By Anatoly Liberman
Dregs, like dross, begins with dr- and means “refuse,” which, theoretically speaking, means nothing at all as far as their etymology is concerned (remember drop and dropsy from the previous post), but the two words are indeed related. Dregs surfaced in English texts relatively late (in 1300), a circumstance that along with the final “hard” g suggests Scandinavian provenance. Native English words usually look like edge, tow, and draw, whereas borrowings from Scandinavian end in g, like egg, tug, and drag. Some difficulties in the reconstruction of the history of dreg(s) arise because in early Modern English both dragges with its telltale Scandinavian g and dredges with a typical “English” consonant occur. We may ignore the question whether the verb and the noun dredge have anything to do with dregs. Nor is the ultimate source of Engl. dregs (native or Scandinavian?) important for solving its etymology, since dreg is certainly akin to Old Norse dregg “yeast.”
To a modern English-speaker dregs, unless it is used in the figurative sense “the basest portion,” means “sediment, lees,” but the earliest meaning of Old Icelandic dregg (singular; dreggjar, plural) was “yeast,” and here a digression on yeast is in order. Etymology is all about digressions, for one word hails another, an interlace structure is formed, and intelligent rambling becomes the trademark of the discipline. The most ancient application of yeast seems to have been to brewing, so that in dealing with it, we should think of brewer’s yeast. Several ideas inspired those who invented a name for it, and two roots seem to have merged in the process: one refers to something that stays at the bottom (the sediment), the other to a substance that causes foaming and seething. Other associations were also possible. Thus, the German for “yeast” (Hefe) is related to the English verb heave (German heben). Likewise, Engl. leaven goes back to Latin levamen “means of raising” (Latin levare “raise,” whence also lever, levy, along with levitation and levity). The tie between yeast and rising needs no explanation, but here we are interested only in “staying at the bottom” and “seething.”
The reconstructed root of dreg(g) is drah- ~ drag-, which corresponds to the Slavic root of the word for “yeast” (Russian drozhzhi, and so forth). Its Indo-European base is believed to have sounded approximately like dher- and meant “muddy; darkness.” Several suffixes have been added to it, as evidenced by numerous nouns in English and elsewhere in Germanic. Draff still graces comprehensive dictionaries of Modern English, while drast did not outlive the 16th century (no connection with drastic, a Romance word). Dutch draf, Icelandic draf, as well as German Treber and Trestir, are living words; German Drusen is closer to a technical term. With minor variations all of them mean “dregs, refuse, lees.” Sometimes the reference is to husks and sometimes to the sediment, whether of distilling or brewing. (A note to anticipate questions: lees, a Romance word from Celtic, is related to Engl. lie, so that the reference is again to a position at the bottom; husk means “a little house.”)
Thus, dregs has led us to yeast. (Can anyone imagine how much grief students give me when they use the past of lead? Who will explain to them that lead is the infinitive and the name of the metal, despite the fact that the past of read is, unfortunately, read? But then they believe that the town of Reading is the most literate place in the world and pronounce it accordingly.) Yeast, as noted, foams and seethes. Water boils when it is hot. Human beings seethe when they are angry. A slew of Scandinavian verbs related to yeast mean “to be excited.” One of the Latin words for “yeast” is fermentum. Its root (bhreu ~ bhre “to bubble, boil; burn”) recurs in fervid, Engl. brew, and countless other words related to cooking and brewing, barm “yeast, yeasty froth” among them. Barm is related to Latin fraces “brewer’s yeast.”
I know that what I am going to say below cannot be right, but the temptation is too strong. French fracas goes back to Italian fracassare “crash, break up.” (The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology glosses it as “make an uproar.” Is this gloss trustworthy?) Strangely, the etymology of fracassare remains debatable. Most modern dictionaries call the verb’s origin unknown, though cassare “quash, smash” looks like part of it; it is the derivation of fra- that has never been settled. “Din” (so in French fracas, from which English has it, with emphasis on “brawl”) should, apparently, be understood as the result of smashing. But is it possible that the recorded meanings of fracassare have only been influenced by rather than traceable to cassare? Couldn’t the initial point be fraces? From “yeast” to “seething,” “stirring up, rousing,” “bubbling” and only then, because of its proximity to cassare, to its present day senses? Serious etymologists do not read blogs, and if they happen to see this post, they will laugh me to scorn. I’ll join in the laugh and will be happy to watch my hypothesis merge with the other important substances being discussed here. Don’t forget: with dross and dregs behind us, we are approaching trash, the grand finale of the series.
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.”