Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Monthly etymology gleanings for October 2014, Part 2

Brown study

As I mentioned last time, one of our correspondents asked me whether anything is known about this idiom. My database has very little on brown study, but I may refer to an editorial comment from the indispensable Notes and Queries (1862, 3rd Series/I, p. 190). The writer brings brown study in connection with French humeur brune, literally “brown humor, or disposition,” said about a somber or melancholy temperament. “It is to be borne in mind that in French the substantive brune signifies nightfall, the gloomy time of day; sur la brune ‘towards evening’; and also that in English brown (adjective) is employed poetically in the sense of gloomy, ‘a browner horror.’ ([Alexander] Pope, [Charles] Cotton.) It is remarkable how the colours are used to express various phases of human character and temperament. Thus we have not only ‘brown study’, but ‘blue melancholy’, ‘green and yellow melancholy’, ‘blue devils’ and ‘blues’, ‘yellow stockings’ (jealousy), ‘red hand’ (Walter Scott), and ‘white feather’, &c.” Not all such phrases belong together, but, considering how late brown study appeared in English, the French origin of this idiom is probable. I may add that a great miracle is called “blue wonder” (blaues Wunder) in German.

Bold etymologies


A correspondent from California sent me a short article containing a new derivation of the much-discussed word Viking. He traced it to Estonian vihk “sheaf.” I don’t think this suggestion is convincing. In etymology, as in any reconstruction, only probable, rather than possible, approaches have value. If multiple hypotheses vie for recognition, it is the duty of every next researcher to show that the previous conjectures are wrong or less persuasive than the new one. Our correspondent has consulted a single reference work, the Online Etymology Dictionary. He says: “It is beyond the scope of this paper to discuss the merits of the proposed etymologies.” It can never be beyond the scope of a paper on word origins to discuss the work of the predecessors.

The Vikings were Scandinavians and presumably used a native word for naming themselves. In the paper, we are reminded that the Old English Widsith “Wide-Traveler,” who says that he visited countless tribes, also spent some time with Wicingas. The Vikings were not a tribe and could not be visited (Widsith has been discussed more than once, but even a look at Kemp Malone’s 1936 book Widsith would have made the situation clear). The rest of the paper (two short paragraphs) deals with the legendary Sceaf of Old English fame, the Hungarian word for “sheaf,” and the place name Kiev. No references to Old Icelandic, Hungarian, Estonian, and Russian etymological dictionaries are given. The origin of Kiev is a famous crux, but it may be worthy of note that many towns, not only the capital of Ukraine, are called Kiev. Considering my negative attitude toward the proposed etymology, I decided not to mention the URL for the paper, but, if our correspondent is interested in a broader discussion of his idea, I would recommend that he post a short summary of his work as a comment, the more so as it can already be found online.

Reykjavík: it has never been a village.
Reykjavík: it has never been a village.

Another correspondent (this time from Canada) wonders whether the original meaning of the word Viking could be “bastard.” He writes: “…if wick in Eastwick meant ‘village’ (or ‘settlement’)…then the vik in Reykjavik must have meant ‘village’…as well. So, since the vik in Viking refers to a village (or a settlement)…does it not seem logical that when the first Norse German decided to go a-pillaging in the neighbouring fjord, that he was called a son of the village to his face by his own countrymen?” In addition to inspiration, etymology needs professional knowledge. The Icelandic word is vík “bay,” not vik (and it is Reykjavík, not Reykjavik). The stress mark designates vowel length, so that vik and vík are different words. Reykjavík means “bay of mists or fogs” (literally “of smokes”). There have never been villages in Iceland (only farms), and the Vikings never attacked their neighbors: they were sea pirates and pillaged abroad. My advice stays: don’t let etymological ideas run away with you before you have mastered the relevant material and the method of reconstruction.


Our correspondent and I exchanged emails on the word that interested him, so that the question seems to have been answered to the satisfaction of both parties. Some time ago, I wrote a post on the enigmatic exclamation aroint thee, witch (Macbeth; aroint thee also occurs in King Lear) and supported an old guess that aroint thee had developed from the apotropaic phrase a rowan to thee, said to scare away witches. The correspondent’s question was whether “German areus” could be related to Engl. aroint. Since there is no such German word, I asked him to give me more information. It turned out that he had heard what may have been a Yiddish word meaning “away with you.” Obviously, we are dealing with some variant or cognate of German heraus, and aroint has nothing to do with it. Let me add that all obvious etymologies were offered long ago. There is little hope to find an overlooked connection that is for everyone to see.

A good pear, but not a Proto-Indo-European one.
A good pear, but not a Proto-Indo-European one.

Was there a Proto-Indo-European word for “pear”?

There was no such word. Even the example of apple has less weight than it seems, as a never-ending stream of articles on the etymology of this word shows. The names of fruits are among the most often borrowed words in the vocabulary. In English, nearly all the names of vegetables and probably all the names of the main fruits, from potato to pear, are borrowed nouns. Leek is native—a rare exception. Latin pirum, the source of pear, is of unknown origin (from Semitic?). The Greek for “pear” is ápion or ápios, and it may perhaps be related to pirum, which leaves us in the dark about the word’s ultimate origin. Russian grusha (with similar cognates elsewhere in Slavic) also seems to be a borrowing.

Why awful but awesome?

I am not sure I can answer this question. Judg(e)ment and acknowledg(e)ment are different cases. Aweful has been recorded as a spelling variant of awful (see the OED) but later lost its e, perhaps because, however you spell it, there can be no misunderstanding, unlike what might have happened in baneful, wasteful, and their likes. Yet rueful has e, though, with regard to pronunciation, ruful would have been unambiguous. Awesome is not a recent word, as the OED shows, but it occurred rarely, and one gets the impression that, when the modern overused Americanism awesome (from the West Coast?) suddenly popped up (was it in the mid or early seventies?) and conquered the English-speaking world, it was coined anew. Instead of “awe-inspiring,” it began to mean “superb” and soon turned into an inane epithet, along with its present-day competitors great and cool. If my guess has any value, then the neologism was bound to acquire the form awe + some. The real mystery is how and why it came into existence. “Origin unknown,” I believe.

Image credits: (1) Reykjavik panorama. View from the top of Hallgrímskirkja. photo by ccho. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 via ccho Flickr. (2) Pear. Photo by Robert S. Donovan. CC BY 2.0 via booleansplit Flickr.

Recent Comments

There are currently no comments.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *