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The history of the word ‘bad’, Chapter 1

Chapter 1: From Bad to Worse

Our earliest etymologists did not realize how much trouble the adjective bad would give later researchers. The first of them—John Minsheu (1617) and Stephen Skinner (1671)—cited Dutch quaad “bad, evil; ill.” (Before going on, I should note that today quad is spelled kwaad, which shows that a civilized nation using the Roman alphabet can do very well without the letter q.) This was not a bad guess. Kwaad has congeners elsewhere in West Germanic and, quite probably, outside Germanic, though Old English had the puzzling form cwead, with a long diphthong. The sound w was sometimes lost in this word, as one can see in Modern German Kot “excrement,” whose older form was close to the Dutch word. Quaad arose as a noun and became an adjective for the reasons that have not been explained with sufficient clarity. Be that as it may, no path leads from Germanic kw– to Old Engl. b-, but such niceties did not bother anyone until the days when historical linguists realized that words should be compared according to certain rules (or laws). Researchers resigned themselves to the tyranny of those laws, but as a reward etymology stopped being guesswork or at least stopped being entirely such. Although difficulties remained (consider the mystery of Old Engl. cwead), nowadays they are not swept under the rug; if something is unclear, investigators ruefully admit their inability to reconstruct the past.

Some time later, Persian bad appeared on the scene next to its English twin. It sounds roughly like the English word and means the same. Noah Webster chose it as the source of Engl. bad, and his explanation stayed in all the subsequent editions until 1880. Those who copied from Webster sometimes cited two forms: bad and bud, meant as spelling variants of the same word. The Persian-English convergence has led many people astray. They may know it from old sources, but accidentally the great French linguist Antoine Meillet mentioned it in his book on Indo-European as a case of chance coincidence, and since his days this example has been repeated countless times. The moment one mentions the origin of bad, someone asks: “And what about Persian bad?” Answer: “Forget about it.” Such coincidences are not too rare, and more than a hundred and fifty years ago several other languages were discovered in which the sound group bad had the same meaning as in English. Also, we now know that bad is not the original form of the Persian word (its b- goes back to v-). But, even if its history began with b-, nothing would have changed in our reasoning, for we have no way of showing that the English adjective was borrowed from such a distant source, and as a cognate it looks suspicious, since no other language between Persian and English has a similar word.

Salt is good.
Salt is good.

A third candidate for the etymon of Engl. bad used to be Gothic bauþs, which has been recorded in the Gothic New Testament in two senses: “deaf; dumb” and “tasteless,” the second sense being applied to salt in Luke 14: 34 (The King James Bible has: “Salt is good, but if the salt have lost his savour, wherewith shall it be seasoned?”). The author of the bad ~ bauþs comparison seems to have been Franciscus Junius, whose posthumous Etymologicum Anglicanum (1743) is a wonderful dictionary. Though an incomparable erudite, he could not help sharing the limitations of his epoch, and from our point of view many of his conjectures are clever curiosities at best. Apparently, the Gothic word had a broad meaning, referring to an impaired faculty, be it hearing, speech, or taste. Thus, it can hardly be called a synonym for bad. Perhaps it had some vague sense “deficient.” Also, the etymology of bauþs is problematic, and comparing one obscure word with another word equally obscure should be disallowed. Even seasoned scholars tend to violate this rule and invariably end up with wrong results. Returning to sound correspondences, we notice that the vowel a in Engl. bad does not match au in Gothic bauþs. Consequently, we are again on a wrong track. Lorenz Diefenbach, a distinguished student of Germanic and Indo-European antiquities, while discussing bad, rejected its relatedness to bauþs as early as 1851, but absurd etymologies die hard, and this one has reemerged more than once.

Antoine Meillet, who never took one bad thing for another.
Antoine Meillet, who never took one bad thing for another.

I am not quite sure who was the first to cite German böse “bad, evil” in connection with Engl. bad. Perhaps this idea also goes back to Diefenbach (I have no earlier references), and it appears, wedged in between Persian bad and Gothic bauþs, in Webster’s 1864 edition, sometimes known as Webster-Mahn. Carl A. F. Mahn rewrote many of Webster’s untenable etymologies, but he had no clue to the origin of bad, so that repeating Diefenbach’s tentative (and discarded!) opinion looked tempting, but why should anyone have thought to compare bad and böse? They have only the first consonant in common! Hensleigh Wedgwood, Skeat’s predecessor, had a rare knack for stringing together look-alikes from many languages. His lists are often irritating because he had little regard for sound correspondences. Yet quite often, when confronted with his lists, one begins to wonder: can there be something in the wild goose chase he practiced? And of course, he would sometimes hit the nail on the head and even put Skeat right. So it is disappointing to see his short entry on bad (the same in all four editions), in which he cites German böse and Persian bud (sic), with hardly Gothic bauþs, added as an afterthought.

The regular readers of this blog will remember that I seldom indulge in such detailed surveys of the literature, but the history of bad is almost impenetrable, and the guesses have been so many that it will pay off to clear the decks before daring to say something new, and I do have a suggestion that may shed a tiny ray of light on the problem at hand. Naturally, I want to prolong the foreplay and will keep discussing the hypotheses known to me. Yet some of them I have left untouched and have no intention of returning to them. Bad as the past participle of bay “to bark” (to be bayed at is surely an ignoble thing); this is the idea of Horne Tooke, who traced most words to interjections and past participles. Bad as a contraction of beaten or rather beated (!; Charlies Richardson). Bad as a borrowing of Hebrew basch (an alternative etymology in Minsheu) or Rhaeto-Romance bada “pest” (Diefenbach). Bad as a word invented by English scribes who confused it with Latin peior “worse,” the comparative of the unattested pedimus, or a derivative of one of the four roots meaning “to bind,” “to emit sounds,” “to speak,” and “to bend” (a cascade of M. M. Makovskii’s fantasies), or simply one of the words for “base” (Walter Whiter). Too bad, isn’t it?

To be continued.

Image credits: (1) chèvre. (c) laurent via iStock. (2) Antoine Meillet. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. […] that we have left behind the boldest flights of the etymological imagination (see also Chapter 1 with its depressing title “From Bad to Worse”), we should realize that bad is a vague concept. Its vagueness makes our task especially difficult. […]

  2. […] 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 Middle […]

  3. […] “empty”), while açar means “key.” Consequently, ajar an açar have as little in common as English bad and Persian bad. Moral: in dealing with etymology, beware of lookalikes. One cannot do without them, but they need […]

  4. Lashon

    Is it too simple to connect it to the Hebrew word abaddon…which means destroyer?

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