By Anatoly Liberman
(Read November “Gleanings” next Wednesday!)
Every year, at the end of November some newspaper asks me about the history of the word turkey or about the origin of the idioms cold turkey and talk turkey. While waiting for the unavoidable query, I decided to devote a post to the history of the verbs think and thank. Their history is well-known, but it is not simple and not entirely trivial. “Think” is an abstract concept that must have grown from some more concrete one. For example, Latin cogitare “think” goes back to co- + -agitare, that is, “put in motion, turn over in the mind.” Think may perhaps be compared with archaic and rare Latin tongere “to know” (the second conjugation) and another verb meaning “weigh.” If the proposed correspondence is valid, the senses “know” and “think” evolved from the idea of weighing things in the mind, taking weighty decisions, or something similar.
Engl. think and thank sound alike, and their similarity is not fortuitous. In Germanic, the story begins with the verb thankjan “to think” (not “thank”!). Thankjan is the form in which our verb occurred in Gothic, a Germanic language recorded in the fourth century (the Gothic spelling was different: if someone is interested, it was þagkjan), but, unexpectedly, the noun thank (in a variety of shapes), attested in all the Old Germanic languages, meant “thank.” Apparently, thank referred to a feeling of gratitude inspired by thought: one thought of some action and expressed one’s appreciation of it. In Modern English, the noun can be used only in the plural (thanks!), but in earlier periods the singular was common and meant “thought; kindly thought,” “favor, gratitude,” and “expression of gratitude.” In sum, the more you thought of something, the more thankful (grateful) you were for what had been done for you. Unfortunately, such is not the way it always happens, but language is capricious and events of real life leave arbitrary traces in it.
One of the rules of Old Germanic was that if i or j occurred in the suffix or the ending, it “worked backwards” and affected the root vowel. For example, a, followed by i/j, became e. This interaction of sounds is called umlaut. To speakers of German, Swedish, or Icelandic umlaut is only a graphic device (two dots over the letter), but umlaut is a process that turned a, o, and u into ä, ö, and ü (Scandinavian æ and ø also designate umlauted vowels). The old noun thank had no i/j in the second syllable and has been preserved in its original form: for instance, German Dank and Engl. thank(s). The German verb danken “to thank” was derived from the noun and therefore has the same vowel as Dank. But thankjan had to change, and indeed, in German we find denken “to think.” In Old English, thencan (spelled þencan), an exact analog of denken, existed. However, we say think, not thenk. The plot thickens.
Alongside thankjan, Germanic had the verb thunkjan (it also occurred in Gothic) that meant, among other things, “to seem, to appear.” Subject to the rule of umlaut, which did not operate in Gothic but was active elsewhere, u in thunkjan changed to ü. Hence Old Engl. þyncan (þ should be read as th and y designates the umlaut of u). A phrase like me thinceth (the Middle English for me þinkeþ) “it seems to me” meant nearly the same as i thinke “I think,” and the reflex (continuation) of thenken, a respectable, old verb, disappeared, ousted by the reflex of þyncan: þyncan took over the meaning of þencan and began to mean “think.” But the expropriation came at a price: þyncan swallowed its neighbor but lost its own ancient sense “seem.” Yet in one word that meaning managed to survive. Those who remember the archaic form methinks (and its past methought) are sure that they hear some bizarre use of think, but the word means “it seems (seemed) to me,” not “I think/thought.” Thus, we have the verbs thank and think, but outside methinks/methought no verb of that root with the sense “to seem,” while German managed to retain all three: danken “thank,” denken “think,” and dünken “seem.”
The past tense of thenkan and thunkan was thohte and thuhte respectably (with long vowels in both). Modern Engl. thought is the continuation of thohte. The digraph ou in its middle was at one time pronounced like the name of the modern letter o, while gh designated a guttural sound, more or less like Scots ch in loch. Later that sound was weakened to h and disappeared altogether and the diphthong turned into a monophthong. That is why today thought is pronounced with the vowel of thawed. The noun thought shares the root with the past tense of think and had a similar phonetic history.
Although I decided not speak about turkeys, it does not mean that I have no animal dessert for the Thanksgiving dinner. It is, naturally, an etymological dessert. Some time ago, I read a story written by a woman from Germany. While driving, she noticed an injured hedgehog, stopped, picked it up, and took it to some place where they tend to victims of our soulless cars. The little beast stayed at the hospital and was cured. She asked how much she should pay, but the vet assured her that she owed them nothing, that they were very grateful for her act of kindness, and that they had a special fund for such fatalities. Not only did I realize, perhaps for the first time, that being thoughtful and thankful sometimes go together. I finally understood how the phrase hedge fund got its name. It is too early for a Christmas tale in the spirit of Charles Dickens, but the last Wednesday of November is an ideal moment to spin a yarn in which wholeness is restored to an ailing body (remember little Tim?) and to wish the readers of this blog a Happy Thanksgiving.
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 him care of firstname.lastname@example.org; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”