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September Gleanings,
Macabre, gully & gulch

By Anatoly Liberman

Some time ago I received a question about the origin of the
word macabre.  This adjective first turned up in Old French, in the phrase dance
macabre.
  The story begins with the fresco of the Dance style='font-style:normal'> Macabre
painted in 1424 in the Church of the Innocents at Paris. style="mso-spacerun: yes"> 
The English poet and monk John Lydgate
(the approximate dates of his life are 1370-1450) knew the fresco and the text
accompanying the picture; a line from his translation of the French verse contains
the earliest attested occurrence of dance macabre in English. (The
history of the French text will not concern us here, but, most probably, the
original poem was in Latin.)  Much
later, French
macabre pried
itself loose from its context and acquired the meaning “related to death” (in
Parisian slang it even came to mean “corpse”).   In the 19th century, English reborrowed the
French adjective; hence Engl.
macabre “suggesting death; gruesome, grisly, ghastly.” style="mso-spacerun: yes">  Although the origin of
macabre
has not been fully clarified, the only
way to approach the riddle is through the medieval phrase: we have to
understand why the dance of death, as depicted in the fresco, was called
macabre.  The scholarly literature
on the meaning of the fresco, the verse, and the expression
dance
macabre
is vast. 

Over the years many hypotheses on the origin of macabre style='font-style:normal'>have been offered, but only three have been discussed
at length.  According to one of
them, macabre is derived from
Arabic
maqbara “tomb”; plural maqabiri. style='font-style:normal'>  A variant
of this etymology seeks the source of the French word in Biblical Hebrew ~
Aramaic m(e)qaber “grave digger”
(my transliteration of the Semitic words is simplified). style="mso-spacerun: yes"> 
Neither conjecture holds out much
promise.  While dealing with an
enigmatic word, it is natural to search for its source in another language, and
some look-alike with a similar meaning nearly always suggests itself. style="mso-spacerun: yes">  However, the fact of the loan can be
established only if we succeed in showing how the foreign word crossed the
border.  Macabre style='font-style:normal'>does not seem to have originated in the area of
France (or Spain) where the Arabic influence was strong. style="mso-spacerun: yes">  The Hebrew etymology is even less
appealing. 

Here I have to repeat an observation I have once made in
this blog.  My new etymological
dictionary of English (now in progress) is based on a huge database that we at
Minnesota have amassed over the years: it features thousands of publications
marked up for words, common and exotic, native and borrowed. style="mso-spacerun: yes">  More about it will be said next
week.  Whatever is said about word origins
provides a never-ending flow of grist to my mill.  Without the database, when confronted with a question, I
would have been obliged to consult the OED and a few other easily available
books, but this is something most people can do on their own. style="mso-spacerun: yes">  In my weekly column, I almost never
give references to the sources I use, but their existence should be taken for
granted.  For example, to answer
the question about macabre, I have read more
than a dozen articles in English, French, and German and as many chapters in
books on the dance of death.  The
same holds for
gulch and glack, style='font-style:normal'> to be discussed below.  I am saying all this, for every time I pass on the knowledge
obtained from my database without references (of which my “academic” publications
are full) my conscience pricks me. 
My answers come neither from memory nor are the result of divine
inspiration.  Having thus saved my
soul, I will proceed.

Another hypothesis traces macabre style='font-style:normal'> to the name of Saint Macarius, the Egyptian
hermit.  I will skip the details,
because even if it were possible to connect the picture of a dead man
(Macarius?) in the Campo Santo at Pisa with the dance of death, Macarius style='font-style:normal'> can hardly be twisted into macabre. style="mso-spacerun: yes">  According
to an ingenious suggestion,
macabre
is a proper name, either of the painter of the fresco or of the poet who
composed the verses.  The French name
Macabre has been recorded, but
since medieval painters were extremely seldom known by name to posterity, the
second possibility is to be preferred. 
However, most researchers believe that
macabre style='font-style:normal'> goes back to the Biblical name Macchabaeus. style='font-style:normal'>  The
origin of that name is of no consequence here.  Whether it is an acronym of Hebrew m style='font-weight:normal'>i k style='font-weight:normal'>amocha b style='font-weight:normal'>aelim J style='font-weight:normal'>ehovah “Who is like thee among the
gods, Jehovah?” or from the Hebrew word makeb “hammer,”  it is the
origin of the French word, not of the Hebrew name, that we are trying to
understand, and here etymology fails us. 
Why the Macchabees? 

The motif of corpses and skeletons participating in a grim
procession (“dancing”) or flying in the air and causing a storm (“the wild
hunt”) is one of the most popular in world folklore.  Apparently, the French poet depicted a scene well known to
the church-goers.  Did he want to
make the fresco and the verse more memorable (personalized) by bestowing a
famous name on the leader of the dance? (Judas Macchabaeus enjoyed great
popularity for centuries.  As late
as 1747, Handel’s oratorio devoted to him was produced in London, and in the
Middle Ages he had the status of a hero.) 
Such is one of many suggestions. 
We may never know the truth. 
Unless macabre is traceable to a
root hidden from us, the idea that it owes its origin to a proper name seems
acceptable, with
Macchabaeus
being the best candidate.

Another question was about the relation between gully, style='font-style:normal'> its regional synonym gulch style='font-style:normal'> (sparsely represented in our dictionaries), and glack, style='font-style:normal'> a Scots noun, with almost the same meaning. style="mso-spacerun: yes">  In Middle English and in Modern English
dialects, several words like gully
have been recorded:
gull, gill, gool, gowl, goyle, style='font-style:normal'> and so forth. 
They mean “ravine, deep trench; hollow (filled with water), ditch; steep
narrow valley; sluice.”  Gully
is believed to be a late variant of gullet style='font-style:normal'> (and therefore to be of Romance origin: Old French gole
~ goule
“throat”; -et style='font-style:normal'> is a diminutive suffix), but a nearly identical native
root must have existed too, because goyle and its kin have numerous cognates in the Scandinavian languages,
Frisian, and Dutch.  Close by is
Engl.
gulp, that is, gul-p, style='font-style:normal'> perhaps a sound imitative verb (something like glug-glug-glug style='font-style:normal'>).  One
of the Middle English ancestors of gulp was gloppen, with no
vowel between
g and l ( style='font-style:normal'>also glut and
glutton
begin with gl-) style='font-style:normal'>.   Gul-ch, style='font-style:normal'> with -ch
from
-k, is evidently a cognate
of
gul-p, whatever the “suffixes”
-ch and -p style='font-style:normal'> mean and whatever the direct line of descent might
be.  Gull style='font-style:normal'> can also mean “swallow greedily”; it coexists with
the synonymous verbs gulch, gullock, style='font-style:normal'> and gollop.  Scots glack style='font-style:normal'>aligns itself easily with gulch, gullock, gloppen, style='font-style:normal'> and the rest. 
Yet it need not be a borrowing from Germanic (even though, as far as I can
judge, it does not trace to any ancient Celtic word), because Irish glack style='font-style:normal'> has a variety of meanings (“hollow valley; hollow of
the hand; bosom; grasp,” etc.), while the Scots word means only “ravine.” style="mso-spacerun: yes">  However, it is not unthinkable that gulch style='font-style:normal'> or one of its siblings at one time meant “hollow, a
hollow passage” and was taken over by Irish, where it acquired additional
senses, while in Scots it retained only the meaning “ravine.” style="mso-spacerun: yes">  All the hedging notwithstanding, I
think the affinity of gulch and glack style='font-style:normal'> is probable. According to the only tentative etymology of Irish glac known to me, it may be related to Engl. clench and its cognates. This is a shot in the dark.

A few additions to the previous “Gleanings.” style="mso-spacerun: yes">  In my discussion of jazz, style='font-style:normal'> I quoted two notes from The Historical
Magazine
on the origin of apee style='font-style:normal'> and said that the contemporary opinion connecting
the name of that cookie with the initials A.P. need not be called into question. style="mso-spacerun: yes">  But, according to good authorities, the
word is French, and A.P. came in useful to justify a folk etymology. style="mso-spacerun: yes">  Secondly, Mr. Tim Fleet calls my
attention to William Howland Kenney’s book Jazz on the River style='font-style:normal'> (The University of Chicago Press, 2005). style="mso-spacerun: yes">  Page 23 has a passage on J.S. style="mso-spacerun: yes">  Mr. Fleet is skeptical of the claim
made by Joseph Leo Streckfus (from J.S. to Jess, to jazz style='font-style:normal'>), and so am I.


Anatoly_libermanAnatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to blog.us@oup.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”

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