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The history of the word “bad”, Chapter 3

Chapter 3: The Dutch Uncle

The authority of the OED is so great that, once it has spoken, few people are eager to contest or even modify its verdict. The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology adds perhaps (not probably!) to Murray’s etymology, cites both bæddel and bædling (it gives length to æ in both words) and adds that there have been other, more dubious conjectures. But it has been known since at least the fifties of the nineteenth century that before bade (the earliest recorded form of bad) surfaced in a Middle English text (1297), it constituted part of proper names. Sometimes it was an element of compounds, but it also occurred as Badde. Medieval nicknames, which later became accepted given names, were often of the most offensive kind or resorted to the humor that makes us wince in embarrassment. A similar chain of events (a name, probably a nickname, and then a regular word) is known from the history of lad.

The only original work on bad written since the publication of The Century Dictionary is the article by Richard Coates, to which I referred in Chapter 2. It deals with personal and place names. Coates concluded that the vowel in badde must have been short, but he did not press this point and admitted that the situation is in part unclear. And so it is. No doubt, the regular spelling with dd presupposes a short vowel. The relatively few Old English words with long vowels before a double consonant had r, l, or m in close proximity, such as næddre “adder” (a nadder became an adder in the modern language; German still has Natter), nædl “needle,” maþþum “treasure,” and the like. Badde does not belong to this group. If badde had a short vowel, its derivation from bædan “oppress; defile,” advocated by Koch, Kluge, and Holthausen (see the previous post), seems to be ruled out. Bædan “oppress” certainly had a long vowel, as follows from its cognates (Gothic baidjan and others). The origin of the other bædan is more problematic, but the presence of a long vowel in it is also assured. The OED online takes cognizance of Coates’s publication but remains noncommittal.

The adder lost its n but none of its poison
The adder lost its n but none of its poison

We know that Middle English had the adjective badde. What could be its origin? All serious sources emphasize the fact that bad lacks cognates in other languages. This consensus may be wrong. Hermann Jellinghaus, an eminent student of Low (that is, northern) German, discovered an 1828 dictionary of a dialect in which the adjective but “unripe; simple-minded, stupid” (the German glosses are unreif and einfältig) turned up and compared it with bad. Even if this but is indeed a cognate of bad, we don’t know how to make the next step. Much more important is the tiny article by J. H. Kern, published in the main linguistic Dutch periodical (and in Dutch). The title appears in my bibliography of English etymology at bad, so that I’ll dispense with references (the same holds for Jellinghaus) and will only say that Kern was a first-class philologist and both Murray and Bradley had a high opinion of him. In Middle Dutch, the diminutive badderken “doll; pet child” has been found, but it turned up only once in a text from Brabant. The authors of the great Middle Dutch dictionary wondered whether it was an error for the much better known babbaerdeken, but Kern was justified in accepting the form as it was recorded.

Not necessarily bad but self-willed and unpredictable
Not necessarily bad but self-willed and unpredictable

The syllable –ken of badderken is a diminutive suffix. Thus, if the word is genuine, its stem is badder-. Kern asked: “Can the unattested badder not be connected with Old Engl. bæddel?” He refused to discuss the relations between the suffixes -el (English) and –er (Dutch). I think it will be rash to ignore the Middle Dutch form and will now say what I think about the ultimate origin of bad. Scott made a legitimate point when he asserted that bad was probably a baby word, like booger and several others he cited, though, in my opinion, dissimilation (baba to bada, to badda) played no role in its history. Bad must indeed have served to warn children of danger, and I suggest (here I am on much more slippery ground) that it was often pronounced emphatically, with a long vowel, exactly like Modern Engl. bad. We often hear ba-a-ad! Even pronouncing dictionaries register this variant. The stylistic register of the Old English word prevented it from appearing in the literature of the period, even in the glosses. Middle Dutch badder- “doll; pet child” bears out the idea that we are dealing with a baby word, but I would risk adding a last detail. The OED cites the rare and obsolete noun badde “cat.” Its origin is said to be unknown. Nothing is more natural than using a baby word for cat (compare puss and pussy). It did not necessarily refer to the nasty pet, a creature like “The Cat that Walked by Himself,” immortalized in Kipling’s tale, but cats are unpredictable creatures.

If I am right, bad is not a back formation on bæddel; on the contrary, bæddel “a bad man” was formed from it. Coates arrived at the same conclusion but by his own reasoning. Similarly, there is no need to derive bad from some past participle. More likely, the sound complex bæd existed even in Old English, though we see it only as the root of the verb bædan. In it the vowel was long. Bædan “oppress” and bædan “defile” could have been coined at different times but from the same root. In Old English, bæd remained a baby word (the standard adjective for “bad” was yfel “evil”). It left the nursery around the thirteenth century, at which time it could already function as a nickname. As already pointed out, the borderline between a medieval nickname and a given name is often blurry. The vowel in bæddel was, to the extent that we are allowed to depend on its spelling with dd, short. Just as a long vowel can serve emphasis, so can a long consonant (hence perhaps dd). The vowel length in bædling is indeterminate.

In dealing with words like bug, boogey and their kin, the concept of the congener becomes vapid. Is Russian buka, a synonym of Engl. boogey, its congener? The same question should be asked about Old Engl. bad(d)-, Middle Dutch badd-, and Modern Low German but. They resemble the members of the international boogey family. Wearing the same uniform does not presuppose consanguinity. Therefore, the idea that bad is related to Classical Greek spatalós (“luxurious”; W. Freeman Twaddell) leaves me unimpressed. The Germanic adjective hardly had regular cognates elsewhere in Indo-European. Yet the Old Saxon verb undarbadon “to frighten” is worthy of mention in this context (Old Saxon is a Germanic language once spoken on the northwest coast and in the Netherlands.) This verb has been compared with some Celtic forms, but I doubt that this comparison stands. Old Saxon scholars refuse to decide whether the vowel a in –badon was short or long. It was probably long, because undarbadon seems to be related to Old Engl. bædan. If it had the same root as Engl. bad, Kern’s guess gets an important confirmation. Oppression and defilement are bad, and so is fright. Undar– means “under,” so that the verb might refer to “being under a bad thing.” Our baby word appears to have made its way through the entire North Sea region. If so, the Anglo-Saxons brought it to Britain from their continental homeland.

This is the end of a long journey in search of a good etymology of the English word bad. If my considerations deserve credence, I’ll be happy. But if someone has enough ammunition to find a better etymology, I’ll be the first to rejoice.

Image credits: (1) European Adder. © Andy_Astbury via iStock. (2) Rudyard Kipling’s “The cat that went by himself” 1902 via Boop.org.

Recent Comments

  1. John Cowan

    Looking at the OED, the vocalic quality of maþþum looks questionable. Its modern revival mathom definitely has a short vowel, and this pronunciation presumably was derived originally from Tolkien’s own. As he certainly knew his Old English (he always pronounced Hengest with a soft g), he at least must have thought that maþþum also had a short vowel. Otherwise he would have pronounced it “may-thum”.

  2. Olivier van Renswoude

    Dear professor Liberman,

    Thank you for an interesting journey indeed!

    This word but you mention, I think it lives on in the local Saxon dialect here in Groningen, in the northeast of the Netherlands, substantivised as but ‘fool, halfwit’, also ‘dweeb’, and more often in the diminutive butje. I’d connect it with Middle Low German but ‘young ox’, Norwegian budda ‘newborn domestic animal’, Middle English budde (English bud) and Middle Dutch botte ‘bud’ (Dutch bot, also bottel).

    In the same dialect here in Groningen there is also borries, the name of the bogeyman in the shape of a black dog with huge eyes, comparable to the phenomenon of black shuck in East Anglia. It has the additional meaning ‘big lad’ and the variant form barries. The -ies seems to be suffixal/secondary, like in lirries ‘lout, bumpkin’, and the -rr- is likely to have developed from -dd-, just like in berre ‘bed’ and scharre ‘shadow’. That would leave us with *budd- ~ *badd- as an original form.

    With regard to OS undarbadon, I would say -badon is definitely not related to OE bǽdan and Gothic baidjan. These, together with OS bêdian, continue PGm. *baidjan-. Rather OS -badon, as Guus Kroonen states in his Etymological Dictionary of Proto-Germanic (2013), is cognate with Norwegian bada ‘to weigh down, press; to knead’ and related to Norwegian bad (n.) ‘effort, trouble, fear’ and Early Danish bad (n.) ‘damage, destruction; fight’. The original vowel was short, otherwise we would expect -å- in the Scandinavian words. I wonder if it could not be related to OE beado (f.) ‘battle’ and cognates. Kroonen wonders whether the aformentioned noun was borrowed from Scandinavian into Middle English to give rise to bad.

  3. Jevgēnijs Kaktiņš

    I would connect bad with semantically related family of different b-d words family in Latvian. Starting from bīties-biedēt-baidīties (to fear-to frighten- to be afraid) IDE *bhei, *bhi Bēda (sorrow, trouble) verbal bēdāties, bads (hunger) stems from the same IDE root *bhedh according to Latvian etymological dictionary. I suspect badīt (to butt with horns) and bīdīt (to push) fits well into this family of frightening words. Moreover, *bheudh and *bhudh derivations uzbudināt, modināt (to excite, to wake up) wherefrom English bud show semantical relations of these related ancient roots. English just dropped those endings long time ago.

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  6. Guus

    Dear Anatoly,

    This is great discussion, thank you.

    I double-checked the sound changes and it turns out that ME badde, MoE bad – even with original short a – actually can be derived from an Old English participle *gebǣded < *gabaidida-: that would be entirely parallel to the development of MoE mad < OE gemǣded < *gamaidida-, which similarly implies a verb *gemǣdan ‘to madden’ < *maidjan-, cf. OHG gimeit, OS gimēd ‘foolish’ etc. Presubably, the vowel of ME mǣdd was shortened to mædd, written mad(de), only to be lengthened again as in e.g. MoE sad < ME sad(de) < OE sæd < PGm. *sada-. So this gives us a possible OE participle *gebǣded as the etymon of bad. The verb bǣdan ‘to defile’, as given e.g. by Hall, cannot have been the derivational source, however, because it does not exist. It occurs once in the twelfth century Eadwine Canterbury Psalter (78, 1), where bæddon corresponds to Latin coinquinaverunt ‘they defiled (a temple)’. But as argued by Merit (Fact and Lore About Old English Words, 1954: 109), this is simply the verb bǣdan ‘to coerce, force, afflict’ in figurative use. The real question therefore seems: can the semantically more general ME and MoE bad have developed from OE *gebǣded with a more restricted meaning, e.g. “oppressed, afflicted”?

    Note that the answer to this question also potentially changes the perspective on the etymology of bæddel ‘hermaphrodite’, which by some is derived from the same, non-existent verb bǣdan ‘to defile’. Instead, bæddel should perhaps rather be understood as “the coerced one”, quasi-PGm. *gabaididila-.

    Best wishes!

  7. hj

    In my hometown in central China, bǎbǎ (in tone 3) in nursery lingo means shit, while bābā (in 1st tone 1) means cake. The coincidence with German baba, bäbä (dirty) is striking. Does this add some credence to the bad – baba hypothesis? What’s more striking is that English cake comes fro ON kaka, while Latin cacare means to shit, French caca shit. And Greek kakos means exactly the same as English bad!

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