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Little triumphs of etymology: “pedigree”

By Anatoly Liberman


If I find enough material, I may tell several stories about how after multiple failures the ultimate origin of a common English word has been found to (almost) everybody’s satisfaction. The opening chapter in my prospective Decameron will deal with pedigree, which surfaced in English texts in the early fifteenth century. Many competing spellings have been recorded: pedigre, pedigrew, petigree, and their variants with -ee, -tt-, and -y- (the latter in place of -i-). Although no word resembles it, the French or Latin origin was proposed early on. The first students of English etymology realized that pedigree must be a compound and tried to recover the disguised elements. Strangely, unlike cap-a-pe(e), pedigree has never been spelled as a word group.

This is indeed a pedigree.
This is indeed a pedigree.
Perhaps those elements are par and degrés “by degrees,” with an allusion to descending from one generation to another? Not a fanciful guess, but what happened to r, the last sound of par or per? Or is the sought-for etymon degrés des pères “the rank or degree of forefathers”? But in pedigree the proposed elements appear in reverse order! Or Latin petendo gradum “deriving (seeking, pursuing) the descent”? Or a pede gradus, “like the Jesse window at Dorchester or others of that kind” (with reference to the Jesse tree showing the genealogy of Jesus)? In that etymology, pede, the dative of Latin pes “foot,” was taken to mean the stem of the tree; an analog would be German Stammbaum genealogy, family tree, pedigree,” literally, “stem tree.” Or pied de greffe, that is, “the stem of the graft” = “the stem on which later branches were grafted”? Or “the table of degrees” (= of relationships)? Or pee de crue “the foot of the increase”? Or Greek país “child” and Latin gradus “degree”? C. A. F. Mahn, the reviser of the 1864 edition of Webster’s dictionary, who mentioned this etymology in a special publication (I have not seen it anywhere else), referred to A. Wagner. Such irritating references were all over the place in the past. I have no clue to the source and would be grateful to those of our readers who could tell me where A. Wagner (and which of the great multitude of A. Wagners) proposed that truly hopeless etymology.

As early as 1769 pedigree was decomposed into pied de grue “the foot of the crane.” The reference would have been to the pedigrees drawn in the form resembling a crane standing on one leg, a position resembling the heraldic genealogical tree. Mahn knew this etymology, rejected it, and chose Stephen Skinner’s par degrés (Skinner’s dictionary appeared in 1671). Apparently, Augustin Thierry, the French historian, shared the crane’s foot idea, but I am not sure where he said so (allegedly, in his book on the Norman Conquest) and would again appreciate a tip.

crane pedigree etymology
Does the current etymology of pedigree have a leg to stand on?
Skeat, though at one time he was ready to accept Wedgwood’s “table of relationships” (Hensleigh Wedgwood occupied center stage in English etymological studies until Skeat displaced him). However, soon he felt convinced that the variants with -ew ~ -ewe were particularly revealing and tried to understand what the crane (French grue) had to do with genealogy or descent. He discovered the Old French proverb à pied de grue, glossed in a dictionary as “in suspence, on doubtful tearms” (I am retaining the contemporary orthography of the gloss). “Thus,” he said, “it is just conceivable that a pedigree was named from its doubtfulness, in derision.” In a survey of the conjectures on the pedigree of the word pedigree, J. Horace Round, a historian and genealogist of the medieval period, wrote (1887): “With reference to Professor Skeat’s suggestion, which is gravely advanced in his Dictionary, I cannot but wonder that so eminent an etymologist should have seriously put forward so far-fetched a derivation, and one so strangely out of the spirit of that age in which the word was formed.” The first edition of The Century Dictionary copied Skeat’s guess. However, Skeat soon gave it up and offered a convoluted but equally unconvincing new etymology, which Round again ridiculed. Unfortunately, Skeat expressed his strong confidence that a neater etymology than the one he proposed cannot be found. He who never thought twice before castigating his opponents preferred to be praised rather than taken to task (a pardonable attitude) and commented drily on a “not very courteous manner by Mr. Round.”

In 1895 Charles Sweet, the brother of the famous Henry Sweet, and Round put forward the same explanation: according to them, the mark used in old pedigrees had the shape of a so-called broad arrow, that is, a vertical short line and two curved ones radiating from a common center, like three toes of a crane’s foot, with an allusion to the branching out of the descendants from the paternal stock. (In 1887 Round still believed in the source being a crane standing on one leg.) This explanation has become dogma. It can be found in all modern reference works, including the second edition of The Century Dictionary, the last edition of Skeat’s dictionary, and the OED. This situation justifies my title about small triumphs of etymology: after centuries of intelligent guessing, the right solution was found and satisfied nearly everybody.

As some contemporary critics pointed out, several flies stick in the otherwise admirable ointment. We have seen that the letter -g- in the middle of the word pedigree alternated with -c- (pronounced as k) and -d- alternated with -t-. The surnames Pettigrew and Pettygrew bear witness to the popularity of the -t- form. Those variants have never been explained. Also, the modern form is pedigree rather than pedigru(e). Obviously, people did not understand the derivation of that noun and changed -gru to something that looked like degree (as we have seen, many researchers also took -gre at face value). The alternation g ~ c is equally puzzling. At one time, Skeat traced the word to cru- “increase” and believed that the sound of k had acquired voice between two vowels. But the story appears to have begun with gru-, and there was no reason for -g- to turn into k! If the 1410 Latin example (the earliest one known) has value, the form Pedicru in it testifies to the antiquity of c (k) in pedigree.

I suspect that the original editors of the OED followed the Round-Sweet etymology without much enthusiasm, for they quoted Skeat (the latest version) and Sweet and seemed to have accepted their explanation for want of a better one. The OED online suggests that pedi- perhaps shows assimilation to petty or petit, but why should pedigree arouse associations with something small? (Are we ready to return to the idea of “small steps,” so that -gru- will emerge as an alteration of -gre-?) And if -gru- changed to -gre- and pedi- changed to peti- under the influence of degree and petty respectively, why did pedigree become so opaque so early? Speakers begin to indulge in folk etymological games when the word’s form becomes impenetrable through wear and tear. When was our word or the metaphorical phrase transparent and how long did it remain such? As far as we can judge, its provenance was Anglo-French, for on the continent its analogs did not exist (only much later did Engl. pedigree make its way into Modern French). It also remains unclear why the Anglo-Normans needed a neologism for a well-developed concept. Round suggested that pedigree began its life as slang. Perhaps it did. The upper classes do have their jargon. Is then the word centuries older than its first attestation (dignified compositions tend to avoid slang), so that by the fifteenth century no one could recognize the elements of the compound?

Such are etymological triumphs. In Rome, when a triumph was celebrated, a clown ran along the chariot and denigrated the conqueror. In the study of word origins our chariot is still rolling through the streets of Ancient Rome to the shrieks of a comedian.

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 articles via email or RSS.

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Image credits: (1) Jesse window in Dorchester abbey. Photo by Bill Tyne. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Bill Tyne Flickr. (2) Zuiganji Sugito. Painting on sliding door (sugito) c. 1620. Hasegawa Toin. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. Stephen Goranson

    Histoire de la conquête de l’Angleterre par les … v.4. Thierry, Augustin page 229.
    At HatiTrust:
    http://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=hvd.hw204q;view=1up;seq=239

  2. Stephen Goranson

    Another Pedigree from pais and gradus (pre-Mahn but non-Wagner):
    An Appendix to Shakespeare’s Dramatic Works, by Augustine Skottowe (1826) p. 152:
    https://babel.hathitrust.org/shcgi/pt?id=hvd.hnjlwg;view=1up;seq=170

  3. Stephen Goranson

    Pedigree. page 727 col. 1in Adolf Wagner, Bailey-Fahrenkruger’s Worterbuch der englische Sprache. Erster Theil. Englisch-Teutsch. Jena 1822
    http://books.google.com/books?id=dJVJAAAAMAAJ&pg=PA691&dq=etymology+%22adolf+wagner%22&hl=en&sa=X&ei=e5VzU7SoLMmrsQTRk4HYCg&ved=0CC4Q6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=etymology%20%22adolf%20wagner%22&f=false

  4. Masha Bell

    If the aim of spelling was to provide a reliable guide to pronunciation, the spelling of ‘pedigree’ would be ‘peddigry’. Its current spelling wrongly suggests an open long /ee/ in the first syllable (as in ‘pederast’ and ‘peter’) and a stressed final /ee/ (as in ‘chimpanzee, employee, referee’).

    Its unhelpful spelling is not surprising, because consonant doubling and spellings of the stressed and unstressed /ee/ sounds are two of the messiest areas of English spelling (penny, penalty, penal; speech, speak, shriek; jolly, trolley, collie).

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