By Anatoly Liberman
One more drinking vessel, and I’ll stop. Strangely, here we have another synonym for bumper, and it is again an old word of unknown origin. In English, goblet turned up in the fourteenth century, but its uninterrupted recorded history began about a hundred years later. Many names of vials, mugs, and beverages probably originated in the language of drinkers, pub owners, and glass manufacturers. They were slang, and we have little chance of guessing who coined it and in what circumstances.
Goblet may have been one of such coinages. French gobelet means the same as Engl. goblet, a word with a history not less obscure than that of its English namesake. The diminutive suffix –et is Romance, so that gobelet looks like the name of a little gobel. Unfortunately, we have no idea what a gobel is or was. Only gobeau has been attested. Nor does the suffix provide secure guidance to the origin of goblet. To be sure, the word may have been French, suffix and all, though it is strange that gobeau, not gobel, has turned up. On the other hand, a Romance suffix could be added to an English noun. Strumpet is almost certainly a Germanic word, but –et, as I mentioned in one of my previous blogs, turned a homegrown English whore into a classy Frenchified harlot. We had similar trouble with –ard in tankard.
Gobelet ~ goblet are not restricted to French and English. Spanish cubilette seems to be a close cognate going back to Medieval Latin cupellum “cup.” However, the similarity may be due to chance, because it remains unclear why the French and the English reflex of initial c (that is, k) should have been g. Derivation of gobelet from cup/cupellum, directly or via French, was proposed long ago. However, since the beginning of English lexicography it has had a strong rival. French gober means “swallow, gulp down.” Given such a root, goblet can be understood as a vial whose contents had to be gobbled up hurriedly or greedily — less than a fully convincing interpretation. Besides, we are in the dark about the origin of gober. Braune (1850-1926), one of the most distinguished German language historians, who had a rather frustrating habit of giving his name as Wilhelm on book covers but Theodor when signing his articles (so that for a long time I could not decide whether Wilhelm and Theodore, those precursors of Oscar Wilde’s Mr. Bunbury, were one person or two), isolated the root g-b ~ g-f in the Romance languages and traced it to Germanic. A seemingly ill-assorted group of words, including goblet, gag, giggle, goggle, javelin, jig, jug, and quite a few others, found themselves in the same group. If a scholar less solid and of less fame than Braune had come up with such a list, it would have been laughed out of court. As a matter of fact, a series of articles by him, all of which are like the one in which gob and gobletoccur (1922), had minimal influence on Germanic etymologists; it seems because they have been ignored rather than rejected as containing fanciful ideas.
Not unexpectedly, a connection between gob and goblet occurred to many people before 1922. To justify it, goblet was defined as “a cup containing a long quantity for one opening of the mouth, for one draft or swallow” (Charles Richardson). How much one can drink at one opening of the mouth depends on the size of the consumer’s throat and cannot serve as a foundation for a secure etymology. Hensleigh Wedgwood, who always tried to detect sound imitative roots in English words, explained goblet so: “The names of vessels for containing liquids are often taken from the image of pouring out water, expressed by forms representing the sound of water guggling out of the mouth of a narrow-necked vessel.” As usual, he cited numerous words from various languages bearing out his conclusion. Wedgwood’s etymology makes sense, and many dictionaries offer some version of it, specifying that the source of gob might be the Irish word for “mouth” and “beak.” I have a curious confirmation of his hypothesis. Russian drunks are in the habit of sharing a half-liter bottle among three people. But how can 500 grams be divided into three equal parts? Strangely, in the process of careful pouring a half-liter bottle yields 21 “glugs.” Each thirsty alcoholic receives seven glugs. This is (at best) what scholars call anecdotal evidence. We still face the question whether gob and goblet are related. Nor should it be forgotten that goblets are not narrow-necked.
Those who have read my essay posted two weeks ago will remember that Ernest Weekley derived tankard from a proper name. He offered a similar etymology for goblet and many other vessels. This is what he said (I will only expand his abbreviations): “goblet. Old French gobelet, diminutive of gobel, gobeau. All these words are French surnames, Old High German God-bald, god-bold (cf. Engl. Godbolt), and the vessel is no doubt of same origin. Cf. Engl. dialectal gaddard, goblet, Old French godart, Old German Gott–hart, god-strong, named in same way. See goblin, and cf. demijohn, jack, gill, jug, tankard, Middle Engl. jubbe (Job) in Chaucer, etc.” In the entry tankard, he also mentioned toby-jug, bellarmine, and puncheon. Under his pen goblin ended up as a diminutive name of Gobel. A Toby Philpot jug, or simply Uncle Toby, was made in the shape of a stout man in a long coat, knee breeches, and three-cornered hat, seated. The phrase no doubt, when used in etymological studies, always makes me wince. Toby is a clear case. Perhaps Weekley guessed well that tankard has something to do with Tancred, but the path from God–bald to gobletis not straight. As concerns style, Weekley’s entries resemble Braune’s article: inspiring but a bit reckless.
Thus, we have several conjectures: goblet may go back to Latin cupellum, via French, or to Engl. gobble (which may be traced to Irish gob), or to the name God–bald, admittedly, not much to choose from. In a very general way, Braune may have been right. It seems that goblet is ultimately a Germanic word (regardless of its putative ties with Irish gob “beak, mouth”) and that its derivation from Latin and French, though supported by such authorities as Skeat, should be treated with a grain of salt.
When dictionaries explain the rhetorical figure of hendiadys, they sometimes give the example drink from gold and goblet for drink from golden goblets. Let this fact efface the salty impression left by the last sentence, above.
Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Themas 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.”
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Image credits: (1) Cover page for Althochdeutsches Lesebuch (1888) via Open Library. (2) Toby Jug, Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, England. Reptonix free Creative Commons licensed photos via Wikimedia Commons.