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An Etymologist Looks at Puck and is Not Afraid




By Anatoly Liberman

I have once written about ragamuffin and its kin, including Italian ragazzo “boy,” which I think is a member of that extended family. Dealing with rag-devils had inured me to the dangers of demonology. (Pay attention to the alliteration. I am so used to writing notes on literary texts that I could not pass by my own sentence without a comment.) Those who know who Puck is remember him from Shakespeare. He is a mischievous sprite in Elizabethan comedy, and the modern adjective puckish also refers to mischief. Folklorists have studied this character extensively; among others, there is a book titled The Anatomy of Puck. Now that Puck has been dismembered, a historical linguist can fearlessly approach his body and draw a few tentative conclusions.

The first thing we notice is that Puck is called nearly the same in Icelandic, Irish, and Welsh. Predictably, scholars have asked who borrowed the word from whom, and opinions on this score vary, as they always do. If we look eastward, we will find Russian buka (u, as in Engl. book), a baby word meaning exactly the same as boogie, or bogeyman. To the best of my knowledge, it has never been mentioned by “Puck-o-logists.” (A buka is also a withdrawn, morose person, but this sense is an extension of the basic one.) Although Finnish pojke means “boy,” not “devil,” it sounds like Puck. And it is useful to note that in boy two words seem to have coalesced meaning “devil” and “male servant” respectively. The question whether Finnish pojke is of Swedish provenance remains unresolved and is not likely to be resolved ever since all the facts are known and no decisive argument will allow us to settle the dispute (borrowed or native?). Similarly, older dictionaries did not doubt that Engl. Puck is of Irish or Welsh origin (for quite some time every etymologically obscure English word was declared to be of Celtic origin), whereas modern authorities either reverse the direction of borrowing or list all the forms without taking sides. The Scandinavian word is usually supposed to have been taken over from Old English, but there is no certainty that this view is right.

The forms of bogey recorded in English dialects are surprisingly many. Among them we find even such amusing alterations as bodyman. Some have oo in the middle (for instance, boogey), and some have -k at the end. Vowels vary freely in them: consider bug, another word for an imp or a devil (what’s bugging you? and think of bugs in our computers); next to bug is the verb boggle, as in mind-boggling. Bug, boogey, and boggle (with its variant bogle) appear to be related.

Etymologists are guided by fairly rigid sound correspondences. For example, Latin p corresponds to Engl. f (as in pater versus father), and, surprisingly, heath seems to be unrelated to Northumbrian hathyr “heather” or the Standard form heather, for that matter, because the vowels in them do not match as we believe they should. Many a tempting etymology has shattered at the incompatibility of consonants and vowels. But in at least one sphere, unwelcome freedom (which is akin to anarchy) reigns supreme. Sound imitative words (they are also called onomatopoeic, to lend a bit of Greek glamour to a homey term) resist order, for they are mere “sound gestures,” attempts to use the resources of human language for rendering noises: bow-wow is as good as or better than woof-woof and yap-yap, and who cares whether a pig’s grunt really resembles oink-oink?

Are Puck, boogey, buka, and the rest sound imitative? They probably are. In the most general way, it can be said that all over Eurasia, words whose root begins with p or b and ends with p/b, t/d, and k/g often designate inflated, swollen objects and the noise produced when they burst open. Such words for “swelling” are numerous even in English: bud, body, pudding, puddle, pig, poke “bag, sack” (it would be strange if along with pig its natural container poke did not turn up), pock, pad (almost any meaning except “road,” as in the gentlemen of the pad, will fit; if we choose dialectal pad “frog,” its German counterpart will be Pogge: note that both the vowel and the consonant are different), pug, poodle, pot, and dozens of others. Many Indo-European roots beginning with p, t, k have variants with initial sp-, st-, and sk-. Engl. puke, to cite one of them, is almost a doublet of German spucken “spit, spew.”

With this background in view, it does not seem too daring to propose that Puck originated as a loud demon capable of frightening people by the noise he produced. When people became less superstitious, Puck’s siblings were relegated to the nursery (Engl. bogeyman, Russian buka) or even to a baby’s nose. Puck’s influence also waned: from a demon he turned into a sprite, and instead of saying something like poo-bah and filling dale and wold with fright, he began to play peek-a-boo. Even if this is how Puck came into being, we are still in the dark about his native land. We observe what a student of vocabulary would call a migratory word: we can trace its routes but cannot ascertain its home. Such lawless formations feel equally comfortable everywhere. They are, in a way, panhuman. And this is the state in which we will leave those true citizens of the world.

Only a short addendum is in order. Engl. pixy “little fairy” is a west country word (Cornwall, Devonshire), and it would be tempting to detect “little Puck” in it. But its initial form seems to have been pisky, and all its Scandinavian look-alikes have –sk– in the middle. In the south of Sweden, Pus “devil” is known, so that pisky probably contains the root pus– and a diminutive suffix (-ky, –ke). If Pus, like Puck, was sound imitative, the two devils are “cousins.” Some scholars think that pixy is of Celtic origin (just as they trace Puck to the Celts) but do not advance persuasive arguments for their conjecture. We are on safer ground with regard to the noun pickle “urchin.” This mischievous boy did not get his name because he constantly found himself in a pickle or had an appetite for pickled herring. The word is of Low, that is, Northern German (possibly Frisian) descent, and its earliest meaning must have been “little Puck.” –le is one more widespread diminutive suffix, as in dialectal Engl. puckle “goblin.” We also see it in girl, another word that, most likely, reached English from Low German or Frisian. In Chaucer’s days, girl designated a young person of either sex, a small gir, so to speak. Unfortunately, gir– means nothing to modern speakers.

One of countless guidebooks for tourists in Germany has the title Beer and Skittles. Perhaps I should have called my story “Fear and Pickle.”

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.”

Recent Comments

  1. Kristian Karden

    Just one correction to the otherwise interesting article:
    ‘pojke’ is Swedish, from which obviously comes the Finnish word for ‘boy’: ‘poika.’

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