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An embarrassment of riches

A priest can be defrocked, and a lawyer disbarred. I wonder what happens to a historical linguist who cannot find an answer in his books. Is such an individual outsourced? A listener from Quebec (Québec) asked me about the origin of the noun bar. He wrote: “…we still say in French barrer la porte as they still do (though less and less) on the Atlantic side of France. I understand bar the door is also used in English…” and added that, according to what he had heard, bar might be of Celtic or of Germanic origin. He would like to know what the etymology of this word is. The answer to this question is too long for my monthly gleanings, and I decided to devote a special post to it, though I am afraid that in the end our correspondent will be none the wiser.

Only two things are clear and indisputable: in English, bar is from Old French, and this French word has cognates in several Romance languages. However, the Latin source is absent, which seems to suggest that the Romance word was borrowed, and Celtic has often been advocated as the lender. But this path of discovery has a prehistory. The earliest hypothesis on the origin of bar known to me occurs in the English etymological dictionary by Franciscus Junius, who can be called the founder of Germanic philology. He died in 1677; his dictionary was published posthumously only in 1743. Junius cited (without comments but, seemingly, with approval) an earlier conjecture that the word goes back to Hebrew baria, which he glossed as “vectis” (Latin), that is, “a strong pole, bar, crowbar, etc.” (here and below, I will reproduce the Hebrew forms as I found them in my authors). The correspondence looks perfect, but, as always when borrowing is suggested, to confirm the reconstruction, we have to show how a certain word made its way “abroad.” If we were dealing with an extremely ancient noun common to both Indo-European and Semitic, we would have most probably discovered its traces somewhere between the Middle East and Germania, but as noted, Latin lacks it and so does Greek.

In 1917, 170 years after Junius’s death, Albert Carnoy, a distinguished Belgian scholar, whose ideas, however ingenious and brilliant, should be taken with a sizable grain of salt, offered, though hesitatingly, another Hebrew derivation of bar, namely from barzel “iron,” to which he also traced Engl. brass and Latin ferrum “iron.” The triad barzel / ferrum / brass occurs elsewhere in the scholarly literature, but this is no place to discuss its merits; each of the three words presents a huge problem. Even if it were possible to prove their affinity, the way from them to bar in Romance would be hard to trace. Italian and Spanish have barra, and this is the form posited for its Medieval Latin source. Works on the ties between Semitic and Indo-European keep proliferating. Bar does not turn up in those I have consulted. I conclude that nowadays the Hebrew hypothesis is dead, though it may be that today no one remembers it! Etymologists tend to have a short memory. Some people in the first half of the nineteenth century tried to connect bar with Old English beorgan “to save; guard, defend” (compare German bergen) and return the word to the Germanic stock. This is a wild guess.

Behind bars.
Behind bars.

We can now return to Ireland, Wales, and Brittany. At one time, it became commonplace to derive the unattested Latin form barra, the alleged etymon of Germanic bar (as in English) and Barre “sandbank” ~ Barren “metal rod” (as in German), to Celtic. Indeed, a similar form (barr) exists in Irish and Welsh, but in both it means “summit, peak.” Breton barri “branch” must have developed from “peak.” The semantic gap between “summit, peak” or even “bushy end” and “rod; barrier” has never been accounted for, and the former enthusiasm for the Celtic trace, though still smoldering, has waned considerably. We may note that this enthusiasm was tempered even in the beginning. In the first edition of Skeat’s dictionary (1882), the Celtic connection is given as fairly certain (the same in the most often used dictionaries by Skeat’s English predecessors Müller and Wedgwood), but in the last, fourth edition of his great work (1910) only a question mark remained of it. The old and more cautious Skeat followed the OED; James Murray, the OED’s first editor, called the Celtic etymology discredited on semantic grounds. He may have come to this conclusion himself, or he may have consulted Professor John Rhys, his usual authority on things Celtic. The OED’s popular descendant, The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology, whose format (one volume) precluded it from going into the discussion of controversial hypotheses, stated curtly that the unattested Romance word barra is of unknown origin.

It certainly is. However, it must have come from somewhere. Harri Meier, the author of many contested Romance etymologies, compared barra with Latin vittis “hatband.” His reconstruction is too involved to do it justice in this post, but the interchange between initial b– and v– in Latin is common, and barra has often been compared with names like Varro. One finds a more interesting conjecture in a 1921 article by Alois Walde, an eminent Austrian scholar, the author of a Latin etymological dictionary and a monumental dictionary of Indo-European. If I understand him correctly, he believed that barra was a regular Indo-European word related to Latin forus “gangway, passage”; its better-known cognates are foris “door” and forum. (It seems that wherever I go, doors and thresholds are always with me: see the blog post of 11 February this year.) He thought of the ancient (unattested) word bhoros “wood cut into planks or boards.” Both forus and barra would have emerged as its offspring. Despite Walde’s great name, his idea seems to be lost.

A Bar Exam
A Bar Exam

It is unfortunate that most of our popular and semi-popular dictionaries can rarely sift the multiple guesses of which the “art and science” of etymology is so full. The public wants easy answers to difficult questions, and it loves “fun,” a legitimate wish, for everybody wants to be entertained. No doubt, the origin of cat’s pyjamas is more exciting than a possible Indo-European etymon of bar. The market can sustain with utmost difficulty the likes of Feist’s etymological dictionary of Gothic, von Wartburg’s multivolume dictionary of French, or the excellent etymological dictionary of Old High German, which now, after several decades of highly professional labor, has reached its middle. Funding agencies divide the number of dollars required for the completion of such projects by the number of words to be included, refer to the needs of the ever-hungry group known as taxpayers, and shake their heads, while commercial publishers bring out books to sell them. In the area of etymological apparel, cat’s pyjamas are doomed to remain in fashion. As a result, even such a skimpy essay as the present one is hard to come by. One ends up with a shelf of reference books that list a few cognates and conclude the entry with the statement “Origin unknown.” At present, I’ll leave our correspondent with a welter of conflicting ideas (Hebrew: most probably wrong), (Celtic: extremely doubtful), Indo-European (untested) — that is, “none the wiser,” as I warned him at the beginning of the post.

It remains for me to say that the earliest recorded sense of Engl. bar is “a rod of metal or wood for fastening a gate.” In every other context (I would like to say “bar one,” but no, everywhere), whether in a court of justice, an inn, or in a drinking establishment, the word refers to the counter. Some of the words reminding us of bar are indeed related (for instance, barrier). Barricade, barrack, and especially barrel are worthy of a closer look. Perhaps the most curious one is the verb embarrass, an extension of embar “to enclose within bars,” hence “hamper; perplex,” a seventeenth-century borrowing from French.

Image credits: (1) Jaguar Behind Cage Bars. © Auke Holwerda via iStock. (2) Fans at the pub. © Deklofenak via iStock.

Recent Comments

  1. Jevgēnijs Kaktiņš

    It would be noteworthy to mention that copper words are rather mutable over time, in Latvian varš was once used to denote any metal, as nowadays does ore in English.

  2. […] post two weeks ago was devoted to the origin and history of bar. In English, all words with the root bar- ~ barr- are from French. They usually have related forms […]

  3. […] finish the bar(r)- series, I deviated from my usual practice and chose a word about which there is at present […]

  4. […] the public a small plate of leftovers in the hope of providing a dessert after the stodgy essays on bars, barrels, barracks, and barricades, to say nothing about cry […]

  5. D Needham

    Florio’s 1611 Italian/English dictionary lists barletto and barlotto as equals to the English word barrel. There are several other bar words, including baricola for wheel barrow.
    I also asked a friend if barrel might have a Sanskrit origin, and her answer was no.

  6. Iduna Borger

    Check out William Owen-Pughe’s Welsh Dictionary from 1832.
    BAr is a masculine noun that menas affliction; fury. Formed from AR = the faculty of speaking; the speech; a surface; tilth, or ploughed land; on or upon.

    BA = a being in, immersion.

    Immersion in the faculty of speaking.

    The emaning is a deep religious one.Like a berserker in Germanic.

  7. […] keep it separate from bar for the reason to which I have so often referred in this blog. Since bar is a word of unknown etymology, it is better not to use it in any reconstruction involving other hard […]

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