By Anatoly Liberman
As has often happened in the recent past, this essay is an answer to a letter, but I will not only address the question of our correspondent but also develop the topic and write about Old Nick, his crew, and the goblin. The question was about the origin of the words bogey and boggle. I have dealt with both in my dictionary and in passing probably in the blog, but after more than seven years the archive of “The Oxford Etymologist” has grown to such an extent that even I remember dimly whether certain subjects have been covered in the “gleanings” or in a special essay. So what is the origin of bogey? One should perhaps begin with the word boo!
Nobody will contest the idea that boo is an interjection. However, putting a classificatory label on it does not mean solving its etymology. Most interjections are studied, artificial words, from oops and ouch to jiminy and Gosh, and their origin is often lost. The same can be said about the polite oh, ah, and eh. Only natural shrieks (when we holler with pain) are natural, but they are hard to verbalize. Let us agree for the sake of (the) argument that boo is an imitative word and proceed from there. To put it differently, let us agree that we associate boo with noise. Noisy things deafen people. They swell, burst, explode, and by doing so scare us; they are often huge and inflatable, and their spread is beyond people’s control. The most dangerous step in our search will be the first. Can we assume that various consonants tend to attach themselves to sound complexes like boo or bu and form nouns, adjectives, and verbs of more or less predictable semantics? Once we make such a step, we will be in serious trouble, but there is no choice. If boo is sound imitative, does the same hold for boom? Most language historians think so. And bomb? It matters little that Engl. bomb is a borrowing from French (ultimately from Latin, from Greek). Imitative words are similar all over the world, don’t obey so-called phonetic laws, and are easily borrowed.
Now, if bomb is onomatopoeic, nothing prevents us from drawing pomp, pumpkin, and even pooh–pooh, into this net, and, sure enough, it has been done. Since we have allowed our words to begin with p– and have various vowels, we may try to add consonants other than b ~ mb to b- ~ p-. Along the way, we cannot avoid the adjective big. Its derivation has been the object of involved and largely profitless speculation, with one or two improbable hypotheses thrown in for good measure, but, since we need words designating menacing, noisy objects, big will suit us. Strangely, big is the Dutch for “pig,” and pig (the name of a fat, “big” animal) is another word whose origin has been called unknown.
The next object of horror is buck, designating a particularly corpulent beast. The Germanic spectrum of senses in this word is limited: “the male of a horned animal,” (specifically) “the male of the bovine family,” “male deer,” and “billy-goat,” with the root often ending in –kk (a long consonant, or geminate, to use a technical term, emphasizes the word’s affectionate, expressive nature). Irish bocc and Sanskrit bukka “billy-goat,” Armenian buc “lamb,” and Russian byk “buck” (with similar cognates elsewhere in Slavic) are variants of the same word. They may trace to boo “moo,” but pigs do not moo and yet big ~ pig resemble buck, whose most ancient form must have been bukkaz. Nor is bleating (compare Armenian buc) the same as booing ~ mooing, but we remain in more or less the same sphere.
Once we have done with the cattle, we run into Russian buka “bogyman” and wonder what to do with Russian bukashka (stress on the second syllable) “a small insect of any kind,” a word allegedly (but uncertainly) related to another onomatopoeic verb. Lost among bucks, pigs, and their look-alikes, we cannot avoid bug. Its earlier English synonym (or etymon?) was budde, but consonant and vowel variation has long since stopped bothering us: in this game, everything goes. Besides, buds swell and burst, just as we expected. Norwegian bugge means “big sturdy man.” Bug “an object of dread” and bug “insect” (in British English, mainly “beetle”), along with the verb bug (“What’s bugging you?”) and the bug in our computers, are probably different senses of the same word, originally the name of a creature endowed with the ability to swell (hence ready to explode, produce a lot of noise, and fill its surroundings with fright). In its vicinity we discover bugaboo and its earlier variant bugaboy. The latter need not be a “corruption” of bugaboo, because boy, a noun phonetically close to boo, was attested in Middle English with the sense “devil,” and the phrases at a boy and oh, boy may be relics of that sense. The second element of bugbear is bear (an animal name), because people stood in mortal fear of bears and wolves.
Boogie, as in boogie–woogie, is believed to be a West African coinage, and, if it is true that boogie originally meant “prostitute,” we are dealing with a social bugaboo. Speakers all over the world use the sound complex boog- ~ bog– for naming similar objects. Bogey emerged as a member of a large family. Old Bogey is the Devil, a bug, a bugbear. Bogus, initially, as it seems, part of counterfeiters’ slang, is, like most words being discussed here, of unknown etymology. It may well be a relative of bogey. Boggle means “to bedevil,” that is, not only “to confuse” but also “to frighten.” Russian bog (a Common Slavic word) means “god.” It is akin to several Sanskrit and Iranian words for “endowing with gifts” and so forth. In Modern Russian, bogatyi (stress on the second syllable) means “rich.” Long ago attempts were made to connect Slavic bog with English bogey, but they were given up as fanciful. Yet I wonder whether the positive senses (“riches, gifts”) did not arise later. Pagan gods, an invisible multitude, filled worshipers with dread and were propitiated in the hope of warding off the evil they caused. The development of the generic concept (God), characteristic of monotheistic religions, is particularly hard to trace.
Etymology stopped being guesswork when phonetic correspondences were discovered. The exercise offered above smacks of medieval linguistics. Vowels and consonants play leapfrog at will. It is no wonder that good dictionaries call most of such words etymologically obscure. If one can mention boo, boom, bomb, pomp, pig, big, bud, bug, and bogey in one breath, when and where do we stop and for how many more words should we make special dispensation? Are we allowed to incorporate bog “swamp,” puddle, and pudding into the list? They do not burst, but they certainly “spread.” No one can give a definite answer to those questions.
Words are not soldiers marching in single file, but they are not a disorganized crowd either. Neither limitless free trade nor strict planning will do them justice. Boggled by this opportunistic conclusion, we can only say that Old Bogey is a noisy demon, an evil bug and that his name reflects this fact.
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 on the OUPblog each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to him care of email@example.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”
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Image credit: The Buck Stops Here sign from Harry Truman’s White House desk. Image courtesy of the Truman Presidential Library. Public domain.