By Anatoly Liberman
Libel and two diminutives. The word libel has perfectly innocent antecedents. Its etymon is Latin libellus, the diminutive of liber “book,” whose root we can see in library. When libel (later also libelle) appeared in English toward the end of the 14th century—a borrowing from Old French—it meant exactly what one expects, that is, “a little book, pamphlet.” The rest is a classic example of a process called in works on historical semantics the deterioration of meaning. The OED traces every step of the downfall. “Little book” → “a formal document, a written declaration or statement” → “the document of the plaintiff containing his allegations and instituting a suit” → “a leaflet assailing or defaming someone’s character” → “any published statement damaging to the character of a person” → “any false or defamatory statement” (the last stage had been reached by the beginning of the 17th century). Two familiar quotations from Latin have been trodden to death: “Sic transit gloria mundi” and “Habent sua fata libelli.” Both fit our story: today an old word for “a little book” signifies any slanderous statement, whether in written form or oral, and no one will deny that this word had a most special fate. The legal connotations of libel have not disappeared: we still sue for libel (that is, for the defamation of character), not for calumny or slander.
In Latin, along with the masculine libellus “little book,” the neuter libellum must have existed, the diminutive of libra “balance” (libra, unlike liber “book,” had a long vowel in the root, but in both diminutives the radical i was short). Although its development in the European languages has nothing to do with slander, it is too adventuresome to be passed by. From libellum Old French had livel, which became Middle English livel and level. Struck by the steadily poised wings of the dragonfly, 18th-century learned entomologists (not etymologists) coined French libellule, and the French name of this insect spread to some other Romance and Germanic languages (such are Italian libellule and German Libelle). Then a strange thing happened: Old French livel turned into nivel. This change has been ascribed to dissimilation (two l’s in a row, as in livel, were allegedly “dissimilated” to n—l) or to the influence of the definite article ending in l. Neither hypothesis looks fully convincing (a phonetic change that occurs in a single word is always baffling: one expects a rule, rather than an ad hoc explanation), but the fact remains: livel became nivel. The newcomer had a healthy progeny: French niveau “level” and niveler “to level out.” German, Dutch, and some Scandinavian languages also borrowed niveau and niveler, but English stayed with the l-word.
Slander. Slander surfaced in 13th-century English, a casualty of a rather enigmatic sound change. Old French had esclandre, which passed into Anglo-French in the form esclaundre, lost its first vowel, and became Middle English sclaunder. Slander is an etymological doublet of scandal (from Greek via Latin and French). The enigmatic part is why we say slander and not sclander. Beginning with the Old English period, words with initial sl tended to develop “parasitic” (or, to use the technical term, “epenthetic”) k between s and l. Of the words we can still recognize the clearest example is Old Engl. sclepan “to sleep.” In the history of English, nouns and verbs with skl from sl have not been numerous. Yet they cannot be dismissed as oddities or emphatic forms, because the words in which skl occurs are not expressive and because a similar change has been recorded in German and especially in the Scandinavian languages. Something in the pronunciation of Germanic sl must have contributed to the insertion of k, but we do not know what. In the 16th century, English forms like sclepan stopped appearing, and none of them survives in Modern Standard English.
Strangely, French words with scl-, which could have reinforced the pronunciation of sl- as skl-, were simplified, and this is how slander lost its etymological k between s and l. (I refer to k, because this is the phonetic value of the letter c in sclaunder and its likes). At least three more words can be cited that underwent the same change as slander. Slice goes back to Old French esclice (Modern French éclisse). In French it is from Germanic (we observe its root in slit), and in English it is one of many words that migrated from Germanic to Romance and back home. Likewise, sluice is from Old French escluse (now and already in Old French écluse, from Latin exclusa “(a thing) shut out,” “excluded”). Finally, slave is a borrowing of Old French esclave. One can see that, like slander, all three words had unstressed e in the first syllable and that in French too the group esc- was simplified. But esclave continued into Modern French in its medieval form. The simplification of groups made up of three consonants occurs with great regularity. For instance, in whistle, listen, and so forth t, retained in spelling, is a tribute to their ancient sound shape. It is therefore all the more amusing to observe that often has reversed the trend and is again pronounced of-ten.
I would like to repeat here what I said on the subject in one of the earlier posts. A cursory look at various sound changes fills one with surprise. Vowels lengthen, only to be shortened a few centuries later. Diphthongs become monophthongs and again split in two halves. Consonants behave in a similar way. In the words discussed above, sl developed an “excrescent” (epenthetic, parasitic, intrusive) t, but when the group stl appeared, t was suppressed in it. Is there any logic in those seemingly chaotic movements? Language change is the resultant of many forces, and this is why we watch its consequences in disbelief. Also, in every community many people speak the language, and their norms interact. Sometimes we discover the spring that makes language mechanisms work. Every discovery signifies a triumph of historical linguistics. But reconstruction is an unsafe business. The historian is unlike Heracles bringing tethered Cerberus to a weak and cowardly king, and few of us resemble Hercule Poirot. Our witnesses are silent, even dead. Yet some disclose their secrets, and herein lies the attraction of our trade. It is the same in historical phonetics, historical grammar, and etymology.
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.”