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Monthly Gleaning: October 2007

By Anatoly Liberman

Many thanks to those who have commented on the latest posts and sent questions and words of encouragement. The first query was about luck and Lucifer. Luck came to English from Low (that is, northern) German at the end of the 15th century, possibly as a gambling term. Although “a lucky dog” has left all troubles behind, good luck coexists with ill (bad) luck, so that luck is not a synonym of success. The Frisian and Scandinavian cognates of luck are likewise borrowed from German. Geluck in so many countries is best explained precisely by its being a gambling term (ge– is a prefix lost in English and elsewhere). Such words originate in the underworld; they are often borrowed from the speech of foreign soldiers, mendicants, sharpers, peddlers, and prostitutes and, therefore, cross language borders easily.

The ancestor of Engl. luck is a late word even in German (no attestation before the second half of the 12th century). Its limited original distribution in the Germanic languages and a tie with games of chance, doom to failure all attempts to assign it to an ancient Indo-European root. Yet luck has been compared with German locken “allure, entice,” German gelingen “succeed,” several verbs for “bend, turn; close” in Germanic and Greek, a Greek noun for “twig” (as an instrument of conjuration or of marking plow land that has to be cultivated by lot), and so forth. The French influence on the ultimate meaning of geluk ~ geluckis not improbable (this is what most modern dictionaries say), but the ultimate origin of the word remains hidden. The prefix ge- suggests that we are dealing with a collective noun, rather than a single stroke of luck. Lucifer, a Latin word meaning “light bearer,” cannot be related to luck. True, some researchers thought that the root of luck is the same as in the word light (Latin lux). However, even if for the sake of argument we assume that this conjecture is right, we will obtain only lu(c)k related to Luc-, and their affinity will be of no importance in understanding the nature of the Germanic word. Nor will it be sufficient for establishing an inner bond between luck and Lucifer.

From luck we will proceed to laughter. What is the origin of the suffix in it? The reader is right in stating that the oldest recorded Germanic form of the verb laugh was Gothic hlahjan.In the beginning, laugh designated a guttural sound, something like Engl. cluck. The meeting of laughter and merriment is one of the most thrilling chapters in the development of human culture, but today our topic is suffixes. Old Germanic had three suffixes that lost their productivity long ago: -dra-, -tra-, and -stro-. Their modern reflex is -er, as, for instance, in murder and rudder. Old Engl. gal-dor “song,” was derived from the root gal- (extant in nightingale) “sing.” Hleah-tor “laughter” and leah-tor “vice, offence; reproach; injury” developed in a similar way: their roots are hleah- “laugh” and lean- (the latter with long ea) “blame” respectively. Fodder and foster go back to fodra- and fodstro- (stro- is an instrumental suffix) and share the root with food.

The origin of slang words is particularly difficult to trace, and I cannot offer a convincing etymology of rag “berate, scold,” which interests one of our readers. The verb rag surfaced in English texts only at the very end of the 18th century. It may have been known in dialects or perhaps, as happened to luck, in the cant of the underworld before it acquired a measure of respectability. According to some good authorities, rag is a shortened form of its equally obscure synonym bullyrag (no pre-1807 citations in the Oxford English Dictionary [OED]). This conjecture carries little conviction. Bull- and bully- ~ bally- are the first elements of many verbs, of which only bulldoze, now that it has lost its vicious connotations and is remembered mainly thanks to the noun bulldozer, belongs to the Standard (originally, it was Louisiana slang for “intimidate black voters”). Both bull(y) and bally- are typical reinforcing elements. Bullyrag seems to mean “rag severely.” A late association of rag with rags is possible (“scold” from “tear to rags”?), but the source of the verb should probably be sought elsewhere. Word final -g suggests Scandinavian descent. It is therefore no wonder that several Scandinavian verbs meaning “reproach, calumniate” have been offered as the etymons of rag “scold.” At one time, all of them began with w- (their English dialectal cognate wray, from wregan “accuse, impeach,” has also been attested) or h- (such is Icelandic hrekja “vex, worry”). An alternation of –g and –k is not uncommon. For rag “scold” to be a borrowing from Scandinavian, it must have originated in northern dialects, and perhaps it did, but we have no evidence of its pre-18th-century past. I can offer my own suggestion, prompted by the fact that rag, unlike its putative Scandinavian etymons, has always been a “low” word in English. In the 14th century, Rageman (pronounced in three syllables) and Ragamoffyn turned up in English. Both meant “devil.” Ragman’s roll, rigmarole, and ragamuffin have preserved more or less audible echoes of Middle English Rageman and Ragamoffyn. Thus rag- “devil” existed. Can it be that rag “damn” was coined alongside the devil’s name? It would be easy to add bully- ~ bally- to such a word. The profane meaning of rag would also explain its late occurrence in printed texts: once “damn” changed to “scold,” it became acceptable in literature. To be sure, my etymology is as debatable as any of those offered by the earlier researchers.

We are on firmer ground with the phrase Grim Reaper “death.” The question addressed its date of occurrence and its connection with macabre. Death is a masculine noun in Romance and Germanic. Therefore, a male skeleton with a scythe (hence reaping) symbolizes death to speakers of those languages. But the phrase Grim Reaper is surprisingly late. The OED quotes Longfellow as the first author who used it in English, though synonymous phrases are many. In the medieval French poem that illustrates the dance macabre, skeletons have no scythes.

Sometimes our readers need an answer as soon as possible, but the present format (“gleanings” once a month) appears to suit most. I will not answer the question that had to be withdrawn because the correspondent could not wait until the last Wednesday (he needed it for class work). By way of compensation, I would like to add a reference to my one-time discussion of wayzgoose. See Dorothy E. Zemach’s article “Hunting the Wayzgoose” in Verbatim XXX/3, 1905, pp. 7-10. It contains no etymological revelations, but the author says many interesting things about the bird and the custom.

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. Conrad H. Roth

    Do you have any insights, Dr. Liberman, into that old etymological bugbear, ‘element’? Reference to L-M-N will be considered cheating.

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