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Hamlet and Other Lads and Lasses:
Or, From Rags to Riches


By Anatoly Liberman

Nowadays we are not expected to correspond to our names. Our friend Makepeace may be a bully, and a girl born in December may be called April or June. But in the past, people looked on the name as part of an individual. Knowledge of a hero’s name gave allowed the enemy to do him harm. To be sure, at all times there have been cowardly boys called Wolf or Leo and battered wives called Brynhild (bryn– “armor,” hild-“battle”), but things may not turn out the way we predict. Gods and goddesses invariably have so-called talking names (Light, Storm, Truth, Oath). Phonetic change affects the shape of all words, and this is why we no longer hear pater in Jupiter and do not realize that Ju– is akin to Zeu-s. There is a bulky linguistic term disambiguate. When we examine the names of giants in Scandinavian myths and discover that most of them mean “noisy, howler, screamer,” we disambiguate them, that is, we make giants live up to their names. Every etymology is an attempt at disambiguation. In the area of proper and place names, this process is especially clear.

It appears that Hamlet is also a name with a hidden meaning. Shakespeare did not know it. He borrowed his plot from an English translation of a 13th-century Danish chronicle, written in Latin. Saxo Grammaticus, the author of the chronicle, calls the prince Amletus. The Scandinavian form of Amletus was Amlothi (my spelling is Anglicized). Shakespeare had a son Hamneth, who died in 1596 at the age of eleven. The tragedy of the Danish prince was probably begun in 1599 and completed not earlier than in1601 (the dating is uncertain). It is an idle question whether Shakespeare thought of his deceased son while writing Hamlet. He retained the plot found in Saxo’s story, in which the prince, to save his life, pretends to have lost his mind. This plot goes back to an ancient legend. The Old Icelandic word othi, again Anglicized, means “mad, crazy” (it also occurs in the name of Odin ~ Othinn, the “furious” god of the ancient Scandinavians), but o in it is long, whereas o in Amlothi was probably short. In any case, most scholars think that Amlothi should be understood as Aml-othi, whatever aml– may mean. However, I believe that a better etymology exists. Although offered long ago, it has found few supporters. According to it, Am-lothi, not Aml-othi is the correct division, with Am– and loth– being related to Engl. em(ber), and lad respectively (-i is an ending). The whole comes out as “ember boy” or “ash-lad,” a counterpart of Norwegian Askeladd ~ Oskeladd “male Cinderella,” a despised third son of fairy tales, known in British folklore as Boots.

The Norwegian word provides a clue to Engl. lad, which appeared in texts in 1300 and whose origin has given rise to all kinds of speculation. Lad came to English from the north, but Norwegian ladd (in dialects also lodde) means “stocking put on over another piece of clothing; woolen sock; Frisian shoe.” It seems to be identical with –ladd in Askeladd and tusseladd “duffer, nincompoop.” The difficulties besetting this derivation of lad are many. The gravest is that Norwegian ladd has not been attested with the meaning “young fellow.” If such a meaning existed, we wonder why it occurs only in two compounds (Askeladd and tusseladd), to which perhaps the mythological name Loddfafnir can be added. (Nothing is known about Loddfafnir, except that he is the recipient of a long speech of a didactic character in a poems preserved in Old Icelandic) Also, it is unclear why someone wearing woolen socks or old shoes should be called “fool,” even if he walks clumsily in them.

Few etymologies are perfect. Neither is this one. Yet it may be right. Lad(d) was probably abstracted from compounds like tusseladd by the Scandinavian or English speakers in the north of England and became par of colonial slang. The path from clothes, especially old and worn clothes, to a jocular, disparaging word for “boy; girl” is relatively short. Some researchers suggest that girl is derived from the name of a garment. This is wrong, but in an earlier post I discussed the pair Engl. strumpet/German Strumpf “stocking” (originally “trouser leg,” for stocking are a late innovation), and here we come close to the ladd/lad case. Another relevant example is lass, a northern word like lad that also surfaced in 1300. Attempts to find one etymology for lad and lass have been fruitless. Most likely, lass is a cognate of Danish las “rag.” The association may have been between a baby and a doll (dolls were made of rags) or a baby and a diaper. The earliest attested form of lass is lasce, a diminutive of lass, a word like Middle English polke “small pool” and dalke “small valley (dale).” British regional lassikie is a formation parallel to lasce or a continuation of it.

Thus, both lad and lass are words of Scandinavian origin (they are still in wide use in the north of England) but coined on English soil, and both were slang. Their meaning developed from “old, or unseemly, or worthless garment” (“hose; sock; shoe; rag”). The history of words for “boy” and “girl” is often hard to trace because such words originate in familiar usage and only later attain a measure of respectability. Compare Engl. kid. When one fills out forms, one lists children. In unbuttoned conversation, we speak about kids, and, of course, when students and other adolescents burn cars and throw rocks, they are habitually referred to as kids: such lively, sprightly youths of college age.

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 [email protected]; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”

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