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Bosom friends, bosom serpents, and breast pockets

Last week I mentioned my “strong suspicion” that bosom has the same root (“to inflate”) as the verb boast. As a matter of fact, it was a conviction, not a suspicion, but I did not want to show my cards too early. Before plunging into matters etymological, perhaps something should be said about the word’s bizarre spelling. The Old English form was bōsm. (The sign—it is called macron—over the vowel designates length. I finally decided to start using this diacritic rather than explaining every time: long o as in Modern Engl. awe in the pronunciation of those who distinguish shah and Shaw. My exasperation reached the breaking point several weeks ago, when I was explaining to a student that the past tense of a certain verb has long o. “Yes, I understand,” he replied: “Ah.” Enough is enough.) By the Great Vowel Shift, the change to which we owe today’s pronunciation of Engl. a, e, i, and o, among others, closed ō became ū. In Modern English orthography, it is rather regularly designated by oo. The sound may be short (as in good) or long (as in food). Therefore, foreigners seeing hood for the first time tend to mispronounce it. In many Middle English words, short u often yielded the vowel we hear in come and other, which, unfortunately, do not rhyme with dome and bother. Our foreigner is now nonplused by smother, over, hover and shove. However, there is hardly any other English word in which single o designates short u, as it does in bosom. To be sure, s between vowels is also ambiguous: compare cease and tease, but this is a relatively minor nuisance. Conclusion: modern spelling must be destroyed — delenda est.

Bosom has cognates in all the West Germanic languages (German, Dutch, Old Saxon, and Old Frisian), but not in Scandinavian. In Gothic it did not turn up either. Most probably, it was a West Germanic coinage that did not spread to the neighboring areas. However, its etymology seems to have been discovered, so that the statement origin unknown in our dictionaries has no justification. We can dismiss as unprofitable guessing the early attempts to derive bosom from Greek and French, from the word bath (because the bosom is full of warmth), and from some verb meaning “to beget, to produce.”

Dead boughs and a dead end for this etymology
Dead boughs and a dead end for this etymology

In this case, serious study began with Jacob Grimm. The German congener of bosom is Busen, and Grimm’s forms were also German, but I will substitute English equivalents for them. He considered a tie between bosom and either bow “to bend” or bow “the front of the ship,” or possibly bough. Though all of them had the same root (bug-, bog-, etc.: don’t miss final –g!), the choice of the form is important for semantic reconstruction. Depending on our preference, bosom emerges as a bent thing or as the front of the body, or as something rounded. Bough is especially attractive, because in Old English it meant “shoulder”; bosom could then be interpreted as the distance between the shoulders. The similarity between the phonetic shape of bosom and fathom was noticed long before Grimm. Indeed, both words have the same ancient suffix, and fathom once meant “embrace.” Friedrich Kluge shared Grimm’s view of Busen. For a long time he was looked upon, quite deservedly, as the greatest specialist in the area, and few people chose to disagree with him. (However, his pupils and followers, in the posthumous editions of his etymological dictionary of German, revised the entry. This is a feat without analogs in English: no one dared to revise Skeat’s masterpiece.)

It is at this stage that both Skeat and Murray found the scholarship on bosom. Skeat tentatively accepted Grimm’s etymology, while Murray neither endorsed nor rejected it. Nor did he hide behind the rather common advice to consult Mueller and Wedgwood (“and others”) for details. Mueller, a serious German etymologist of English, about the only predecessor whom Skeat respected, had nothing interesting to say (the entry in the second edition is more reasonable than in the first), while Wedgwood, incomprehensibly, omitted bosom; it is absent from all four editions of his dictionary.

Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm. They were not only brothers but also bosom friends
Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm. They were not only brothers but also bosom friends

Grimm’s idea had a fatal flaw: it depended on the presence of either g or h after the vowel in bosom ~ Busen. No recorded form has any trace of such a consonant, and no one can explain why it disappeared if it ever stood there. For some time, researchers kept offering improved versions of the mythic bogsom or bohsom, but this was evidently a dead end. Later, the study of the origin of bosom became more realistic, but English lexicographers ignored the progress made since the appearance of the first volume of the OED and, as noted, found refuge in the fireproof verdict “origin unknown.” The users can think that no one has even tried to break the spell on this dismally misspelled word. Even Skeat, who followed the scholarly literature until the end of his life, stated in the fourth (last) edition of his dictionary (1910), after mentioning the most plausible hypothesis on bosom, that its origin is unknown!

Early etymologists were not quite sure where in the word bosom the root ended and the suffix began bosom or bosom? As we have seen, the oldest form was bōsm; consequently, in both German and English the second vowel is not original. Such insertions (epentheses) are common before m and n. At present, some people pronounce chasm, spasm, orgasm, and the like with a clearly audible schwa between s (that is, z) and m. When preceded by a vowel, groups of this type form a syllable regardless of schwa, and it matters little that garden has the letter e after d, while in rhythm m occurs immediately after th. German Busen once also ended in -m (its –n is relatively late; Dutch, like English, retained –m: boezem), and, if Engl. bosom were spelled bosem or bosam, or bosum, nothing would have changed with regard to its pronunciation. Old words of similar structure (for example, fathom and besom, from fæþm and besma ~ besema) show that the suffix in bōsm was –m.

Double-breasted, not double-bosomed.
Double-breasted, not double-bosomed.

The root bōs – compares effortlessly with Sanskrit bhās – and yields the sense “to blow, to puff.” Bōsm must have been coined to denote the swelling of the breast. And this is what Skeat said in the fourth edition of his dictionary. It is therefore puzzling why he added the origin unknown phrase to his conclusion. Bows and boughs are now “out of the saga.” The origin of bosom is known, and we only have to understand why the speakers of West Germanic needed this word in addition to the Common Germanic breast, but, to answer this question, we need an essay on breast, its meaning and etymology. Such an essay cannot be given as a postscript to the present story. Perhaps later, if I have enough to say on the subject, I’ll return to breast. In the meantime, our readers may consult my old post on brisket.

Bosom is a more elevated word than breast, though in many cases they are interchangeable. Thus, noble feelings can fill one’s breast and rage in one’s bosom, but breast pockets cannot be called bosom pockets, and bosom friends cannot be called breast friends. Yet a bosom serpent lives inside the body: neither in the bosom nor in the breast. Usage is capricious. More than a century ago, it was suggested that bosom had at one time meant “woman’s breast,” with reference to Latvian pups “woman’s breast” and paupt “to swell up.” This idea occurs in at least two later good dictionaries, but it has probably to be rejected because the same Germanic word could mean “bosom” and “womb” (both swelled), and German has developed so many senses of Busen, including “sea bay” (the main meaning), “funnel,” and “jacket” (both dialectal), that the development from “a woman’s breast” seems unlikely. Bosom was coined to designate a broad, inflatable surface. Could fathom influence bosom? Hardly so, but the spelling with –om may indeed owe its origin to the proximity of the two nouns.

Image credits: (1) Хмиз. Photo by В.С.Білецький. CC0 via Wikimedia Commons. (2) Doppelporträt der Brüder Jacob und Wilhelm Grimm by Elisabeth Jerichau-Baumann (1855). Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons. (3) José Guilherme Macieira by Charles Chusseau-Flaviens. George Eastman House. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. John Cowan

    A useful pedagogical device for teaching [ɑ] vs. [ɔ] to anglophones with the caught-cot merger is to point out that the first is the vowel of Ahhhhh! the grunt of satisfaction, whereas the second is the vowel of Awwww!, the cry of sympathy (genuine or ironic). Because these are paralinguistic rather than linguistic, they are not affected by the merger, and the distinction can be both heard and produced by all anglophones, merged or not.

    Fathom does still mean ’embrace’ in the context of fathoming trees, which is putting one’s arms around them to measure their diameter (it may take several persons if the tree is big enough). The figurative use of the verb is also still current: to fathom a subject is to embrace it mentally and so comprehend it.

    The pronunciation of other is a bit mysterious: why should it have shifted from short o to short u (and thus into the FOOT-STRUT split) after its orthography became fixed? Come is a purely orthographic change: writing o for u prevented the appearance of five consecutive minims. Put is also a bit mysterious, as it resisted the FOOT-STRUT split (it would be expected to rhyme with but) for no apparent reason.

  2. Jevgēnijs Kaktiņš

    Latvian relation to bosom is somehow unlikely as other words such as pupa (bean) and pūpols (willow-catkins) are also related with the meaning of swelling as of pūst (to blow), uzpūsties (to bloat). Pupi (plural for pups) sounds more like a slang. Semantically translation of bosom to Latvian is not the easy one. As primary meaning for bosom would be azote (Lith. už-antis, Latin ante) where you can nourish/warm a viper but it would hardly used for friendship. This relates to space between the breast and a shirt.

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