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The people of the mist

The true people of the mist are not the tribesman of Haggard’s celebrated novel but students of etymology. They spend their whole lives in the mist (or in the fog) and have little hope to see the sun. However, after saying goodbye to fogs and foxes, I promised a post on mist. A good deal about this word is known and will be found in all dependable reference works, but a few details may be of interest to the readers of our blog.

Our oldest etymologists had no clue to the origin of this mysterious noun. Some Greek words were cited in the hope of finding a reliable cognate. At least one such word exists, but it did not occur to anybody three hundred years ago. Minsheu wondered whether mist is connected with Latin mixtus “mixed,” because mist, as he pointed out, is a combination of vapors. Moist looked promising, but English moist is from Old French, from Latin, where its traces are partly lost, though it could go back to the root seen in Latin mūcus “mucus.” In an English dictionary, a close neighbor of mūcus is the unrelated muck, perhaps of Scandinavian origin, though Old English also had moc. Old Icelandic mjúkr meant “dung,” akin to Gothic mūk– “gentle,” or rather “soft.” Engl. meek is a borrowing of Scandinavian mjúkr. From an etymological point of view, muck was “soft stuff.” None of those m-words is cognate with mist, but words for “manure” will accompany our search for some more time.  It is only regrettable that the etymology of dung is unclear, despite the fact that it is a word widely represented in Germanic.

Surprisingly, the great Franciscus Junius, a renowned etymologist of old, missed Gothic maihstus (pronounced as mehstus) “dung heap”—surprisingly, because he was the first European with a thorough knowledge of that ancient Germanic language. This “mehstus” is the product of a Gothic sound change: i became e before h; consequently, the original form was mihstus. In Old English, h was lost, and the word became mīstus. Ī in it is long because it swallowed the following consonant (so-called compensatory lengthening), but in later Old English, vowels were shortened before two consonants, so that mīst became mist. (Those who begin to study historical phonetics tend to conclude that most changes are chaotic and senseless: sounds become long or voiced, in order to lose length and voice and a few centuries later to get them back. Likewise, diphthongs become monophthongs, and in the next chapter it is stated that the game was not worth the candle because the monophthongs turned into diphthongs. Only after the student has mastered the seemingly erratic moves of the kaleidoscope, can the mist disappear and at least some logic emerge, but this journey is for the patient. Those in a hurry need not apply.)

Compensatory lengthening at its most graphic.
Compensatory lengthening at its most graphic.

Mist sounds and means nearly the same in several other Germanic languages, except that German Mist means “dung, manure; crap.” It is also used as an exclamation corresponding to English “shit!” but is a bit more polite. One can see that, with regard to mist, German and Gothic go together, and their meaning appears to be the oldest: the reference must have been to things unclean, to refuse, or something like it. This impression is reinforced by the rather obvious cognates of mist outside Germanic, all referring to darkness, clouds, and haze.” Gothic, as noted, had maihstus (that is, mehstus, from mihstus). Once its form must have been mig-stus, with g devoiced before st. The root turns out to be the same as in Slavic mig-la “darkness.” Even in Germanic some related mig– words exist, for instance, Dutch miggeln “to drizzle.” Some verbs meaning “to urinate,” as in Old Engl. mīgan, Old Icelandic míga, Latin mejere, and perhaps Latin mingere, belong here too.

From mist there is only one step to Engl. mixen (now archaic and dialectal) “dunghill”. Once again we are on the formerly explored unclean Gothic-German territory. Mist, it has been suggested, denoted a dirty, almost black cloud (see above). But urine is a liquid, so that, not quite improbably, the initial meaning was “wetness,” and, if so, we have an ancient synonym of fog (see the post of November 9, in which fog “mist” and “grass” are derived from the idea of wetness).  The emergence of the root mig– remains a puzzle: what is the association between mig– and darkness or wetness? No sound symbolism, no sound imitation. Be that as it may, more ominous than the darkest cloud, is mistletoe, the name of the plant that killed the shining Scandinavian god Baldr.

In the Scandinavian myth, the mistletoe, allegedly growing like a tree, turned into a spear and killed Baldr.
In the Scandinavian myth, the mistletoe, allegedly growing like a tree, turned into a spear and killed Baldr.

Those who told this myth had hardly ever seen the mistletoe, for that plant could never have turned into a spear. (According to the story, a blind god listened to evil advice, uprooted the mistletoe (!), hurled it at Baldr, and the plant turned into a deadly spear in midair.) It was the name that seems to have stood behind the myth. Mistilteinn probably came to Norway and later to Iceland from England, because all the continental Scandinavian languages have an entirely different word for the mistletoe. The Old English form was misteltān. Tān is “toe,” that is, “offshoot.” The first element is problematic, but its origin is of no great consequence to us, for here folk etymology (proximity to mist-, real or imagined) played a decisive role. When the Norwegians and especially Icelanders heard mistel, they thought of their mistr “mist.” In Iceland, the hero of a typical fairy tale does not lose himself in the forest before some fatal meeting: a curtain of fog, not a thicket, separates the realm of human beings from the world of dangerous supernatural creatures. The valkyrie’s name Mistr shows that for Icelanders, as well as for Norwegians, mist was associated with death. (Valkyries were the female servants of Odin, the god of death: they invited fallen warriors to join him in Valhalla.) Later, the sword name Mistilteinn was coined, and another version of the myth arose: allegedly, Baldr was killed with that sword.

Could anyone who saw the mistletoe think of its becoming a spear?

This explains why the mistletoe, an evergreen plant, which, like other evergreens, symbolizes and promises fertility, acquired such an unusual role. People decorate their homes with holly and mistletoe for Christmas, and kissing under the mistletoe is a custom, transparent enough. There is a memorable description of that custom in Dickens’s Pickwick Papers, Chapter 28.  The myth in the form known in medieval Iceland could arise only in Scandinavia. It would have had no chance to be told in the Celtic-speaking world (where the mistletoe was revered) or in England (the English learned the stories of this plant from the Celts).

Fog and mist are not the only Germanic words for this natural phenomenon. Icelandic þoka means the same (þ has the value of Engl. th in third). Norwegian tåke and Danish tåge are obviously related to it (they are reflexes of the same etymon). In Swedish, a cognate of þoka is known only from dialects (Swedes call mist dimma; its connection with Engl. dim needs no proof). Þoka probably also meant “dark,” but its origin is debatable. I always say that words live up to their etymology: opaque words designate things lacking transparency. But we are out of the dark—indeed, not because we have shed light on the history of so many obscure words but because we have left the story of them behind.

Images: (1) “American Alligator eating Blue Crab 2” by Gareth Rasberry, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons. (2) “Baldr’s death” by Carl Emil Doepler, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons. (3 and featured image) Mistletoe by Egle P, Public Domain via Pixabay.

Recent Comments

  1. Jevgēnijs Kaktiņš

    It is absolutely clear that this is not an isolated word as it has direct correspondences in Latvian and Lithuanian (migla for mist, fog). Pūst miglu acīs (blowing fog in the eyes) is an expression for deceiving. There seems to be a lot of related words, e.g. smidzināt (mizzle) and even sniegs/snigt (snow) could also count as cognates.

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