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Monthly Gleanings, Part 1: October 2011

By Anatoly Liberman

This has been a long month, and I was very pleased to have such generous feedback.  Today I’ll only respond to the comments and will deal with the questions next Wednesday.  Many thanks to our correspondents who take the time to agree and disagree with me and suggest new topics.  In one comment, my responses were called derogatory.  God forbid!  Why should they even sound such to anyone?  I may misunderstand an opponent or refuse to go all the way with him or her (“them”), but I am truly grateful for the attention my blog receives, and I like to hear counterarguments, even though no one’s opinion has ever changed as a result of discussion.  This is the spirit of true scholarship: the more objections we hear, the more convinced we become that our opponent is wrong.  Being at peace with oneself is the foundation of longevity and happiness, and I am in great need of both.

Bigot. So far (Friday afternoon) I have read seven observations.  If more appear, I’ll discuss them next week.  I wrote the post on bigot because I wanted to advertise Grammont’s etymology.  It seemed reasonable to our readers, but etymologies are not established by plebiscites, so that, as I said at the end of the previous post, I hope that Romance scholars will either prove Grammont wrong or congratulate themselves on having a hard riddle solved.  More than a hundred years ago the great French linguist Antoine Meillet said that all the good etymologies had already been offered and those being proposed were bad.  I sincerely hope he was mistaken.

Since I am not a specialist in Romance linguistics, my opinions on the origin of French and Romance words have no weight, but, as far as I could judge by looking through the dictionaries, Grammont’s suggestion has not attracted anyone’s attention.  It must have been clear from my text that I felt uneasy about Italian sbigottirsi “to be amazed” (compare sbigottito “frightened; being at a loss”).  My unease had two reasons.  First, the meaning does not match that of bigot.  Second, etymological dictionaries offer conflicting hypotheses on the origin of the Italian verb.  As early as 1878, Napoleone Caix, the author of Studi di etimologia italiana e romanza (a book still worth consulting) suggested the etymon ex-pavo(r) for sbigottirsi, from Latin pavor (Italian paura) “fear.”  Since that time several other conjectures have been advanced (one was quoted in the comment by our correspondent), but the phonetic shape of the present day form has not been explained to everybody’s satisfaction.  Caix could only refer to Toscanian s-pago, with inserted g; however, it is far from clear that sbigottirsi goes back to Toscanian dialectal pronunciation.  At some point the paths of the word from which sbigottirsi was derived and bigot seem to have crossed.  Even if the encounter was caused by folk etymology, the rapprochement is odd, for what do excessive piety and hypocrisy have to do with surprise, bewilderment, and especially fear?  In retrospect, I am sorry I did not devote a paragraph to the Italian word.

As regards Visigoths as a putative etymon of bigot, v is indeed close to b.  But all the examples cited in the comments can be subsumed under the rubric of regular phonetic correspondences (or foreign accents: everyone has heard Spanish speakers—though my experience is limited to Colombia—pronounce very as [beri]).  To make a case for Visigoth becoming bigot, we have to know when the event took place, in which dialect b was substituted for v (or w?), and, of course, what happened to the syllable –si-.  The Basil-Vasilii pair cannot be used as an argument, because such Greek words were borrowed into Russian and other Slavic languages through books and script, not through the process of oral communication.  Considering how long ago the Goths played an active role in European history and how late (in comparison) the word bigot is, the scenario suggested by the proponents of the Visigoth theory looks quite improbable.  However tempting it may be to connect bigot with the Spanish-Portuguese word for “moustache,” the connection seems rather tenuous to me.  Finally, I was glad to hear the opinion of a specialist that bigot cannot be traced to Yiddish bagotisch.  I had little doubt on that score but preferred to express myself cautiously (once bit, twice shy).

Ship and boat. With so many unknowns we will hardly ever know the truth.  At the very least I would suggest caution.  To be sure, one can do very well with Germanic-Slavic (Baltic) cognates in reconstructing some etymons (stone/stena “wall” is an excellent example, though in comparison with the skiptaship pair, the meanings match much better).  In order not to recycle what I said last time, I will be brief.  The proposed Baltic-Greek cognates mean “stick” or “mast,” not exactly what one would expect the etymon of the name of a “primitive” ship (allegedly, a hollowed out tree) to mean.  I am also uncomfortable about the fact that Germanic has only a weak verb of presumably the same root and that it invariably means “to arrange,” again not the best protomeaning for “ship.”  Other than that, ein dunkles Wort (“an obscure word”), as German etymologists say in such cases.  Positing a substrate is a self-defeating procedure, for we know neither the language nor the etymon, and this is also my opinion.  Wherever the Germanic speakers’ original homeland may have been, the type of word formation of ship leaves several questions unanswered.  I only want this word to remain in its shadowy limbo rather than be presented as an item shining with more than oriental splendor, as Kipling put it in Just So Stories.  Too bad, he did not write a tale about how the first ship was built and how it got its name.

As to boat, thanks for referring me to Bammesberger’s article.  Of course, I knew it.  But since Bammesberger connects boat with the Old Norse verb beita (a subject discussed in my post), I did not mention his arguments.  No offshoot of the OED mentions Murray’s onomatopoeic guess, and I think we too can tactfully and tacitly ignore it.  On another note, it is true that an Indo-European word beginning with b- is always suspicious (some researchers insist that b-words existed, while the authors of the rejoinders state that they did not and could not exist), but initial bh- (as long as we stay with the traditional classification of Indo-European consonants) was common.  Yet no word beginning with IE bh- and meaning “boat” has been found.

Wife. The comment was that my etymology of wife is not convincing because I cannot cite analogs.  At the risk of incurring an accusation of hubris, I am almost afraid that my conjecture is right (afraid because when one announces the solution of a problem that has baffled people for three centuries, one always feels frightened, sbigottito; originality makes us vulnerable).  Sif (a pronominal root with the suffix -bh- in its collective meaning) is a perfect analog.  And only my etymology explains without twisting the data why the noun is neuter.  Those belonging to the “sif” (that is, “sib”) included family members (“siblings” in the broadest sense of the term), whereas the members of the “wif” traced their origin to the same woman.  Such nouns could be feminine (like sib) or neuter (like wif).  Thanks to those who reminded me that wife still means “woman” in Scots.

Comb and its ilk.  To be sure, a form like combing, with the syllable boundary after -m (com-bing), may have preserved the final consonant, but it would have happened only if suffixed forms had been much more frequent than the dictionary form (an unlikely situation), and that is all I wanted to say.  The ethnogenesis of the “Germans.” The latest theory on the origin of the Germanic speakers did not solve the big problem.  After all, we are dealing with a theory, rather than a smoking gun.  Where the “Teutons” lived before the First Consonant Shift and who they were is likely to remain a matter of debate for quite some time in the future.


Since floating vessels have been in the limelight this month, I thought you would enjoy an image of another “primitive” boat (mast and all?).  It appears on the Gosworth cross (Cumberland, England, the second half of the tenth century).  You will see the god Thor, Sif’s husband, fishing for the World Serpent, one of the two most terrifying creatures in Scandinavian myths.  Thor’s companion is the giant Hymir.

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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Recent Comments

  1. Roland Schuhmann

    Thank you for the interesting comments in the gleanings!

    To take up your statement on the ethnogenesis of the ‘Germans’ I just want to show what recently could be found in the German media. There was earlier this year found a hoard of gold in Diepholz that is dated between 2000 and 1200 BC, but of course was attributed to an ‘early Germanic tribe’ (cp. http://www.ndr.de/regional/niedersachsen/emsland/goldfund107.html).

  2. […] Some time ago, I devoted a post to the origin of the word bigot. Its etymology was discovered in a short review that no one seems to have read. Before that I told a similar story about conundrum. Quite naturally, French, Spanish, and German scholars have never heard of Frank Chance, for he published his letters only in Notes and Queries and occasionally in The Academy. But Skeat and Murray read this periodical and regularly contributed to it, so that it is incomprehensible why they missed Chance’s conjecture. […]

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