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“Fog” and a story of unexpected encounters

“Fog everywhere. Fog up the river,… Fog down the river….” This is Dickens (1852). But in 1889 Oscar Wilde insisted that the fogs had appeared in London only when the Impressionists discovered them, that is, they may have been around for centuries, but only thanks to the Impressionists, London experienced a dramatic change in its climate. In my present capacity, I’d rather side with Dickens, because in etymology fog is indeed everywhere: up the river and down the river. Fog itself is a word of obscure origin, and, indeed, how could a word with such a meaning be transparent? If it were, it would not have been called fog.

The Impressionists introduced mists to London.
The Impressionists introduced mists to London.

Please pay attention to the part of the title dealing with encounters: it is there for a reason. Fog has at least two meanings: one that is common (“a thick mist”) and one that is local “a thick layer of dead grass left as fodder; aftermath”; the latter is also known as fagagio. Fog 2 is current mainly or exclusively in the North, but, judging by the records in our texts, it is an old word. As could be expected, some people think that the two meanings of fog are connected, while, according to the others, they are not. I have little doubt that the first hypothesis is correct. My conviction is based on something I know from Russian. In that language, there is the noun par. It means “vapor,” something not too different from fog, which, after all, is also a cloud of water droplets. But, additionally, par means “land (or field) left to recover from the past year of cultivation”; such a field is also called being “under par” (pod parom). In the linguistic intuition of most Russian speakers, the two senses are probably not related. Yet both words—par1 and par2, —come from the root represented by the verb pret’ “to become wet from exposure to heat.” In etymology, a conclusion often depends on similarity, because semantic change is less regular than sound change and usually needs reinforcement.

This is also fog!
This is also fog!

The fact that Russian par has two meanings resembling the two meanings of Engl. fog cannot prove that fog1 and fog2 are related, but it can support this idea or at least make it more plausible. And here is a minor point I would like to make about analogy. An English speaker who studies word origins and can read Russian (not a common occurrence) is unlikely to have encountered the second meaning of Russian par. By the same token, a Russian speaker and a student of etymology who can read English (a usual case) will probably never have encountered fog “grass,” so that neither scholar has the chance of noticing the similarity between those cases. (Let me cite a parallel. Engl. pimp is almost certainly related to German Pimpf “little boy; kid, etc.” But in the past, English etymologists were not aware of the rare German word, and Germans had no notion of English pimps (how could they?!) so that no one made the absolutely obvious connection. As a result, the origin of pimp is still supposed to be unknown.) It follows that in etymology a lot may depend on good luck. Some linguists—for example, Karl Brugmann and Antoine Meillet—mastered all languages, but we, the rank and file of philology, cannot compete with them. On this note of self-pity I’ll turn to the suggestions about the origins of the word fog.

German Pimpf denotes a boy before the age of puberty. Under the Nazis, the Pimpfe were the youngest subsection of the Hitlerjugend (Hitler Youth). Note that a helper in northern Idaho mines was also called a pimp!
German Pimpf denotes a boy before the age of puberty. Under the Nazis, the Pimpfe were the youngest subsection of the Hitlerjugend (Hitler Youth). Note that a helper in northern Idaho mines was also called a pimp!

Some older English lexicographers already knew fog “grass,” though they were not sure what to do with the relation of fog1 to fog2. Fog reminded some people of Latin focus “hearth” (because both refer to warmth!), Latin fuligo “soot, mist, darkness” (cf. Engl. fuliginous “sooty”; the fuligo/fog tie looked especially attractive and stayed in Todd’s edition of Samuel Johnson’s and in many early editions of Webster’s dictionary), Old Engl. fæge “fated to die; (Scots) fey” (with reference to dead grass), and of several other nouns that need not be listed here. But quite early Danish fog “snowdrift” and Norwegian dialectal fogg “long, weak, scattered grass in a moist (!) hollow” were noticed and cited as clues to the English word. The English-Scandinavian parallel is so close that fog may well be a borrowing or a cognate of some Scandinavian word, though this derivation sheds no light on the origin of the Danish and Norwegian sources. As regards fog2 (“grass”), Skeat, for instance, did not even mention it in the first edition of his dictionary (1882), but later followed Murray’s OED and wrote that the history of fog should begin with the meaning “grass.” However, it is unclear whether there is a beginning here: fog1 and fog2 can be related but parallel formations going back to the same root meaning “a moist mass.”

Attempts to separate the two senses of Engl. fog are hardly persuasive, even if we disregard the Russian parallel. Not long ago, Richard Coates suggested tentatively that fog “grass” is a diminutive (he says: hypocoristic) form of fodder. It may be of some interest to quote a few definitions of fog from various dialectal descriptions: “second crop of grass in meadows”; “corn [= grain] which grows after autumn, and remains in pastures till winter”; “a portion of land or outfield glebe called the fogage, into which the minister’s cows were turned to pasture”; “grass not eaten down in summer, that grows in tufts over the winter”; “rank grass not eaten in summer”; “the word is used when farmers take the cattle out of their pasture in autumn: they say, ‘they are boun [= ready] to fog them”. In Westmoreland (North West England), feg means “dead grass.” According to one researcher (1883), “…fog is the rough coarse grass which is found in pastures; cattle will not eat this unless suffering from shortness of food.” Still more examples of fog will be found in Joseph Wright’s invaluable The English Dialect Dictionary. All those shades of meaning are of no importance for the present discussion, but the word is so little known to the general public that the short catalog presented above may intrigue our readers.

Scandinavian or native, what, we wonder, is the ultimate origin of fog? The word that suggests itself as helpful is German feucht “wet, humid.” Its partial lookalike is Old Icelandic fjúka “to be driven by the wind.” Many Germanic words begin with fu– and – and refer to blowing, imitating the “gesture” we make when we protrude our lips and blow off an object from the surface. Outside Germanic, such words (naturally) begin with pu– and – The rest is hard to reconstruct, but fog may belong with them. This hypothesis was offered more than a hundred years ago and made its way into a few dictionaries. Tracing fog and its alleged kin to the “gesture” is more convincing that deriving it from a root meaning “dirt, mud; swamp.”

The development of meaning may have been from “wind” to “a mass of air.” In rainy regions, a mass of air was probably often associated with wet air, so that an f-k word could acquire the meaning “dampness.” Old English was poor in such formations, while Scandinavian has very many of them. Fog “thick mist” turned up in English texts only in the seventeenth century. It is probably of dialectal origin and may have existed in regional speech for centuries. Once an association between fog ~ feg ~ fug and moisture became firm, the sound complex could be applied to anything that was wet, for instance, to the grass growing in a wet place. Later, as we have seen, the sense changed somewhat (from “wet grass” to “aftermath,” or eddish, as it is called in some parts of England). Be that as it may, fog is hardly “a word of unknown origin,” though, as always, everything depends on how we define unknown.

Images: (1) “Houses of Parliament in the Fog” by Claude Monet, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons (2) “Elymus junceus” by Matt Lavin, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr. (3) Pimpf, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons Featured image: Trees, fog by Unsplash, Public Domain via Pixabay.

Recent Comments

  1. Robin Hamilton

    Reading this, and noting the moss/mist overlap around “fog”, I was reminded of a poem by Hugh McDiarmid called “The Eemis Stane”, which contains the phrase, “the fug o’ fame”. In context (the whole poem is ten lines long):

    Like a yowdendrift [fall of snow] so’s I couldna read
    The words cut oot i’ the stane
    Had the fug o’ fame
    An’ history’s hazelraw [lichen]
    No’ yirdit [buried] thaim.

    I’d always read “fug” as “fog [mist]”, as in “the fog of war”, but “moss” would make more sense in relation to the sort of thing which (in this context) would obscure the words on a gravestone.

    This sent me to the DSL where there’s an entry on FOG/FUG (variant spellings), and sure enough, lots of citations for the word in the sense of “moss” from Robert Henryson in the late fifteenth century onwards. (No note of the “mist” sense, since this would presumably be considered as Standard English.)

    So the FOG/FUG = MIST or MOSS in Scots marches alongside the FOG = MIST or MOSS in English.

    Foggy Bottom, with a vengeance!

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