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The long arm of etymology, or, longing for word origins

Only children and foreigners express their surprise when they discover that the verb long does not mean “lengthen” or that belong  has nothing to do with longing. When we grow up, we stop noticing how confusing such similarities of form coupled with differences in meaning are. It is the privilege of poets and etymologists to recreate language and never stop wondering at its tortuous ways.

Old English had langian, and longian, “to desire” and “to grow long,” either two distinct words or two meanings of the same verb. When we try to restore ties that existed millennia ago, we look for cognates in as many languages as possible.The vowels in them may differ, as they do in Engl. ride and bedridden, wa ke and woke, broad and breadth, and occasionally their consonants alternate, as in wolf ~ wolves, but the alternations are not arbitrary. That the Old English verb might have a and o in the root ngian (~ longian) need not worry us: they often substituted for each other before n. The variant with a is still familiar from Scots (“for auld lang syne…”) and from the family name Lang.

In German, we find erlangen “to attain,” and langen “to reach for something.” Speakers, naturally, connect langen with lang “long” (you reach for something = you stretch yourself and make yourself longer, as it were), but scholars dissociate them. Langen, they point out seems to be related to the verb gelingen “to succeed,” and this makes its affinity with lang improbable. Gelingen, in turn, resembles Engl. linger “to tarry” (ge- is a prefix). Whether linger goes back to Old English lengan “to prolong, put off” or to its Old Norse synonym lengja, it must have been derived from lang- “long.” The same scholars (good specialists, not straw men) also say that German verlangen “to attain” and long should be separated. Finally, German has Belang “importance, significance” and anbelangen “to concern.” (Note: The name of the German town Erlangen is stressed on the first syllable. It is an old compound: erle “alder” + wang “wooded field” and has nothing to do with our story).

Besides this, there are words having the same root with u in it: German lungern “to loaf,” which was attested only in the 18th century, and Old English lungre “quickly, suddenly.” They seem to be related, even though loafing is the opposite of quick and sudden movement. If the original meaning of the root ling- ~ lang ~ lung- was “long,” the verbs listed above may have suggested the idea of moving (more often slowly) toward and wishing for a remote object, the one that was a long way off, and occasionally getting hold of it—thus, from longing and lingering to appropriation, whence presumably Engl. belong.

What a bewildering tangle of meanings! It is so deceptively easy to reconstruct bridges. For example, if German lungern once meant “to long,” then from desiring something the path may have led to being always near the coveted object and from there to lingering. From desiring something we get to owning it (Engl.belong) and realizing the importance of the thing attained (German gelingen). One can derive all of them from long (the opposite of short) but can just as easily dispense with each one. Meanings develop most unpredictably: in the course of a few centuries, “good” and “bad,” “smart” and “foolish,” “sweet” and “salty” may alternate, without changing their form. And prefixes play havoc with meaning, as we know from English adverbs: consider put up (at a hotel and with a friend) and give up (who would guess that give + up yields “to renounce”?).

I don’t think that the verb long (with its kin) and the adjective long must necessarily be separated. But here I am in the minority. My only potential ally is Jacob Grimm, whose books, written in the first half of the 19th century, are perennial classics. According to him, in trying to penetrate the history of words, it is advisable to set up as few homonyms as possible. He would probably have supported my suggestion that Old English langian “to extend” and langian “to desire” were two meanings of the same word. But reasonable guidelines are one thing, and concrete solutions are something different.

As though the previous explanations did not contain enough hedging, another unsettling detail should be mentioned. Engl. lung ~ German Lunge resemble lungre and lungern, but they, most definitely, have nothing to do with length and longing. There was an ancient root, whose modern continuation is Engl. light “not heavy”; it spawned several words sounding like those we have seen. Lungs float on water. Priests (to the extent that their duties made them deal with sacrificial animals), hunters, and butchers have always known it. We owe the name of the respiratory organ (both lungs and its Engl. synonym lights) to the observations of those people. Is it possible that German lungern “to loaf” and Old English lungre “quickly” go back to that root (its form is usually given as leng)?

Yes, it is. How exasperating! Isn’t this blog supposed to enlighten its readers on matters etymological, rather than stringing conjectures and dropping one after another like so many hot potatoes? It depends on what the readers want. If all they expect is a thimbleful of distilled truth, beating about the bush must irritate them, but if they long for insights into etymology as it really is, they should be prepared to make a long journey through a tunnel, with the light at its nonexistent end resembling a will o’ the wisp, an ignis fatuus, rather than a torch securely attached to a sign with the word EXIT on it.

Image Credit: ‘Rebel, Arm’, Photo by niekverlaan, CC0 Public Domain, via Pixabay.

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