Two hard L-words, first word: Larrup
By Anatoly Liberman
For this essay I have to thank Walter Turner, who asked me about the origin of larrup. The verb means “beat, thrash, whip, flog.” Long before my database became available in printed form as A Bibliography of English Etymology, I described in a special post what kind of lexical fish my small-meshed net had caught. (Sorry for the florid style. I remember a dean saying in irritation to one of the speakers at the Assembly: “Can you stop speaking in metaphors?” I mean that our team read a lot of articles and marked the places where anything pertaining to etymology turned up, without missing even the most trivial remarks.) After some of the words had been gathered in a mini-thesaurus, I observed with surprise the number of synonyms for “beat, strike.” Baist, bansel, clat, dozz, keb, lase, polch, starn, and what not. Needless to say, my knowledge of the language and of the ways of the world did not go beyond bang, buffet, lick, trounce, whack, and the like. And let me repeat: the database includes only such words about whose origin something has been said in the articles I have read, so, by definition, a small fraction of the existing literature. Later in Notes and Queries an exchange titled “Provincialisms for ‘To Thrash’” came my way, with mump, clool, wheang, and more of the same enriching my passive vocabulary. Among other things, in elementary school “‘thimble-pie’ was a serious letting down. It was administered with the dame’s thimble finger,” and (the author adds), “as I remember, was very much past a joke.” All the northern correspondents knew skelp, but no one mentioned larrup, though, according to Joseph Wright’s The English Dialect Dictionary, it is recognized in every part of England. It is also widespread in the United States, even if less so (see Dictionary of American Regional English). What then is its etymology? Larrup does not occur in my database, which means that I have not run into a single article or note in which its history is mentioned. And yet, as happens so often in etymological studies, its origin was, if not explained, at least elucidated, almost a century ago; only no one has paid attention.
The OED lists larrup (the earliest citation there goes back to 1823) but offers no etymology. It only quotes an 1825 publication, in which lirrop (not larrup) “to beat” is followed by a short remark: “This is said to be a corruption of the sea term, lee-rope.” Larrop and lirrop, as pointed out in the OED, are, naturally, variants of larrup. As to lee-rope, we need not bother about this exercise in folk etymology. The Century Dictionary also has an entry on larrup and says: “Prob. [from] D[utch] larpen, thresh with the flails; cf. larp, a lash. The E[nglish] form larrup (for *larp) may represent the strongly rolled r of the D[utch]: so larum, alarum, for alarm” (in linguistic works, an asterisk before a form means that it has not been attested). This statement can be found verbatim in several later dictionaries. From time to time I write about “unsung heroes of etymology.” Charles P. G. Scott, the etymologist for The Century Dictionary, is one of them. He can always be relied upon; yet I do not know where he found the words larp and larpen. The Great Dictionary of Dutch cites a single 1740 occurrence of the noun larp “a thick piece of bread or meat” from a text published in Groningen, a town in the north of the Netherlands, where Frisian influence could be expected. No etymology is offered. The multivolume dictionary of Frisian has larp (a 1903 citation; there larp means “a piece cut off from a rope”) and risks the conjecture that it may be a borrowing from Dutch. Thus, we have come a full circle, especially because Scott’s source remains unknown (to me). Nor should the idea that alarum owes its origin to “the strongly rolled r” arouse much enthusiasm. Alarum is a borrowing from French. Dutch r and French (Parisian?) r are quite unlike. It was Skeat who wrote that alarum had developed unstressed u under the influence of “trilled r.” I propose that we stay away from his reconstruction and exercise caution in treating Scott’s Dutch forms, which no one cared to check. Even if larp and larpen have been recorded in some Dutch regional glossary (as I am sure is the case, for Scott did not invent them), they are too rare and too local to have served as the source of the English verb.
Now back to 1913. In the first half of the 20th century, a flourishing school of etymology existed at the University of Chicago. The most visible product of its activity is Carl D. Buck’s 1949 A Dictionary of Selected Synonyms in the Principal Indo-European Languages. One of the stars of the group was Francis A. Wood. His articles and books consist mainly of word lists in which the origin of multiple cognates is suggested. Quite a few of Wood’s derivations have been rejected, but this fact is of no consequence: agreement is rare among etymologists. It would be wrong to say that Wood is completely “unsung,” but he is not quoted as much as he deserves. In 1913 he brought out a booklet (unfortunately, unindexed) with the title Some Parallel Formations in English. There are only 72 pages in it, but 72 pages of examples are ample sufficiency for a searching mind. Wood goes over numerous English words ending in -op ~ -up ~ -ip ~ -p.
Below I’ll reproduce some that are either familiar or at least not hopelessly obscure. Dollop “a lump, heap, a large piece or quantity,” dollop “a slattern” (here and elsewhere I am citing only a few of the many senses of those words), fillip, hiccup, lollop “to loll about,” scallop “an awkward girl” (!), trollop (numerous meanings besides the one known to all), and wallop “to boil violently” (compare pot-walloper)—eighty words all in all (fallop, gollop, hallop, jessop, keelup, skillop, and many more freaks like them). Gallop (and its doublet wallop), collop “mincemeat,” gulp, scalp, chirp, and wrap appear in the Middle English section. I can add the family name of the mild (chirpy?) and unassuming Dr. Chillip, a character in David Copperfield. Skelp with its variant skellop has not escaped Wood either. Larrup “to beat soundly, thrash, strike, bang; walk in a heavy, shambling manner, slouch, limp; trail, hang down” (note the multitude of senses!), lerrup(s) “a slovenly fellow; a slut, trollop”; larrup ~ lerrup ~ lirrup “rent, tear,” plural “rags, tatters, strips, flaps” [cf. the Dutch and especially the Frisian word, above!]; lirrupy “crumpled, rough, untidy,” lurrep up “swallow liquor with avidity; eat greedily and hastily,” and lerrick “flap about, beat, flog” are featured on pp. 66-67. All those words are dialectal, and so is larrup, the object of our investigation.
It appears that English used the syllable -op ~ -up and more rarely -ip (I hesitate to call it a suffix) for generating a rather broad spectrum of meanings. It could add derogatory connotations, emphasize the recurrence of an action, designate a big size or a large quantity, or simply make the word more expressive. With regard to larrup, Wood cites, without referring to his source, Alf Torp’s etymological dictionary of Nynorsk (New Norwegian), several words beginning with larp-, lerp-, and lurp-. They occur in modern Scandinavian dialects and mean “a slovenly woman; fall down in damp clumps or clots; lie or hang loose; dash, beat; defecate.” German dialectal and West Flemish cognates also occur in that list.
It appears that the Germanic languages had the root lar- ~ lir- ~ ler- ~ lur- to which the suffix-like syllables up-, -ip, -ock, and -ick could be added for producing new meanings and adding emphasis. Such roots with freely varying vowels are not uncommon (cf. tad- ~ ted- ~ tod- ~ tud- ~ tut- ~ tit- and the like: they designate smallness). Every now and then a word attested in the old language crops up among them, but in most cases we have no information about their past. Their antiquity is doubtful, they tend to stay in dialects, are often “low” or slangy, and multiply without regard to the laws canonized in historical grammars: tad from tod, tid from tit, and so forth. It is also hard to determine their country of origin, because, although they are local, their enclaves can be found all over the map. Equally obscure is their etymology. For instance, why does the complex t-d ~ t-t designate smallness?
The same holds for the l-r complex. It clearly has a “meaning”: “flap, flutter; fall down in small drops,” (and conversely) “do something with force; strike.” Engl. lurk and lurch belong to this group. Most probably, German Lauer “ambush” (from lur, with a long vowel) does too. Thus, larrup, properly lar-up, is part of a sizable group of Germanic words, rather than an enigmatic isolated dialectal verb. And I wonder whether the interjection oops goes back to the same source as the pseudo-suffix -up, for the origin of oops is also enigmatic (oops is not “a natural exclamation,” as the OED calls it; interjections are never “natural”). The only Eurasian suffix whose history we know reasonably well is -k, with or without a vowel before it (diminutive, as in hillock, and several other senses), but its origin (that is, why just -k?) remains a riddle. To make the situation even more confusing, we have seen that -p often alternates with -k. Consider also slurp and smirk (smirk is related to smile). Incidentally, s-lurp is also part of our story, for lur- and its kin can vary with slur- and (from a historical point of view) with hlur-. To conclude: larrup has been derived from the root l-r with the help of the expressive pseudo-suffix -up. It has many distant relatives. As with all non-onomatopoeic and not obviously sound symbolic roots, the mechanism that endowed the complex l-r with a vague meaning, made it productive, but kept its offspring away from the mainstream remains undiscovered. Nor do we know how and when -up and its siblings were coined.
Some people may feel disappointed: such a long way and such uncertain results. But herein lies the beauty of language: words, morphemes, and sounds are not soldiers on parade. They do not walk in serried ranks; though partly governable, they are as willful and capricious as the people who use them, and their unpredictability and infinite variety are their most attractive features. I could have called this post “From Larrup to Eternity.”
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.”