Children, Etymologists, and Heffalumps
By Anatoly Liberman
The problem with Christopher Robin’s woozles and heffalumps was that no one knew exactly what those creatures looked like. The boy just happened to be “lumping along” when he detected the exotic creature. “I saw one once,” said Piglet. “At least I think I did,” he said. “Only perhaps it wasn’t.” So did I,” said Pooh, wondering what a Heffalump was like. “You don’t often see them,” said Christopher Robin carelessly. Tracking a woozle was no easy task either. “Hallo!” said Piglet, “what are you doing?” “Hunting,” said Pooh. “Hunting what?” “Tracking something,” said Winnie-the Pooh very mysteriously. “Tracking what?” said Piglet, coming closer. “That’s just what I ask myself. I ask myself, What?” “What do you think you’ll answer”? “I shall have to wait until I catch up with it,” said Winnie-the-Pooh. Children and etymologists share a good deal of common ground; they hope to find the creatures they have never seen. It is no wonder that their chances of success are slim.
Milne coined two wonderful words (among many others). Have-a-lump, changed into heffalump, which, in turn, suggested to Christopher Robin that he was “lumping along,” or perhaps he first decided that he was “lumping” and then invented a corresponding name. In any case, the fit could not be better, for the terrible beast, as it turned out, was the bear with its head stuck fast in an empty honey jar. Pooh certainly had a lump. Woozle is a classic sound symbolic formation; the animal having such a name must be fat, furry, and possibly dangerous (or even Dangerous). I am sorry for hunting the jokes into the ground, but this is the way etymologists always behave. Most of them are like me; they are dedicated people who ply their trade in the gravest way possible. For example, an etymologist knows what shrew means (to give an arbitrary example) and tries to understand why people called the little rodent that. A child deals with words and asks how the union of sound and sense came about. In the end, they may have their moment of triumph. Probably everybody has read Winnie-The-Pooh. It is also possible that everybody has read Astrid Lindgren’s Pippi Longstocking. But I am not sure that everybody remembers Pippi’s adventure in word origins. So here it is.
One day Tommy and Annika, Pippi’s friends, found her in an especially happy mood. “In any case, you should know that I found it. I, and no one else,” she announced. The children’s curiosity was piqued. What could Pippi have found? A new word, a beautiful, brand-new word — spunk. Now, the original is of course in Swedish, in which spunk means nothing (at least it does not occur in the multivolume dictionary of the Swedish Academy or the Swedish Dialect Dictionary). Whoever translates this chapter has to invent something similar and original, corresponding to the spirit of the language. (Also, Swedish u designates a sound that has no analog among English vowels and is quite unlike what one hears in Engl. spunk, junk, monk, bunk.) The English translation I have consulted suggested spink, not a bad equivalent. The Russian translator introduced kukariamba! The German version and the editions in Romance languages were not available to me, and I did not go to the trouble of ordering them. After all, this is not a treatise on the art of translating.
Tommy, naturally, asked “What does it mean?” Pippi’s melancholy answer was “If I knew,” though she felt confident that (let us say) spink did not mean “vacuum cleaner.” Annika responded that if the inventor did not know what the word means, it was of no use, a statement in which Pippi reluctantly acquiesced. But Tommy had a more important question: “Do you know who decides which words mean what?” Pippi responded that very old professors do. They had already coined a lot of useless words, while “spink” was the very treasure of a word and yet no one knows what it means, “and it was so hard to find it too!” Perhaps it is the sound one hears when one walks through deep mud? No, for that there is a different word. Also, they listened to the sound and were reassured.
What follows is slightly reminiscent of Luigi Pirandello’s plot in Six Characters in Search of an Author, though with less drama and more in the spirit of A. A. Milne. The children go from place to place in the hope of buying “spink” or at least “a spink.” First they walked into a candy store, fearful that the last piece of “spink” had been sold before they arrived. The store owner hedged for some time, pretended that quite recently she had had it, but finally confessed that she had never seen “spink.” Then they rode, for the expedition proceeded on horseback (don’t forget Pippi’s favorite horse) to a hardware store. There the owner tried to palm off a rake, but Pippi refused the bargain with indignation. She always called a spade a spade and a rake a rake and informed the man that a hundred professors knew all about it. Suddenly it occurred to her that “spink” was a disease. However, the doctor looked at her tongue, examined the rest of her very healthy anatomy, and suggested that even if she had eaten a plate of brown shoe polish and washed it down with a lot of milk, the symptoms would not have made him detect any symptoms of “spink.” Moreover, it appeared that a disease with such a name did not exist. Finally, Pippi frightened two respectable ladies out of their wits when she climbed into their room through the window and wondered whether the terrible “spink” had not hidden somewhere in their vicinity. Alas, the search produced no monster.
Disappointed, even disheartened, the children returned to Pippi’s house and Tommy almost trod on a tiny beetle, a very pretty beetle too, with green wings (incidentally, wing covers of an insect are or at one time were, for example, in Shakespeare called shards). It did not look like any beetle they had ever seen and it suddenly dawned on Pippi that this WAS the “spink.” How funny. They had looked for it everywhere while it lived close by in Pippi’s garden. The end is very much like Milne’s, but I don’t know whether the coincidence is accidental or intentional. I suspect that the numerous scholars who studied Lindgren’s works discussed this problem at boring length and even interviewed her about it. Most probably, she invented the story herself, because any close observer of children knows how revealing their linguistic awakening is. Eeyore, a great ruminator, was once caught repeating inasmuch as and asking himself: “Inasmuch as what?” Sooner or later every child begins to ask where words come from and why they mean what they do, while etymologists never grow up and keep pondering the same question as long as they live.
It may be fair to finish this story by saying that the origin of English, not Swedish, word spunk in all of its senses is obscure. In two weeks I will address Engl. spunk while riding my high etymological horse, which cannot be compared to or with Pippi’s (nor can I lift it), but it is the only beast of burden I own.
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.”