Those who read word columns in newspapers and popular journals know that columnists usually try to remain on the proverbial cutting edge of politics and be “topical.” For instance, I can discuss any word I like, and in the course of more than ten years I have written essays about words as different as dude and god (though my most popular stories deal with smut; I have no idea why). Journalists cannot always afford such luxury and either answer the most provocative questions from their readers or react to the latest events. For example, the President or some other important person said that we should put an end to “this boondoggle” (an imaginary example). Columnists jump on the bandwagon (or waggon, depending on where they live and how archaic they want to look) and discuss the origin of boondoggle. I too want to be popular, have a huge following, and cater to (or for, again, depending on where you live) millions of readers eagerly awaiting my essays. So today I decided to be political.
The idea of treating the word in the title is topical (to me) because my department has for years been trying to replace the faculty members who retired, semi-retired, or left for the greener grass on the other side of our campus. Sadly, some of our old friends have joined the choir invisible, while students are very visible (may they remain such forever!) and need instructors, preferably faculty member rather than adjuncts. Students are not particularly rank-conscious (they may even try to ingratiate themselves with a teaching assistant by calling a graduate student professor); yet they know something about our trials and tribulations. Bearing in mind the woes of Academia, I will devote this post to the history of the verb hire.
Strangely, this verb, though it existed in Old English (hyran, with long y) and has cognates elsewhere in West Germanic, has been declared a word “of uncertain origin.” In this context, no one knows the difference between uncertain, obscure, disputable, and unknown. Unknown perhaps means that nothing at all can be said about the history of the word; all the others seem to be interchangeable. In any case, no dictionary explains where Old Engl. hyran came from. But I think I do know the answer and hasten to enlighten the world. Some people may have read books with titles like Useful Knowledge (from William Bingley, 1816, to Gertrude Stein, 1929) and Nuggets of Knowledge. I am eager to supply a useful nugget.
It will be fair to say that, unrelated to the history of my department, my interest in the verb hire was piqued by a chance encounter with a note in the 1896 volume of The Nation. In the past, such periodicals regularly printed short articles on words and detailed reviews of dictionaries. Even not too long ago The New Yorker and Scientific American brought out significant publications on word histories. Today this practice seems to be dead. In The Nation, Fitzedward Hall, at that time a well-known authority and a caustic writer on the English language, suggested that the phrase hired man had been derived from Old Engl. hired “retinue, troop.” He repeated his idea in the next issue of The Nation for the same year, and, undoubtedly, believed that this idea had not occurred to anyone before him. To begin with, the idea is wrong, so that there was nothing to be particularly happy about. Second, Hall found himself in a situation familiar to most etymologists. He was not the first to connect hire and Old Engl. hired. John Minsheu offered the same conjecture in his 1617 (!) dictionary, Skeat toyed with it in 1882 but gave it up almost at once, and in 1910 Friedrich Kaufmann, a distinguished scholar of Germanic antiquities, repeated it. Both Skeat and Kaufmann were ignorant of their predecessors’ works on the verb hire. Having compiled a voluminous bibliography of English etymology, I know almost too well, how often students of word histories reinvent etymological wheels.
A look at old sources yields a most unimpressive list of the putative etymons of hire. Those Greek, Latin, and even Germanic words are not worth reproducing, let alone discussing here. Closer to our time, it has been suggested that hire is akin to Hittite kuššan “pay, fee, wages, price.” Hittite, it will be remembered, is an ancient Indo-European language that was spoken more than three thousand years ago by the people who inhabited what is now part of Turkey (Anatolia). Today it is dead. Some Hittite-Germanic parallels exist, though, as a matter of principle, it always causes surprise when we discover that an old Indo-European word has a reflex only so far in the east (in our case, in Turkey) and in the west (with regard to hire, in English, German, Dutch, and Frisian). One expects that some traces of the word would also have been extant somewhere in between. However, the discovery of the hire—kuššan parallel has been hailed as a welcome breakthrough in the difficult search for the origin of hire.
I have some vague ideas about the etymology of the Hittite noun, but they can be passed over in this essay. Suffice it say that, in my opinion, kuššan and hire have nothing to do with each other, for I believe that hire has the simplest Germanic etymology imaginable. There must have existed a West Germanic verb husján, with long u in the root and stress on the ending, for all –jan verbs had final stress. Its root was hus “house,” and the verb meant “to house.” By a rule known as Verner’s Law, Germanic spirants (a spirant is a consonant like f, s, and so forth, as opposed to a stop, that is, p, t, k, etc.) were voiced if stress followed them. Consequently, husján (whose existence I here assume) became huzján. Finally, such z in West and North Germanic became r (this process is called rhotacism); j caused umlaut, by which long u turned into long y; stress, as always in Germanic, was later shifted to the root, and the final product was hyran, the form recorded in Old English. Its modern reflex is hire.
I must apologize for the wealth of technical detail in the paragraph above, but etymology cannot always be discussed without recourse to such concepts as spirant, long vowel, final stress, initial stress, umlaut, rhotacism, and the like. Boondoggle would have been easier to explain. For the benefit of those who are bewildered by my presentation I will cite two parallels. Gothic has come to us as the language of the New Testament, so, naturally, the verb meaning “to save” occurs there more than once. It sounded as nasjan; its Old English cognate was nerian (e is the umlaut of a). The Gothic for “hear” was hausjan; the English etymon of hear is hieran ~ heran. Almost as though to confirm my reconstruction, speakers of Old English coined the verb husian “to receive into the house.” Husian was a late coinage, and therefore it underwent neither umlaut nor rhotacism and always had stress on the first syllable, but it was short-lived and did not continue even into Middle English, possibly ousted by its near synonym hyran.
If I am right, hire surfaced with the sense “to house,” possibly “to take into the house as a paid servant.” It was a neologism and remained confined to a rather narrow area. That is why it has no cognates in Greek, Latin, and elsewhere. Few etymological solutions are final, but the reconstruction offered above seems to possess a high degree of verisimilitude. Compare my discussion of Occam’s razor in etymology.
Image credits: (1) household staff of Curraghmore House, Portlaw, Co. Waterford, circa 1905. National Library of Ireland. Public domain via Flickr. (2) “Now hiring drug free workplace” in New Berlin, Wisconsin. Photo by jay from cudahy. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr. (3) Yellow Boondoggle. CC0 via Wikimedia Commons.