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Further Adventures of Scr-words, or, the Taming of ‘Shrew’

By Anatoly Liberman


Two weeks ago, I pondered the fortunes of the gregarious shrimp. The next ingredient of the scr- ~ shr- cocktail will be the much maligned but innocent shrew. As The Century Dictionary puts it, “there is no foundation in fact for the vulgar notion that shrews are poisonous, or for any other of the popular superstitions respecting these harmless little creatures.” The shrew is an insectivorous mammal. An old etymology traced shrew to a root meaning “cut” (as in shear) and glossed the word as “biter” on account of its allegedly venomous bite. Another version of this etymology refers to the shrew’s pointed snout. The Old High German cognate of shrew meant “dwarf” (a figure cut short?).

We suddenly find ourselves in close proximity to shrimp, which, as we remember, also first meant “tiny creature” (or so it seems), and this suggests that shrimp and shrew are related. But there are chronological difficulties. Shrimp surfaced in the fourteenth century. Its siblings are Middle High German schrimpfen and Middle Dutch schrimpen; both verbs meant “shrink.” Unlike shrimp, shrew has an Old English etymon: its first known form is screawa (with long ea). It would be tempting to explain shrew as “diminutive animal” because some shrewmice are the smallest mammals in nature, but scrimp-, the putative etymon of shrimp, and screawa share only the first three sounds. Even if we disregard -m- in the middle of scrimp (nasal sounds are often mere “infixes”), the part the ancestors of shrimp and shrew have in common is hardly sufficient for setting up a common root and positing affinity between them.

Engl. shrew “malignant person,” known in texts since the thirteenth century, seems to be the same word as the animal name. “Biter” fits its meaning in light of the creatures’ folklore, but evil people do not have “pointed snouts,” and this circumstance calls into question the etymology offered above, even though it has been popularized in some of our most authoritative dictionaries. Another venue suddenly opens up and leads us to emaciated men (see the post on shrimp!), unclean spirits, and wild beasts. Swedish skragge and Middle High German skröuwel mean “devil.” Here are a few more Scandinavian words (naturally, beginning with skr-, not shr-): Norwegian skrubb “wolf,” its homophone Norw. dialectal skrubb “old lean man” (visualized as the Devil?) and skrogg “wolf” (again!), Icelandic skröggur “old man; ghost” (in Old Icelandic, skröggr was used as one of the names of the fox), and there was a giant called this (another devilish creature). In some rural areas of Norway, skrugg is a counterpart of skrogg ~ skröggur. Engl. scrag “lean man or animal,” and scraggy obviously belong here too. The consonants gg, as in the Scandinavian languages, and w, as in Old Engl. screawa and Middle High German scröuwel, are compatible. The rest is less clear.

The Taming of the Shrew (Act IV, Scene III) by C. R. Leslie (1886)

To begin with, one wonders how Norwegian skrubb and skrogg (the latter with its respectable Old Norse heritage) are connected. In etymological research, it is customary to amputate final consonants and compare the stumps. The severed limbs, so-called extensions, are supposed to have been added to the root in the process of word formation, but, since such consonants (in our case, b and g) have no identifiable meaning, the procedure does not arouse much confidence. Also, the shorter the stub, the easier it is to find words seemingly belonging together. For instance, Engl. scrub means “low stunted tree” and “dwarf cattle”; it is an etymological doublet of shrub. Are they related to Norw. scrubb and Engl. shrimp and other words for “people of delicate build” and “lean cattle”? And scrub “rub hard”? Is it rub “augmented” by sc-, in order to sound expressive?

If shrimp has the root meaning “shrink, shrivel” (by the way, should we consider shrivel in our tale?), the names of dwarfs and lean creatures will get a reasonably convincing explanation. But we observe wolves, foxes, devils, and thin old men coexisting peacefully in the same semantic cage. Did they have a single progenitor? Wolves are especially puzzling. A distinguished scholar believed that Norw. skrogg designates the wolf as a particularly lean creature. It is true that wolves are always hungry, but among the words for “wolf” in various languages I have not been able to find a single one that emphasizes the beast’s lack of flesh: the idea underlying the name has usually something to do with the wolf’s ferocity, readiness to attack, and less often color (gray).

Words designating pagan devils are notoriously hard to trace to their roots. In disentangling the Germanic knot, we should perhaps begin with the sense “demon, ghost.” There must have existed in people’s imagination a terrifying creature called approximately skrogg, scrauw, or something like it. Skr- ~ scr- was, I believe, sound symbolic. This initial consonant group tends to occur in words for scrambling, scraping, scratching, scrubbing, and many other harsh and precipitous actions, or it refers to screaming, screeching, and shrieking.

The ghost is easy to associate with any of those things: it could screech, scramble, and scratch. We have little chance of discovering where -ogg and -ubb in skrogg and skrubb came from. From “devil, demon, ghost” we may perhaps get to “emaciated old man,” a figurative use of the original meaning. The much-feared wolf must have been viewed as another incarnation of the devil. For example, the most ferocious beast in Scandinavian myths was the terrible wolf Fenrir. The fox got into this company by mistake, but language history shows that wolves and foxes were often confused. Thus, Latin lupus “wolf” is akin to vulpes “fox.”

Even though “emaciated old man” looks like an extension of “(poor) devil” or “(lame) devil,” the path from this meaning to “lean cattle” and “stunted tree” is not straight. Could references to small size have been borrowed from other scr-nouns? Shrink at one time meant “huddle,” and so did shrug (in addition to “shiver”), a cognate of Swedish dialectal skrugge “crouch” and Danish skrukke ~ skrugge “walk lamely, hobble; duck the head.” Shrink is related to shrimp, while shrug is evidently akin to Norw. skrogg. Proximity in form and sense resulted in overlap and confusion.

It may be worthwhile to remember that some words are like a bunch of grapes on a vine (they are fed by the same root), whereas others resemble a batch of mushrooms huddling together on a stump and owing their origin to the same mycelium (so one can say that they are related), but they are still rootless. For all those vague reasons, it is safer to keep shrew away from shrink despite the fact that the devils of popular tradition may be shrunken, old, and lean. But if the shrew (the animal) got its name because of the venomous bite ascribed to it, one can risk the conjecture that the little mouse was identified with the devil. In this case, biting and pointed snouts should no longer interest us here.

The reconstruction offered above resolves itself into the following. The etymon of shrew, with its sound symbolic beginning (scr-), meant “devil.” The origin of the word’s remaining part remains unknown. In the Middle Ages, the devil was often represented as ugly, lame, and so forth. Perhaps this is how the figurative meaning “emaciated old man” came into being. People believed that the shrew had a venomous bite and therefore looked upon this creature as an incarnation of the devil. They were wrong; the wolf has a much better right to be called “devil.” The application of shrew to cantankerous human beings has the same cause. The senses “lean cattle” and “stunted tree” seem to go back to a different but similar scr-word. Shrew was not coined with the meaning “biter,” “short” (from a root for “cut”), or “with a pointed snout.” Shrimp is unrelated to it. The paper, as they say at conferences, is now open to questions and discussion.

Engl. shrewd may be an adjective like crabbed, dogged, and wretched, but it may be a disguised past participle, because the verb shrew “curse” (extant in beshrew) existed. The way covered by shrewd since the fourteenth century goes from “wicked,” ”hurtful, dangerous, grievous, serious” to “cunning, artful, astute, sagacious.” Like nice and pretty, this word has been greatly ameliorated. I hasten to add that screw, whatever its meaning, has nothing to do with shrew.

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 blog@oup.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”

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  1. John Cowan

    I found this passage on Saami words for “wolf” in “Finno-Ugric ‘dog’ and ‘wolf’” by Riho Grünthal:

    The dictionary of Skolt and Kola Saamic languages by T. I. Itkonen (1958) provides an illustrative list of the wide range of euphemisms that are used to avoid a direct reference to ‘wolf’. In Saami folk tradition it was believed that one should use only a metonym for a wild beast (wolf and bear), especially on a hunt. The reindeer owners hoped to keep a wolf away from their herds by purposely not mentioning of its name (T.I. Itkonen 1948: 362). The list of meanings contains such expressions as ‘lean guy, thin tail’ [Finnish riukuniekka, riukuhäntä], ‘the dog of God’ (see T.I. Itkonen 1948: 366–367), ‘the one on the road’, ‘the one living outside’ etc. (T.I.Itkonen 1958: 162, 282, 317, 369, 686, 796, 918).

    You’ll note “lean guy” on the list.

    The citations are:

    Itkonen, T.I. 1948:Suomen lappalaiset vuoteen 1945 I–II. WSOY, Porvoo – Helsinki.

    Itkonen, T.I. 1958: Koltan- ja kuolanlapin sanakirja I–II. Lexica Societatis Finno-Ugricae XV.
    Helsinki.

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