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As Etymologists You Depend on Look-Alikes? Cool!


By Anatoly Liberman

Etymological research is possible because some words resemble one another. The authors of books on historical linguistics state that Latin tres and Engl. three are related and refer to the sound law known as the First (or Germanic) Consonant Shift. According to one part of it, Proto-Indo-European t changed to th in Germanic. This is a fine law, but it could be formulated only because scholars agreed that tres and three, along with several dozen other look-alikes, are cognates. This initial conclusion, let alone agreement, would not have been possible if the words in question were divergent in form and meaning. A consensus on a few seemingly indisputable items preceded the formulation of the rules that the science-oriented linguists of the 19th century called laws. Thanks to a set of correspondences based on common sense, researchers were (and today we are) able to detect cognates, separate them from borrowings, and reject suspicious claimants. For example, Engl. take (a Germanic word) and touch (a Romance word) cannot be related, for both begin with t. Sound laws (so called) are numerous. I have recently discussed the origin of Engl. guilt. It resembles its German synonym that also ends in -t. However, if an English word has t, its cognate in German should have z or ss (as, for example, in malt ~ Malz and water ~ Wasser). Guilt refuses to conform to this “law,” loses an almost obvious partner, and, much to our regret, joins the words “of unknown origin.” Such a tiny thing, such a nuisance! Exceptions are, of course, allowed, but every case of special dispensation should be accounted for.

Etymologists have long since noticed strikingly similar but unrelated words across language borders. How does it happen that people speaking different (sometimes even unrelated) languages coin homonymous forms that are endowed with the same meaning but lack family ties? If we disregard cases of onomatopoeia and sound symbolism (moo, cuckoo, and their likes), the answer is: by chance. A curious pair is Engl. cool “excellent” and Swedish kul “merry; first-rate.” This case would perhaps not have been worthy of even a short essay if cool had not become so popular. A recent German cartoon (naturally, in German) showed a boy of five or six years old who refuses to go to kindergarten because the pants his mother gave him have a color that is not “cool.” If even little children know the word, I assume that it has become universally understood German slang. We may live long enough to witness cool and its ugly antonym uncool conquer the world as OK has in the past. Strangely, Swedish kul has nothing to do with its American English twin.

Cool seems to have first designated a type of jazz opposed to “hot”; it was slang current among the “bebop” people. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the spread of cool does not antedate the late forties of the 20th century, but even in the 1953 citation the word is printed in quotes and explained. Apparently, at that time not everybody understood it. I am not sure to what extent I can trust my experience, but I don’t think I heard cool used so often even twenty years ago; today it is an almost mechanical synonym of “good, fine,” a less violent competitor of crazy. (Is German toll “mad” and figuratively “wonderful, fantastic” a translation loan, as such words are called, of Engl. crazy or a case of parallel development?) Nothing would be more natural than to ascribe the rise of Swedish kul to the influence of American English, but this suggestion shatters at the facts of relative chronology: kul has been around since the beginning of the past century, too early to owe anything to cool.

I realize that the history of a Swedish word will provide minimal excitement among the readers of this blog. Yet it would be a pity to pass over such a coincidence. Language historians do not know the origin of kul. To complicate matters, the Finnish interjection kyll “yes, indeed,” an almost identical and almost contemporaneous Finnish word, exists (more common is its disyllabic form kyllä), but, judging by its spelling and meaning, kyll is a rather unlikely etymon of the Swedish adjective. A few more hypotheses have been offered with regard to kul, including its relatedness to the Scandinavian words for “breeze; chill” (that is, something cold, cool) and “protuberance; growth,” but all of them are far-fetched. Some other conjectures are also more ingenious than convincing. The latest one I ran into (by Carl-Erik Lundbladh, 1998) seems to have some potential: it traces kul to Romany (the Gypsy language). His etymology accords well with the circumstance that kul arose among the criminal elements of Stockholm (people of this sort are fond of borrowing words from Romany and Yiddish), but the meaning of Romany kul is “kin, clan,” and, to connect it with Swedish kul, one has to reconstruct a path from “the whole group” to “complete(ly), total(ly); perfect(ly)” and “excellent.” Besides, the meaning “perfect” of the Romany word was recorded only in the fifties. The puzzle remains unsolved.

Should etymologists keep searching for look-alikes in the hope of finding cognates? Certainly, as long as they remember that the important thing is not only to learn how to find them but also to master the art of weeding them out. Every now and then amazing pretenders turn up. Cool and kul are among them. Such extraordinary events happen rarely, but they do happen. This is what Gogol said about a nose that once left a man’s face, put on the uniform of a civil servant, traveled in a carriage on the main street of St. Petersburg, and then returned to its legitimate place, much to the satisfaction of its owner, who could now marry without making a fool of himself. Cool!

Anatoly_libermanAnatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them as well as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. 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. Jon

    “I realize that the history of a Swedish word will provide minimal excitement among the readers of this blog.”

    Au contraire. That is exactly what I came here for. Thanks for your insight.

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