By Anatoly Liberman
I have been meaning to tell the story of askance for quite some time—as a parable or an exemplum. Popular books and blogs prefer to deal with so-called interesting words. Dude, snob, and haberdasher always arouse a measure of enthusiasm, along with the whole nine yards, dated and recent slang, and the outwardly undecipherable family names. Smut is equally attractive, but there is a limited amount of it, and its novelty and allure wear off with age. This blog is no exception, though occasionally I risk talking about north, winter, rain, and other “colorless” words. People outside the profession seldom realize how much labor has to be expended before one can write a line or two about etymology in a “thick” dictionary. Even the off-putting verdict “origin unknown (uncertain)” usually means that numerous efforts to reconstruct a word’s past have been unsuccessful rather than that no one has tried to solve the riddle. Kibosh, featured last week, serves as a good illustration of such a case: many men, many minds, and no final solution in view.
The adverb askance (now used only or almost only in look askance) has been known since the fifteen-thirties. No one is sure how it came into being. The prefix a- may be from French, but it may be a reduced form of Engl. on, as in abed and asleep. A century and a half before the emergence of this askance (let us call it askance2) another askance (askance1), a conjunction meaning “as if, as though,” surfaced in English. Language historians have been unable to agree on their possible interaction: Are we dealing with two senses of the same word (despite the chronological gap) or two homonyms having nothing to do with each other?
Students of sound change can be guided by so-called laws (to use a less pompous term, rules or correspondences) and when, for instance, they observe that milk is called moloko in Russian (stress on the last syllable), they are puzzled, rather than elated, because if those words (one from a Germanic language, the other from Slavic) were cognate, they would not have had the same last consonant (k; however, m- and m- are fine). By contrast, in semantics bridges are easy to draw and even easier to demolish. Is there a way from “as if, as though” to “sideways”? Perhaps there is. Someone who dissimulates or is moved by disdain, envy, or distrust tends to avoid looking his interlocutor squarely in the face—thus, from “as if” to “obliquely.” I find this reasoning convincing (the formulation belongs to the noted etymologist Leo Spitzer); others don’t. Both the conjunction and the adverb have always been low frequency words, so that they could not be expected to occur in texts often enough to provide us with sufficient information about the time of their coining.
A classic question of etymology is: “Native or borrowed?” No one doubts that askance, whether it be askance1 or askance2 (and modern speakers are interested only in askance2) does not go back to Old English. The debating point is whether the lending language belongs to the Romance or the Germanic group. Both contain numerous words that may theoretically have produced askance. To begin with Romance, such are Italian schiancio “oblique, sloping” and aschiancio “across, athwart”. Close by are Italian scansare “avoid” and a scansa (di) “obliquely.” Old French seems to have had escant “out of the corner, out of the square” (only eschantel seems to have been recorded) and certainly had escons(e) “hidden.” Even if some of the Italian and French words are related, English borrowed askance only from one language, so that the question about the source remains.
The etymology of askance “as if” is secure: it leads us to Latin quamsi (the same meaning). If askance1 and askance2 are not related, this fact has no weight in the present discussion. However, if they are, quamsi should be thrown into the hopper and stay there. The main early work pertaining to the French origin of askance was done by Frank Chance, an excellent etymologist, now almost forgotten. He believed that askance1 and askance2, though both of French descent, were different words. Skeat followed Frank but forgot to refer to his predecessor, and Notes and Queries, the periodical in which Chance published nearly everything he wrote (that is why hardly anyone remembers him today), has preserved Chance’s indignant letter and Skeat’s lame apology. As time went on, Skeat felt less and less certain about the origin of askance. The same holds for Chance. The progress of etymology consists as much in discovering words’ true origins as in discarding wrong and dubious conjectures. One of its bitter triumphs is the ability to say “origin unknown.”
The pun on Frank Chance’s name is unintentional, but the etymon of askance may be the word chance, not necessarily French chance but a Germanic reflex of Medieval Latin cadentia “fall” (noun) via Dutch or Scandinavian. Such was Frank Chance’s later opinion. Yet the Germanic ways might have been more devious. Askance has often been compared with Dutch schuin “oblique” and Engl. squint. Then there is Old Icelandic á ská “across, askew,” along with á skant and Danish åskands—a veritable embarrassment of riches.
My proposal is as questionable as anybody else’s. However, I believe that no etymology of askance will carry conviction unless both askance1 and askance2 have been explained. Very few researchers were ready to traverse so much ground and since askance “as if” is obsolete (one can say “dead”), even the most comprehensive dictionaries of Modern English enjoy the luxury of dealing with the adverb and ignoring the conjunction. Since I find the reconstruction of the semantic path from “as if, as though” to “sideways, obliquely” plausible and since the conjunction (“as if”) is certainly of Romance origin (Latin quamsi), I conclude that the adverb (“sideways”) ultimately goes back to the same word and reject the Germanic etymons mentioned above. The development from “as if” to “sideways” must have taken place in English.
Will my colleagues who think differently agree with me? They undoubtedly won’t. Consensus among historians is rare. The same holds for language historians. Etymologies are not theorems (they do not depend on a set of axioms or postulates) and cannot be proved. I think that I have cast my net more broadly than some of my “rivals,” but in tracing the past and in evaluating this process very much is a matter of opinion. Despite the inevitable uncertainty, formulating hypotheses, especially such as are based on all the facts known at the moment, is not a waste of time. Each honest attempt to discover the truth is a step in the right direction. A colleague of mine who believes that all etymology is a fairy tale and who therefore pities my activity has no need to feel superior (I tried to bring it home to her many times but without success). Etymologists have ploughed a good deal of fertile soil, not only tons of sand. No one is justified in looking at them askance.
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 Cardsharps by Caravaggio, circa 1594. Kimbell Art Museum. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.