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Approaching the big bad word “bad”

In the near future I’ll have more than enough to say about bad, an adjective whose history is dismally obscure, but once again, and for the umpteenth time, we have to ask ourselves why there are words of undiscovered and seemingly undiscoverable origin. Historical linguists try to reconstruct ancient roots. However, roots need not be looked upon as generators of words. It is far from obvious that at one time, however remote, complexes like bher, bhel, and so forth were the main units of human speech, flying or floating around Peter Pan-like, and that only later they added suffixes and began to resemble modern words. However, this is what some nineteenth-century scholars, who were inspired by the structure of languages like Chinese, thought. Yet Chinese reached its present stage after centuries of development, and in this respect it resembles English, with its predominantly monosyllabic native vocabulary. At least in the Indo-European family the oldest languages known to us have long, often very long words.

Even if we succeed in obtaining a primordial root endowed with an obvious meaning, we seldom know how its sounds and sense met. For example, good has the root meaning approximately “passing, fitting.” But what is there in the g-d complex to suggest the idea of appropriateness? As far as we can judge, absolutely nothing. In many other cases we have no way to reach the level of the protolanguage. A typical case is slang. Apparently arbitrary groups of sounds, which certainly do not trace to Indo-European (no doubt about that), acquire a recognized meaning and refuse to disclose their origin. Why bloke, dud, and dude? Bloke is supposedly a borrowing from Shelta, the cryptic language of Irish tinkers, among others. (Shelta is itself a word of unknown origin.) We find duds “clothes; rags, tatters,” so that dud “worthless fellow” may be a transferred use of dud “rags, tatters” (compare the history of brat “child,” believed to go back to brat “coarse garment”), but alas, the origin of dud “rags” is also unknown. Dude fares slightly better. At one time, I wrote a post about dude and was rewarded by numerous comments (for nowadays everybody is a dude, right?). If the root g-d suggests satisfaction, are we allowed to extract a hidden meaning from d-d?

his is the Big BAD Wolf. Quite expressive, isn't it?
This is the Big BAD Wolf. Quite expressive, isn’t it?

The most tempting hypothesis in etymology connects hundreds of words with sound imitation and sound symbolism. Fierce battles raged in the past among those who thought that language developed from words like bow-wow and those who sought the beginnings of language in interjections. Yet even those complexes are capricious. Do pigs “say” oinkoink and dogs “say” bowwow? Is oops a word worthy of our interest? Regardless of the answer, squeak, squeal, grunt, bark, chirp, and hush, to mention a few, are certainly onomatopoeic (sound imitating) words, while good and bad are not. Unlike sound imitation, sound symbolism is a hazy concept. Specialists who study the connection between the phonetic shape of words and their meaning call their branch of linguistics iconicity. Some of their conclusions cannot be put into question. People regularly lengthen vowels and make them more open to designate a large size. They also do all kinds of other things along the same lines. André Martinet, one of the most distinguished linguists of the twentieth century, wrote a book in which he analyzed the origin of long consonants in various languages and concluded that they were of “expressive nature.” Not all of his examples are convincing, but dozens of them are. For instance, when people coin a verb denoting a strong effort, they tend to lengthen the final consonant. The word tries to mirror the action.

It has also been noticed that monosyllabic words beginning and ending with b, d, g and having a short vowel in the middle often resemble those explored by Martinet. Big, bob (in all of its senses), bib, gig, gag, agog, dud (see it above), and many others can be called expressive. Bag and bug, both suggesting swelling, like big, belong with them. A look in a dictionary 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 dig. Even when a word of this type has been borrowed or is suspected of having been borrowed, like gab and the possibly related gob, they are felt to be expressive, slangy, or at the very least not belonging to the neutral style. Beg is not sound symbolic (this verb was discussed in great detail some time ago), but begging is an action that evokes strong emotions in those who ask for alms and those who receive them. Perhaps the stylistic coloring (a nasty verb to describe a terrible thing) helped it to come into existence and stay in the language. One of the toughest words to etymologize is dog. We notice that it shares its structure with dig, big, bug, and the rest.

Don't visualize ancient roots in this form.
Don’t visualize ancient roots in this form.

Sound symbolism and expressivity are hard to pinpoint. The researcher depends on what the informants say and “feel.” Some people believe that gl– suggests light, while sl– suggests mud. Others cite glove, gloat, glum, and gloom and ignore glare, glisten, glow, and gleam. Slime, sleaze, slop, slip, and slither coexist with slow, slay, slim, slave, and sledge. Nothing can be proved here, but ignoring emotions in the life of language should not be recommended. It is only dangerous to be run away by too much zeal, to use the passive construction now becoming obsolete. Once, instead of being a useful tool, sound symbolism becomes a skeleton key meant to open all doors, it loses its value.

The musings offered above are meant to introduce the next post that will deal with the etymology of bad directly. It will be shown that despite some progress in the search for this word’s distant past, its origin has not been found. In principle, if after multiple attempts to discover a definitive etymology of an old word the solution escapes a host of knowledgeable people, the chances of a future breakthrough are not high. To be sure, an important but formerly neglected cognate, a previously unknown foreign source, or a new document can suddenly (almost miraculously) appear. Failing that, the word will probably never lose its sad label “origin unknown.” As far as our topic is concerned, I should like to say only one thing. Bad is a word of the structure discussed above. It belongs with bed, beg, bog, gab, and so forth. It is clearly an expressive word. No one wants to be called bad. Therefore, it may be that bad has no etymology in the strict sense of this term. To put it differently, it might have been coined as a spontaneous expression of disapproval or disgust, like ick or yuck. Who knows? Perhaps the etymology of bad should be looked for somewhere in that verbal quagmire, or let us call it “bog.”

Image credits: (1) Cartoon big bad wolf. © lineartestpilot via iStock. (2) Three Little Pigs – the wolf lands in the cooking pot – Project Gutenberg eText 15661. Illustration by L. Leslie Brooke, from The Golden Goose Book, Frederick Warne & Co., Ltd. 1905. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons. (3) “Peter Pan. [1954]” Billy Rose Theatre Division, The New York Public Library. Copyright: The New York Public Library. New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Recent Comments

  1. John Cowan

    English bad may indeed be aboriginal and expressive, but Persian بد ‘bad, evil’ happens to also be pronounced [bæd]. It has a known origin in Middle Persian wad (written wt’ or with the Aramaic-based logogram SLYA), and borrowed into Armenian as վատ [vat] ‘bad, evil’. The English and Persian forms are one of the textbook cases of coincidence, along with English dog and Mbabaram (Australian) dog < gudagu.

  2. Jevgēnijs Kaktiņš

    Latvian ‘bads’ for ‘hunger and ‘bēda’ for ‘sorrow’ might be cognates with ‘bad”, their vowels are approximately in between of that of BAD

  3. […] a long time the etymology of the word bad has been at the center of my attention (four essays bear ample witness to this fact). The latest post ended with a cautious reference to the idea that […]

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