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Not a dog’s chance, or one more impenetrable etymology

Part 2: “Bitch” and its fight with does, goats, grasshoppers, and snakes

Unlike tyke, bitch can boast of respectable ancestors, because its Old English form (bicce) has been recorded. The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology notes that bicce is obscurely related to Old Icelandic bikkja (the same meaning). The OED online never uses the phrase obscurely related, and this is a good thing, for this verbal formula, which so often occurred in the past, is itself obscure.  As regards bitch, it must have meant that the complexes bicc-e and bikkj-a do not correspond to each other sound by sound (bicce has no j).  However, let the presence of j in bikkja and its absence in bicce be the smallest of our worries. The English word’s shadowy congeners are also German Petze “bitch” and French biche, from Old French bisse “doe, hind.”

A hind and a bitch. Not related.

Petze certainly resembles bitch. The sounds, designated by (t)ch in English and tz in German, are called affricates. In native words, they develop from simple stops: (t)ch usually goes back to k, and ts to t, so that once more we have an imperfect match, this time bik– versus pet-. The first consonant need not bother us: in German dialects, b and p alternate freely for the reasons that are of no consequence here. The i ~ e variation is common in the words of this type. But bisse should, most probably, be disregarded. According to the opinion of most modern Romance etymologists (and in this respect they differ from their predecessors), bisse goes back to Latin bēstia “animal” or rather its later popular form bīstia and has no ties to Germanic. I will assume that they know better, disregard the controversial moments,  and only note that in dialects the French word sometimes means “grasshopper” (!), while in Old French it might perhaps also mean “snake.” The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology also mentions Saami pittja “bitch,” and “of bikkja there is a synonym grey/baka.” In greybaka it is of course baka that interests us. Bikke, bikkja, –baka and pittja are a poorly assorted pack, but, as we’ll see, it (not the pack but the impersonal it) will go from bad to worse.

This is the ash heap of history. Many old etymologies belong here.

The old attempts to derive bitch from bite or from some Hebrew word can be relegated to what journalists call the ash heap of history. It is only worth observing that the story of bitch resembles that of tyke, the word discussed last week. We have seen that the same sound complex often designates “tyke” and “female goat” (German Ziege and others). Apparently, the meaning of the etymon, whatever its ultimate origin, was “female animal,” or “small animal,” with the concrete reference varying from dialect to dialect and from language to language. A look at the dialectal map of Germany shows that the meanings of Petze also vary along the familiar lines. Words like Bätzel (-el is a diminutive suffix) designate “lamb” and “calf.” Whether they have anything to do with Old Engl. bicce is unclear. A common German dialectal noun Batzen means “lump.” Not improbably, Bätzel “lamb, calf” developed from the meaning “something soft.” In English, the word for “animal” (such as German Tier) acquired the sense deer, for deer were the most often hunted animals. Is this why bēstia “beast” yielded French biche ~ bisse “doe”? But then there are “snake” and “grasshopper,” and this is most unusual.

We have pet– ~ bät– (that is, bet-) ~ bic-, as the basis of “bitch,” “calf,” and “lamb” (add to them bak-, the second element of greybaka) and then look around and discover that Dutch big means “pig.” The origin of both pig and big is “unknown,” though the safest dictionaries state with perhaps undue severity that big and pig are not related (no phonetic law will justify the variation b ~ p between Dutch and English). They never ask whether the English adjective big has anything to do with the animal name big ~ pig. Late Old Icelandic píka means “girl” and is supposedly a borrowing of Finnish piika, via Old Swedish, and of course we have not forgotten Saami pittja “bitch.” Some may wonder whether the eternal questions about the relations between Swedish pojke and Finnish pojke “boy” and their strong resemblance to Engl. boy has anything to do with our story. Indeed they do.

I have on many occasions mentioned the fact that the sound complex bag ~ bug ~ pak ~ puk, with endlessly varying consonants travel over half of Eurasia and turn up in such English words as puddle, pudding, bag, bug, bogey, Puck, bog, pig, Russian buka “bogeyman,” its synonym biaka (now a baby word), and dozens of others.  They denote puffy, swollen objects, as well as objects capable of swelling and instilling fear. (Incidentally, in Native American languages, words like bi’ku “bitch,” with different vowels and b alternating with p, have also been recorded.)  That many names for “small child” and “small animal” belong here can hardly be disputed. Female animals and their young are close neighbors. Is bitch a member of this fluid group? Perhaps. We suspect affinity but cannot prove it. As soon as we leave the Platonian shelter of the wall, that is, regular sound correspondences, we are thrown back to the age of medieval speculation.

While dealing with bitch, –baka, the second element of greybaka, is especially interesting. In bicce, the long consonant (cc) is typical of emphatic words, terms of endearment, nicknames, and pet names, so that bic (that is, bik-) and bak- are compatible in the same vague sense in which bag and bug are. I realize how crazy my next suggestion is, but does Russian sobaka “dog” (stress on the second syllable) contain the element –baka? Sobaka, a word little known in Slavic outside Russian, is a feminine noun, but it is the animal’s generic name. Russian words for “male dog” and “female dog” exist: kobel’ (stress on the second syllable) and suka, both of unknown or, let us say, disputable origin. Could sobaka be a blend of suka and the migratory baka, with su– becoming so-, under the influence of the extremely common prefix so- (as in the internationally known words so-iuz, so-viet, etc.)? Serious people will laugh me to scorn, and I’ll be the first to join in the laughter. But the origin of the obviously non-native sobaka has been searched far and wide, with practically no results. Why not shoot an arrow into the air?

It arouses astonishment that just bitch has become one of the most offensive words in the language; English is not an exception. All over the world, bitch means “whore,” and the phrase son of a bitch is universal. I’ll briefly touch on this question in my post on dog. But before that I have to say something about cubs. Here I would like to add only two small things. Swedish has the word årbigga “cantankerous woman.” Many sources state the –bigga is related to bitch and Icelandic bikkja. An excellent paper, written on this word a century ago, called this conclusion into question and did an excellent job of it. Finally, the English verb bicker is, most probably, not related to bitch. To bicker is distinct from to bitch. I mentioned this fact in my post on the history of bigot.

Featured image credit: Dog by Savanna de los Santos, Public Domain via Pixabay. Images in text: (1) “She has a message!” by smerikal, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr. (2) “Doe grazing” by Alex Ristea, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr (3)  “Čeština: Zbytek dřeva na ohništi” by Dezidor, CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. Peter Maher

    The Russian word for dog SOBAKA is from an Iranian language: SPAKA.

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