By Anatoly Liberman
Words related to material culture often end up in a trashcan labeled “origin unknown.” This is not surprising, for things are regularly imported with their names, and those may be hard to trace to their roots. The number of English words for “basket” (some of them local and little used outside their dialects) is great, and the etymology of some has not been ascertained. For example, we have maund, strongly reminiscent of Dutch mand and possibly a borrowing from Dutch (“of debatable origin”), creel, from Old French (also “of uncertain origin,” perhaps ultimately from Latin craticulum, that is, a little cratis “wickerwork”), and punnet “a chip basket” (it surfaced only in the 19th century and appears to be a diminutive of pun, a dialectal variant of pound, for punnets, like other baskets, were in some places used as a measure; compare a basketful of…). Some meanings are specific. Thus, a creel is a basket for fish, a punnet is used for fruit and vegetables, while a bassinet, “a little basin,” is a perambulator, a cradle for carrying a child. In the definition of various baskets, wickerwork is the most often recurring word. One can expect to find reference to osiers in their names, but there are many other possibilities: an association with the things carried in a basket or with the way the basket is carried (by the handles or on the back) is possible, or we may be dealing with a general word for “container” that later narrowed its meaning.
I decided to write about basket, because the search for its origin is typical in many respects. Today the Romance source of Middle Engl. basket is not in doubt; it is its ultimate origin that turns out to be a crux. Two Latin authors—Juvenal and Martial—stated that Latin bascauda, a presumed etymon of basket, is of Celtic origin. But Murray, the first editor of the OED, questioned the connection, for no Celtic cognates of bascauda exist (basged came to Modern Welsh from English), and its recorded meaning “bronze vessel” seemed incompatible with “basket.” But a bascauda was probably a large tub made of wood or wicker for washing goblets during or after a meal, rather than a bronze vessel, as its Latin glosses suggest.
I keep repeating that the progress of English etymological lexicography has been checked by an unusual factor. The most authoritative dictionaries dealing with the history of English words (the OED and Skeat) are so reliable that later researchers did not try to surpass them on a large scale. Thus, Skeat has not been updated, for no editor dared touch it. Hundreds, even thousands of articles on the history of English words have been published since the appearance of those works (the last edition of Skeat came out in 1910, and the first edition of the OED was completed by 1928), but dictionary makers have no time to keep abreast of the scholarly literature; nor, as a rule, do they have the qualifications equal to those of Murray and Skeat (Henry Bradley, the OED’s second in command, was also an excellent etymologist). Relying on the two earlier masterpieces guarantees success, even if what is said there can be refuted (wrong solutions in them are invariably well-argued and clever). The OED was published in fascicles. The first bound volume (the letters A and B) appeared in 1884. In it, as noted, basket and bacsauda were dissociated. Skeat shared Murray’s opinion, and, in a way, the question was closed. The dictionaries derived from the OED keep repeating Murray. This is how stagnation sets in. Hegel thought that the Prussian monarchy was the highest thinkable peak of state development. Murray’s followers had no courage to look beyond the great master. Fortunately, the OED is now being revised online, so that there is hope for an improvement of outdated opinions. A good deal has already been done in this direction.
In 1892 the famous French philologist Gaston Paris brought out an article on bascauda. Among other things, he defined the word more precisely (“a large wooden container, or wicker work”). He concentrated on Old French baschoe, the continuation of bascauda. Modern French dialects have multiple reflexes of baschoe, all of which designate “tub” and other vessels of this kind. One of them is bâche, whose definition corresponds rather closely to that of creel (“a basket having the form of a cone, used for carrying fish”). Standard French also has bachou “tub” (a technical term) and bâche “awning, cover made of awning.” Examples of such leaps (from “vessel” to “a cover for a vessel” or to “an object resembling a vessel”) are not too rare. Compare Engl. tunnel, from Old French tonel (Modern French tonneau “cask”): Middle Engl. tunnel meant “tubular net for catching birds; shaft, flue,” as opposed to Medieval Latin tunna “large cask,” of which tunnel is a diminutive form; of the same origin are French tonne, German Tonne “tub,” and Engl. tun, now only “a measure of wine,” formerly “large cask; vat” (ton is its doublet). The Romans borrowed from the Celts several words designating wooden receptacles, for instance, benna (French banna and benne) “basket; bucket” and the etymon of tun, mentioned above.
Gaston Paris suggested that since Engl. basket has no cognates in Germanic, it must have been taken over from French; -et is a diminutive suffix (compare punnet: whatever its origin, -et in it is the same suffix as in basket). He was right. He also pointed out that neither baschete nor basquete had been recorded in French and that even basche (the etymon of bâche) turned up in texts only in the 16th century. Consequently, the French etymon of basket must have existed not in Continental but in medieval Anglo-French. This was another good conjecture. Later authors did not add anything new to what Gaston Paris wrote in 1892. As for bascauda, it may be related to Latin fascia “band, girth, fillet.” (Those interested in the history of fascia are invited to look up fascism in any etymological dictionary.) A basket would seem to be a receptacle bound with or twisted together, or simply one with hoops, to use the formulation of Henry Cecil Wyld. If the bascauda-fascia connection is valid, then English bast is related to them. Once it was suggested that basket is a simplified form of *bastket (in linguistic works, asterisks are put before reconstructed, unrecorded words), but this shortcut should be avoided.
Although French etymologists confirmed Paris’s guess, English dictionaries have passed it by. As far as I can judge by some later publications, some scholars came to the same conclusion as Paris but either did not know his article or chose not to refer to it (a typical case in etymological studies). Be that as it may, the time has come to rewrite the entry basket in English etymological dictionaries. It is always nice when a “word of unknown origin” loses membership in that sad group. Basket, as Gaston Paris said about one of its cognates, “had a pleasant history.”
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 email@example.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”