By Anatoly Liberman
An odd bundle of meanings exists in some Indo-European languages. The first thread in it connects “praise” and “permit,” and this is where we will begin. The verb allow has two senses that today cannot be distinguished without an effort, namely, “permit” and “assign, grant” (hence allowance). Both are from Old French alouer ~ allouer, in which the reflexes (continuations) of two Latin verbs were confused (or blended): allocare “allot, allocate” and allaudare (the latter traceable to ad + laudare and familiar to English-speakers from laud and its derivatives laudatory, laudable, and laudation). A prefix may change the meaning of a verb radically. Yet laudare meant “to praise” even with ad-/al- before it, so why do Old French al (l)ouer and Engl. allow mean “to permit”? (Modern French allouer means “grant, allocate” and in some contexts “allow.”) The sense development is usually reconstructed so: from “praise” to “approve, assign with approval” and to “permit.” If this is how the events unfolded, the French verb underwent a certain degradation of meaning in comparison with its Latin etymon. We won’t worry about its fate but remember that no chasm separates “praise” from “permit.”
The situation in Germanic is more complicated. In Middle High German, the verb loben meant both “praise” and “vow, swear,” that is, “promise solemnly” (today only geloben has the second meaning). Old Engl. lofian also meant “praise,” but leaf, a noun related to it, meant “permission,” and we still say by your leave. This leave has nothing to do with the verb leave “depart, quit,” though most people think that in take one’s leave and a leave of absence they hear an echo of the verb. Old Icelandic lofa meant both “praise” and “permit.” Thus, what we observe between Latin and French as a process is represented in Germanic as a state. The root of Engl. (be)lieve, German (g)lauben, and their cognates elsewhere in Germanic is likewise akin to leave “permission,” though to have faith in something is not exactly the same as to praise or allow it to happen. Finally, the unquestionable cognates of lofian, lofa, and the rest are English archaic lief “beloved” (by contrast, German lieb “dear” is a common word) and love (cf. German Liebe) The Germanic bundle consists of “praise,” “permit,” “believe,” and “love.”
Faced with such a semantic tangle, language historians try to extricate the nucleus from which all the meanings sprouted (of course, this is the goal of reconstructing all protoforms). Unfortunately, one can begin almost anywhere and arrive at feasible conclusions. 1) Love presupposes trust (faith); we believe in the object of our longing, praise the person we adore and permit him or her to do what they like. 2) Or we permit a certain act or allow someone to do something and praise, believe in, and love the results. 3) Or we praise something and permit it. The results are worthy of our love, and we believe in them. Other variants are easy to concoct. Allow came from allaudare, but in an excellent etymological dictionary of Old Icelandic it is said that “permit” preceded “praise,” rather than the other way around Even the most authoritative statements should be taken with a grain of salt. The Latin-French case is uncontroversial, for there we deal with recorded facts, not the fruits of an ingenious reconstruction. Yet it does not follow that we have discovered the only viable model of semantic change: in Romance the path might lead from A to B, and in Germanic from B to A. The original verb was either extremely vague (something like “to experience a pleasant feeling”), with all the attested meanings being its offshoots or absolutely concrete, but with time becoming more abstract. Neither possibility is improbable. We have also seen that sometimes words merge: allocare blended with allaudare, so that either allow has two meanings or there are two homonyms (allow¹ and allow²); the same is true of leave¹ and leave². Perhaps in hoary antiquity several near synonymous verbs merged, and the forms we encounter in Old Icelandic and other Germanic languages are their progeny. They may look ancient to us only because their ancestors are lost, while the cognates outside Germanic (and those exist in Latin, Slavic, and beyond) convey no additional information.
We have watched a good deal of floundering in the attempt to begin with a broad meaning and derive the others from it and can now explore the other possibility: from the concrete to the more abstract. Enter the eminent German etymologist Jost Trier. A man endowed with great erudition and fertile imagination, he could make connections like no one else, and he assumed that the origin of our vocabulary has to be explained from people’s social organization and activities (a most reasonable assumption). He examined the words being discussed here in several books. His point of departure was German Laub “foliage,” a cognate of Engl. leaf (not to be confused with Old Engl. leaf, mentioned above, a noun pronounced with a long diphthong) Trier set up the root leu- “peel a tree; remove the bark,” and, by adding multiple consonants to it, produced about twenty words, as divergent in meaning as “people” (who allegedly worked together on shrubbery and saplings) to “light” (because debarked trees looked whitish or because of clearings) to “praise” (for branches were used as signs of recognition). One reads Trier’s books, full of brilliant ideas, as one reads fairy tales, but I am afraid that they are usually no more than fairy tales, even though many of his suggestions look acceptable.
We should probably stay with a less exciting but more sober etymology. Leafage, I believe, should be left alone. The initial meaning of loben, lofian, and love seems to have been “feel affection for something.” From there “praise; believe” and “permit” developed. The order in which one meaning produced another may have differed from language to language. The syncretism “praise/permit” need not surprise us. To bolster my reasoning, I could have looked at another syncretism, namely “praise/prize/price,” but it is always better to follow Scheherazade’s example and to interrupt the story in the most interesting place.
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.”