced by its older form and German Meise, among other cognates, the name of the same bird).

Tittle, tattle, and tittle-tattle also suggest smallness. Tot is “anything very small; a tiny child”; tut has numerous meanings, including “a small seat made of straw.” The interjection tut-tut looks like one of the words listed above. Perhaps even toad belongs here, though its vowel causes problems. The toad may have been thought of as a small round creature, or its warts may have given it its name. Not inconceivably, the toad’s manner of moving in short steps (“toddling, tottling”) provided the connection. As was the case with k-b, we should admit that we don’t know why the combination t-d acquired its meaning, that is, why k-b words designate formless objects, while t-d word are associated with smallness.

How numerous are such nests of words? Amazingly numerous, much more so than some etymologists believe. In one of my earlier posts, I discussed the origin of gawky. Gawk ~ geek ~ geck are part of a group of words in the Germanic languages denoting stupidity. But here we have at least some clue to the emergence of the cluster. Not improbably, those are sound imitative words, with g-k rendering the inarticulate mumbling of the retarded. The world treated such people with horror and contempt and coined disparaging words for them. The story of niggardly, also once described in this blog, is similar: nig-, nib- (as in nibble), nud- (as in nudge), nod-, nock, and other short words beginning with n and ending in a consonant again refer to small movements. Likewise, the f- word and mooch ~ mug (the verb) ~ (cur)mudgeon have cognates reminiscent of those mentioned above. In the rise of cub ~ keb ~ cob and tid ~ tod ~ tud sound imitation does not seem to have been a factor.

Scholars are averse to calling any process arbitrary (they try to order chaos), so that we will leave our cubs and tots in limbo, at least for the time being. Above I compared such word groups with mushrooms growing on a stump. If more imagery is needed, we can think of charges of the same orphanage: although their age is different, they wear the same uniform but are not siblings. Mushrooms, however, have the same mycelium (spawn).

Featured Image Credit: ‘Tree, Wood, Firewood’, Image by geralt, CC0 Public Domain, via Pixabay.

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