Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Monthly Gleanings, Part Two

By Anatoly Liberman

This post continues the “gleanings” for June and is devoted to separate words.

The name of the god Othin. Othin is an Anglicized spelling of a name that in Old Icelandic has two n’s, an accent mark over O (to designate the length of the vowel), and a special letter called thorn where th appears in English. I discussed Othin in my recent post “Wednesday’s Father,” and a request for more details followed that post.

The etymology of Othin has suddenly again become a matter of debate; in recent years several important works have appeared dealing with this subject. As usual, I will skip the more technical details. Othinn is the Scandinavian form of the divine name. In English and German the god was known as Wodan/Wuotan. Oth-/Wod-/Wuot- are phonetic variants of the same word, and so is Wed- that we have in Wednesday “Wodan’s day.” I have often mentioned one of the main laws of etymology, namely that we cannot discover the origin of a word unless we have full information about its meaning. It follows that to be able to understand the origin of Othin, we have to determine that god’s earliest place in the pre-Christian pantheon. However, the structure of that pantheon changed from epoch to epoch and from place to place (also, in the beginning there may not have been any “pantheon”), so that we depend on a plausible reconstruction rather than solid facts. The most primitive form of Othin seems to have been that of a god or demon of death. Perhaps he “took care” of the warriors who, filled with frenzy, fell in battle (the meter and the alliteration are deliberate).

In Scandinavian myths, Othin had a double, called Othr, but almost nothing is known about him (-r is an ending). Therefore, it is not clear whether Othin is an extension of Oth(r) or Othr an abridgment of Othin. The difference between the suffixes (-an in Wodan versus -inn in Othinn) has been explained in two ways, but this problem cannot be discussed here. The hypothesis that Othin is a Celtic rather than a Germanic name is, to my mind, unattractive. I think the traditional comparison of Wod- with German Wut “fury, frenzy” and Latin vates “prophet, seer” has stood its ground well. I also think that adding the name of Ate (pronounced ah-te, stress on the first syllable), the Greek goddess of madness, to those cognates was an excellent idea. Madness must have been at the core of Othin’s name. It was first understood as the frenzy of a warrior and later as being possessed by a superior being, which included the poetic gift (poetic frenzy) and the gift of prophecy. Ecstasy, which is usually mentioned as the primary characteristic of Othin’s nature, was probably associated with him as a consequence of “divine inspiration.” Let me repeat: this is an attempt at a reconstruction, and, as always in such cases, its every step can be called into question. The literature on the cult of Othin and his folklore is vast.

Devil. This is a good word to deal with after a nearly full-length essay on a demon of death. The source of devil is Christian Latin diabolus, from Greek diabolos (compare Engl. diabolical). The Greek word has the familiar prefix dia- “across” and the root of the verb ballein “to throw” (thus, someone who “throws,” presumably slander or evil, “across”). However, from an etymological point of view devil has nothing to do with evil, just as god has nothing to do with good. In both cases the phonetic similarity is accidental. Lugubrious. It came to English from Latin in the 17th century (Latin lugere means “to mourn”). The Latin adjective has a solid Greek cognate. “Other connections which have been suggested are possible but somewhat obscure,” according to The Universal Dictionary of the English Language by Henry Cecil Wyld (one of the best dictionaries for anyone interested in etymology). The original root has been tentatively explained as “to break down mentally.” Ipseity “personal identity, selfhood.” From Latin ipse “himself.” Indubitable. Compare dubious (Latin dubium “doubt” and dubitare “waver, hesitate”). Doubt, from French, is an etymological doublet of dubit- in dubitable/indubitable. Such doublets and even triplets are common in English. Coign “corner, angle.” Shakespeare used the phrase Coigne of Vantage in Macbeth. It was forgotten until popularized by Walter Scott. Coign came to English from Latin (cuneus “wedge”; compare cuneiform “wedge-shaped”) via Old French. Engl. coin, from the same source, is an etymological doublet of coign. How are pathos and pathetic connected? Pathos is straight from Greek and in addition to “speech that evokes sadness or grief,” often means “inflated rhetoric.” Pathetic is from French, ultimately also from Greek. It has degraded into a buzz word meaning “miserable.” An etymological tie between them is obvious: they are a noun and an adjective having the same root.

Furlough. This is a 17th-century adaptation of Dutch verloof, a “calque” (or a translations loan, that is, a borrowing in which the foreign morphemes have been translated one by one) of German Verlaub. The word consists of a prefix and a root. Benchmark “standard” or “point of reference” is a figurative use of benchmark “a surveyor’s mark cut in a wall, pillar, or building used as reference point in measuring altitudes.”

Sam Hill. This gentleman has never been found, and his identity is even more obscure than that of Uncle Sam. At one time Sam ~ Samuel was an extremely common name, but this fact explains nothing. Since what the Sam Hill means what the hell, it has been suggested that Hill is a euphemism for hell. A pathetic etymology. Guy Friday is a jocular alternation of Man Friday, the name of Robinson Crusoe’s servant. Girl Friday also exists. Tomfoolery. The choice of proper names for such words (tom boy, john “lavatory,” jenny “skeleton key,” jack in numerous compounds and phrases, and their likes) seems to be arbitrary (see more about it in my book Word Origins), but it still would be interesting to discover how Sam Hill came into being. Nimrod “fool.” The biblical Nimrod was a great hunter, but our slangy sense is believed to have originated with Bugs Bunny, who called the stupid hunter Elmer Fudd “poor little Nimrod.” Italy pronounced as It’ly. This variant seems to be peculiar to the speaker, perhaps on an analogy of other words ending in -tly (quietly, neatly, and so forth).

Postscript. Like every word columnist, I notice that people keep asking the same questions over and over again. Here are the words that have piqued the curiosity of our listeners and correspondents and that have been discussed in this blog, sometimes in special posts: boondoggle, catawampus, charlatan, cocktail, flummox (probably a sound symbolic formation, like many verbs beginning with fl-, ending in an expressive diminutive suffix, as in hillock, buttocks, and a host of other mainly British regional words), hobo (hardly from ho, boy), hoi polloi (Greek: “all people”), honky dory (Japanese: “the main street”), hunyack (a derogatory name for a person of East European origin: from hun-, evidently, the first syllable of Hungarian, and a Slavic “ending”), lollygag, Schadenfreude (German: “glee at seeing somebody else in trouble”), and uffda (an expression of annoyance, something like “ouch there,” an interjection and an adverb, from Norwegian). There is no need to go into detail again or repeat my old answers in full. But there have been questions about tricky slangy words, few hard regionalisms, and two or three idioms. I’ll answer them and all the new questions as best I can on the last Wednesday of August. Enjoy the summer while it lasts.


Anatoly_libermanAnatoly 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 blog.us@oup.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”

Recent Comments

  1. John Cowan

    The sense ‘fool’ of nimrod has been antedated. The first cartoon featuring a proto-Bugs appeared in 1938, and Bugs as we know him in 1940, but the OED3 has a 1933 citation: “B. HECHT & G. FOWLER Great Magoo III. i. 183 He’s in love with her. That makes about the tenth. The same old Nimrod. Won’t let her alone for a second.” I personally consider this one shaky, as it could just as well mean ‘hunter [of women]‘ as ‘fool’.

    Googling, I find a seemingly unsubstantiated claim that Sheidlower has found two 1930s citations (of which the above is perhaps one). But it does seem true that even if the sense was occasionally extant in the 1930s, it didn’t really take off until the 1980s with the widespread availability of early Bugs cartoons.

  2. [...] This post was Twitted by rogueclassicist [...]

  3. J P Maher

    What the {Sam} Hell!? A lot of people in Ellinois drink melk. — Not pathetic at all, but plain ole tabu avoidance, by Gosh. I swow! (SWear + vOW).

  4. J P Maher

    ITLY. New York City was and is the point of entry to the USA for millions of people. Some tarry there and then move west, taking along NooYawkisms. Sicilian Albanians in Madison (Wesconsin) in the 1940s said ‘go SHARPING”, not SHOPPING. They were hyper-MidWesternizing a presumed R-less NY woid. My Calabrese inlaws in upstate NY say ITLY This is also a NY pronunciation, like THAT’LL, RATTLE BATTLE BOTTLE CATTLE and GLOTTL stop.

  5. J P Maher

    Just watched “Lidia’s Italy” cooking show on PBS TV. Lidia Maticchio Bastianich was born in Pola (Istria). That was Italy before WW II, Yugoslavia afterwards (so, Pula). She lived in Trieste till the family came to the USA in 1958. Her English has a mild Italian accent, and she covers up her NYC English quite well. Lidia has an awful American accent when she says CIAO. When speaking English she pronounces ITALY three ways, with an Italian T, with the voiced T/D of allegro US BUTTER/BUDDER, and true NY-ish ITLY, with glottal stop.

  6. [...] 2005. I see though that Anatoly Liberman did a piece more recently on Wednesday’s Father and revisited the theme at the beginning of July [...]

  7. [...] Hill. In my June set of gleanings, I expressed doubts about Hill being an alteration of hell. It has been pointed out to me that e [...]

Leave a Comment

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