Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

loon-1596827_1280

Looming, looming, looming: Part 2

The New Year is looming! I can write a most edifying post about 2017, or rather about what happened a hundred years ago, in 1917, but this is an etymological blog, so I, a hard-working cobbler, will stick to my last. On 21 December, discussion turned around the noun loom. Now is the time to look at the homonymous verb. But before I come to the point, I would like to say some more things about the noun.

A cobbler sticking to his last is a brother of an etymologist on his last legs.
A cobbler sticking to his last is a brother of an etymologist on his last legs.

In the modern language, loom “utensil” seems to be a sole remnant of the gelōme group (we’ll disregard heirloom). But Middle English also had lome “penis” (an implement of sorts!) and “fellow,” the latter with derogatory epithets (compare Modern Engl. tool and fellow, both used for “penis”). It has an analog in German Lümmel “lout” and again “penis.” English dictionaries record loon “a stupid fellow; a clown; with various shades of intensity as an opprobrious epithet” (so The Century Dictionary). Shakespeare and much later Coleridge knew loon as a term of abuse. In today’s American English, loon “fool, idiot” is believed to be an abbreviation of lunatic, but this looks like an unusually apt case of folk etymology, because loon is a common alternation of loom, as in the bird name loon. Joseph Wright’s The English Dialect Dictionary gives examples of loom “scoundrel, etc.,” which may be a borrowing from Scandinavian. In the previous post, I mentioned the little-known Modern English adjective loom “gentle, easy,” said about a wind or breeze. Of special importance is the fact that this adjective, which has several well-attested cognates elsewhere in Germanic, is a nautical term and that it turned up in texts only in the sixteenth century. It might have been borrowed from Danish, but, perhaps it is native English or a loan from Low (that is, northern) German or Frisian. Why this fact is important will become clear below.

Thus fortified, we can go on to the verb loom. The oldest English dictionaries that risked saying anything about its origin derived loom from some word pertaining to light and its absence. Among the favorites were gleam and gloom. However, g- is not an ancient prefix in either. More realistic were the attempts to trace loom to Old Engl. lēoman “to shine.” Although at one time even Skeat favored this etymology, it has no merit, for it can account for neither the vowel (oo) nor the change of meaning: from “shine” to “appear faintly in the distance.” The crucial facts can be found in the OED: loom emerged first in the north and only in nautical use, in descriptions of ships seen from a distance and moving slowly; no citation of it predates 1587. A well-reasoned etymology should account for those facts. In any case, a late attestation of loom in English suggests that the verb was borrowed.

The beginning of looming.
The beginning of looming.

We owe the solution to Skeat, who gave up his initial etymology of loom. At some time after the publication of the first edition of his etymological dictionary (1882), he discovered East Frisian lōmen and Swedish dialectal loma, both meaning “to move slowly.” Such was also the first recorded meaning of the English verb. Apparently, Skeat informed James Murray about his discovery, for the entry appeared in the OED with reference to him. This etymology can hardly be improved. Loom “to move slowly” (that is, “faintly”) was a verb known to northern sailors: the Frisians, the English, and Swedes used it. The English, more likely, took it over from the Frisians. The adjective loom “gentle, easy” must be closely related to this verb. Its appearance in English at the same time as the verb loom could not be fortuitous.

I am unable to explain why the borrowing took place at that time rather than later or earlier. Reference to the busy contacts between the Frisians and the English at sea five hundred years ago would sound hollow. As pointed out last week, etymologies, unlike Praxiteles’s statues, are seldom perfect (Greek statues have unforgettably proportional faces, while human faces are not such; etymologies are even more skewed). In a comment to the last week’s post on loom, Elvira Gutieva cited Ossetian læmeğ “weak, unstable, tender” and wondered whether this adjective is a cognate of Engl. loom. The greatest specialist in Ossetian historical linguistics was V. I. Abaev (stress on the second syllable). According to his great etymological dictionary, the connection is possible but not very probable. He preferred to derive l- from n- and dealt with the root nam-. But, considering how widespread the cognates of the Indo-European root lam- weas, the idea that the Ossetian adjective is related to the Germanic ones looks inviting.

Now all that remains is to discover the distant origin of the verb loom. I think the development went in the following way. The original meaning of the Indo-European root underlying the entire group was, as pointed out in the previous post, “broken” (seen in Slavic lom-iti “to break”). It yielded the sense “slack, weak” (still felt in Engl. lame and loom “gentle,” the first native, the second borrowed in late Middle English) and “moving slowly” (so in the English verb loom, likewise borrowed from a Germanic cognate of the same meaning at the same time as loom “gentle”). Additionally, “broken” meant “formless, all of a heap;” hence “odds and ends; implements, tools.” This yielded Engl. loom “an apparatus for weaving,” along with “loose pieces” (still observed in the words for “penis” and terms of abuse for despised people). From “formless” we can go to “thick,” the proto-meaning of “often” (this is how Old Engl. gelōme arose).

A few minor questions pertaining to German and the chronology of borrowing have not been cleared up, but the scheme offered above looks, I hope, plausible. Regrettably, etymologies seldom go beyond being plausible or, to put it differently, reasonable. If my scheme is right, Jacob Grimm has been vindicated for the umpteenth time. There are several English words and their cognates sounding as loom, and all of them seem to be the offspring of the same root.

acob Grimm and Walter W. Skeat are the two scholars to whom we owe the answer about the origin of the verb loom. Etymology should not be anonymous.
Jacob Grimm and Walter W. Skeat are the two scholars to whom we owe the answer about the origin of the verb loom. Etymology should not be anonymous.

“The Oxford Etymologist” is now saying goodbye to its readers and correspondents in every corner of the world until early 2017. I wish all of them good health and success in their enterprises, whatever the weather. My thanks to those who have been following the essays, commenting on them, and agreeing and disagreeing with me. I would also plead for more questions and comments, because the success of any blog depends on the interaction with its users.

A HAPPY NEW YEAR!

Images: (1) Cobbler by cegoh, Public Domain via Pixabay. (2) “Container Ship passing in the distance” by Daniel Ramirez, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons. (3) “Jacob Grimm” by Franz Hanfstaengl, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons. (4) “Portrait of Walter William Skeat” by Elliott & Fry, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons. Featured image: Loon by slip acre, Public Domain via Pixabay.

Recent Comments

  1. Michael Lamb

    I am the least deserving of your thanks, having given up trying to comment on your essays, mostly because of posting problems, as I still always find them riveting. I missed last week’s but will hear your plea and attempt a last-gasp post on this latest one, which you have said in the past is the place to do so. Your Dutch example for “often” is probably a misprint, but to say it features a suffix ‘-wijs’ is a misinterpretation, as seen from’ the correct spelling ‘dikwijls’. There is an allegro form informally spelt ‘dikkes’ which may be what is intended by the occasional spelling ‘dikwijs’.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *