By Anatoly Liberman
We may assume that people, wherever they lived, learned to use honey and even practiced apiculture before dairy products became part of their diet, for honey can be found and consumed in its natural state, while milk, cheese, butter, and the rest presuppose the existence of domesticated animals, be it horses, cows, sheep, or goats, and of a developed industry. However, humans are mammals, so that the word for “milk” is probably contemporaneous with language, even though no Common Indo-European term for it existed (for example, the word lactation reminds us of Latin lac, and it is quite different from milk). With time, “milk and honey” turned into a symbol of abundance. While the god Othinn (see the previous post) was busy stealing the mead of poetry, mortals dreamed of catching a bee swarm. From 10th-century Christian Germany we have a rhyming charm, a pagan “genre” to be sure, but with Jesus Christ and Mary invoked, for it was the result that counted rather than the affiliation of the benefactors. Its purpose was to let the flying bees stop at the speaker’s farm: “Christ, a swarm is here! / Now fly here, my ‘throng’, / to God’s protection, alight safe and sound. / Come, come down, bees;/ Command them to do so, Saint Mary. / Swarm, you may not fly to the woods, / To escape from me/ Or to get the better of me.”
Thousands of years before the recording of this incantation, the bee was glorified in the myths of the ancient Indo-Europeans. Readers of old tales will remember that the bee was the sacred insect of the Greek goddess Artemis. A cave painting of a human surrounded by bees while removing honeycombs and an old depiction of honeycombs have also come down to us. Whatever effect charms may once have had on German bees, honey was certainly in wide use. In the phrase milk and honey, milk stands first, but in its Russian analog med-pivo (literally, “mead-beer”) and in its Baltic (Lithuanian and Latvian) equivalent medu-alus (note alus, a cognate of Engl. ale!) “mead” precedes “beer.” The story teller of Russian folklore tends to finish his tale with the begging formula to the effect that he drank med-pivo at the wedding feast and that it flowed over his moustache, but not a drop got into his mouth (so this is the time to quench his thirst and reward his labors).
Naturally, med in the compound med-pivo referred to an intoxicating drink, but in Modern Russian the word med means “honey.” Although in recorded texts mead “beverage” occurs earlier than mead “honey,” common sense tells us that before people began to drink “mead” after they got acquainted with honey. The fermentation of wild honey did not remain a secret either, and this is a likely reason the two senses of mead merged. The word wine came to the European languages from Latin, and the Romans seem to have borrowed it from their neighbors. Perhaps in the lending language it also meant “mead,” for Persian may (a form derived from Indo-European medu- or medhu-) means “wine.”
As noted in the previous post, the Indo-Europeans used two words for “honey”: one was the ancestor of Engl. mead, the other the ancestor of Greek méli (genitive mélitos, so that the stem was mélit-). Every time we confront a pair of such synonyms the question arises what distinguished the objects they designated. For instance, loaf is a descendant of a word that meant “bread.” What then was the difference between hlaifs- (the ancient form of loaf) and bread? Presumably bread was the product’s generic name, while hlaifs- referred to the shape of bread baked in one piece. An additional trouble with mélit-, as opposed to medhu- (or perhaps medu-), is that they resemble each other phonetically, as though the real carrier of meaning was me-, with the rest functioning as a kind of “extension.” Or could mélit- be an alteration of med(h)u-? In all early cultures, words for religious concepts were liable to be replaced or altered out of fear or because a sacral name did not have to be pronounced “in vain” (this is what is called taboo; it is responsible for the fact that Engl. bear and its Germanic cognates substituted for the ancient animal name: bear means “brown”; the same happened in Slavic: Russian medved’, that is, medv-ed’ “bear” means “honey eater,” literally, “mead-eater”). Except for Greek, the two names for “honey” do not occur in the same language (Classical Greek had both). Yet it is not inconceivable that the story of mead / honey resembled that of loaf / bread. One form could designate honey obtained directly from bees, whereas the other, a slightly altered variant of the first, referred to the drink made from honey.
The origin of mélit is unknown, and more or less the same can be said about mead. Attempts to explain medu- or medhu- as a native Indo-European word (rather than a borrowing from Semitic) do not go beyond vague conjectures. One of them connects mead with Latin madeo “to drip,” with reference to the bubbling of fermented honey. It will be remembered that a plausible etymology of ale also refers to “growing,” though in the process of brewing (so not for natural causes). It is anybody’s guess whether the syllable me- awoke in the earliest speakers the idea of flowing or sweetness. Tracing words outside the creak-crack-croak series to sound imitating or sound symbolic complexes is always risky business.
Someone may wonder where the word honey came from. Most probably, it means “golden colored.” Honey has cognates everywhere in Germanic. Its existence shows how an old Indo-European word can be ousted by a local upstart. Engl. mead hangs on, but its sphere of application is restricted, and its connection with honey is forgotten. The same, to an even greater extent, holds for German Honig and Met. Lovers of old poetry may have seen the archaic noun meed “reward.” Rewards are sweet, but meed and mead are unrelated words.
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.”