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The B-word and its kin

Not too long ago, I promised to return to the origin of b-d words. Today I’ll deal with Engl. bad and its look-alikes, possibly for the last time—not because everything is now clear (nothing is clear), but because I have said all I could, and even this post originated as an answer to the remarks by our correspondents John Larsson (Denmark) and Olivier van Renswoude (the Netherlands).

Mr. Larsson asked me whether I knew the Swedish word baddare. I told him that I did, but I had been familiar only with its sense “whopper, whacker; big fellow (guy),” that is, in general “anything big.” This is a common word. The Internet also glosses baddare as “demon,” which was new to me, and I wondered how that sense developed. It would be tempting to suggest that, after all, Swedish had a cognate of Engl. bad, which produced “demon, the evil one.” However, this is almost too good to be true. More probably, “demon” is “the big one; bugaboo.” Bad, as I think, has no related forms in Scandinavian.

The question was about the origin of baddare. Elof Hellquist, our main authority on the etymology of Swedish words, identified the root of baddare with bad “bath.” This idea goes a long way back. Frederik A. Tamm died while compiling an etymological dictionary of Swedish; yet even what has been published (1905) is most useful. He thought that badda had developed a so-called expressive long consonant from d in bada “to bathe; give bath” and that badda meant “to beat forcibly” (verbs denoting a strong effort often have long consonants: it is as though the word’s form tried to mirror its meaning). In his two-volume work on the history of the Swedish vocabulary, Hellquist cited many verbs that allegedly belonged with bada ~ badda. However, none of them, except for badda, has a meaning different from that of its non-emphatic, non-expressive parent. Tamm and Hellquist pointed to the group bada ( is a preposition for “on”). I understand that one can knock and beat on something, but where do people bathe on? No doubt, a semantic bridge between “bathe” and “beat” exists. For example, in Russian sweat baths, which are not saunas, it was and still is customary to beat the body with a bunch of leafy birch or oak twigs (search for Russian venik on the Internet). As regards this practice in Scandinavia, see below.

The Russian Venus by Kustodiev
Bathing or battling?

In my opinion, neither Tamm nor Hellquist offered a convincing derivation of baddare. The story, as often in Scandinavian etymology, begins with the great and, in a way, unsurpassed, even if in some respects outdated, dictionary by Hjalmar Falk and Alf Torp. They distinguished bad1 and bad2 and pointed out that bad2 went back to the old word for “battle,” which turned up in my discussion of bad (Old English had beadu, and Icelandic has böð). Today, they said, bad2 is familiar only from bloodbath and its analogs in German and Scandinavian. From the Scandinavian languages Falk and Torp cited many compounds like bloodbath with the second element for “battle.” As could be expected, the two bath’s merged in speakers’ minds, and they came to believe that, as regards origins and sense, bloodbath poses no problems. Indeed, to us bloodbath, though a synonym for bloody battle or massacre, suggests the image of bathing in blood.  It is anybody’s guess whether the English adjective bad is related to the old word for “battle,” a noun that has secure cognates in Celtic. I don’t think it is and can only refer to what I said on this subject in the last post on bad. But it seems reasonable to suggest that Swedish badda and baddare trace back to the idea of battling rather than bathing.

Here I must return to Falk and Torp. They separated bad “bath” and bad “struggle, fight, battle,” but, in explaining the cause of the merger of the two words, they mentioned the great quantity of switches used in baths and cited Swedish badd “great heat” and “beating, thrashing,” Norwegian dialectal basstu “fight; beating,” Swedish bastu “beating” (its common meaning is “bath”), and a few others. It almost seems that, once they drew such a clear distinction between bad1 and bad2 and accounted for the confusion by the influence of folk etymology, they came close to merging the two words! In any case, my allusion to the Scandinavian analog of the Russian bath does not look fanciful.

Mr. Van Renswoude confirmed the reality of the Low German cognate of Engl. bad: a similar word also exists in a northern Dutch dialect. This makes Kern’s hypothesis mentioned in the same last post of the series on bad even more reliable. However, I think we should be most careful when we deal with similar words for “bull; young creature,” whether in Dutch or, as suggested by another correspondent, in Latvian. Here I should repeat my old warning. The b-d ~ b-t and b-k words form a multitude of similar nouns that are more or less the same in at least half of Eurasia. In English we have bad and bud. Both belong to a sizable group of nouns and even adjectives with the underlying meaning “swollen.” Close to them are words denoting fear (big objects look dangerous!), so that bug ~ bag ~ bog ~ big, buck, bud, and so forth intersect and sometimes almost merge. The antiquity of many of such words is doubtful, and in dealing with them it is therefore better to steer clear of Indo-European roots.

David and Goliath by Osmar Schindler
Here is a raddare indeed. But where is he now?

The same correspondent suggested that Old Saxon undarbadon “to frighten” had short a in the root, because, if the vowel had been long, the Scandinavian cognates of the Saxon verb would also have had a long vowel. In this case, Mr. Van Renswoude referred to Guus Kroonen’s 2013 Etymological Dictionary of Proto-Germanic, where we find a short entry on the reconstructed root badōjan “to frighten.” Having listed a few non-Germanic cognates, Kroonen cited Norwegian bad “effort, trouble, fear” and a related form in Danish. Part of his conclusion runs as follows: “The Norse word may have been borrowed into Middle English, so as to give rise to the hitherto unetymologized Engl. bad.” His statement concerning Old Saxon is copied from Falk-Torp, at Bad II. There it is said that undarbadon may (only may!) belong with bad “battle.” But this is merely a conjecture. Perhaps bad “battle” has nothing to do with badōjan. I suggested a different connection, which, of course, is also hypothetical. Undarbadon, as I think, has no congeners in Scandinavian. Also, Kroonen should have stayed away from Engl. bad, a word whose history, as we have seen, is obscure and may have begun in Old rather than Middle English. In using this dictionary, one should in general remember that most of Kroonen’s entries are short, that his references to the scholarly literature are of necessity few (tons have been written on the origin of every Germanic word), and that his verdicts should sometimes be taken with a grain of salt.

There is some poetic justice in the fact that the derivation of a verb meaning “frighten” remains a puzzle. Such puzzles teach etymologists humility and save from the fall. I do not plan to return to Engl. bad or Swedish baddare (unless I am made to do so by popular demand, that is, angry comments or questions), but, once I have gleaned the September field clean, I’ll again deal with the words whose root begin with b and ends with d. This field can never be harvested to the full.

Image Credit: (1)”The Homann Map of Scandinavia, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland and the Baltics, from 1715″ by Johann Baptist Homann. (2) “Russian Venus (In Banya)” by Boris Kustodiev. (3) “David und Goliath” by Osmar Schindler. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. Jevgēnijs Kaktiņš

    Just wondering where this R might originate from in analogous pair of words pērt – spert in Latvian verbs if they are somehow related with badda. A tool used for the process of pērties (whisking in sauna) is a pirtsslota or slotiņa (Finnish luuta) from slaukt-slaucīt (sweep). It seems interesting that Latvian word mazgāties (to wash oneself) is related with this wash-vaska.

  2. […] the like. Possibly from the idea of beating and striking Old English had beadu “battle,” which I discussed in connection with the English adjective bad. Beadu had an exact parallel in Old Icelandic böð (ð was pronounced as th in Engl. the). Male […]

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