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Down to earth, or moving slowly, with the body close to the ground: “creep” and “crawl”

My travel through the English kr-words began with the verb creep, for I have for a long time tried to solve its mystery. On the face of it, there is no mystery. The verb has existed in Germanic from time immemorial, with cognates all over the place. Its Old English form was crēopan, with the past singular crēap, past plural crupon, and past participle cropen. Consequently, it was a so-called strong verb, which means that to form its principal parts, one had to change the root vowel, as we do in Modern Engl. rise—rose—risen and its likes. Later, creep joined the verbs sleep (slept, slept) and weep (wept, wept), each with its own long and complicated history, quite different from that of creep.

A classic creeper.
A classic creeper.

Once I saw the form cropen, I wondered whether Modern Engl. crop has anything to do with it. Crop “the produce harvested at one time” interested me most, though crop “a bird’s craw” seemed also worthy of a look. My search was rewarded by two opinions: (1) the ancient root of creep, I read, meant “to bend” (also, I thought, perhaps “to cut with a sickle?”), so that crop “harvest” is related to this verb, and (2) the root underlying crop is different from that of creep; consequently, the two words have nothing in common. I could not have been enlightened more. But in the crepuscular world of etymology straight is the gate but narrow is the way that leads to it. In any case, crop “harvest” and crop “craw” can, as it seems to me, be traced to the sense “upper part.”

A classic crawler.
A classic crawler.

I had better luck with cripple. The word goes back to Old Engl. crēopel and its doublet crypel (with y by umlaut from u, as in crupon, above). Obviously, in the remote past, creep had a broader meaning than it has today. Eorþcrypel meant “paralyzed person” (eorþ “earth”), someone unable to rise from the “earth.” Crupon made me think of crumple and crumbCrumb, like dumb and thumb, acquired its final b (in spelling!) late: its oldest attested form is cruma. The presence of m did not bother me, for m and n were often inserted in ancient roots. However, the etymology of crumb turned out to be “unclear,” and it was not crumb but German krumm “crooked” that led me to the sense “bend.” I have an uneasy feeling that crumb is also a member of that family, but I always remember James Murray’s injunction to the people whom he occasionally asked for help: “I need facts, not opinions.” Cowed by the great man, I must confess that I have no facts proving the affinity of crumb to German krumm.

Crumple turned out to be akin to cramp and crimp “wrinkle,” scrimp “scanty,” and shrimp. (The presence of initial s- is trivial: I have often written about the so-called s-mobile, or movable s, a consonant that was gratuitously added to many roots.) Meeting shrimp was like running into an old friend, for on 18 April 2012, I wrote a post on it. Things began to come together. “Bend ~ bent,” creep, cripple, “scanty,” “crooked,” cramp, German schrumfen “to shrivel” (from the older schrimfen), shrimp (a tiny creature), crumple, crimple, and, I hope, crumb (another minuscule thing) seem to imply the opposite of straight, upright, big, and self-sufficient. (Dare I add scrumptious “delicious” to that list? It is a late Americanism that once meant “particular, fastidious,” that is, “discriminating, able to see small things”; usually scrumptious is explained as sumptuous, with r added for emphasis.) Some dictionaries point to the underlying idea of “hook” (a thing bent) and add crutch ~ crook, cringe, crank, crinkle, and German krank “ill, sick” (from the earlier meaning “small, weak”) to the series. The most careful etymologists warn the enthusiasts not to jump to conclusions, for in casting the net so broadly one never knows where to stop.


Those who warn us of the dangers of etymological greed are right. The feeling of unease increases when one realizes that, if the Germanic root was approximately ker– or kre-, with various vowels, its non-Germanic cognate must have begun with g-. Once we rush to add consonants (p, t, k) to ker- ~ kre-, the family expands to double its size. Hooks, for example, show up in the least unexpected places. Old French had graper “to harvest grapes,” from which we have grape (remember how crop “harvest” can possibly be obtained from crop “cut”?). Also, sadly, we can reconstruct problematic ancient roots and produce families like the one being discussed here, but we can never explain why a certain combination of sounds acquired the meaning known to us today, except when we have a clear case of sound imitation (with sound symbolism, though it certainly exists, we are on more slippery ground). So what was there in the group kr– to suggest closeness to earth, bending, and weakness? We will hardly ever know.

Perhaps the speakers of Indo-European did have a root beginning with gr-, or perhaps only some words that have caught our attention go back to this root, and the rest joined them later. In Germanic, gr– is associated with grimness, growling (sound imitation?), and for some reason being able to seize things (hence gripe, grip, grope, and grab). But grow and gray also begins with gr-. We are left with the suspicion that hundreds of old words were born from the accidental rubbish of everyday speech and that trying to find the reasons for discovering the union of sound and sense is in most cases a wild goose chase.

There could have been a sound symbolic element in the verb creep alone, because its final consonant varied with k, as evidenced by German kriechen (-ch goes back to –k). Most old scholars who dealt with the etymology of creep tried to account for the alternation, but nothing of great value has been said about the subject. Perhaps once upon a time creupan- presupposed a movement slightly different from that designated from kreuchan-. Creeping makes one think of a worm, a snake, a caterpillar, or ivy.

As though there was not enough trouble with the history of creep, in the fourteenth century English borrowed crawl from Scandinavian. The lending language had the form krafla. This verb has well-known cognates, for example, Dutch krabben and krabbelen. They meant “scratch,” so that creeping referred to the movement of a worm and a snake, while crawl designated moving on the ground the way crabs do. Incidentally, scratch, with movable s-, along with its German cognate kratzen, does not sound too different from creep: the same kr– and a vowel between it and the final consonant. The initial group kl– refers to things slippery and sticky, while kr– makes or made people think of bending and staying bent. This is interesting, but I am not going to embark on another journey like the one I left behind when I let my clown bow out.

Now that we have parted with shrimp, it is only fair to welcome crab: a crab is a crawler, a scratcher, not a creeper. With regard to the adjective crabbed, I can’t do any better than to quote The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology: “Crabbed, with original reference to the gait and habits of the crab, which suggest cross-grained or fractious disposition; cf. for meaning Low German krabbe cantankerous man, krabbig contentious, cross-grained, and for formation dogged.” Isn’t the English adjective a borrowing from Low German? Be that as it may, it does not seem that English speakers always make a clear distinction between creep and crawl, for otherwise they would not have coined the adjective creepy-crawly. And a final flourish. Whatever the ultimate origin of the family name Crawley, it is different from that of the verb crawl.

Thackeray's Sir Pitt Crawley at the most crucial moment of his life.
Thackeray’s Sir Pitt Crawley at the most crucial moment of his life.

Images: (1) Grass Snake by Hans, Public Domain via Pixabay (2) Crab by Hans Dietmann, Public Domain via Pixabay (3) Spin arthropods by Paul Sprengers, Public Domain via Pixabay (4) Francis, 1st Marquess of Hastings (Earl of Moira) by Ashuvashu, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons. Featured image: Baby Boy Crawling by lisa runnels, Public Domain via Pixabay.

Recent Comments

  1. TB

    there is your originating onmatopeia or ‘ono ma to pjeje’

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