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Coming out of the fog

This is a postscript to last week’s post on fog. To get my point across, as they say, let me begin with a few short remarks on word origins, according to the picture emerging from our best dictionaries. My remarks pertain to Indo-European. We are told that once upon a time many roots existed, for example, digh-, ger-, and the like. They were allegedly endowed with certain meanings. Thus, digh– meant “nanny goat.” By contrast, there were presumably six different ger’s: “to gather,” “to grow old,” “curving, crooked,” “to cry hoarsely,” and “to awaken.” Those roots were abstracted from the words in various languages that are obviously or supposedly (sic) related. The units in question can be even shorter: for instance, leu– is said to coexist with its “extended” offspring or cousins leud-, leug-, leuk-, and leup-, among others. At some time, etymologists seem to have believed that such roots floated around before words. I think Skeat, if I understand him correctly, held this view. The problem with it is that, except perhaps digh, the complexes ger-, leu-, and so forth have never been attested as separate words, unlike, for instance, Engl. work vis-à-vis worker, workman, workable, and the forms works, worked, and working. Therefore, the status of the reconstructed Indo-European roots, as I presented them above, remains unclear.

A root presupposes a tree, doesn't it?
A root presupposes a tree, doesn’t it?

Those who have followed this blog for some time may remember my conclusions about the origin of the words bed, bad, and dog, among others. The complexes I set up resemble ger-, leud-, and their kin, but they were real words with equally real variants. For instance, when we discover (in English) the complex big, we can expect the existence of pig, pug, bug, bog, bag, and pod, with vague reference to “swollen.” None of them has to be older than another, whatever the date of their attestation in texts (though, of course, they are not contemporaneous), and whether they really belong together is open to discussion. Researchers have only two fears: to be the first in launching a great discovery (because if in so many years a brilliant conjecture has not occurred to anyone else, it is probably wrong) and not to be the first (for fear of making a lot of noise and being told that one’s pet idea was put forward quite some time ago and has already been refuted). I am hastening to say that doubts about reconstructed Indo-European roots are more than a hundred years old and that the existence of roots like big ~ bug ~ bag ~ pig ~ pug—not only in Indo-European but in all languages—has also been suspected for more than a century, especially by those who work with onomatopoeia (sound imitation), sound symbolism, and baby language. The danger is to let the idea that all words are either imitative or symbolic run away with an enthusiastic linguist.

Indo-European roots make sense only if there are several similar words in several languages. But bed, bad, dog, and, let us say, fog are partly isolated. An obscure cognate in a Low German dialect or Middle Dutch does not go too far. Bed has ancient cognates elsewhere in Germanic, but all of them mean the same (“bed”). Fog is possibly a borrowing from Scandinavian. The existence of the sound complex fok-, fuk-, and so on designating blowing does not look like an over-bold hypothesis. With regard to Engl. fog, the story, we sometimes hear, began with fog “grass” and the adjective foggy “damp.” According to this etymology, fog is a so-called back formation from foggy, but there is no evidence for this way of development.

Last week, I wrote about an association of fog ~ feg ~ fug with dampness and moisture, but cited no examples of fug. The words that follow are from The English Dialect Dictionary by Joseph Wright: fug and its synonym fogo “a strong smell,” fuggy “stuffy, closed,” foggy1 “stupid, muddled; half-tipsy,” foggy2 “fat, corpulent” (foggy2 was already known to Randle Cotgrave, the author of A Dictionary of the French and English Tongue, 1611), and fogey “passionate.” They look like being more or less related to the idea of fog. Some are closer to fog (“a strong smell,” “stuffy, “fat”), the others are perhaps the figurative meanings of the same (“stupid,” “passionate”). But there is no certainty. Fogey “passionate” may belong to an entirely different group. Since the verb fog “cover with fog” is known in Standard English, the metaphorical meaning “to puzzle, bewilder” sounds quite natural (Wright included to fog off: of plants “to damp off”; cf. foggy “dewy”).  Some such coinages hint (but no more than hint) at the existence of the meaning of fug– “mist,” for example, fugle “a term to which an indefinite meaning is allotted, and which is applied under the circumstances where manners or actions are in any way objectionable”; thus, a word belonging, from a semantic point of view, with gizmo with thingamajig. Again we cannot be sure that we have not gone too far afield. Fag ~ fug has been recorded as “a term used by boys in playing; first in order,” and, surely, no connection with fog can be made out here.  I needed this digression because there may be a path, however tortuous, from fog to fogey, pettifogger, and the F-word.

Here is a picture of fug or fogo.
Here is a picture of fug or fogo.

Fogy (or fogey), usually an old fogey, a late eighteenth-century coinage (or borrowing?), if we can trust our records, seems to have originated as a derisive term for an invalid or garrison soldier. The word is and has always been insulting. Comparison with fugle, a word that means nothing, and foggy “stupid” may suggest a remote tie between them and fogey. At first sight, an association of fogey with disabled soldiers makes such ideas unappealing, but there is a strong cruel tradition going back to at least the days of Ancient Rome to mock the infirm, including veterans. We can perhaps say that, if the word is of dialectal origin, the fog- ~ fug environment contributed to its meaning, but we don’t know even that much.

Those who are interested in the origin of the English F-word will find all the information they need (and much more) in An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction (2008). The initial meaning of very many f-k ~ f-g, f-d, and f-b words is “move back and forth.” Along with fidget, one finds many formations like fig about, fig (an obscene gesture), fiddlefaddle, fuddle, and fogger “hustler.” Pettifogger must be simply petty fogger.  If we return to the beginning of our journey, that is, fog “dampness” and remember Icelandic fjúka “to be driven by the wind,” we may agree that the idea of the verb to fog is not wholly incompatible with the idea of movement (back and forth), fidgeting, fiddling, and the rest.

She failed a math exam. Here is the aftermath
She failed a math exam. Here is the aftermath.

The words discussed above form an extremely loose group in which the idea of cognates is almost irrelevant. Therefore, I am able to make only a most cautious suggestion. It seems that fog is a syllable (a root, if a more solid term is required) that could be used for denoting many things with the sense “movement back and forth.” Figurative meanings developed in several ways and can usually be reconstructed. It is hard to wade through a swamp. My goal was to point to what seems to be such a swamp, with fog “thick mist” growing in it like a single piece of grass, also called fog. I can only hope that the aftermath of my cautious essays will result in a better understanding of the origin of fog.

Image credits: (1) Ecuador, Virgin Forest by Albert Dezetter, Public Domain via Pixabay. (2) “bad smell” by Jeremy Tarling, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr. (3) Book, bored by PublicDomainPictures, Public Domain via Pixabay. Featured image: “Patio del palacio de Los Inválidos, París” by  Alonso de Mendoza, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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