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A drinking bout in several parts (Part 6)


By Anatoly Liberman

The word beestings once had its day in court.  About half a century ago, American linguists were busy discussing whether there is something they called juncture, a boundary signal that supposedly helps people to distinguish ice cream from I scream when they hear such combinations.  A special sign (#) was introduced in transcription: /ais#krim/ as opposed to /ai#skrim/.  The two crown examples for the existence of juncture in Modern English were nitrate versus night rate and beestings versus bee stings.  I remember asking myself: “What exactly is beestings?”  Well, it is “first milk from a cow after calving,” considered a delicacy in some quarters, for example, in Iceland, as an old dictionary informs us, and perhaps elsewhere; colostrum is its Latin synonym and gloss.  More or less along the same lines the nonexistent difference between wholly and holy in oral speech bothered phoneticians.  If I am not mistaken, unprejudiced informants treated the members of such pairs as homophones, and the term juncture disappeared from linguistic articles and books, the more so as around that time about everybody agreed that most of pre-Chomskyan linguistics had been a sad aberration, and the terminology that dominated the previous period lost its relevance.  In this drinking bout, bee stings and beestings are connected in a rather unpredictable way: mead played an important role in my discussion (and mead is inseparable from honey and, consequently, from stinging bees), while beestings may share the root with booze and, according to a bold hypothesis, also with beer.

Obviously, -ings is a suffix in beestings, a word that has been attested in numerous similar-looking shapes.  Old English already had the forms with the suffix (bysting) and without it (beost), and beest has wide currency in modern British dialects.  The German, Frisian, and Dutch cognates of beest are unmistakable: they sound alike and mean the same.  A probable Norwegian (dialectal) cognate has also been discovered.  The most authoritative dictionaries call beestings and the related forms words of unknown origin, but, as always, everything depends on how we define “unknown.”  Some words are so impenetrable that nothing at all can be said about their past, while others are obscure to varying degrees.  As a rule, numerous conjectures have been put forward about the derivation of hard words, and, even if the problem remains unsolved (the most common case), some contain the proverbial grain of truth.  “Origin unknown” is a loose concept.  This also holds for beestings.

Early attempts to connect beest with an Old Romance word for “curdled” (such as Provençal betada “clotted” and 17th-century French caillebotes “curds”) have been abandoned, and indeed, Old Engl. beost and betada resemble each other by chance; nor is the resemblance impressive.  A more serious riddle is whether Old Engl. beost has anything to do with Gothic beist “leaven, yeast” (Gothic is a dead Germanic language, recorded in the 4th century).  Many lexicographers combined them (some even used the treacherous adverb certainly in their entries, a sure sign of insecurity), but ei and eo are not allowed to alternate in the same old root (explaining why there is a prohibition of this type would take me too far afield; suffice it to say that vowel rows are like parallel railway tracks, with ei and eo belonging to different ones).  Beist is believed to be akin to bite and therefore to bitter.  The name given to yeast depends on whether beer yeast or baking yeast is meant, but the emerging picture is remarkably uniform: yeast is called this because it either forms the “dregs” or produces froth (this is where verbs for foaming come in); its taste does not seem to play any role in designating the product.  If people associated beestings with froth or if its laxative effect was noticed, Gothic beist may still belong with beost, though the incompatible vowels remain a formidable barrier. Irregular alternations are hard to explain (otherwise they would have been called regular!).  Regardless of Gothic beist, beest seems to have acquired its name because of its foaming, frothy character.

Words for bread and milk tend to wander from language to language.  The Greek for “beestings” is pyos.  Once again we note that the two nouns are remarkably similar, but Greek p does not correspond to Germanic b!  Was there a migratory word for “beestings” that formed late, spurious unions with native nouns, so that in trying to connect them, we fall victim to folk etymology?  Greek pyos has a seemingly safe Sanskrit cognate, but it may be another look-alike.  One more example will show how gingerly historical linguists should tread in dealing with milk.  The Russian for milk and beestings are moloko and molozivo respectively (the vowels given in bold are stressed).  Their affinity seems to be beyond any doubt, and yet they are probably not related, at least not in a direct way.

To make the confusion even more confounded, beestings is/are called briester in Early Modern German and ábrystyr in Old Icelandic.  Br- forms are ubiquitous in the German speaking dialectal area (but the Standard German form is Biestmilch).  We have already dealt with them in looking at the attempt to connect beer with brew.  How are Biest- and briest- related, if at all?  A chance tantalizing coincidence?  Or does briest- stand at the beginning of the story, a word presumably related to breast (German Brust), so that beost and its kin lost their second consonant?  Or did beost add r because lactation and breast feeding are inseparable (another exercise in folk etymology)?  Both hypotheses have been tried.  I once devoted a post to the origin of breast.  Its root refers to swelling, but so does the root of beost (foaming, producing froth).  Language is so accommodating.  In any case, beest(ings) seems to go back to the notion of foaming and swelling, and this is where booze and beer come in.

Last week we saw that booze looks like belonging with many words for becoming big, swelling, and growing.  It is gratifying to realize that milk and booze are kindred notions.  Now here is the time to add a short supplement to the story of beer (Old Engl. beor).  In the Germanic languages, r can be traced to either old r or old z.  That is why was and were, raise and rear are related pairwise.  If r in beer goes back to z, rather than r, then beer will emerge as a cognate of booze.  Etymologists try persistently to show that alcoholic beverages got their names from the process of fermentation and “growing” (see the post on ale).  Let us leave beer in limbo for the time being and see where we are with beest.  If it is a migratory word that originated millennia ago somewhere in the east, we know nothing about it.  But if its home is Germanic, it probably meant “a frothy liquid” or “laxative,” or something along such lines.  Then booze is its likely linguistic relative.  Does someone still remember what I said about milk and honey in my post on mead?  If mi- or me- is their common root, then at one time both meant “a flowing substance; liquid.”  Do I believe in this etymology?  No, I don’t.  Nor do I think that beer is related to booze.  But opinions do not matter in scholarship, even in such an approximate branch of scholarship as etymology.  Yet, though not without regret, I can offer no arguments against booze and beest being cognates, which shows that in everyday life we should be guided by the advice of nutritionists, not etymologists.  And this brings me to the end of this series, which has almost deteriorated into a serial.

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.”

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