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Monthly etymological gleanings for April 2013

By Anatoly Liberman


Thief again.
One comment on thief referred to an apparently admissible Lithuanian cognate. It seems that if we were dealing with an Indo-European word of respectable antiquity, more than a single Baltic verb for “cower” or “seize” would have survived in this group. I also mentioned the possibility of borrowing, and another correspondent wondered from whom the Goths could learn such a word. Since thief has been attested in all the Old Germanic languages, it belongs to the Common Germanic stock and must have been coined or borrowed before the fourth century, when Wulfila translated the Bible into Gothic. Here it is important to take into account the historical situation. Germanic speakers living several millennia before Wulfila were nomads. Presumably, they would not have been above stealing cattle and horses (with the latter process requiring good, trusted friends) or robbing people. Yet myths reflect this situation sparingly. In Greece (stepping for a moment outside Germania), Hermes became famous because, while a child prodigy of one day old, he stole fifty head of cattle from his half-brother Apollo (their father was Zeus). In Scandinavia, Odin stole the mead of poetry from a giant, and, according to an obscure allusion, Loki stole a precious necklace. Stealing usually presupposed wresting a treasure of cosmic importance from a mighty adversary. We don’t know the age of those tales; the northern myths are hardly very old. Nor have the laws of the nomadic Teutons come down to us. Tacitus’s admiration for the unspoiled barbarians should be taken with a grain of salt, the more so as we have no idea who his informants were. The Old English, Old Frisian, and other similar laws that deal with thieves were recorded centuries after Tacitus. House breaking could not be a common crime among nomads, and keys (very primitive keys) were mainly used for locking doors against stray oxen and such.

I assume that the “Proto-Germans” (Teutons; unfortunately, English has no word like German Germanen) needed special verbs for galloping away on somebody else’s horse, for abducting a bride, and for waylaying people. They might have a verb meaning “to steal” but probably not a noun for “thief in general,” though their more cultured neighbors surely made them familiar with such an important concept. Many ancient languages of that epoch are lost, and the Teutons’ neighbors, apart from the Romans, were often also nomads. It seems odd that thief is all but impenetrable from an etymological point of view. I am usually not in a hurry to suggest a substrate origin for an obscure word, but thief might penetrate Germanic as borrowed slang. However, I agree that this imaginary foreign word about which no one knows anything and which may never have existed (my argument rests on a most shaky foundation!) need not have been low or vulgar or part of thieves’ cant. The situation in a modern Frisian dialect is different: a native noun was replaced with a similar and closely related noun from Dutch. The variants of this word in Old Icelandic would require a discussion too special for this blog.

Handsome is as handsome does: the origin of the construction.
Because of the punning grammar of this phrase it may not be immediately clear that the second handsome is an adverb, that is, handsome is as handsomely does. The word as is not only a conjunction but also a relative pronoun. We arrive at the “translation”: “Handsome is who acts handsomely.” Obviously, there is another pun involved. Handsome means “pleasing to the eye, physically attractive” and “magnanimous, general.” To conclude, “he is worthy of admiration who behaves admirably.” The adverb handsome seems to have been preserved in the Standard only in this idiom. In other cases, much discussed in the literature, adjectives often take over the function of adverbs (“Drive safe,” “Do it real quick,” and the like).

Engl. boy, Danish pog, Finnish pojka, and Estonian poeg.
Everything is unclear about the origin of these words, which are partly the same in Germanic, Romance, Slavic, Celtic, and Finno-Ugric, and this does not augur well for their interrelatedness. They look like belonging to a Common European stock, but the history of their spread remains undiscovered. In Low (= northern) German and Scandinavian, the prevailing metaphor is from “stick” to “boy,” that is, from “a small thick object” to “a small (fat) child.” Some of them begin with b and have n in the middle (for instance, Danish bengel “rowdy”). Here is part of an almost endless list: Danish pog “thick stick” (so in Old Danish), now usually “boy” (in the other Scandinavian languages the meaning is very close or identical, but in Middle Low German pok, with a long vowel, meant “bodkin”), Dutch dialectal pook “poker” (incidentally Engl. poke, verb, may or even does belong here). Later, Low German pok came to mean “weakling, small person,” while päks designates “a short fat youngster,” exactly as does Swiss German Pfuegg. Dutch pook is “poker” and (rarely) “dagger, bodkin.”

The phallic metaphor seems to be all over the place: “short thick stick,” “poke,” and invariably “a male child,” rather than “any child.” In the recent post “Boys will boys,” I discussed Mr. Cousins’s idea. His focus is on Romance, and he believes that the meaning “boy” goes back to “erect phallus.” None of the words he mentioned has ever been drawn into the wide p-k/p-g/b-k/b-g net, and I found his reference to bodkin, presumably a word of Celtic descent, especially interesting, even though its root ends (uncharacteristically) in -d. But I am not sure that the story, in Germanic or Romance, began with “phallus.” The closest cognates, in so far as they do not mean “boy,” mean “stick,” not “penis,” and the sense “erect phallus” may be secondary. The relations of Finnish pojka to Swedish pojke have been the object of some speculation (who borrowed from whom?); Estonian poeg is obviously related to them.

Herringbone. The big question is whether it comes from the sil or from the sild.

Two minor Scandinavian quibbles.
(1) In touching on the correspondence Engl. thief/Danish tyv, I noted that old th became t in Continental Scandinavia. The question was about a pair like Engl. thou and Swedish du. In both English and Continental Scandinavian, t (from th, voiceless) was regularly voiced in unstressed syllables. This is the origin of d in the definite article and pronoun.
(2) Sil and sild “herring.” The forms I cited (sil and sild) are Old Icelandic, not Danish, so that -d is not mute in the second of them. The modern reflexes of sil have a lengthened root vowel in modern dialects (as Mr. Larsson pointed out), while the reflexes of sild have a short vowel despite the loss of final d. Not that anyone needs proof that -d in Old Icelandic sild was not a mere orthographic sign, but note the pronunciation sil’ (with stød) in Danish, Swedish sill (with ll from ld), and Norwegian sild, which sounds like Swedish sill: with long l in place of ld. And yes, Germanic hun-d “dog” also has d; it is a common Indo-European suffix of animal names.

War of synonyms.
I agree with Mr. Cowan that synonyms crowd out one another both in any given language and between languages, but I was interested in the first case. No two synonyms mean absolutely the same. If their spheres of influence cannot be demarcated with sufficient clarity, at least their frequencies differ, but more often they occur in different stylistic spheres. As to shucks!, all is unclear, and I doubt that it has anything to do with shit, especially because we already have a euphemism for it (shoot!).

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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Image credit: tweed textile background with herringbone pattern from a vintage book cover. Photo by marekuliasz, iStockphoto.

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8 Responses to “Monthly etymological gleanings for April 2013”
  1. Annie Morgan says:

    re ‘handsome is as handsome does’. In my youth when an aunt, or a housekeeper, said the phrase, it was accompanied by a knowing sniff. They were referring to some young man who relied upon his goodlooks and personality to cover possible underhanded behaviour. I wonder when the phrase became pejorative, or was it ever anything else.

  2. nikita says:

    So boys are associated with sticks and girls with eyes (pupa, κόρα)?

  3. Masha Bell says:

    I have difficulty seeing a connection between English ‘thief’ and Lithuanian ‘vagis’, while it’s link to German ‘Dieb’ seems blindingly obvious.

    An ‘unruly boy’ is Bengel in German too, not just in Dutch, an in rural Northern Germany a ‘boy’ is commonly called ‘Boi’.

  4. Masha Bell says:

    Two misspellings in a very short message: ‘it’s’ for ‘its’ and ‘an’ for ‘and’.
    I have no idea what caused them, other than that thinking about different languages is hard on one’s brain.

  5. EugenLV says:

    though there might be some connection between Lithuanian ‘vagis’, Latvian ‘zaglis’ as of ‘steal’ – ‘vogti’, ‘zagt’ and Estonian ‘varas/varga’ , maybe some relation to ‘zirgu zagļi’ those who steal horses

    in Lavian and Estonian both ‘puisis’/'poiss’ and ‘puika’/'poeg’ are quite widespread

  6. D. Fear says:

    1. ‘Bengel’ meaning ‘rascal, tyke, blighter, loon (Scots)’ is also current in High German, including southern dialects such as Swabian or middle ones such as Franconian. Just by way of info – I doubt this would be a loanword from the north.
    2. Adverbs looking like adjectives in English, i.e. with no ending, are surely a very old survival? German continues to inflect adjectives, but adverbs famously have no such endings (things such as ‘-lich’ being in fact adjectival endings in origin). ‘Do it quick’ must be old; one could argue, of course, that synchronically adjectives act here as adverbs (apart from the discussion about what exactly these things are!).

  7. John Cowan says:

    D. Fear: Quite so. The adverbial ending in Old English was -e, and it went the way of all other final e. The modern ending -ly is a reduced form of -lic plus this same -e.

  8. [...] is as handsome does. Annie Morgan would like to know when this proverb acquired a pejorative meaning. I wonder how many speakers detect negative [...]

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