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Infidels and Etymologists


By Anatoly Liberman

Today hardly anyone would have remembered the meaning of the word giaour “infidel” (the spellchecker does not know it and, most helpfully, suggests glamour and Igor among four variants) but for the title of Byron’s once immensely popular 1813 poem: many editions; ten thousand copies sold on the first day, an unprecedented event in the history of 19th-century publishing.  Nowadays, at best a handful of specialists in English romanticism and reluctant graduate students read it or anything else by this author—an unfortunate development.  Yet if the word is still familiar to the English speaking public, it happens only thanks to Byron.

At the end of the 19th century, there was a heated discussion about the pronunciation of initial g- in giaour, and, as usual in such cases, conflicting suggestions about the origin of the word turned up.  The OED had just approached the volume with giaour, and its verdict was eagerly awaited.  Alas, no dictionary will save us from the ambiguity of initial g in Modern English.  Only j can be relied upon: no one doubts how to pronounce jam, jet, jerk, jitters, Joe, or jumble, even when for historical reasons that make little sense to modern speakers j- renders what should have been y-, as in Jerusalem, Jericho, Jordan, and the like.  But g- before i and e is a nightmare.  We have begin (and Shakespeare often used this verb without the prefix and wrote gin, appearing in some of our editions with an apostrophe:’gin) and gin (the beverage), get and gem (alongside Jemima); gill (in a fish), gill “ravine” (both with “hard” g) and gill “half a pint,” as well as gill “lass,” that is, Jill (both with “soft” g).  To increase the confusion, we are offered gild, guilt, age, ridge, wedge and Wedgwood (for completeness’ sake, compare rajah and the odd-looking transliteration hajj “pilgrimage’).  It was deemed necessary to abbreviate refrigerator to fridge: frige, on an analogy with rage or fringe, did not suffice.  If I received the mandate to reform English spelling, one of my first executive orders would have abolished this mess.  Not hungry for power, except for power over words, and shirking administrative duties to the extent it is possible on a modern day campus, I think this is the one post I am longing for.  But the coveted mandate will never come my way, and judging by what is happening in this area, nobody will.  With regard to spelling, we are doomed to remain in the17th century at the latest.

There is no way of finding out how Byron pronounced giaour, though he probably said it with j-, as was more common at his time.  However, in 1896 Richard Edgcumbe (Edgcumbe is a well-known name, but I have no information about this person) reported that he had heard John Murray, Byron’s famous publisher, say gower for giaour.  The OED records numerous variants from 1564 on: gower, gaur, gawar, gowur, jaour, djiahour, ghiaour, jour, yaoor, and a few others.  Most of them indicate hard initial g.  The word, used as an offensive racial slur, has wide currency in the Muslim East and among the Muslims also in Greece and the Balkans.  In those countries it also begins with hard g-; the same holds for Russia, where, I believe, it turns up only when Byron’s poem is the subject of conversation.  But Engl. giaour made a long way from Persia to Turkey, Italy (presumably Venice), and France.  Along the way it acquired its Italian-French shape.

Spoiled by the riches of the OED being always available to us (nowadays even online), we have forgotten how hard it was in the past to trace the history of English words.  Those who wrote about giaour in the nineties of the 19th century referred to two authorities: Edward Daniel Clarke, the author of Travels in Various Countries of Europe, Asia, and Africa (he wrote djour), and Théodor J. Zenker’s Dictionnaire Turc-Arab-Persan (a dictionary Skeat’s lists among his authorities; there hard g is recommended).  I give those titles because Zenker is still good to consult and Clarke still interesting to read.  It may have been Clarke who was the first to suggest that giaour goes back to kafir, an Arabic word meaning approximately the same as giaour (“infidel”), but whoever offered this etymology made a mistake, the more so as phonetically the two words are incompatible.  Other suggestions were not better: from Biblical Hebrew GR “stranger,” “sojourn,” etc., the sense depending on the vowel (the word was rendered as geioras, with long o, that is, omega, in Greek!), from Sanskrit gaur “fair in complexion” (with the implication that white people were called giaours), and Turkish chiaus “messenger” (the latter word also occurs in Byron’s poem: “The Chiaus spake, and as he said/ A bullet whistled o’er his head”).  All those conjectures are fanciful.  The origin of giaour is no longer debatable (what a relief after a series of posts on the words whose derivation remains a riddle!): it is certainly of Persian descent (a variant of Gueber, which in English rhymes with fiber or labor, from French guèbre, from Parsee gabr “fire worshipper”), whereas kafir is certainly Arabic.  Since they are synonyms and both enjoy popularity in the Muslim world, it is no wonder that some people tried to find a connection between them, but this connection does not exist.

A postscript on the state of English etymology in the last decades of the 19th century is perhaps in order here.  As always, when such giants as James A. H. Murray, the first great editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, and Walter W. Skeat appear, all their predecessors, rivals, and allies tend to be forgotten.  Skeat’s justified disdain for amateurs has gone a long way toward effacing the memory of even some of his knowledgeable and able contemporaries.  I have written about medical doctor Frank Chance more than once.  James Platt junior is another important actor on the etymological stage.  In the context of giaour studies, Colonel William Francis Prideaux (1849-1914) stands out.  His firsthand knowledge of the East and probably near native mastery of Arabic and Hebrew allowed him to say many useful things about the origin of some “exotic” English words.  Also, his private library was a treasure.  One day I hope to write an essay or perhaps a little book titled “The Environment of Etymologist Walter W. Skeat.”  Quoting James A. H. Murray, credit should be given where credit is due.

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

Recent Comments

  1. Stephen Goranson

    Perhaps Richard Edgcumbe (1843-1937), author of Byron: The Last Phase (London: J. Murray, 1910).

  2. John Cowan

    I don’t understand why you say Byron “probably said it with j-, as was more common at his time”. No other current pronunciation is given by OED2, NID3, RHD2, or AHD4, so “more common” than what?

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