By Anatoly Liberman
In today’s English, the letters u and o have the same value in mutter and mother, and we have long since resigned ourselves to the fact that lover, clover, and mover are spelled alike but do not rhyme. (Therefore, every less familiar word, like plover, is a problem even to native speakers.) Those who want to know more about the causes of this madness will find an answer in any introduction to the history of English. I will state only a few essentials. For example, the vowel of mother was once long, as in school, but, unlike what happened in school, it became short and later acquired its modern pronunciation, as happened, for example, in but. We still spell mother as in the remotest past. Medieval scribes had trouble with combinations uv/vu and um/mu (too many vertical strokes, “branches”) and preferred ov and om. That is why we write love and come instead of luv and cum (or kum). If I may give one more blow to a dead horse, these are the words that spelling reform should leave untouched: love and come are so frequent that tampering with them will produce chaos, even though luv appears in all kinds of parody.
Bosom, with its first o before s, looks odd even against this checkered background, though from a phonetic point of view it is not more exotic than mother. (The difference is that we become familiar with the written image of mother early in our education; also, other and smother produce a semblance of order, whereas bosom is unique in its appearance and is close to a poeticism.) Both mother and bosom had long o, as in Modern Engl. awe and ought in the speech of those who distinguish between Shaw and Shah (isn’t it a pleasure to have the privilege of choosing among aw, au, augh, and ough—compare taw, taut, taught, and ought—for rendering the same sound? In British English they also have or and our, as in short and court, on their menu). Consequently, if bosom were today pronounced like buzz’em, we might perhaps feel less baffled. And at one time it was pronounced so.
The first vowel in bosom alternated with its long partner as in booze and with u as in buzz until at least the end of the 18th century. The Standard Dictionary (Funk and Wagnalls), published in the United States in 1913, recommended the vowel of booze in bosom. Nor is this word an exception. Today it is hard to believe that the pronunciation of soot used to vacillate in the same way and could rhyme not only with loot but also with shut. Professionals, who dealt with soot on a daily basis, preferred the vowel of shut, but the tastes of their cleaner superiors prevailed. In British dialects, book, cook, look, and took often have the vowel of Luke. In what is called Standard English, bosom is now pronounced with a short vowel, and, all the historical elucidations notwithstanding, its spelling produces the impression of a typo. I have not yet met a beginner who would not mispronounce this word, though foreigners studying English are enjoined never to trust what they see, even when the word has the most innocent appearance imaginable (for example, one, gone, done, lone, pint, lead, read, steak, Reagan, and pothole, the latter somewhat reminiscent of Othello).
The etymology of bosom, from bosm, an old word with a long vowel, as noted, has not been found, even though the other West Old Germanic languages (this type of grouping excludes Gothic or Scandinavian) have nearly the same noun. In Old English it meant “breast” and “womb.” This is a typical combination. Old Engl. hrether (cited here with a slightly modernized spelling) meant “breast, bosom; heart, womb,” and “mind, thought.” Likewise, Old Engl. breost has been recorded with the senses “breast; stomach; womb” and “mind” (hence again “thought, disposition”). The Gothic Bible was translated from Greek; Goth. brusts glossed the Greek words for “breast” and “bowels.” A Gothic cognate of hrether has been attested (now no surprise) with the senses “breast; bowels; heart”.
Two conclusions follow from those facts. First, bosm, hrether, and breost, along with their cognates, did not refer, or at least did not refer exclusively, to the woman’s breast. Second, whoever coined such words wanted a name for the part of the human body from the neck down, almost to the groin, viewed from inside, for it had to contain the seat of thought (disposition, sprit; in this respect only the heart was a competitor). Separate words for “abdomen” and “uterus” had existed from time immemorial: compare Engl. belly and German Magen (Old Engl. mage) “stomach.” It would be useful to know why speakers needed so many synonyms for seemingly the same concept (breost, bosm, and hrether), for we have trouble distinguishing their fields of application, except that hrether was confined to poetry (thus, an elevated word). Unfortunately, the Anglo-Saxons did not write annotated dictionaries, and we have nothing but context to rely on.
Of the words mentioned here only breast has a recognized etymology. The word may be related to the name of the bud in many languages. If this connection is right, then the main feature noticed in the “composite” organ (breast + stomach/womb) was its ability to swell, and sure enough, one can blow out one’s breast, distend or inflate the stomach, and (given the natural limitations) become pregnant. From a historical perspective, Engl. belly (like bellows and ball) means “bag,” an inflatable object. (In the Romance languages, a similar sound complex occurred with the same meaning: compare Engl. bulge, a borrowed word.) This approach to the origin of breast may explain how breast and hrether came to designate thought, disposition, and spirit. A common Old Germanic word for “angry” came from a participle meaning “swollen” (Old Engl. a-bolgen). The spirit could “swell,” and the breast swelled with it. One of the proposals concerning bosom is that it has the root of bough followed by a suffix, the primary meaning being the space embraced by the arms, as in fathom (the Old Icelandic cognate of fathom did mean “bosom,” while the technical meaning of fathom is “six feet”). In light of what has been said above about swelling, this etymology does not seem to hold out much promise.
Viable cognates have not been discovered for either bosom or hrether, and we don’t know the reasons for the proliferation of synonyms or why bosom was limited to West Germanic (German and Dutch have retained Busen and boezem respectively). Today we have breast for feeding infants and for noble feelings (however, not only: compare breast stroke, breastwork, and breast plate), chest (from a Latin word signifying “box”) for pain, bosom for clasping friends to and letting it heave, and thorax (from Greek via Latin) for classes in anatomy and figure drawing.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”