By Anatoly Liberman
When asked about the origin of a certain word, I often answer: “I have no idea” (in addition, of course, to “I don’t remember” and “I have to look it up in a good dictionary”). Sometimes, after consulting a dictionary, I add: “No one knows.” The questioners express surprise: a doctor should be able to diagnose patients, a plumber is called to fix the leak, and etymologists are evidently paid for explaining the origin of words. There may or might be a fat living in remedial phonetics, as Professor Higgins put it, but not in etymology. However, from a scholarly point of view much more interesting is the circumstance that, although people coin and borrow words all the time, collective memory keeps no traces of this activity. The etymological dictionary on which I have been working for years is all about words whose past can be reconstructed with the greatest difficulty, if at all.
I can cite the example of British dialectal nudgel “cudgel,” mentioned two weeks ago at the end of the post on club. Nudge is a word of rather obscure antecedents. Perhaps it existed in Old English. Our records of it do not go so far, but it seems to have always referred to a gentle push rather than a blow with a stick. Nudgeling “robust,” listed in the same dictionary, also points in the direction away from nudge. If nudgel is not a blend of nudge and cudgel, what is it? A piece of rhyming slang? I tried to seek help from the etymology of bludgeon, which sounds somewhat like cudgel and nudgel and means the same. “Bludgeon, 18th century. Of unknown origin; perhaps originally cant.” This is a rephrasing of the entry in The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology. So what is a bludgeon? A bloody nudgel, a bloody cudgel? Compare the relevant entry from The Century Dictionary: “A plausible conjecture connects it with D[utch] bludsen, blutsen, bruise, beat (parallel with butsen with the same meaning: see botch2 ). The E[nglish] word, if from this source, may have been introduced as a cant term in the Elizabethan period, along with many other cant terms from the D[utch] which never, or not until much later, emerged in literary use.” The OED doubts that bludgeon has a Celtic origin, mentions the proximity between bludgeon and blood, and refers to the Dutch hypothesis without comment. Skeat disregarded Dutch and compared bludgeon with bolt.
I know a few things about cudgel and club, but neither word sheds light on nudgel, except that cudgel also has -dge- in the middle, and the sound of j often occurs in words of expressive origin. But then in other words it has no expressive value: compare bridge, siege, sturgeon, and so forth. Siege and sturgeon, along with dungeon and surgeon, to give two random examples, are of Romance descent, but if bludgeon could, at least theoretically, be a loan from Celtic or Dutch, why couldn’t nudgel be a borrowing from French? Next to nudgel and nudgeling the English Dialect Dictionary gives nudger “head.” A nudger is surely something that nudges, but does the head give nudges? Perhaps, one wonders, more light will come from nod.
Alas, here is another case of lost illusions. Nod seems to have wandered to England from Germany, where notteln (earlier, notten) still exists. Many such words once had k or h before n. They usually refer to knocking (that is, giving light or strong blows), knobs (that is, all kinds of elevations and lumps), and occasionally kneading (working, beating, pressing into a mass). Nudge also seems to have had k- or h- in Old English. Someone who nods too much needn’t be another Homer. Noddy “fool” is a better name for such a person. A slang synonym for noddy is noodle. Like nod, noodle “food” originated in Germany, where it is called Nudel. A connection between noodle “food” and noodle “simpleton” has not been established, but Nudel looks like a variant of Knödel ~ Knuddel “dumpling,” a kn-word.
Strange, how many words for “stick” are obscure. In addition to bludgeon and nudgel, there is cosh “truncheon” (admittedly, very little remembered), bandy (which denoted a special form of tennis, a stroke with a racket, and later hockey and hockey stick; from French?), and niblick. As if there were not enough local roots for coining words meaning “a stout stick”, English borrowed right and left. Club is from Scandinavian, while truncheon is from French, and, rather unexpectedly, it is not akin to trounce, also from French.
What then are etymologists “paid for,” and what is the point of writing a dictionary about the dregs of English etymology? My answer is vague, but not discouraging. Indeed, some words are so hopeless that they should be left alone, at least for the time being. (Skeat, who wrote hundreds of notes about the most intractable words, did not include them in his dictionary.) But others deserve the labor expended on them. Nudgel is a case in point. This humble local noun from Devonshire sent us traveling far and wide, and we have learned something useful along the way, like the young man who wrote: “In 1987 I took a year off, traveled with my parents to India and China, and learned very much about myself.” Nothing can match such well-paid-for introspection.
We did not go east, but we have not returned empty-handed. In Germanic, it appears, words beginning with kn (and possibly hn) tend to designate knobs, knots, and actions that result in producing a mass. Initial kn emerged as a combination endowed with a symbolic meaning. Many words whose initial consonant is today n should be traced to kn- ~ hn-. Even though nudge presupposes a gentle push, it may also have been associated with a more “robust” movement, and, if so, nudgel provides a tiny window to the verb’s prehistory. Nudgel and cudgel rhyme by chance: they have the same suffix, but their roots were distinct (however, they also rhymed). Nudger must have been a humorous formation, perhaps reminding people that if they knock against a hard object, they will get bumps. Nod is close by, a verb “distantly related” to nudge. This means that the two are cousins rather than siblings. We may not be able to write a final entry on nudgel, but we have obtained a better understanding of how language and the human mind work through associations.
Etymological dictionaries cannot afford such long disquisitions when dealing with the likes of nudgel. There are too many words and too few final solutions. It is easier to ignore them or to say: “Of undiscovered origin.” But to a serious language historian, who has nowhere to hurry, every word is a beloved child, even when it misbehaves. My next post will be devoted to inkling, another nudgeling, if unruly, offspring of ill-behaved parents, and the one after that to the history of kn- and gn- in English.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”