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Gray matter, part 3, or, going from dogs to cats and ghosts

By Anatoly Liberman


The shades of gray multiply (as promised in December 2013). Now that we know that greyhounds are not gray, we have to look at our other character, grimalkin. What bothers me is not so much the cat’s color or the witch’s disposition as the unsatisfactory state of etymology. Stephen Goranson has been able to collect sixty opinions about the origin of the word that he studied (see his comment to my recent post on the dialect of Craven). I cannot boast of such numbers.  Although my database contains close to a hundred items pertaining to the derivation of god, they do not contain so many solutions: only three or four hypotheses have been recycled again and again. The same holds for numerous other words that have been at the center of attention for centuries.  With regard to grimalkin, two reasonable conjectures compete. One has been sanctified by the best dictionaries and repeated everywhere; the other is never mentioned. Such an attitude harms research. Obviously, if everything is clear about the history of a word, no one will return to it, but even a hint of uncertainty, if noticed and taken into account, may result in a new attempt to solve the riddle. It is exactly such a hint that I would like to drop.

Here are the names of the scholars who will figure below. Robert Nares (1753-1829), a distinguished philologist; his work on obscure words in Shakespeare has lost none of its value. Lazar Sainéan (1859-1934; this is a Frenchified variant of the Romanian name, which itself is a variant of his original Jewish name), one of the most ingenious researchers of Romanian and French folklore and linguistics, a man whose studies of French argot and of the native origin of French are among the most important contributions to the subject. Leo Spitzer (1887-1960), an Austrian-born comparative linguist and literary scholar, talented and very prolific (in the United States from 1936 to his death). He was a life-long admirer of Sainéan’s. Both Sainéan and he offered multiple interesting etymologies. Although some of them should be treated with caution, they are always interesting and thought provoking. Paul Barbier (1873-1947), about whom I, unfortunately, know nothing, except that he was a professor of Romance philology at the University of Leeds (1903-1938). I have learned a lot from his articles and would be grateful to those of our readers who may write something about him in a comment and for Wikipedia.

catNares defined grimalkin as “a fiend, supposed to resemble a grey cat.” Skeat said that Nares was probably right. The OED agreed with Nares and Skeat, and so did Charles Scott, the etymology editor of The Century Dictionary and the author of several detailed essays on devilry. But Sainéan, Spitzer (who seems to have known English as well as French and Spanish, to say nothing of his native German, long before he came to America), and Barbier thought differently. Barbier missed the works of his predecessors and reinvented their etymology independently of them. According to Sainéan and especially Spitzer, grimal- is an English adaptation of the French demon Grimaut or Grimaud-, already known from texts in 1561 (and, consequently, having been current for some time before that). If such is the derivation of Grimalkin, 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 “frightening, terrible.” But since in English gruesome did not become greysome (unlike what happened in German: grau and grausam), an association with grim- may have arisen: Grim-Malkin made perfect sense. Grey Malkin is more remote from Grimalkin. I am not ready to endorse Sainéan’s derivation, but it is not worse than Nares’s, and, as I said at the beginning of this post, my aim consists only in shattering the belief that the origin of Grimalkin needs no further discussion. Scott observed that the English demon Malkin had been attested in Shakespeare’s lifetime; also, in an old ballad Grey Maulkin appears. Perhaps it was abstracted from Grimalkin and understood as a diminutive of Maud or some other feminine name. As long as Malkin meant “cat,” gray fit it perfectly. The question remains open. I would be happy if I succeeded in unclosing it. (Is it possible that Grimalkin was “a word of the year” and that Shakespeare made use of popular slang?)

Our last demon for today is the gremlin. The noun has been around only since 1941 and is one of the war words that stayed and made a spectacular career. Still later (1970) the car called “Gremlin” was introduced. I have no idea why it was given such a mischievous name and whether it lived up to it. John Moore, in an article published in The Observer for November 8, 1942, discussed the folklore of gremlins and suggested that the sprite had come out of Fremlin beer bottles. This amusing explanation has been recycled by several authors, among others by Joseph T. Shipley, the least reliable etymologist among those whose books have been published by the otherwise dependable presses. The rhyme fremlin / kremlin / gremlin is obvious, but, regrettably, that is where we should stop, for we have no evidence that the word, which sprang up among British aviators, owes anything to its look-alikes. A more certain clue is the suffix, for it may have been borrowed from goblin.

Spitzer said in passing that gremlin had the same origin as grimalkin. Other scholars traced this word to an Old English or a rare Dutch verb. Such attempts should be rejected out of hand. If it is true that gremlin had not been heard of before 1941, in what limbo did it vegetate for centuries? It does happen that a word sometimes leads a hidden life in the language of the underworld, escapes from its environment, stops being slang, and enters aristocratic parlors. Gremlin does not seem to be one of such words. The suggestion that the etymon of gremlin is Irish Gaelic gruamín “ill-humored little fellow” is acceptable, but, as ill luck would have it, we don’t know whether the originator of the word was an Irishman or someone fluent in Irish Gaelic. Also, in the life of a word, its history following the moment of “conception” is of no small importance. How did gremlin gain such popularity? Why among pilots? Genies occasionally come out of the bottle; gremlins probably don’t. The origin of gremlin remains unknown, but a respectable imp should have a name beginning with gr-. Otherwise, who will be afraid of it?

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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Image credit: Britishblue, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. Catherine Sommer

    Grimaut – Grimaud – Grimaldo? Presumably of Germanic origin? Was there an early Grimaldo, a grim and grimacing Grimalkin, who gave his name not only to the House of Grimaldi but also to a foul fiend?

  2. [...] on his OUP blog the Russian-born etymologist and author Anatoly Liberman speculates at length on the origin of the Anglo-American word gremlin and comes up with a somewhat surprising [...]

  3. Stephen Goranson

    Thanks. There is a brief obituary for Paul Barbier in French Studies v. 1 no. 4 (1947) page 381. In case you haven’t seen it, his bibliography: Bibliographie des travaux de Paul Barbier (1873-1947), professor of French language and literature and romance philology à l’Université de Leeds /T V Benn 1983 French Book 32 p.; 21 cm.[Leeds]: Brotherton Library et Dép. de français, Université de Leeds

  4. Stephen Goranson

    Gremlins, 1938. Pauline Gower. Women with Wings (London: John Long, 1938) pages 200 to 202, with a drawing (202) of a gremlin on a cloud, scissors in both hands, pointed at an airplane.
    “Country that was particularly high or enveloped in cloud became known among the pilots as Gremlin country. Chambers told us the old Air Force legend of the Gremlins. These are weird little creatures who fly about looking for unfortunate pilots who are either lost or in difficulties with the weather. Their chief haunts are ravines and the boulder-covered tops of hills. They fly about with scissors in each hand and try to cut the wires on an aeroplane. The pilot hears them coming, snapping their scissors….Usually they climb on one wing and the pilot manages to shake them off. Then they attack the other wing, and again he may manage to dislodge them by banking sharply, only to find that they have clambered on to the tail, the petrol-tank, and along the fuselage….Terrified, the miserable pilot flies madly round in circles until at last he gets into a spin and crashes. The Gremlins then fly off content at having slain yet another intruder of their country….Knowing that Gremlins do not usually fly over about 3000 feet, Dorothy and I felt fairly safe at 4000…..”

  5. Benjamin Slade

    > The origin of gremlin remains unknown, but a respectable imp should have a name beginning with gr-

    The Beowulfian “Grendel” (whose name is likewise of uncertain origin/meaning) probably fits here as well.

  6. [...] the verb bind seems to have originated in England, among pilots, so it is a RAF word (like gremlin, discussed in this blog not long ago). Since initially it could be used transitively (to bind someone), the development may have been [...]

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