Although the line between shame and guilt is sometimes blurred, the two differ clearly: guilt points to wrongdoing, whereas shame is the feeling of disgrace. In some communities it is shame that determines people’s behavior, in others it is guilt; hence the division of societies into two groups. In the previous post, I retraced the paths on which language historians hoped to find the root of the Germanic word for “shame,” and we saw how little they know about it (from being uncovered and exposed? from the “scanting” of honor? or was there a more direct way from private parts—so again exposure—to shame?). Guilt, one would think, will be more transparent, for guilt is a legal, rather than moral, category, but look up this word in almost any dictionary, and you will read: “Of unknown origin.” Even entries on shame, a word of rare obscurity, are more informative.
The first citations of guilt in the OED go back to the end of the 10th century, that is, to the Old English period. At that time, the word was spelled gylt and pronounced like German Gült. The OED states that no “equivalent forms” are known in any other Germanic language. This statement should be taken with a grain of salt, for German offers an exact equivalent, namely Gült (from Gült), though in extant texts it does not predate the 13th century. Gült(e) designated a specific tax levied on people in the Middle Ages. The German word provides less help that we need, but it has been around for a long time and its origin poses no problems: it is related to the verb gelten “pay.” Taxes exist to be paid. The English cognate of gelten is yield. However, a formidable obstacle prevents us from interpreting guilt as something to be yielded: the noun should have become guild (or yield); final t in guilt has no explanation.
Guild is a legitimate English word. It seems to have come to English from northern German (gilde) or Dutch. Some details remain obscure, but they won’t interest us here. Suffice it to say that a guild probably meant an association of persons contributing to a common object. Since guilt appeared in English long before guild, its pronunciation has nothing to do with an attempt to stay away from the newcomer (such cases are not too rare, for, although homonyms do not endanger communication, occasionally words choose to keep their distance from obtrusive neighbors): it always ended in -t. As regards the meaning of guilt, the OED appears to be a bit too harsh in its assessment. The earliest senses of Old Engl. gylt were “offence; crime; responsibility.” They are not incompatible with the idea of paying the price for a transgression. The OED says (I have expanded the abbreviations): “From the fact that Old Engl. gylt renders Latin debitum in the Lord’s Prayer and in Matt. XVIII. 27, and that is gyltig renders debet in Matt. XVII. 18, it has been inferred that the substantive [noun] had a primary sense ‘debt’, of which there seems to be no real evidence….” All this is true, but, if Engl. guilt had d at the end, the semantic difficulties would not have deterred anyone from comparing it with yield.
Sometimes, when sounds do not match, the idea of borrowing saves the day. Yet nothing supports the suggestion that Old Engl. gylt, a noun recorded several hundred years prior to its German “equivalent,” came to Britain from the continent, the more so because, as the OED points out, the ancient meanings of the two words do not overlap (it is “crime” in English and “tax” in German). One could fantasize that in the 9th or 10th century northern Germans had gylt “payment; tax” and that it was carried to the land of the Anglo-Saxons, where it changed its meaning to “crime,” with the only vestige of the original sense “payment; that which is due; debt” preserved in ritual texts (the Bible). Not only does the absence of this word in Old High German texts make such a hypothesis improbable. Phonetics also militates against it. The German language of that period lacked a vowel rendered in writing by Old Engl. y and by Modern German u with the umlaut sign.
To nonspecialists such an infinitesimal detail as t versus d may seem sheer pedantry, but the situation is familiar: “For want of the battle, the kingdom was lost,/ And all for the want of a horseshoe nail!” Etymology (a vulnerable kingdom) approached something that can be called science only when it began to pay attention to phonetic correspondences. Every time this criterion fails us, we should either explain the deviation or concede defeat. German t corresponds to Engl. d: compare German reiten and Engl. ride. There remains a feeling that guilt and yield are related despite the fact that we failed to break the magic circle around the English noun, but it will remain just this: a feeling with a bitter aftertaste. Incidentally, the first consonant is not a problem: g- instead of y- can be ascribed to the northern norm, as in the verbs get and give, which, if they had developed as expected, should have “yielded” yive and yet, but, when the entire structure collapses, who will rejoice at the sight of a relatively unimpaired roof?
We can only seek comfort in the fact that the cause of the odd spelling (gui-) is known. In today’s English the reading of g before i and e is always a problem. One should tread gingerly with all kinds of gills, and never assume that one knows how Mr. Gilson pronounces his name. Gill of Jack and Jill’s fame had to change the spelling of her name to avoid misunderstanding. The spellings gui- and gue– were introduced on the French model to clarify matters. Now gest- in digest, gestation, and gesticulation won’t be confused with guest. Right? Well, not quite. English spelling has never been reformed consistently. As a result, we struggle with get and jet, gig and jig, give and gyve (y is a redundant letter having the same value as i), and even guilt coexists with gilt; the last two words are homophones but not homographs. Thus we will live on with a sense of shame that an army of learned linguists has not solved the etymological mystery of guilt. But this is not their fault: something is really wrong with this word.
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 email@example.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”