By Anatoly Liberman
Part 1 appeared long ago and dealt with blackguard, blackleg, and blackmail, three words whose history is unclear despite the seeming transparency of their structure. Were those guards as black as they were painted? Who had black legs, and did anyone ever receive black mail? As I then noted, the etymology of compounds may be evasive. One begins with obvious words (doormat, for example), passes by dormouse with its impenetrable first element, wonders at moonstone (does it have anything to do with the moon?), moonlighting, and moonshine (be it “foolish talk” or “illegally distilled whiskey”), experiences a temporary relief at the sight of roommate, and stops in bewilderment at mushroom. The way from dormouse to mushroom is full of pitfalls. (And shouldn’t pitfall be fallpit? Originally a pitfall was a trapdoor, a snare, a device for catching birds, but then why pit?). So-called disguised, or simplified, compounds, like lord and lady (at one time they consisted of two elements) will not interest us today.
Some compounds are so simple and we learn them so early in life that their incongruity never bothers us. Why is the opposite of sunrise sunset rather than sunsit? Even the OED is not quite sure. Regardless of whether sunset is a combination of two nouns (sun + set) or of a noun with a verb in the subjunctive, we expect sit because the sun “sits down” in the west (no one sets it). Sit and set have often been confused, though the result of the confusion is not as catastrophic as with lie and lay. Recently one could hear on Good Morning, America a responsible person’s advice to an actress to lay low; the speaker may have grown up in the Midwest, but the lie/lay game has also been attested in several British dialects, and from there it was presumably imported to the New World. Drawback, we discover, was first used as a banking term; it referred to a sum paid as duty, which is quite natural: we can still overdraw our account; the meaning “an amount of import duty paid back when goods are exported again” continues into the present. At the end of the 18th century, drawback was used in bookselling with the sense “rebate, discount.” Drawback “a weak point, disadvantage, deficiency” appeared in texts and probably in speech early in the 18th century, and we no longer “hear” its separate parts. Whatever the details of the convoluted history of bedridden (from Old Engl. bedrede), another deceptive compound, a bedridden person is a poor rider, and a bed is not a horse, but we have heard the word too often to react to the incongruous metaphor.
A most curious adjective is beetle-browed “with bushy, shaggy, or prominent eyebrows.” Hardly anyone uses it, but it is probably still recognizable without a dictionary. The word goes back to Middle English, and the question is: “Why beetle?” Some older scholars did not realize that initially brow meant only “eyebrow” (like German Braue), not “forehead,” so the gloss “with a brow overhanging like that of a beetle” can be dismissed (also, an average beetle does not have much of a brow, does it?). Beetle is, etymologically speaking, a “biter” and is thus related to bite and bitter, because a bitter thing “bites.” Middle English had the adjective bitel “biting,” with a suffix, as in fickle, brittle, and nimble. For this reason, Skeat, in the first edition of his dictionary (the installment with the letter B appeared in 1879), glossed beetle-browed as “with biting brows, with brows projecting like an upper jaw” (how does the upper jaw project?).
A complicating factor is the verb beetle “to overhang.” Edmund Malone, a famous editor of Shakespeare, a man with a face no one who has seen it will forget, if Reynolds’s portrait of him can be trusted, supposed that Shakespeare had extracted this verb from beetle-browed. Horatio says to Hamlet (with reference to the Ghost, I: 4): “What if it tempt you toward the flood, my lord, / Or to the dreadful summit of the cliff, / That beetles o’er his base into the sea?” (his = its). Later poets liked to imitate Shakespeare’s usage, but since no earlier citation of beetle “overhang” has turned up, language historians and commentators agree with Malone. Consequently, the verb beetle can tell us nothing about the etymology of beetle-browed. James A.H. Murray, the OED’s first editor, returned to the idea that beetle in this compound means “beetle” and nothing else. In November 1886 he asked Frederick James Furnival to read two of his “scraps” at a meeting of the Philological Society. (What a meeting! Vice-President Henry Sweet in the Chair, with the fiery Furnival reading Murray’s paper.) The “scraps” contained an explanation of beetle-browed and behaviour. It can now be found in the corresponding entries of the OED, but in 1888 Murray published an article about those words in the Transactions of the Philological Society, and his article is a delight.
Murray pointed out that by the time of the first occurrence of bitel-browed, as it was spelled, the adjective bitel had, most probably, become obsolete: no one had used it for 160 years, that is, since it appeared in Layamon’s Brut, a long poem, whose second extant manuscript is dated 1205. Murray declared: “I do not know the modern meaning of the word [beetle-browed]; I never used it, and I have not been able to meet with any person who does attach any definite living sense to it.” However, between 1362 and roughly 1500 it occurred frequently and was a term of reproach. At the end of the 16th and the beginning of the 17th century, lexicographers associated beetle in the compound with the name of the “coleopterous insect.” For Murray this was a decisive argument, and he did not suspect the interference of folk etymology. The reference, he decided, was to some real or fancied peculiarity of the insect. Murray mentioned his conclusion to Frank Chance, and this detail interests me even more that the origin of the troublesome compound.
Chance is the most undeservedly neglected English etymologist. People have a better knowledge of Horne Tooke’s crazy derivations than of Frank Chance. He sent his numerous contributions to Notes and Queries and felt quite satisfied with his choice, for in those days “everybody” read the popular biweekly. His understanding of etymology, his familiarity with the scholarly literature, and his mastery of French, German, and many other languages, living and dead, allowed him to compete successfully with both Skeat and Murray. It is a shame that no one has taken the trouble to publish a volume of his collected articles. I made this point in one of my earliest posts in this blog. His solutions have aged graciously and could have inspired many a modern researcher. I know about him only what could be found in two obituaries that came my way, but he was so outspoken that I seem to have a good idea of his character and style. Murray was an intolerant man (his brusque manner and occasional arrogance, very different from Skeat’s irascibility, were fed by the enormity of his task and by his being vastly superior to everybody in his surroundings), and he had a low opinion of English etymologists. He respected but hardly admired even Skeat, whom he accused of being too eager to rush into print, and I doubt that Chance was close to his team. The fact that Murray as much as “mentioned” his idea to Chance speaks volumes. The entry in the OED refers to Chance’s participation in the discussion, and it would be interesting to find out how often, if ever, his name turns up in other entries. In modern works I have seen a single, very recent, reference to Chance. He seems to be forgotten.
This is what Murray wrote in his article: “…he [Chance] at once gave me his adhesion, and furnished me with strong corroboration of [my conclusions], in the fact that in Fr[ench] the bushy antennae of some beetles are called their sourcils or EYEBROWS, and that sourcils de hanneton ‘cock-chafer’s eyebrows’ is actually the name given in mod. Fr., to a kind of fringe made in imitation of the antennae of these insects…. If this is possible in French, of course it was also in Eng[lish]; and makes it probable that ‘beetle-browed’ meant simply ‘having eye-brows which in their roughness, bushiness, or projection of their hairs’ were compared to the short tufted antennae or ‘sourcils’ of certain beetles.” This verdict has been repeated in most reference books. Earnest Weekly adds: “Early observation of such physical details, as seen in popular names of animals and plants, was very minute and accurate.” However, Skeat, who deferred to the OED in the 1910 edition of his dictionary, in the last concise version of it (also 1910) wrote: “…either from M[iddle] E[nglish] bitel, sharp, or from M. E. bitil ‘a beetle’.” The problem with bitil “sharp,” as Murray observed, is that it seems to have become extinct very early. The same should be said about Eduard Mätzner’s ingenious guess that beetle- here goes back to Middle Engl. beoten “to threaten”: this verb also occurred for the last time in Layamon’s Brut. (Mätzner was an outstanding student of the history of English.)
As stated above, one can find the OED’s etymology of beetle-browed in most modern dictionaries, with perhaps one significant exception, “to which I will revert anon,” to quote Murray’s phrase. In Henry Cecil Wyld’s The Universal Dictionary of the English Language, we read: “Suggested relation to beetle (I) [insect] seems very improbable.” No comment follows this verdict. Also, the Barnhart Dictionary of English Etymology reproduced a variant of Skeat’s early solution without any discussion. Contrary to what Wyld says, Murray’s derivation of beetle-browed is plausible, but I have an uneasy feeling that the story did not begin with “beetle’s antennae” and that the modern word owes its form to folk etymology. Unfortunately, feelings are not worth much in linguistic reconstruction.
Anatoly 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.”