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From the infancy of etymology

By Anatoly Liberman

Someone who today seeks reliable information on the origin of English words will, naturally, consult some recent dictionary. However, not too rarely this information is insufficient and even wrong (rejected opinions may be presented there as reliable). To make matters worse, most entries are too short and dogmatic, so that the user gets no idea of the complexity of the problem. An inquisitive student of etymology will also be puzzled to find contradictory answers in different “thick” dictionaries or disappointed to be dismissed with the answer: “Origin unknown.” (How is that? Aren’t etymologists paid to “know” the answers? Don’t worry: etymologists are not paid for anything these days.) Old dictionaries are, of course, even less reliable, for the basic facts with which we work had not been discovered, but to those of us who enjoy tracing researchers’ way to the truth, or even half-truths, as much as learning an evasive thing called truth, early works on word origins are a source of great enjoyment. Also, as I have often noted, among fanciful hypotheses and wild conjectures one sometimes finds an ingenious thought and even a clue to a better solution than the ones recognized at present.

Thousands of words occurring in dialects have never been discussed, partly because few etymologists have enough time to deal with such obscure stuff, partly because they have nothing to say about it. But the authors of regional dictionaries care for nothing else. They want to preserve the disappearing vocabulary of their regions, and there have always been publishers, probably also motivated by local patriotism, who risked bringing out such unprofitable books. One of such books was The Dialect of Craven, in the West-Riding of the County of York, with a Copious Glossary… by a Native of Craven. (London: Printed for Wm. Crofts… and Robinson and Hernaman, Leeds, 1828.) This is the second edition and the only one I have read from cover to cover. As we can see, the author preferred to remain anonymous, but his name (William Carr) is known.

Craven, Yorkshire: A place to crave for.
Craven, Yorkshire: A place to crave for.

Carr was a learned man and knew all the relevant compendia: the dictionaries by Minsheu, Skinner, Junius, Horne Tooke, Jamieson, Nares, and Thompson, and especially Todd’s edition of Samuel Johnson. Once he says proudly that Todd honored him by accepting his suggestions. In the mean and jealous world of scholarship, references have always been hard currency. Below I will quote several of Carr’s explanations, for our readers to get an idea of the state of the art approximately two hundred years ago. (The capitalization and punctuation are his.)

BALDERDASH. Trifling or obscene language. I cannot assent to the etymon of this word given by Dr. Johnson. A[nglo]-S[axon] bald and dash; that of Dr. Jamieson appears much more probable from the Isl. [= Icelandic] balldur, the prating of fools. A bilder [sic] is an instrument in common use in Craven. It is a mallet with a long handle, used by the peasants to break clods of earth. Hence balderdash may with propriety be called dirt spread by the bilder, alias bilder-dasher. Mr. Todd, in his second edition of Johnson, derives it from Welsh balddardhy, talkative.”

The origin of balderdash has never been discovered: see my post of 15 February 2012. Skeat looked favorably on the Scandinavian connection, but Murray did not. I know a good deal about the plant bilder ~ bilders but have no material on bilder “mallet.” Carr’s etymology is unlikely. Yet it is not worse than many others.

BARREN. Alas, barren is not related to bare. Moreover, it is not related to any attested word. English took it over from Anglo-French (Modern French bréhaigne), as Todd already knew. Conjectures on this enigmatic adjective abound. Perhaps bar-, a prefix with a pejorative meaning, existed once. Or barren might be a pre-Romance word, but the Breton correspondence is a loan from French.

“With humble submission to such great authorities [Johnson, Todd, and Tooke], may I be allowed to conjecture, that the old French word brahaigne, so nearly corresponding with our own word barren, may have originally been derived from the Saxon or Teutonic and that both the French and the aboriginal Britons may have retained an imperfect knowledge of the language imposed upon them by the Saxon conquerors.—Thus the Saxon word unberende [“sterile”] may have lost its prefix or first syllable by aphæresis….”

Though not an ideal solution, it is not a bit worse than many others in circulation. Almost all dictionaries say: “Origin unknown/origine inconnue.” (Aphaeresis: the loss of one or more sounds at the beginning of a word.)

GOSSAMER. Carr refers to “the great Dr. Johnson,” “the learned Mr. Todd,” “Mr. Archdeacon Nares,” and others, none of whom could come up with a good etymology.

“This is a very convincing proof of the great advantages derived from a collection of local words, towards the elucidation of language, and the improvement of lexicology. The true etymon of this word, which has not been extracted by the united lucubrations of so many learned and ingenious men, is obvious to many illiterate peasants in Craven.—This down or rather exhalation is well known by the name of summer-goose, or summergauze, hence ‘gauze o’th’summer’, gauzamer alias Gossamer.”

We needn’t glorify the antiquity of rural speech or the wisdom of illiterate peasants, but in this case Carr may have been right: gossamer seems to mean what he suspected. Murray agreed with the proposed derivation without enthusiasm, for gossamer resembles many similar names in other languages that have nothing to do with geese but mean the same (the spider’s fine threads). The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology: “…the allusion is obscure, and is not cleared up by the synonym[ous] Continental forms.” Skeat: “The provincial name (in Craven) is summer-goose. Named from the time of year when it is most seen, viz. during St. Martin’s summer (nearly November); geese were eaten on November 11 formerly.” Since, according to legend, geese betrayed St. Martin when he was hiding in a goose pen, it is only fair that they should be eaten in the holy man’s honor.

LIKE. Many learned men, as Carr would put it, discussed the ubiquitous like (“I can, like, come tomorrow,” and the like), but their “lucubrations” failed “to extract” a convincing result: some people despise this usage, while others defend and even extol its subtle modality. Carr glosses like as “probably” and calls it a mere expletive (expletive means “redundant,” not what we all understand when somebody’s speech is reproduced with the “expletive deleted”; also, Carr must have stressed this adjective on the second syllable, as most British speakers still do). He quoted Burns: “I am nae a poet in a sense/ But just a rhymer, like, by chance,” along with a few other authors. To him like “probably” was a feature of dialectal (he said: dialectical) speech. Now it is the stumbling Standard.

WALL-EEN, white or grey eyes. Belgian [that is, Dutch] walcken, to blanch [that is, walken “to full, work felt,” rather than “blanch”]. The etymology of this word is not satisfactory either in Skinner, Johnson, or Nares. Skinner supposes that they resemble the eyes of a whale…. I think it is more likely to be derived from the Welsh gwawl, light; hence gwawl-een, light eyes.”

Many teeth and great "een" but no wall
Many teeth and great “een” but no wall

Carr reminded his readers of Shakespeare’s wall-eyed wrath and continued: “It frequently happens that when a person is in an extreme passion, a large portion of the white of the eye is visible. This confirms the propriety and force of the above expression.” Shakespeare’s contemporaries, with their theory of humors, used to pair colors and emotions (compare Iago’s green-eyed jealousy), so that perhaps white-eyed wrath has no connection with the physical appearance of a man in white heat, but Carr’s explanation is clever, and so is his rejection of wall-eyed as a variant of whale-eyed. He could not have guessed that wall– in walleyed is a folk etymological alteration of Old Norse valg– “film over the eye.”

People who garble foreign words to make them understandable are not bothered by the fact that walleyes have no wall over their eyes or that walnuts do not grow on walls. My goal was to celebrate the achievement of a dedicated student of local speech, whose attention to detail, knowledge of the sources, and common sense make his book written so long ago still worthy of our attention. I wish our books would retain their value by 2214.

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.” Subscribe to Anatoly Liberman’s weekly etymology posts via email or RSS.

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Image credits: (1) Bridge over catchwater. One of the several access bridges over the Thornton Moor Reservoir catchwater that runs through this square. Photo by Steven Craven, 21 October 2007. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license via geograph.org.uk. (2) pike with an open mouth on an isolated white background. © Curaga via iStockphoto.

Recent Comments

  1. Stephen Goranson

    Thanks for your fine blog. I also find history of scholarship interesting. There’s one word for which I have collected at least sixty different published explanations! How many words have more distinct proposals? The word is the name of the ancient Jewish group, the Essenes. OED notes one Latin and one Greek spelling (there are several Greek spellings) and continues, “presumably of Hebrew or Aramaic origin, but the etymology is disputed. See the 19 different suggestions in Ginsburg The Essenes (1864) 27–30.”
    I think the origin was proposed as early as 1532 and in every century before the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, which includes the self-designation that was in effect predicted. (Though Joseph Scaliger in 1583 dismissed it as hallucination.) For details see my “Others and Intra-Jewish Polemic as Reflected in Qumran Texts.” In The Dead Sea Scrolls after Fifty Years: A Comprehensive Assessment, ed. P. W. Flint and J. C. VanderKam, 2:534-551, esp. 537-40. Leiden: Brill, 1999.online:

  2. […] sixty opinions about the origin of the word that he studied (see his comment to my recent post on the dialect of Craven). I cannot boast of such numbers.  Although my database contains close to a hundred items […]

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