Guilt Societies and Shame Societies, or, Shame and Guilt from an Etymological Point of View,
With Some Observations on Sham and Scam Thrown in for Good Measure (Part 1: Shame)
Long ago, after this blog had barely come into being (Spring 2006), I wrote an essay titled “Living in Sin.” It was about the origin of the word sin. Such abstract categories as sin, shame, and guilt develop from thinking about situations in which people realize that they have done something wrong or covered themselves with disgrace, and every now and then the inner form of the words coined for such purposes is transparent. The idea of sin in its Christian sense was alien to the Germanic peoples before the conversion, and in Gothic, a language mainly known to us from a 4th-century translation of the New Testament, the word for “sin” is frawaurhts, literally “misdeed” (fra- is a prefix of “destructive semantics,” as in Engl. forgo “relinquish,” and -waurhts is akin to Engl. wrought). Nor does transgression, from Old French, ultimately from Latin, pose any problems: it means overstepping what is allowed. But sin is a short word, and how it came to mean what it does is unclear, the more so because the speakers of Old English had forwyrht, an exact cognate of the Gothic noun. Apparently, sin (at that time, syn or synn) and forwyrht referred to different things. Those who are interested in knowing some conjectures on sin are welcome to read my old post. Shame and guilt are no less opaque than sin; shame is especially hard.
Native English words with sh- once began with sk-, and, indeed, the Old English for shame is scamu. The last sound (u) was an ending, while m could be a suffix because sca-m-u had a close synonym sca-nd-u. Scandu and its cognates have continued into modern languages; Germans still say Scham und Schande to express their disgust. Modern English lacks its reflex (if we disregard the archaic participle shent “ruined, disgraced”), but, by way of compensation, in the United States scam appeared in the sixties of the 20th century, as if from nowhere. All dictionaries dismiss it demurely as being “of obscure origin.” If we are unable to trace such a recent coinage to its source, how good is the chance of success in dealing with an ancient word? The chance is probably not very good, but sometimes the remoter the period, the easier it is to advance hypotheses. For example, if scam had emerged in Middle English, there would have been no doubt that it was a borrowing from Scandinavian (Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish have skam “shame”), and the meanings could have been aligned without much difficulty (“scam is a shameful thing”). 17th-century scam would have been more problematic since the best period for absorbing Scandinavian words was the Middle Ages. Present day Engl. scam leaves us stranded: it is definitely not a continuation of a word from the language of the Vikings! Hence the unanimous verdict “of unknown/uncertain origin.” Even sham, originally “trick, fraud,” which is clearly English (it begins with sh-), baffles researchers. Although it sounds like shame, it may have nothing to do with it. Despite all such hurdles there is no harm in trying to guess how shame acquired its meaning.
Since shame refers to the diminution of honor, it has been compared with the Old English adjective scam “short” (what an etymon for our scam!), from whose Old Norse cognate skamt English has scant. However, a much more popular hypothesis looks for a different root. In the old Indo-European languages, the prefix s- existed. It was an evasive entity. Roots existed with and without it, and its presence did not affect the word’s meaning. The same almost parasitic s (called s-mobile “movable s”) has been recorded in modem English dialects: some people say climb, others say sclimb. The main sound change that separates all the Germanic languages from its other Indo-European neighbors is the so-called First Consonant Shift: compare Latin pater, tres, and quod (that is, kwod) versus Engl. father, three, and what (from hw-). The quod/hwat pair shows that Germanic h corresponds to non-Germanic k. But in the group sk the consonant k was not affected by the shift. For instance, Latin had scabere “scratch,” and its Gothic cognate was skaban “shear.” As a result, some words going back to different languages sound nearly alike: scabies is from Latin, scab is from Scandinavian (Germanic), and their English siblings are shabby and shave. This digression was necessary to show that if a Germanic word begins with sk-, it may have variants with initial k- (the same root minus s-mobile), while its non-Germanic cognates may begin with h- (k regularly shifted) and sk- (in which k avoided the shift). This is why prefixed words like Old Engl. -hama “covering” and Gothic -hamon “get dressed” have been suggested as cognates of scamu “shame.” The idea was that the Germanic word for shame expressed the embarrassment of being naked.
Such a development is probable. A person could not experience a greater indignity than being caught by his enemies and stripped of his clothes. The god Othin (Odin) says in a mythological poem from medieval Scandinavia: “When I saw two scarecrows in a field,/ I covered them with clothes;/ they looked like warriors when they were dressed/—who hails a naked hero?” In the Slavic languages, styd- “shame” is related to stud- “cold,” which seems to give support to the scamu—hama etymology. But if hama (to stay with Old English forms) is a cognate of scamu, could it not be expected to mean “clothes”? Yet we have a huge zigzag: from “clothes” to “unclothed” and to the disgrace caused by not having anything to wear, all of it within the narrow confines of a short root. The phonetic part (hama ~ scamu) is flawless, but the semantic leap is “scarcely credible,” as dictionaries say in such circumstances. Another possibility is to compare scam- and Gothic hamfs “maimed,” a word that has an impeccable Greek cognate, though mutilation need not presuppose shame.
The inevitable conclusion appears to be “origin uncertain/debatable,” but I cannot finish my story without one more reference. The Italian scholar Vittore Pisani pointed to the noun eskamitu in an inscription on an Inguvian table (we are dealing here with an ancient Indo-European language of Italy). It means “genitals,” and Pisani compared it with the Germanic word for “shame.” The obscure Italic word may provide a clue more reliable than any other. Shame and genitals have formed an indissoluble union from time immemorial (this has been, of course, what gave rise to the “dress” etymology: the horror lay in being fully exposed). We may never be able to find out why the sound complex skam- came to designate what it did, but, if eskamitu has been interpreted correctly, reconstructing the development from “private parts” to “shame” looks like our best choice.
Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them as well as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here, each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to firstname.lastname@example.org; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”