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You’ll be a man, my son. Part 2

This is the continuation of the story about the origin of the Germanic word for man. Last week I left off after expressing great doubts about the protoform that connected man and guma and tried to defend the Indo-European girl from an unpronounceable name. As could be expected, in their attempts to discover the origin of man etymologists cast a wide net for words containing m and n. Ghmonon, a cross between man and guma, reigned for a long time and was politely forgotten, though one can occasionally still see it in some books of questionable respectability. Some conjectures sound fanciful, even silly (for instance, “man is the last syllable of human”), and there is no need to review them here, but a few look or at one time looked persuasive, and references to them can be found in various dictionaries, especially the older ones. The most recent dictionaries are boringly noncommittal, so that the user comes away with very little information. Since no etymology is better than a wrong one, complaints would probably be out of place, especially because in much wisdom is much grief.

One of the oldest scholarly etymologies (perhaps even the oldest one) of man connected the Germanic word with Latin men ~ mentis, a gloss for and a cognate of Engl. mind (compare Engl. ment-al, dementia, etc.). According to a strong rule, Indo-European e can alternate only with o, not with a. Therefore, the authors of the men- ~ man hypothesis suggested that the earliest form of the Germanic word was mon, which only later became man. The assertion I once saw that the appearance of Latin a in the Latin e ~ o series should not trouble anyone sounds less than fully convincing. Neither the divine name Manus ~ Mannus discussed in the previous post (the learned term for a divine name is theonym) nor the Germanic forms support this reconstruction. Old Engl. mon, which alternated with man, is the product of a local rule, according to which Old Engl. a yielded o before n; mon has no value in establishing the etymon of the noun man. Besides, this etymology dissociates man from Manus ~ Mannus. The connection between the two is not a given, but ignoring it cannot be recommended.

Rodin on the etymology of man.
Rodin on the etymology of man.

We have seen that finding the origin of the word man presents great difficulties because it is not clear what we are looking for. What could such an ancient generic term signify, and why did people coin it? In any case, “man” as “thinker” looks quite improbable, and it did not appeal to anyone, among other things, because our distant ancestors believed that animals too could “think.” To save the situation, it was suggested that the root at the foundation of the Indo-European word meant “aroused” or “mentally alert”; Latin mentula “penis,” a word of obscure origin, seemed to offer support to the idea of arousal. A Greek-Slavic parallel was pressed into service, but it did not go too far. The question remained open until “think” was interpreted as “breathe.” Despite the broad approval of that interpretation, no one could explain how “think” developed into “breathe.” In etymology, as probably elsewhere in scholarship or at least everywhere in the humanities, authority counts for more than good logic, and the authority behind the think-to-breathe idea (Falk and Torp) was great. Numerous laudatory comments rewarded it, and it partly withstood the onslaught of time. According to James Murray, the OED’s first editor, who, incidentally, was never swayed by authority, the derivation of man from the root “think” prevailed not because it has merit but because “no plausible alternative explanation has been suggested.” Yet other explanations exist. Whether they are more plausible is a matter of opinion.

It has also been suggested that man is related to Latin manus “hand” (compare Engl. manuscript, manual, and so forth). George Hempl, the author of this idea, wrote “The figurative use of hand for the whole man is very natural and appears in almost every language. It refers to the hand as the skillful member and generally designates a laborer or a skillful person.” According to an interesting correction to this reconstruction, the development was from “hand” to “a group of people, team” and then to “man.” This idea met a critic, who pointed out that at the dawn of civilization, women did all the work. Since the dawn of civilization is a vague concept, the counterargument fell flat.

The problem with Hempl’s idea is that Lain manus has another well-established cognate in Old Germanic, namely mund ~ munt “hand,” while man– “hand” has not been attested. Gothic retained the adjective manwus “ready,” which Hempl, to buttress his derivation, glossed as “ready, at hand,” but, unfortunately, the origin of manwus is unknown, and I will again refer to the law I have so often mentioned in the past: an obscure word can never shed light on another equally obscure word (the same of course holds for Latin mentula). The widespread existence of the synecdoche “hand” / “man” needs no proof (compare farmhand, all hands aboard, and the like in English and elsewhere in Germanic). As one of Hempl’s defendants said: “If Walde [a distinguished German scholar who showed no enthusiasm for the “hand” / “man” idea] had grown on an American farm and had learned from actual experience how often man and hand are synonymous terms,” that idea would have appealed to him more. This is beyond the point. As far as I can judge, no word for “man” in the languages of the world goes back to the concept “hand.” Also, the god Mannus (or Manus) has again been left out of the picture, though the chance of the affinity of man to Mannus is higher than that of the relatedness between Latin manus and Germanic man.

Of the other more or less reasonable etymologies of man only a few deserve mention here. Can Latin manere “to stay, remain” or Latin mons “mountain” have something to do with man? Or should we have recourse to the Indo-European root men– “to rise, project” (“man as an erect being”)? In some Austronesian languages, the word for “man” coincides with those for “pole, stake, mast, trunk.” The idea of human beings as animated trees (but trees, not stakes) is widespread. Or does the root manu-, recorded in some Indo-European languages in the word for “little,” provide the sought-for clue (man as a growing creature)? It is usually taken for granted that we have to explain the initial meaning of the word man-, while the etymology of Man(n)us will take care of itself, for, allegedly, Man(n)us is simply “man.” However, who needs a god called “man”? I base my reconstruction on two assumptions: (1) the ancient Germanic god’s name and the word man are connected, and a solid etymology should not separate them, (2) rather than trying to guess the origin of man, we should attempt to understand the origin of the theonym Man(n)us (then perhaps a good solution will present itself).

What is a piece of work is man....
What is a piece of work is man….

Not too long ago, I devoted three posts to the origin of the word god. Perhaps it won’t be considered blasphemy on my part that I am going to devote equal space to man, for “What a piece of work is man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god!”

To be concluded.

Image credits: (1) Creation of man by Michelangelo. Sistine Chapel. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons. (2) Monkey. (c) RolfSt via iStock. (3) Creation of Adam by Paolo Uccello (1445). Public domain via WikiArt.

Recent Comments

  1. Jevgēnijs Kaktiņš

    This is inexhaustable topic, of course. Just curious what would be the name for non-human beings and not gods in Old English (deer? was there any?). Latvian cilvēks (man) and vilks (wolf) retains some similarity, though Latvian term is not transparent at all. Why was it wolf in werewolf? It is not clear whether cilvēks it is a compound, derivation or some old borrowing (chelovek). When it could take shape is not clear either (hopefully before homo sapiens was introduced). Strikingly both modern Latvian aculiecinieks and Russian ochevidec (eye-witness) share some similarity with the name of a man.

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