By Anatoly Liberman
Some English words are native, while many others have been borrowed from Latin or Old French. This is an open secret. But non-specialists seldom realize that, however hard it may be to identify the Romance lending language, it may be even harder to decide whether the word is native or borrowed, or if it is borrowed, whether it came to English from Scandinavian, Dutch (both are related Germanic languages), or French. This difficulty typically arises when we examine the history of words that turned up in books and manuscripts late.
For example, take squeamish. It first surfaced in Middle English, and its origin is lost. Reading the squ-words (42 items) in The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology (ODEE) does not augur well for someone who will try to solve the mystery. This is what we find (the numbers in parentheses refer to the century of the first recording). Squab (17) “young bird; squat person; sofa, soft cushion,” squails (19) “ninepins” (a synonym of kayles and skittles), squander (16), squid (17), and squiffy (19) “slightly drunk” are of uncertain or unknown origin. Squabble (first occurring in Shakespeare) and squib (16), we are told, are probably sound imitative. Squawk (19) “utter a loud cry,” squelch (17, seemingly a doublet of the rare verb quelch), squirt (14), and dialectal squitter (16) “squirt, sputter; void thin excrement” are certainly sound imitative, while squall may be an alternation of squeal, still another onomatopoeia. Squeeze (16) is a variant of earlier squise, which is “intensive of” queise (intensive care is provided by initial s-, an enigmatic prefix added to numerous nouns and verbs: compare quelch ~ squelch, above), whose ultimate origin is unknown. Squiggle may be a blend of squirm and wiggle/wriggle, and squirm is “of symbolic origin” (that is, conveying its meaning by its form), probably associated with worm. Squabash (19) “crushing blow” is explained as a blend of squash and bash. Then there is squegee (19) “implement fitted with rubber for removing moisture from a surface” (“arbitrarily from squeegee”), called an expressive alternation of squeeze, which, as we have seen, is of unknown origin. Several words, squad, squalid, square, squirrel, and squire among them, are of Romance origin. Squint is related to asquint of somewhat unclear antecedents, from Low German or Dutch. A few exotic words (like squeteague, a fish name, squaw, and bookish terms adapted from Latin) can be left out of account. Scandinavian is not mentioned a single time; nor is English suggested as the home of any one of those words. I’ll refrain from questioning the choice of head words in the ODEE and the validity of the formulations given above and only note that against such an unpromising background it will not come as a surprise if squeamish also turns out to be an adjective of unknown (uncertain, debatable, questionable) etymology.
We may now throw a quick look at the squ-list in the 1911 edition of Walter W. Skeat’s A Concise Etymological Dictionary of the English Language. Only 17 words are given. Six are said to be of Scandinavian descent, namely, squab, squabble, squall, squeak, squeal, and squib. Four are granted English origins: squander, squint, squeeze, and squirt. Naturally, there could be no disagreement about square, squirrel, squaw, and their likes. One word is mentioned that did not make its way into the ODEE (squinancy, an old spelling of quinsy). For a long time Skeat believed that squeamish came to English from Scandinavian. He compared it with Old Icelandic svimi “dizziness” and its rather numerous cognates and derived the prevalent meaning “fastidious, delicate, overnice” from a “swimming sensation” one may have in the head. Although words with -qu-, that is, -kw-, sometimes alternate with those having only -k- or -w-, and modern dialectal skeemish, along with swamous, have been recorded, two circumstances mar Skeat’s etymology. “Swimming” in the head has little, if anything, to do with nausea, and, as is now believed, svimi is not related to swim. The Scandinavian etymology of squeamish should be abandoned, and at the end of his life Skeat arrived at the same conclusion.
A much earlier word than squeamish and its rather close synonym is squemous. Its source appears to be Anglo-French escoymous ~ esquaymous. Without the suffix (-ous) we face escoym and esquaym, which did not exist as independent words and about whose origin nothing is known. Their resemblance with coy is accidental, while the noun squeam “a scruple” is apparently a back formation from squeamish (it was abstracted from the adjective in the same way in which grovel and beg were abstracted from groveling and beggar), rather than its source. Skeat wondered whether the etymon of scoym- could have been schema “scheme” (from “fashion, manner”). This is intelligent but uninspiring guessing. If squeamish continues escoymous, the suffix -ish replaced -ous, which is odd, for nothing should have prevented -ous from staying in place.
The first scholars who dealt with squeamish noticed its proximity to qualmish “experiencing qualms” but did not know how to connect them. Neither do we. Yet the two words may have influenced each other. Since escoymous came “from nowhere,” a reshaping by French speakers of some Germanic word (Scandinavian, Dutch, or English) is possible. Ernest Weekley, an expert in so-called Anglo-French etymologies, proposed to derive escoymous from the English root scamu- “shame.” This proposal angered Skeat. In the last editions of his dictionary, he finished the entry squeamish with the warning: “Not related to shame.” It probably is not, because “fastidious, delicate, over-nice” and even “prudish” are hard to trace to the idea of shame, but Skeat’s remark is typical. The authors of etymological dictionaries regularly say: “Unacceptable; unconnected” and “to be rejected,” without offering any arguments. In the days when educated people had some knowledge of Greek, this style used to be called apodictic.
I constantly return to the theme “Etymological games in our best dictionaries.” Lexicographers, who deal with hundreds of thousands of words, have no time or resources to consider the history of all them in detail and copy their information from authoritative works. The support of such works guarantees a degree of safety (since Skeat or the OED thought so, the solution cannot be silly, even if it is wrong). The first two editions of Webster’s International cited Icelandic svimi and repeated Skeat’s explanation, without pointing to or perhaps without realizing the weakness of his reconstruction. The third edition refers to Anglo-French, again without discussion. One should never forget how shaky most etymologies are and how misleading dogmatic statements in this area may be. Squeamish, it seems, is hardly Scandinavian, hardly French, and hardly native. Where then did it come from? Perhaps it is a blend. Unfortunately, the fact of two words merging is notoriously difficult to demonstrate for past epochs. Qualmish remains the closest approximation to squeamish, but it had to be grafted on some other noun or adjective to produce squeamish. If the union was consummated, the event, much to our irritation, happened in the dead of night.
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.”