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Our habitat: booth

This post has been written in response to a query from our correspondent. An answer would have taken up the entire space of my next “gleanings,” and I decided not to wait a whole month.

Although we speak about telephone booths, in Modern English, booth more often refers to a temporary structure, and so it has always been. The word came to English from Scandinavia. In its northern shape it is most familiar to those who have read Icelandic sagas. Medieval Iceland was settled by colonists from Norway (mainly) and had no royalty. To settle legislative issues, free farmers from the entire country met at the general assembly (“parliament”) called Alþingi (þ = th); there also were local “things.” People naturally traveled on horseback, and, to reach the field where the assembly was held, some participants needed many days. There they set up “booths.” The annual meeting lasted two weeks, so that booths remained empty for most of the year. They could be called temporary only because they were not occupied the whole time. Sentences like: “So-and-so arrived at the Alþingi and set up a booth” should probably be understood as meaning that the owner furnished the abode anew. Such abodes varied greatly, depending on the farmer’s wealth and pretensions. In any case, they were certainly not mere tents, for a common scene describes guests entering a booth and being entertained there.

This is a modern view of the place where in the Middle Ages the Icelandic General Assembly was held.
This is a modern view of the place where in the Middle Ages the Icelandic General Assembly was held.

The word first surfaced in English in the thirteenth century in a poem called Ormulum, about which something was said in the post of 9 December 2015 (it dealt with the adjective blunt, another item of the English vocabulary that surfaced first in that work). The author of the poem, Orm or Ormin, spoke a dialect that was full of northern words. The origin of the noun booth poses no questions. Its root is -, as in the Old Icelandic verb búa “to live,” while –th is a suffix, as in Engl. death, birth, dearth, and others, in which it is no longer felt to be an independent element. Originally, the word must have meant “dwelling,” the most neutral name for a human habitat imaginable. The same root can be seen in the English verb build, from Old Engl. byldan “to construct a house” (its modern spelling was discussed on May 2, 2008, in one of my oldest contributions to the series “The Oddest English Spellings”). Old English had bold “dwelling, house”; its cognates—Old Frisian bōdel, Old Saxon bodl, and Old Icelandic ból—meant the same. In principle, the Icelandic word had to be bóþ, but it took over its vowel from the verb búa.

Also Engl. bower, from būr, has the same root. Like its Germanic cognates, it once meant simply “dwelling.” This word is a delight of the students of Old High German, for it occurs in the famous poem (song) about the hero Hildebrand, who went into exile with his lord and left his wife and small son in such a būr (in modern editions, vowel length in Old High German words is usually designated by the circumflex: ū = û). This būr corresponds to Engl. bower “a lady’s boudoir.” It is as though some words are destined to move up or down. English būr has narrowed and ameliorated its meaning (not just a dwelling but a lady’s apartment), while its German cognate Bauer deteriorated and fell from “dwelling” to “birdcage.” (And here is a small excursus on gender studies. Old High German būr was masculine, while Old Engl. būr was neuter. English has providentially lost gender distinctions, contrary to German, which still has the masculine, the feminine, and the neuter, so that Engl. bower is just bower. But German Bauer is now predominantly neuter, as was its Old English cognate! The neuter must have been chosen to distinguish Bauer “cage” from Bauer “farmer.”)

Yes, Bauer “farmer,” a word rather well-known outside the German-speaking area, is historically just “a settler.” It once had a prefix and had the form gibūr but lost it; hence the later homonymy with Bauer “birdcage.” English speakers are well aware of the Dutch/Low German cognate of Bauer, namely boor, and, of course, many people still remember that the military history of the bloody twentieth century began with the Anglo-Boer War, by 1900 already in full swing. Engl. boor and boorish have strong negative connotations, which is not surprising. In the usage of feudal Europe, the source of gentility was towns (compare urban and urbane), while coarseness was associated with rough and uncultivated peasants (compare village and villain, both from French, and rustic, ultimately from Latin rūs “village”). Modern Dutch distinguishes boer “peasant, farmer,” bouwer “builder,” and buur “neighbor.” It is buur that interests us most, because Engl. neighbor, from nēah-ge-būr, meant someone who lives near, literally, “nigh.” We have seen Old High German gi-būr and recognize its analog in the Old English form.

Here is one of the sad scenes from the Anglo-Boor War.
Here is one of the sad scenes from the Anglo-Boor War.

And now we should return to our booths. English had no cognate of Old Icelandic búþ, for booth, as noted, is a loan from Scandinavian. But German Bude “hut” is a regular congener of the Scandinavian noun. Although it surfaced late, it seems to be old. Those who have read my post on the etymology of house (21 January 2015; it was followed by a post on the unrelated home) will remember that this Germanic word made its way into Old Slavic. Once upon a time, hūs seems to have meant “shed” or “hut.” The most general word designating a human dwelling has a lower chance of being borrowed than the name of a special structure: shieling, booth, shanty, shack, hovel, and their likes. Words pertaining to shepherds’ culture are especially prone to migrate; see also below. German Bude (or its earlier form buode) has penetrated all Slavic languages. Russian has budka; k is a diminutive suffix. Elsewhere in Slavic the forms are also buda, budka, bouda (note this Czech word), and so forth. The senses differ little: “hut,” “stall (at a fair),” and often “a little house made of tree branches.” In Old Russian, buda occurred once and meant something like “a plaited coffin.” One can ask how we know that the word was borrowed by Slavic from German and not the other way around. The answer is obvious: buda is opaque and has no Slavic etymology, while Germanic booth is transparent. By the way, Engl. abode has nothing to do with this story. It is related to the verb abide, from which we have bide and which meant “to wait,” as in bide one’s time. An original abode was a place for waiting rather than living.

This is a picture of a shieling. Such primitive abodes have names that travel easily from land to land.
This is a picture of a shieling. Such primitive abodes have names that travel easily from land to land.

Curiously, in German we also find the word Baude “a shepherd’s mountain hut,” which turned up in texts only in 1725. If it were a regular continuation of buode, it would have had a different phonetic shape. That is why there is a consensus (a rare thing in etymological studies) that Baude is a borrowing from Czech—a curious but not too rare case of a word moving back and forth from language to language. Students of English know how very often Old Romance borrowed words from Old Germanic (the intermediaries were usually the Franks), and how much later the French reflexes of those words resurfaced in Middle English and thus returned to their Germanic, even if not quite their original, home.

Certain quotations have been trodden to dust, and no author with a grain of self-respect should use them. One of them is habent sua fata libelli “books have their fates.” Never mind books. My point is that words also have their fates (habent sua fata verba). They are born, flourish, fight, disappear, and travel from land to land. They did not have to wait for the term globalization to cross tribal and national borders.

Image credits: (1) Iceland, Thingvellir by jemue, Public Domain via Pixabay. (2) Anglo-Boer War by Skeoch Cumming W, Public Domain via Wikipedia (3) “Lone shieling” by Tim Bryson, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons. Featured image: Rustic Cabin by Unsplash, Public Domain via Pixabay

Recent Comments

  1. Scott

    I’m guessing this would also be the origin for the Scottish term ‘boothy’ for a wilderness hut.

  2. Jevgēnijs Kaktiņš

    It is amazing how words sometimes follow the same patterns over languages (like cloth/Kleid, both/beide, loth/Leid, tooth, sooth) but sometimes others (like moth, broth). Actually “bauen” and “brauen” technology has left its traces in Latvian “būvēt” (Latvian word for this process is “celt”) and “brūvēt”. Build follows the same pattern as guild and this seemingly brings us back at least to Hanseatic times. What about town building in the UK?

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