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The “Bottom” Line

As 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 etymological establishment don’t read this blog and have no idea that a week ago a mine was planted under one of their theories. When Dickens’s character Martin Chuzzlewit came to the United States, in New York he met a newspaper editor who didn’t doubt that Queen Victoria began every morning with reading what he had written the day before about Great Britain (it always was vituperation). Martin’s polite attempt to reassure the man was met with contemptuous disbelief. Unlike that editor, I have no illusions about the favorite reading of the greats but will proceed in the belief that no spoken or written word is lost without a trace. Unfortunately, the time between the sowing and “gleaning” may sometimes be too long.

Unlike body, which all dictionaries unanimously call a word of unknown origin, bottom looks deceptively transparent. Old Engl. botm (or boþm; þ was pronounced as th in Engl. thin) “valley” (note the meaning) has cognates in the other Germanic languages: Icelandic botn, Modern German Boden (it means “floor; ground; soil; earth; land”), Dutch bodem, and so forth. Within Germanic, only German Bühne “stage” (originally, “wooden structure”) may be related. More secure related forms have been recorded in Sanskrit, Greek, Celtic, and Latin, though Latin fundus (whose root is seen in Engl. foundation and the verb to found) has been explained as an alteration of fudnus, which it may well be. Unexpectedly, in the Old Germanic words bot alternated with bod, as also evidenced in an indirect way by Old Engl. botm ~ boþm, and the existence of two variants—one with t, and one with d—has bothered etymologists for decades. However, I’ll ignore this difficulty and confine myself to saying that years of involved speculation resulted in a rather unexciting conclusion; apparently, the word always had two variants. The subject of this essay will be not the phonetic shape but the etymology of bottom. What were the original connotations of bot– or bod-?

Here is somebody who even amidst a crazy midsummer night's dream could get to the bottom of things.
Here is somebody who even amidst a crazy midsummer night’s dream could get to the bottom of things.

It has been suggested that the initial meaning of our word was “land; earth,” but this suggestion is self-serving: it allowed researchers to trace bottom to the root of Latin fui “I was” and fieri “to become” and to move from “become” to “grow.” Yet it is more likely that in the remote past bottom referred first and foremost to the sea bottom, valleys, and all kinds of foundation. To make the next precarious step in this valley, we should now move to Slavic and Baltic. The Slavic for “bottom” is dno (so in Russian and Polish; in the other languages the forms are nearly the same). Its Proto-Slavic etymon was d’’bno (the double apostrophe stands for an ancient reduced vowel), as is made clear by Latvian dubens “bottom,” Lithuanian dubùs “deep,” and many other similar forms. Dub-ùs is related to Engl. deep, Gothic diup-s, etc., whose Germanic root was deop-. It follows that dno and its cognates meant “a deep place,” which accords perfectly with “valley” and “sea bottom.” If we look at d”b– (as in Proto-Slavic), we will notice that it is the mirror image of bod– (as, for example, in German Boden), with d-b versus b-d. It occurred to etymologists long ago that the sequence d-b is original, while elsewhere it had been reversed (the first to say so was Joseph Vendryes, an eminent and very cautious scholar). Naturally, this hypothesis cannot be proved, but one understands its appeal: the sense of b-d evades us, while the sequence d-b reflects the idea of depth, as in deep.

There has been at least one more attempt to explain the origin of bottom ~ boden ~ botn. Today few people remember the name of the Swiss linguist Wilhelm Oehl. He wrote relatively little, but in the first third of the twentieth century his articles and his little book about words for babbling were referred to in the best works by historical linguists. He also served as Rector (President) of Freiburg University in Switzerland. Oehl had what one can call an agenda (a polite synonym for a bee in the bonnet), a stimulating but dangerous thing in scholarship. In his opinion, hundreds of words we still use were coined as sound symbolic or sound-imitating formations. He showed little interest in Indo-European roots for, according to his idea, words arise, live for a certain time, and disappear, to be replaced by new words of the same structure. The impulse for their creation, he explained, remains the same forever. That is why he compared numerous words in unrelated languages, and it should be admitted that, bee or no bee, his lists are impressive. But he often saw light where few others could detect it. Like all those who deal with roots, he tended to switch consonants, substitute one consonant for another, and in the end get what he was looking for. Sound correspondences in the traditional sense of this term did not bother him, but, since he was a knowledgeable philologist, he managed to avoid the absurdities that taint most theories of deriving all words of all languages from a small number of sound complexes. His works are interesting and instructive, regardless of the plausibility of each detail.

A triumph of globalization: sound symbolism without borders.
A triumph of globalization: sound symbolism without borders.

Oehl compared bottom with Greek tópos “place” and Slavic pod “the foundation of the hearth, etc.” He looked on the complexes bod, top, and pod as evoking the idea of stuffing (filling, ramming). This etymology is not too persuasive, but the congeners of pod do have meanings fully corresponding to that of bottom. The Czech form means “soil, ground,” and next to it we find Latvian pads “floor,” Greek pédon “soil,” and of course Engl. foot. When we encounter the sound groups bod ~ bot, pod, and top next to d-b meaning almost the same, we begin to agree that Oehl might have had a point and that the idea of d-b becoming b-d leads us to some roots purporting to render the idea of “stuffing” (ramming) and thereby producing holes, hollows, and other “deep” things, including valleys. Definitive proof is unavailable. Everything depends on how far we are ready to go in reconstructing the remotest past. I may return to this vexing subject in the post on the word path. Also, I am sure our readers will be gratified to know that Engl. top is a word of questionable origin (despite multiple cognates in Germanic), while pod is almost totally obscure, unless it is one of many words like bud and pudding, with the roots b-d and p-d denoting swelling, with which we are back in the sound symbolic swamp.

Even if Oehl was to a certain extent right, I think we needn’t lump together bottom and body. Assuming that despite the evidence of Slavic and Baltic the original root of bottom was b-d rather than d-b, the old cognates of bottom in so many languages testify to the word’s antiquity, while body, I think, was coined relatively late. However, both words may testify to the validity of Oehl’s general approach; the same sound groups are able, it appears, to arise many times in different parts of the world carrying roughly the same meaning.

Featured image: (1) Baby talk. (c) vinnstock via iStock. (2) Typical tales of fancy, romance, and history from Shakespeare’s plays (1892). The Library of Congress. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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  1. […] am returning to Wilhelm Oehl, whose ideas figured prominently in the post of 21 October. One of his articles deals with the word for “foot” in the languages of the world. From Bantu […]

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