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 dancemacabre. The story begins with the fresco of the Dance Macabre, painted in 1424 in the Church of the Innocents at Paris. 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.” 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 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. 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). 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. However, the fact of the loan can be established only if we succeed in showing how the foreign word crossed the border. Macabre does not seem to have originated in the area of France (or Spain) where the Arabic influence was strong. 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. 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. 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, 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 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 can hardly be twisted into macabre. 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 goes back to the Biblical name Macchabaeus.The origin of that name is of no consequence here. Whether it is an acronym of Hebrew mi kamocha baelim Jehovah “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, its regional synonym gulch (sparsely represented in our dictionaries), and glack, a Scots noun, with almost the same meaning. In Middle English and in Modern English dialects, several words like gully have been recorded: gull, gill, gool, gowl, goyle, 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 (and therefore to be of Romance origin: Old French gole ~ goule “throat”; -et 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, perhaps a sound imitative verb (something like glug-glug-glug). One of the Middle English ancestors of gulp was gloppen, with no vowel between g and l (also glut and glutton begin with gl-) Gul-ch, with -ch from -k, is evidently a cognate of whatever the “suffixes” -ch and -p mean and whatever the direct line of descent might be. Gull can also mean “swallow greedily”; it coexists with the synonymous verbs gulch, gullock, and gollop.Scots glack aligns itself easily with gulch, gullock, gloppen, 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 has a variety of meanings (“hollow valley; hollow of the hand; bosom; grasp,” etc.), while the Scots word means only “ravine.” However, it is not unthinkable that gulch 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.” All the hedging notwithstanding, I think the affinity of gulch and glack 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.” In my discussion of jazz, I quoted two notes from The Historical Magazine on the origin of apee and said that the contemporary opinion connecting the name of that cookie with the initials A.P. need not be called into question. But, according to good authorities, the word is French, and A.P. came in useful to justify a folk etymology. Secondly, Mr. Tim Fleet calls my attention to William Howland Kenney’s book Jazz on the River (The University of Chicago Press, 2005). Page 23 has a passage on J.S. Mr. Fleet is skeptical of the claim made by Joseph Leo Streckfus (from J.S. to Jess, to jazz), and so am I.
Featured Image Credit: ‘Skeletons, Danse Macabre’, Image by ClkerFreeVectorImages, CC0 Public Domain via Pixabay.