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Gray matter, or many more shades of grey/gray, part 1

By Anatoly Liberman


One day the great god Thor was traveling and found himself in a remote kingdom whose ruler humiliated him and his companions in every possible way. Much to his surprise and irritation, Thor discovered that he was a poor drinker, a poor wrestler, and too weak to pick up a cat from the floor. To be sure, his host, a cunning illusionist, tricked him: instead of beer Thor was asked to drink up the ocean (and did not notice the taste of the beverage), the feeble woman whom he could not overpower turned out to be Old Age, and the cat was not a cat but the World Serpent. Our “person of interest” in this story is the cat. We read that the cat was “rather big” (which, considering those people’s penchant for understatement, must have meant “quite big”) and grár. The Icelandic word grár meant “gray.” But there is a hitch: it also meant “evil” and “spiteful, hostile.” We don’t know whether Snorri Sturluson, the author of the Prose Edda, the book in which Thor’s adventure is told, relished the pun or even meant the adjective to be understood in both senses. The wolf, including the Big Bad Wolf, was also called gray in Icelandic, which causes no surprise, because wolves are indeed gray, but they also inspired fear. The terrible wolf Fenrir would have swallowed the whole world if it could.

The same pun occurs in Modern German. Grau means “gray,” but grausam, in which -sam is a suffix, means “cruel; terrible” (add to it the verb grauen “to cause dread; shudder”). This confusion owes its origin to an early merger of the roots græ- ~ gra- and gru-. In a northern Middle English poem, the verb grue “feel horror” turned up, a borrowing from Scandinavian, and its Scandinavian cognates sounded similar (grua and grue). In the sixteenth century, Engl. growsome was recorded. Both grue and growsome would have remained obscure regionalisms but for Walter Scott, who introduced the adjective grewsome, now spelt gruesome, into English literature. Gruesome things are not “graysome” or “greysome” to English speakers, but even they should beware of a small gray area here.

In the opening scene of Macbeth, one of the witches says to another: “I come, Gray-Malkin.” Today the last word is known (assuming that some people still remember it) as Grimalkin. Malkin or Mawkin (ending in the diminutive suffix -kin), short for Matilda, Maud, and Mary, was a female name common among the lower classes. Later, along with Molly, it acquired the sense “slut”; hence, it appears, the title of Daniel Defoe’s novel Moll Flanders. That a word for “cat” should be coupled with a human name is nothing out of the ordinary (compare tomcat), but what is Gri-? Nearly all dictionaries state bluntly that gri = gray, and they may be right, for at least in the dark all cats are gray. But I think James Murray acted wisely when he added probably to the historical part of the OED’s entry. Skeat followed Murray’s example. Gray-Malkin surfaced first in Macbeth (1605). It might well be a folk etymological alteration (corruption, perversion, as they used to say not too long ago) of the opaque Grimalkin. In many European languages, words beginning with gr- denote things that make us groan and grieve; in Germanic, they are especially common. Perhaps Grimalkin began its career as grue-Malkin or grim-Malkin, or something similar (“terrible witch”). When dealing with the Devil and even with the names of the lesser fiends, one cannot be too careful (see my blog on Old Nick).

Greyhound lines # 7170, a MCI G4500, waits for passengers in back of the Oakland, CA Greyhound terminal. Taken by a Nikon D40x with a Nikon 18-55mm non-VR kit lens. (at 26). Photo by Paul Sullivan. Creative Commons License via Paul Sullivan Flickr.

Greyhound lines # 7170, a MCI G4500, waits for passengers in back of the Oakland, CA Greyhound terminal. Photo by Paul Sullivan. Creative Commons License via Paul Sullivan Flickr.

Such is one of the less trivial shades of grey/gray. The next one comes with greyhound. Most people who have an interest in word origins cannot afford the luxury of opening one dictionary after another and comparing the entries: life is too short. Even searching for etymologies on the Internet takes time. It is therefore curious and instructive to discover opposite answers in equally solid works. The first edition of The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language made a stir because among other things it had a supplement, later published as a separate book, in which words were traced to their Indo-European roots (to the extent that such roots could be ascertained). The information there did not pretend to be original, but the convenient format was very much admired indeed. According to that supplement, grey- in greyhound goes back to the same root as the adjective gray. Now we will turn to Skeat. His dictionary explains that greyhound, like Old Icelandic greyhundr (the same meaning), is a tautological compound, from grey “dog” and hound “dog.” Let us add that the word in question, although known since the Old English period, was at that time found only once, in a gloss (grighund, in which hund “hound; dog” is appended to grig-, also “dog”). Tautological compounds are common, and I once devoted a blog to them. They have been attested in languages all the way from Norway to Japan. Skeat made a special point of warning his readers against a dangerous mistake: “Not allied to gray, which is represented in Icelandic by grár.”

The Century Dictionary cites Icelandic greybaka “bitch” (baka “back”) and greykarl “’a dogged churl.”  It endorses the opinion that Scots grew, grewan, along with Middle Engl. grewhound and gresehownd, “appear to be accommodated to the Middle Engl. Grew ‘Greek’, Grese ‘Greece’ (cf. Spanish galgo ‘greyhound’, literally ‘Gallic’).” (If we deal with “accommodation,” what does galgo have to do with greyhound? A coincidence or Romance influence?) In addition, it cites grifhound, resembling Old Danish grijphund, as though gripe-hound, another folk etymological variant. Clearly, people had no notion of what the first element in greyhound meant.

Weekley is also worth consulting. Not only do we learn from him that the first element of greyhound means “bitch.” We are reminded that German Windhund “greyhound” consists of Old High German wint- and hund, both of which meant “dog.” The etymology of wind- (from wint) in Windhund has been given wildly divergent interpretations, but, whatever its origin, it did mean “dog,” so that Weekley was right. He explained that Middle Engl. grew-hound, still in northern dialects, resulted from an etymologizing attempt to connect with Old French Grieu, Middle Engl. Grew “Greek,” as borne out by Spanish galgo “greyhound,” from Latin Gallicus (canis) “Gallic (dog).” For good measure, he cited graylag “goose,” supposedly so named from late migration, grey mare “better horse,” grey friars, and greybeard, used in Scotland for a large stone (whisky) jug. Murray chose not to discuss this word in detail. But he said quite firmly that grey-, of unknown origin, is not related to Greek, the adjective Grew “Greek,” the color name grey, or grey “badger.”

Photograph of the sidewheeler Greyhound. The original photograph is at the Mariners Museum in Newport News, Virginia. As the Greyhound was destroyed in November, 1864, this photograph is at least 140 years old. Public domain via Wikipedia.

Photograph of the sidewheeler Greyhound. The original photograph is at the Mariners Museum in Newport News, Virginia. The Greyhound was destroyed in November 1864. Public domain via Wikipedia.

Old Engl. grighund occurred so rarely (once in a gloss!) and its Icelandic background looks so rich, that one may be justified in suspecting that greyhound was imported from Scandinavian. Is still nothing known about its derivation? The most usable etymological dictionary of Old Icelandic (by Jan de Vries; the entry grey) says: “Perhaps related to grár ‘gray’.” That it should come to this! Have we traveled so far to arrive at the conclusion that greyhound is not connected with grey ~ gray, because grey means “dog,” but that grey “dog” got its name from the color? So, after all, greyhound may be a grey dog-dog! Positively, opening one dictionary after another is the most rewarding occupation in the world.

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 blog@oup.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.” Subscribe to Anatoly Liberman’s weekly etymology posts via email or RSS.

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5 Responses to “Gray matter, or many more shades of grey/gray, part 1”
  1. [...] am returning to greyhound, a word whose origin has been discussed with rare dedication and relatively meager results. The [...]

  2. Henno Brandsma says:

    In Dutch it’s also called a “windhond” or “hazewind”, presumably as it was used to hunt “hazen”, hares. In Westerlauwer Frisian it’s called a “wynhûn”. I looked it up, and indeed, Middle Dutch “wint/wijnt” was used as a word for (hunting) dog. Interesting!

  3. [...] the OUP blog  is a post on the different shades of gray and grey, and from OxfordWords Blog, the lasting impression of fictional titles. From Barry Popik we got the [...]

  4. [...] its structure is Grimal-kin, with -kin being a diminutive suffix, rather than Gri-malkin. In Part 1 of this series, I noted that outside English the color name gray ~ grey had merged with a word meaning [...]

  5. [...] is cognate with neither French gris nor Engl. gray, but it returns us to the pair discussed in the first post of this series: Old Norse grár “gray” and “horrifying” (that is, “grisly”). As announced a month ago, [...]

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