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Cuckoo Birds in Gawky Park,
Or, Our Etymological Ailing Tooth

by Anatoly Liberman

Many years ago, I participated in a meeting of Russian and
British students in a town that was then called Leningrad. In the Soviet Union, everything, from theaters and community centers to parks and streets, was
named after Gorky. At a certain moment, one of the British students began to
giggle. When pressed to explain the cause of her mirth, she exclaimed: “If you
knew what gawky means in English!” Fortunately, no one did, and an
international scandal was avoided. Now fast forward, as the authors of
historical fiction like to say, to our time. On April 19, 2006, <a
href=”http://www.nbierma.com/”>Nathan Bierma discussed the word gawk
in his word column in the Chicago Tribune (his starting point was the
now nearly ubiquitous noun gawker).
Before his article appeared, we exchanged a few e-mails and decided that the
origin of gawk would also be interesting to the readers of this blog.

If we open the Oxford English Dictionary <a
href=”http://oed.com/”>[OED] at the relevant pages (and opening this
dictionary is always a pleasure), we will find the following words: the
obsolete verb gaw “to gape, stare; to look intently (1200, from
Scandinavian); gawk ~ gauk, as in gawk-handed
“left-handed” (regional, “of difficult etymology,” but apparently a contraction
of a word attested in the forms gaulick-, gaulish-, and galloc-),
the noun gawk (1837; “an awkward person; a fool; a simpleton” (perhaps
from the preceding, “but see gawk, verb”), the verb gawk, a
synonym of gaw (that is, “to stare”), which surfaced in printed texts in
American English in 1785 (either derived from the noun gawk or from the
verb gaw- with the suffix -k), and finally, gawky (either
from the noun gawk or from the verb gawk; no occurrences in books
before 1799). This is a confusing medley of near homonyms and near synonyms. To
make matters worse, gowk “cuckoo; fool” exists; the first meaning has
been known from texts since 1325, the second since 1605. The dates of
attestation found in the OED should not be confused with the dates of the
words’ appearance in spoken language. The verb gaw must indeed have
emerged in northern English dialects around 1200, but the other words may have
lain dormant in regional speech for centuries before they made their way into
print. The OED advises us to distinguish between gowk and gawk,
allegedly two different words. However, the line between them is hard to draw,
and the origin of gawk depends precisely on whether it has anything to
do with gowk.

It was Walter W. Skeat, the great English etymologist, who
connected gaulick and gawk. The origin of gaulick is
unknown, and Skeat’s idea that it was a borrowing from a northern French
dialect does not carry conviction, because the French word and the Germanic
adjective that is its ancient source usually mean “benumbed,” not “left-handed,”
and, whatever their origin, it is probably better not to separate gawk
from gowk, even if by doing so we disobey the OED. (This is a common
argument in etymological studies: a reasonable hypothesis, but don’t ruin what
seems to be a close-knit family.) Nor does the derivation of gawk from gaw
look like an inspiration, for the suffix -k (it is detected in tal-k,
lur-k, wal-k
in which it denotes repetitive action) has never been
productive on a large scale.

The cuckoo is famous for leaving its egg in the nests of
other birds (hence cuckold) and came to be associated with stupidity (which
is strange: if anything, the bird is devilishly clever). From its guttural cry
resembling inarticulate speech? In any case, it did, and the bird’s old name gauk-
turned up in very early German texts with the meaning “fool.” (Later cuckoo,
which supplanted the English reflex of gauk-, also began to mean
“idiot.”) In Scandinavia and especially in northern Germany, the pronunciation
of gauk- has remained the same since the Middle Ages, and if the word
reached English from Germany, its au (as in today’s Audi) changed
to the vowel of Modern autumn and paw. Once we have gawk
“fool,” the rest is plain sailing. The verb gawk will acquire the sense
“to behave like a fool.” Since looking vacantly into space, with one’s mouth
open, is a telltale sign of witlessness, the sense “gape” will develop by a
natural association. The adjective gawky “inept; clownish; clumsy,
awkward” will follow suit. The left hand is naturally the “inept” one. If
this reconstruction is correct, gawk is identical with (a doublet of) gowk,
the latter probably being a northern English pronunciation of the Scandinavian
word. In one respect the OED is apparently right: gawk cannot be traced
to French gauche “curved, bent; clumsy; left (hand),” for the final
consonants are incompatible.

To write this little essay, I had to consult a dozen
dictionaries and my database for English etymology. It would be so convenient
to open an etymological dictionary and find an informed discussion of all the
conjectures on the origin of at least the most common words! Such dictionaries
have been written for all the major and a few minor Indo-European languages,
but not for English (is it not amazing?). Some will find my complaint and my
parenthetical plug disingenuous, to use a word trodden to death by journalists,
because I have been working on such a dictionary for twenty years, but, to
quote a saying that has many variants in the languages of the world, the tongue
ever turns to the ailing tooth.

Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to blog.us@oup.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”

Recent Comments

  1. difference of pronounciation

    I need your expertise view in difference in pronounciation in ‘look’&’cuckoo’

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