Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

The Long Arm of Etymology,
Or, Longing for Word Origins

By Anatoly Liberman

Only children and foreigners express their surprise when
they discover that the verb long does
not mean “lengthen” or that
has nothing to do with longing.
When we grow up, we stop noticing how confusing such similarities of
form coupled with differences in meaning are.  It is the privilege of poets and etymologists to recreate
language and never stop wondering at its tortuous ways.<span
style=”mso-spacerun: yes”> 
Old English had langian<span
style=’font-style:normal’> ~ longian
“to desire” and “to grow long,” either two distinct words or two meanings of
the same verb.  When we try to
restore ties that existed millennia ago, we look for cognates in as many
languages as possible.  The vowels
in them may differ, as they do in Engl.
style=’font-weight:normal’>de and bedri<span
style=’font-weight:normal’>dden, wa<span
style=’font-weight:normal’>ke and wo<span
style=’font-weight:normal’>ke, broa<span
style=’font-weight:normal’>d and brea<span
style=’font-weight:normal’>dth, and occasionally their consonants
alternate, as in wolf ~ wolv<span
style=’font-weight:normal’>es, but the alternations are not
arbitrary.  <span
style=’font-style:normal’>That the Old English verb might have a<span
style=’font-style:normal’> and o
in the root
(langian ~
need not worry us: they often
substituted for each other before
n. The variant with a is
still familiar from Scots (“for auld lang syne…”) and from the family name

In German, we find erlangen “to attain,” and langen
“to reach for something.”
Speakers, naturally, connect
langen with lang “long” (you
reach for something = you stretch yourself and make yourself longer, as it
were), but scholars dissociate them.
Langen, they point out,
seems to be related to the verb gelingen<span
style=’font-style:normal’> “to succeed,” and this makes its affinity with lang<span
style=’font-style:normal’> improbable.
Gelingen, in turn,
resembles Engl.
linger “to tarry”
ge- is a prefix).<span
style=”mso-spacerun: yes”>  
Whether linger<span
style=’font-style:normal’> goes back to Old English lengan<span
style=’font-style:normal’> “to prolong, put off” or to its Old Norse synonym lengja,<span
style=’font-style:normal’> it must have been derived from lang-<span
style=’font-style:normal’> “long.”
The same scholars (good specialists, not straw men) also say that German
“to attain” and long <span
style=’font-style:normal’>should be separated.  Finally, German has Belang<span
style=’font-style:normal’> “importance, significance” and anbelangen<span
style=’font-style:normal’> “to concern.”
(Note: The name of the German town Erlangen is stressed on the first
syllable.  It is an old compound: erle<span
style=’font-style:normal’> “alder” + wang “wooded field” and has nothing to do with our story).

Besides this, there are words having the same root with u<span
style=’font-style:normal’> in it: German lungern<span
style=’font-style:normal’> “to loaf,” which was attested only in the 18th
century, and Old English lungre
“quickly, suddenly.”  They seem to
be related, even though loafing is the opposite of quick and sudden
movement.  If the original meaning
of the root
ling- ~ lang ~ lung-
was “long,” the verbs listed above may have suggested the idea of moving (more
often slowly) toward and wishing for a remote object, the one that was a long
way off, and occasionally getting hold of it—thus, from longing and
lingering to appropriation, whence presumably Engl.

What a bewildering tangle of meanings!<span
style=”mso-spacerun: yes”>  It is so deceptively easy to
reconstruct bridges.  For example,
if German lungern once meant “to long,”
then from desiring something the path may have led to being always near the
coveted object and from there to lingering.  From desiring something we get to owning it (Engl.
style=’font-style:normal’>) and realizing the importance of the thing attained
(German gelingen).<span
style=”mso-spacerun: yes”> 
One can derive all of them from long<span
style=’font-style:normal’> (the opposite of short<span
style=’font-style:normal’>) but can just as easily dispense with each one.<span
style=”mso-spacerun: yes”>  Meanings develop most unpredictably: in
the course of a few centuries, “good” and “bad,” “smart” and “foolish,” “sweet”
and “salty” may alternate, without changing their form.<span
style=”mso-spacerun: yes”>  And prefixes play havoc with meaning,
as we know from English adverbs: consider put up<span
style=’font-style:normal’> (at a hotel and with a friend) and give up<span
style=’font-style:normal’> (who would guess that give + up<span
style=’font-style:normal’> yields “to renounce”?).  I don’t think that the verb long<span
style=’font-style:normal’> (with its kin) and the adjective long<span
style=’font-style:normal’> must necessarily be separated.<span
style=”mso-spacerun: yes”>  But here I am in the minority.<span
style=”mso-spacerun: yes”>  My only potential ally is Jacob Grimm,
whose books, written in the first half of the 19th century, are
perennial classics.  According to
him, in trying to penetrate the history of words, it is advisable to set up as
few homonyms as possible.  He would
probably have supported my suggestion that Old English langian<span
style=’font-style:normal’> “to extend” and langian <span
style=’font-style:normal’>“to desire” were two meanings of the same word.<span
style=”mso-spacerun: yes”>  But reasonable guidelines are one
thing, and concrete solutions are something different.

As though the previous explanations did not contain enough
hedging, another unsettling detail should be mentioned.<span
style=”mso-spacerun: yes”>  Engl. lung <span
style=’font-style:normal’>~ German Lunge resemble lungre and lungern<span
style=’font-style:normal’>, but they, most definitely, have nothing to do with
length and longing.  There was an
ancient root, whose modern continuation is Engl. light<span
style=’font-style:normal’> “not heavy”; it spawned several words sounding like
those we have seen.  Lungs float on
water.  Priests (to the extent that
their duties made them deal with sacrificial animals), hunters, and butchers
have always known it.  We owe the
name of the respiratory organ (both lungs and its Engl. synonym lights) to the observations of those people.  Is it possible that German lungern<span
style=’font-style:normal’> “to loaf” and Old English lungre<span
style=’font-style:normal’> “quickly” go back to that root (its form is usually
given as leng)?<span
style=”mso-spacerun: yes”> 
Yes, it is.   How exasperating!  Isn’t this blog supposed to enlight<span
style=’font-style:normal’>en its readers on matters etymological, rather than
stringing conjectures and dropping one after another like so many hot
potatoes?  It depends on what the
readers want.  If all they expect
is a thimbleful of distilled truth, beating about the bush must irritate them, but if
they long for insights into etymology as it really is, they should be prepared
to make a long journey through a tunnel, with the light at its nonexistent end
resembling a will o’ the wisp, an ignis fatuus, rather than a torch securely attached
to a sign with the word EXIT on it.

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.”

Recent Comments

There are currently no comments.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *