By Anatoly Liberman
The derivation of some words for “refuse” is surprisingly hard to trace. A look at rubbish, trash, garbage, junk, and their synonyms in the most cautious etymological dictionaries will produce the same result: “of unknown origin.” This verbal riffraff (rabble, or ragtag and bobtail, if you prefer) resists language historians’ attempts to discover its past. I am going to discuss some such words in a series of posts. Now that my bibliography of English etymology, the database by which I have been swearing for so many years, has come out, anyone can follow my explanations, though the relevant literature is often in German, French, and the Scandinavian languages, and some of the articles may require an effort to obtain. But no barriers, not even the language barrier, the most formidable of them all, can deter an etymologist from discovering the truth.
The history of dross, unlike that of the words mentioned in the previous paragraph, presents no difficulty, but from its root a veritable garden has sprouted, and it is in this garden, partly secret, partly open to view, that we will stay for a while. The Old English verb dreosan, which had cognates in the other Old Germanic languages, meant “to fall.” Consequently, dross, related to dreosan, designated all kinds of sediment: dregs and lees, among others. This is an obvious etymology, though one should never jump to conclusions. For example, dropsy has nothing to do with drop (it goes back to hydropsy). However, dross is indeed akin to dreosan. Less certain is the connection between dreosan and drizzle, because drizzle surfaced in English texts only in the 16th century. It has a synonym and two look-alikes, namely, dialectal dozzle “to drizzle; confuse” (different meanings of the same word or homonyms?), sizzle and fizzle, both sound imitative (frizzle is French and can be ignored in the present context). Drizzle “to fall in tiny drops,” with its closed vowel and a suffix emphasizing repetitive action, makes good sense. Compare drip, as opposed to drop. Another word that turned up late (only in the 15th century) but claims membership in the dreosan family is drowsy. Despite the long interval of date, the claimed affinity is not out of the question (yet doze and dizzy are not related).
In the Old Germanic languages, s, depending on where stress fell in the word, became z and later yielded r. That is why was and were are cognate, and the same holds for raise (a borrowing from Scandinavian) and rear (a native English verb). Having this rule in mind, we can connect dreosan and dreary. The Old English noun dreor, usually glossed as “gore,” meant “flowing blood,” that is, “blood falling from the wound” (gore, despite its present day poetic connotations, has an unsavory origin: it goes back to a word for “filth; dung”; gore is “clotted blood”). Thus, dreary developed from “bloody” to “grievous, sad.” German has the noun Trauer “sorrow,” related to the verb trauern “grieve,” from truren, but earlier it meant “cast down one’s eyes.” I think it is more natural to understand the verb’s original meaning as “fall” (“let one’s eyes fall”) rather than “make a gesture that shows one’s sorrow.” Nor do I see insurmountable phonetic difficulties in connecting dreosan and truren. In any case, Modern German traurig means “sad” and is a close analogue of Engl. dreary. Both refer to being crestfallen.
Especially interesting words with the root of dross occur in the Scandinavian languages. I will not examine them in detail, but it is curious to observe how many figurative meanings can develop from the idea of falling. What falls is, by implication, heavy. Hence Icelandic drussi “a clumsy man,” its synonym drusill, the verb drasla “plod along, move with difficulty” (though drasl means only “rubbish, trash”), and the adjective drasinn “lazy” (that is, again “moving with an effort”). The necessity of making an effort can be the result of laziness, as just noted, but being equal to such an effort is a sign of strength, so that among the Scandinavian words with the root drass-/druss- we find nouns meaning both “a tiny man” and “a giant,” along with “devil.” This interplay of the opposites is typical of semantics, because so many things can be detrimental and beneficial at the same time. For instance, fire gives warmth and burns to death, water makes life possible and floods our homes, and so forth. By the same token, many qualities are neither good nor bad: their effect depends on how they are put to use. The great Scandinavian god Othinn had a horse called Yggdrasill, a word whose original meaning puzzles etymologists. Yggr is one of Othinn’s numerous names, and drasill has been recorded in the sense “horse,” so that Yggdrasill means simply “Othinn’s horse.” We remember that drasinn means “lazy,” and it is unimaginable that Othinn have a lazy horse. But drasinn may refer to a devil-like, unstoppable animal that won’t be deterred by any difficulties. This explanation was offered long ago but rejected. I think it fits the situation very well indeed.
It is a long way from “dross” to “devil.” But once you plant a seed and give your garden enough time to grow, you can expect strange flowers to appear in it. However, for the time being we will keep making our way through a dump. Dregs and trash are our next items.
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.”