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An etymologist fidgets on a bad bed. Part 1: “Bed.”

As a rule, I try not to deal with the words whose origin is supposedly known (that is, agreed upon). One can look them up in any dictionary or on the Internet, and no one needs a blog for disseminating trivialities. The etymology of bed has reached the stage of an uneasy consensus, but recently the accepted explanation has again been called into question. Also, the history of bed is so interesting that I can perhaps be excused for returning to a thrice-told tale.

Bed and its cognates have been attested in all the Germanic languages, including Gothic (a fourth-century translation of the New Testament), where it sounded as badi. The passage in the King James Bible is: “Take up thy bed (couch), and go (walk).” A modern “bed,” unless it is a sleeping bag, would be impossible to take up and carry, so that some modern versions offer pick up (or take up) your mat (pallet, couch).” The relevant place occurs in Luke V: 18, 24 and Matthew IX: 6, but only the first of them (Luke) has come down to us in Gothic. The Greek words for badi were krábbatos (a Middle Greek, originally Macedonian word) and klinídion. Wulfila, the translator of the Gothic Bible, either did not have a synonym for badi or did not find it necessary to render the variation he found in the original text. The Old Germanic form must have been badjo– ~ baðjo– (ð = th in Engl. this).

Since the bed that could be picked up and carried was not a modern bedstead, mattress makes good sense. Old Icelandic beðr meant “bolster; feather bed,” and we know from the sagas that beds were indeed mattresses put on benches at night and taken away in the morning. Several words for “bed” exist in the old and modern Scandinavian languages; they are usually unrelated to bed. However, “bolster, mattress” is not the beginning of the story. Both language and material culture point to objects quite different from mattresses and pallets.

The history of the bed. Chapter I. (Anta da Aboboreira - dolmen - Baião Portugal 1982. photo by António Miguel de Campos. CC0 via Wikimedia Commons.)
The history of the bed. Chapter I. (Anta da Aboboreira – dolmen – Baião Portugal 1982. Photo by António Miguel de Campos. CC0 via Wikimedia Commons.)

A first complication comes from the fact that flowerbed, seabed, and even such a late coinage as bedrock have nothing to do with our idea of sleeping. German Beet, which is a phonetic variant of Bett, is an exact analog of Engl. flowerbed, and Danish bed means only “flowerbed.” It is improbable that such a sense should have been retained and a much more general one (“a place for sleeping”) lost over the centuries. The allied forms in Norwegian and Old Swedish denote “lair of an animal; nest.” The conclusion suggests itself that the original bed was a place dug in the ground.

This idea seemed unacceptable to Jan de Vries, one of the main etymologists of the second half of the twentieth century. Human beings are not animals, he reasoned. As a result, he preferred to connect bed with bath and reconstructed the word’s original meaning as “warm place.” His objection would have carried more weight if he had studied primitive culture with the same attention with which he studied the history of words. But even words examined without any connection to archaeology show how unpredictable the routes for the names of our sleeping arrangements are. Engl. litter, a borrowing from Anglo-French (cf. French lit “bed”) was recorded in the thirteenth century and, predictably, meant “bed.” Some time later, the senses “portable couch; straw, etc., for bedding; number of young brought forth at a birth” were recorded. Probably they were known earlier but did not come to light in the extant manuscripts. Reference to “trash” (“things lying about”) does not antedate the seventeenth century. Latin lectus and Anglo-French litere are allied to Engl. lie; hence all the attested senses. A common development is from “things strewn, scattered” (straw is related to strew) to “camp” (that is, tents, shelters, etc.) and further to “sleeping place” (I translate German Lager as “camp,” but it is a most inconvenient word to gloss in this context, because it means both “camp” and “bed”).

For a change, Jacob Grimm did not guess the origin of bed. He connected bed with bid (thus, the place on which one is invited to lie down and sleep). This etymology was repeated several times in his lifetime and then politely forgotten, but Grimm explained so many things correctly that gloating over one unfortunate conjecture by a genius would be indecent. If I am not mistaken, the first who saw the light in the history of bed was Johannes Franck. He connected this word with Latin fodio “dig,” and received the support of his great contemporaries Karl Brugmann and Evald Lidén. Digging returns us to holes in the ground; however, long before Jan de Vries this idea seemed indefensible to Wilhelm Braune, another light of Germanic philology. He believed that bed, as in flowerbed, emerged late. But Franck’s suggestion took root, and in today’s dictionaries it is repeated as the best there is, though with a usual array of cautious parenthetic adverbs (probably, apparently, and the like).

History of the bed. Chapter II: Some time later... (Salon de Mercure, Château de Versailles. Photo by  Jason Coyne http://jasoncoyne.smugmug.com. CC BY-SA 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons.)
History of the bed. Chapter II: Some time later… (Salon de Mercure, Château de Versailles. Photo by Jason Coyne http://jasoncoyne.smugmug.com. CC BY-SA 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons.)

As far as I can judge, the investigations by Hadwig Posch, Harri Meier, Peter Maher, and Johannes Hubschmid make this caution unnecessary. All the works mentioned above, except Maher’s, are in German. The latest inroad on this subject, by A. E. Man’kov, is in Russian, and his results are the same as those by Posch and others. The Celtic cognates of bed mean “grave,” and Peter Maher says the following: “…the Germanic words for ‘bed’ have been generalized to mean ‘sleeping place’ for the living from an older usage… …older usage, was to name the grave with a word from the paradigm of Proto-Indo-European *bhedhbhodh ‘cut (especially in the earth’” (an asterisk marks an unattested, reconstructed form). I realize that one needs a complete demonstration to believe the conclusion of this type, and anyone seriously interested in the subject is welcome to open The Journal of Indo-European Studies 9 (1981), 341-349, and follow the argument. In my judgment, given the present state of the art, this comes as close to the solution of the origin of bed as one can hope for.

It would be unfair not to mention the latest dissident voice, especially because it belongs to Elmar Seebold, the editor of Kluge’s etymological dictionary of German. He points out that the second part of krábbatos (see it above) bears a strong resemblance to the Germanic protoform of badi, and this is an interesting observation, but, as he himself notes, nothing is known about the Greek word’s origin, so that the next step cannot be made. Other than that, Seebold believes that “sleeping hole” is an improbable etymon for bed. This is true, but he should have looked at “grave,” not “sleeping hole,” the more so as he mentions Maher’s article in the list of the works he used. He also observes that the succession of the consonants b-d in the protoform suggests a word imitating the sound of trampling. A similar onomatopoeic origin has been proposed for Engl. dig, as well as for path and its German cognate Pfad. Cutting and digging were certainly associated with trampling, but this circustance does not invalidate the conclusion that beds were once graves. Seebold’s idea that bed can be a substrate word carries little conviction, for the lending language remains a mystery.

Thus, requiescat in pace, or early to bed and early to rise, makes man healthy, wealthy, and wise.

Featured image: Dolmen. © StockPhotosArt via iStock.

Recent Comments

  1. Jevgēnijs Kaktiņš

    Estonian voodi ‘bed’ is believed to come from the same root as Finnish vuota ‘skin of a large animal, bearskin’ which is a Baltic loan. Latvian āda ‘skin,hide’, Lithuanian oda both may have lost their initial consonant. Similarly, Finnish vuohi ‘goat’ stems from Baltic. Latvian āzis ‘buck’ and kaza ‘goat’ are also interesting formations. Then if one digs a little deeper Latvian bedre ‘pit, hole’ is related to badit ‘to butt (with horns) or any sharp object’ iterative from best ‘to dig’ and therefrom developed sense (ap)bedīt ‘to bury’. There should be some logical connections between digging, butting, beds, hides and skins.

  2. […] shows that none of the words listed above has an ascertained etymology. Dig was mentioned last time in connection with bed. If bed signified an object dug with an effort, its distant origin may be expressive, like that of […]

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