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Panning for etymological gold: “aloof”

By Anatoly Liberman

It may not be too widely known how hard it is to discover the origin of even “easy” words. Most people realize that the beginning of language is lost and that, although we can sometimes reconstruct an earlier stage of a word, we usually stop when it comes to explaining why a given combination of sounds is endowed with the meaning known to us. Moo poses no problems (sound imitation); neither does diesel (a proper name). Outside those two spheres, everything is “riddled with riddles.” Today I want to tell a story of how the “easy” origin of the adverb aloof was discovered. The sought-after etymology looks almost self-explanatory, but such is the first impression.

At present, aloof is used only in its figurative sense (we stay aloof, remain aloof, and so forth; hence aloofness), but it arose as a nautical term. This fact remained hidden for a long time. Stephen Skinner, the author of the second etymological dictionary of English (1671; the first was published by John Minsheu in 1617) thought that aloof meant “all off.” It was a relatively new word at his time: the OED has no examples of aloof predating 1535. Skinner’s solution appeared tempting to those who did not care too much about phonetic niceties. In aloof, the vowel is long, while in off it is and has always been short. Obviously, in 1671 no one would have been bothered by such a detail. Being aloof does more or less mean being “all off,” and that equation satisfied people for two centuries. I found it even in an 1870 book, where it was given without discussion as fact. The great Samuel Johnson copied most of his etymologies from Skinner, and the popularity of his dictionary (1755) guaranteed the longevity of the all off derivation.

However, the search for the true descent of aloof did not stop there. It occurred to some people that aloof was perhaps an alteration of aloft. In 1864 Webster’s original etymologies underwent a drastic revision by C. A. F. Mahn, a German philologist, who, as one of our correspondents assured me, had never made it to America (I had suspected the truth but could find almost nothing on him) and worked, to use the modern cliché, “from home.” His contribution was important, and many absurd suggestions Noah Webster had launched disappeared from the dictionary. But, of course, who could single-handedly rewrite the etymologies of a whole language, especially considering that comparative linguistics was just then coming into its own and that not a single reliable dictionary of English word origins had yet been written! At least Mahn, though a Romance scholar, was a native German and therefore had sufficient familiarity with the achievements of the young science. But in the entry aloof even he vacillated between all off and aloft. Aloft has the already familiar fatal flaw: its root vowel is short. Also, we would like to know what happened to final t.

I have no way of finding out who nowadays reads The North British Review (abbreviated below as NBR). In the nineteenth century, “Reviews” of this type flooded both England and the United States. Many of them became deservedly famous. Sometimes they contained only long critiques of various books, but sometimes they also published essays, poetry, and fiction. One of the contributors to NBR was George Webbe Dasent, a brilliant translator of Icelandic sagas and Norwegian folktales. He knew both languages very well (he also felt comfortable in their grammar, as his manual testifies) and believed that being proficient in a language made him qualified for solving etymological puzzles. In this he was mistaken. Most “Reviews” published everything anonymously, but some contributors later brought out their collected works in book form, and that is how it is occasionally possible to ascertain their authorship. Dasent’s two volume set Jest and Earnest (1873) is excellent reading. His review of Latham’s revision of Johnson’s dictionary (and it is this review that I excerpted for my database) is there. I am used to the vituperative style of the epoch gone by, but Dasent was not only sarcastic, trenchant, and arrogant: he was unbearable. He never doubted that he possessed a key to the ultimate truth. Etymologists’ specialization may have a negative influence on their preferences. The number of deluded people who descry Hebrew, Arabic, or Slavic roots everywhere is not negligible. Someone who has an intimate knowledge of Irish tends to trace hundreds of words to Celtic. Familiarity with Icelandic makes one oversensitive to Scandinavian. This is what happened to Dasent, in whose opinion, aloof was a borrowing of Icel. á hlaupi, literally, “on the run” (the verb hlaupa is akin to Engl. leap). Now, in the earliest examples, as they appear in the OED, aloof signifies an order to the steersman to go to windward, so that “on the run” does not look too good a match for it.

Windward ho!

Dasent wanted to cut rather than disentangle the knot, but etymology, to quote an old lexicographer, is a work of difficulty and delicacy. The puzzle was solved by Skeat in the first edition of his dictionary (1882). Many of the solutions he offered in that work proved wrong, and Skeat, aware of his deficiencies, kept revising them, but this etymology has remained intact. Already in 1857 aloof was explained as the word for keeping one’s luff in the act of sailing to the wind, the luff being a contrivance for altering a ship’s course. Very many nautical terms reached English from Dutch. (A respectable English sailing term almost has to look Dutch. That is why schooner, which is not from Dutch, has the letter h after sc.) The same holds for aloof. Its etymon is Dutch te loef. English substituted on for te, and on loof became aloof, just as aboard, despite the many vicissitudes through which this word went, developed from on board.

Does the denouement look like an anticlimax? I don’t think so. To be sure, the etymology of aloof is almost in plain view, but it took people more than two hundred years to see the picture in its true light. Aloof may have come not from Dutch but from Danish, because the phrase had international currency (for example, it was also used by French sailors), but the Dutch source is more likely. Some dictionaries keep saying that aloof is a word of unknown origin. This verdict should be dismissed as unjustifiably harsh. No doubt, it is better to be safe than sorry. Yet, in this case there is nothing to be sorry about. Could aloof experience the influence of aloft (a suggestion made by many)? Such possibilities can never be excluded. Similar words of this type are sometimes called paronyms. The closer any given two words sound, the greater the possibility they will interact. As far as I can judge, aloft and aloof have little in common. From an etymological point of view, loft, a borrowing of Scandinavian lopt, means “air,” as German Luft still does.

The episode related above (a typical just so story, but with a much greater degree of verisimilitude than the story of the elephant’s trunk) shows that panning for etymological gold, even when the gold does not lie too deep, is hard but that some efforts pay off. And this is all there is to my tale, as Chesterton might have said and perhaps even said somewhere.

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 on the OUPblog 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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Image credit: Sailing ship by Ivan Aivazovsky. Public domain via Wikipaintings.

Recent Comments

  1. Stephen Goranson

    Sailing into Chesterton’s digitized work, and not keeping distance from it, I did not find the sentence above. He did, though, indeed favour the collocation “my tale.”

  2. Joseph

    Dear Anatoly,

    Where can I read furthermore regarding your position on the influence of Semitic bi-consonantal roots on PIE roots or the West Germanic tongues in particular?

    Please email me. Would love to learn from you.


  3. bg

    אלוף, or phonetically “aloof”, is hebrew for “champion”

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