Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Gin a body meet a body

I am not sure that any lexicographer or historian of linguistics thought of writing an essay on James Murray as a speaker and journalist, though such an essay would allow the author to explore the workings of Murray’s mind and the development of his style. (Let me remind our readers that Murray, 1837-1915, died a hundred years ago.) So instead of immediately coming to the point, which today is the origin of the word body, I would like to begin with a long quotation from Murray’s Presidential Address given in 1897. He was at that time the president of the Philological Society.

“In referring to Professor Skeat’s Etymological Dictionary I have been tempted to contrast its cautious inductions with certain derivations that have been passed under my hands since commencing the Dictionary. The original Etymological Committee, you may remember, announced that they were prepared to receive ‘well-considered derivations of difficult words’. Several of these were in due course submitted, and have been preserved among the papers; I do not know that they would amuse anybody more than their writers, such of them as are still alive, and I propose at some future date, when we have a very dry paper, to bring in a little collection of these ‘well-considered etymologies’, and read them for edification, reproof, and instruction in foolishness. Thus one eminent philologist has ‘always had an impression that abide is from Hebrew beth a house, which in Persian is abád’. He is ‘not sure whether body is from the same root, but the Ags. [Anglo-Saxon, Old English] synonym bánhús [literally “bone-house”] supplies strong supporting evidence’.”

I don’t think Murray published a collection of such letters. But if he did, I would like to be informed, because I try to read everything he wrote.

Any comprehensive etymological database looks like Dickens’s dust heaps: most of it is garbage, but those who have the time and patience to rummage through one layer after another will be rewarded by many treasures. Nor does the nature of “well-considered derivations” change as the years go by. In 1985 another eminent philologist could not decide whether body is related to Breton bed ~ Welsh byd “world, universe,” Sanskrit bodh “tree” (with reference to the world tree as the pillar supporting the world), or a combination of the ancient root bhu- “to swell” and Old Engl. deag “color, hue, tinge,” the etymon of the modern word dye. Thomas Keightley, a good folklorist but an unreliable etymologist, thought that body had something to do with booth, a word allegedly used by the clergy for “tabernacle” (St Paul’s “body”). The idea is not laughable, but booth is a Middle English borrowing from Scandinavia, and its etymon never meant “body.” Moreover, body was already known in Old English and had the same meaning it has today. Another tempting “neighbor” is bottom, but it deserves a special post.

A promising database.
A promising database.

While sifting through everything my database provides, I never lose imperturbability, or high indifference, as a great nineteenth-century poet once put it, for the goal (finding a word’s origin) is hard to achieve and following the devious paths in pursuit of the truth is instructive and useful. Etymologists cannot be bored and share the delights of their profession with phoneticians. As regards phonetics, Otto Jespersen, a famous linguist, was right; however stupid a talk at a conference may be, one can always observe the speaker’s accent and thus profit by the experience.

The distant history of body evades researchers. Even the excellent etymological dictionary of Old High German, in an entry on a cognate of body, makes do with a survey and offers no recommendations. The sought-for solution is so unclear that some people traced the word to an obscure foreign language (the substrate), but it is rather improbable that the name for a basic physical structure should have been taken over from such a source. The word designating “body” in all the old Germanic languages was lik (with long i, as in Engl. Lee). English like (conjunction, adjective, and verb) goes back to it, and so does lychgate (lych “body”). If we look at serious rather than fanciful derivations of body, we’ll note that at one time the best language historians connected body with the verb bind, and did so with great conviction. However, it is an unpromising conjecture with respect to both sound and meaning.

More realistic attempts to etymologize body center on the words denoting receptacles, and here the story resembles the one familiar in connection with the origin of barrel (the subject of a relatively recent post). Etymologists wandered around Engl. butt “a large cask,” Old Engl. buterie “leather bottle” and byden “tub, vat, etc.,” German Bottich “tub” (compare Botticher “cooper”), Old Icelandic buðkr “box” (the word different from the source of booth), and a few others of the same type. None of them are unthinkable as the base of “body,” for a body is indeed a kind of box or casket. But they came to the Germanic-speaking world from Romance; their source could have been apotheca “wine cellar” or Medieval Latin buttis “vessel,” or some such word. The question is the same that suggested itself in connection with the substrate: Why should Germanic speakers have borrowed a basic word for “body” from foreigners when they had a native one?

In West Germanic, lik was ousted to the periphery. In German, its reflex Leiche means “corpse” (and the words for “body” are Körper, a borrowing of Latin corpus, and Leib, a cognate of leben “to live”), while, in English, lych also refers to the mortuary sphere and has hardly any independent currency. Body, from bodig, has (or rather had) a cognate only in Old High German, namely botah. Thus, the Old English and the Old German noun shared the root but differed in the suffixes: bod-ig versus bot-ah. A similar picture can be observed in the history of the English word ivy and its German congener Efeu.

Gin a body meet a body.
Gin a body meet a body.

What I am going to suggest is of course guesswork. I start from the existence of numerous words discussed in the previous posts: bad, bud, bed, bodkin, Swedish badd-are “something big,” Old Engl. beadu “battle” (with its Romance look-alikes), and Old Saxon undarbad-on “to frighten.” Some of them perhaps could have a long vowel in the root alternating with a long one. Their semantic base can be tentatively defined as “big, strong, requiring an effort, swelling (and therefore frightening).” Incidentally, body has once been tentatively compared with bud (by Ferdinand Holthausen), and among the oldest etymologies of body (it still has at least one influential supporter) we find bhu– “to swell” given as its ancient root. Yet I doubt that body has anything to do with any Indo-European root. It is more likely that in the Middle Ages, rather than in the days of Indo-European antiquity, Europe was swept by a wave of slang words beginning with b and ending in d. Perhaps some originated in baby language, while others owe their existence to jocular (“ludic”) popular usage. When an old noun referring to the structure of a living creature suddenly yields to an upstart, one is almost forced to admit that, excluding the possibility of a borrowing, a slang word triumphed over a respectable old-timer. At that period, it must have been “cool” to supply all kinds of qualities and things with b-d labels. So bod for lik appeared and, to conceal its low origin, allowed a suffix to be appended to it. Is this conjecture worthy of discussion? It is not for me to decide. Our bodies are fragile things. And so are most etymologies.

Image credits: (1) The Dust Heaps, Somers Town, 1836. Wellcome Images. CC BY 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons. (2) “Song LXXVI Gin a Body Meet a Body.” The Musical Repository. National Library of Scotland. CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 via digital.nls.uk. (3) Robert Burns. Portrait by Alexander Nasmyth. (1787) Scottish National Portrait Gallery. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. Jevgēnijs Kaktiņš

    Just wondering who that baby was playing with English spelling… As for body or probably better for bud, I could refer to Latvian poga (button) which stems from panga (oak gall) with ‘an’ turning into diphthong ‘uo’=’o’. It has similar etymology to pumpurs (bud) from pampt (to swell). This makes me think of the thorax and abdomen of the common oak gall wasp.

  2. […] promised in the previous post, I am going from body to bottom. No one attacked my risky etymology of body. Perhaps no one was sufficiently interested, or (much more likely) the stalwarts of the […]

  3. Wendell A Meggs

    My grandmother (born 1873) used the word ‘body” to refer to a person; As in ” a body could be hurt that way.” Is there any etymologcal link between ‘body’, as the physical structure of an individual, and ‘person’ refering to much more that simply
    the physical structure of an individual?

  4. Erika Butler

    The Old English word “bodig” also meant “stature, size of a person”. An example is the Old English translation of Historia Ecclesiastica:

    Wæs Oswine se cyning on bodige heáh “king Oswine was tall in stature”

    (Source: Bosworth-Toller’s An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary)

    “Bodige” here, the dative singular of bodig, means “stature”. I doubt very much that in this description of the tall stature of a renowned king, bodig was a slang word.

    Perhaps we should consider looking outside of Indo-European for the root? Bede in Book V Chapter 9 of his Historia Ecclesiastica claimed partial descent from the Huns for the Anglo-Saxons (Campbell, James; Essays in Anglo-Saxon History; pp. 53, 123-134), and the Huns were a prestigious group. Perhaps the Anglo-Saxons kept some Hunnic words, and bodig was one of them?

  5. Erika Butler

    (And sorry that cite of Campbell should be “pp. 53, pp. 123-124”).

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *