Last week’s post was about the proverb: “Good wine needs no bush,” and something was said about ivy as an antidote to good and bad wine. So now it may not be entirely out of place to discuss the origin of the word ivy, even though I have an entry on it my dictionary. But the entry is long and replete with off-putting technical details. Also, though I would like my dictionary to be on every word lover’s desk, this does not yet seem to be the case.
It grieves me to say that despite the medicinal qualities of ivy, the origin of the word ivy remains partly hidden, and the same is true of the plant’s name in quite a few other languages, for instance, Greek (kissós), Latin (hedera), and Russian (pliushch). Plant names are often borrowed from indigenous languages about which little else or even nothing is known, that is, from the languages of the people who inhabited the land now belonging to new settlers. The old population could be either exterminated or assimilated, and the old language could become extinct, but some words might penetrate the speech of the invaders. Examples are not far to seek. The Celts in Britain mixed with the native Picts. Later, Germanic speakers conquered the island, so that it would not come as a surprise if Pictish words turned up in Irish, Welsh, and Scots, or even English, but the source is lost. Those who have read Robert Louis Stevenson’s ballad “Heather Ale” will remember the situation, even though the Picts were not exterminated and were probably not shorter than the Scots (the drama related in the ballad has nothing to do with history). I have always suspected that pixie, a word of unknown origin (it surfaced in English only in the seventeenth century) is in some way connected with Pict, that it is of Celtic-Pictish origin, and that the small size of those fairy-like creatures gave rise to the legend of the Picts’ diminutive stature. Alas, I have no evidence for my etymology. Celtic legends became famous via Old French (King Arthur and King Mark). Tristan, understood by Romance speakers as a sad person (remember Sibelius’s “Valse Triste”?), probably had a Pictish name, whose origin we have no chance to uncover. Incidentally, Latin hedera is not related to Engl. heather, and heather is another word whose etymology is “disputable.”
Ivy has been known since the Old English days. Its earliest recorded form was īfig; it has an established cognate only in German in which the modern form of ivy is Efeu, from ebah. Dutch eiloof (apparently, but not certainly, ei–loof, with loof meaning “leaf”) may be related, but its history is even less clear than that of the English word. The match Old Engl. īf-ig ~ Old High German eb-ah is far from perfect, but the differences can be explained or at least explained away. There have been many attempts to detect the word for “hay” in –ig ~ –ah, because in Old High German, ebah competed with eba–hewi, but the longer form was, most likely, an alternation due to folk etymology: ivy leaves were, and in some places still are, regularly used as fodder in winter. Even a thousand years ago, the inner form of ebah and īfig must have been totally opaque. As always in such cases, it should be stated that, if the recorded names of ivy (īfig and Efeu) are substrate words, borrowed from a lost language, all subsequent discussion is a waste of time. But I believe that the words are Germanic and will continue.
There have been numerous attempts to derive ivy from the name of some other plant, and indeed, several such names look suggestive: Greek ápion “pear,” the putative source of Lain apium “parsley” (not “pear!), which yielded French ache “parsley, celery” and which German borrowed as Eppich “celery” and sometimes “ivy”(!); German Eibe “yew” (it is a cognate of Engl. yew); Latin abiēs “fir”; the mysterious Middle Engl. herbe ive, known from Canterbury Tales, certainly not “ivy” (the word is French, and it disappeared from English at the beginning of the seventeenth century: OED). The Indo-European word for “apple” belongs here too. Some pre-Indo-European migratory plant name could have been known to Germanic speakers and associated with ivy. It need not even have been the name of ivy, as the gulf between “pear” in Greek and “parsley” in Latin or between Arabic rībās “sorrel” and Engl. ribes “currants” (OED) shows. I’ll skip the many attempts to explain ivy as “a plant on top of some object or another plant” and on this account to compare the word with the names of some articles of clothing (a reasonable idea: compare Dutch klimop, literally “climber up;” by the way, more than thirty Dutch names of ivy are known), as well as some dubious look-alikes in Old Icelandic, and go on to the only etymology that for a long times was and sometimes is still considered true.
In 1903, the West Germanic name of ivy was compared by Johannes Hoops, an excellent philologist, with Latin ibex “a mountain goat.” Both the animal and the plant emerged as climbers. Hoops’s etymology found influential supporters, though Kluge and Skeat were not among them. However, the later editors of Kluge’s etymological dictionary of German either sided with Hoops or found his opinion correct or at least worthy of discussion. Yet it is, most probably, wrong. The Indo-European root ibh– “to climb” did not exist. This is not a crushing objection to Hoops, for some other (similar) root can be found to fit the desired meaning, and such a root has been offered. More important is the fact that ibex is a word of unknown origin, probably an animal name borrowed into Latin from some Alpine, non-Indo-European substrate. I am sorry for rubbing in the same rule year after year, but this is indeed the golden rule of etymology: one word of unknown origin can never throw light on another opaque word. Whoever violates this rule, eventually repents.
A thriller needs a climax. Unfortunately, I don’t have a true revelation up my sleeve, but one hypothesis seems acceptable to me. There was a prolific researcher named John Loewenthal. He offered numerous etymologies, all of which appear to be wrong. Scholars of his type are not too rare: they know a lot, have a vivid imagination, and publish like a house on fire. But when you begin to separate tares from wheat in their heritage, only tares remain. That’s fine: it’s the thought that counts. Once again, as I have done in the past, I would like to celebrate the slogan launched by the old revisionists of classical Marxism: “Movement is everything, the goal is nothing.” I am not sure that Eduard Bernstein formulated this slogan, but the problem of authorship need not bother us here.
Marx and Engels hated the revisionists because those heretics hoped to achieve socialism without the use of force. Never mind socialism: the revisionist principle works well for a diligent student of etymology. Both Loewenthal and I plodded along (“movement is everything”), and once, I believe, I ran into a good idea of his. He compared Old Engl. īfig and āfor “bitter, pungent; fierce.” Ivy emerged from his comparison as a bitter plant, thanks to the taste of its berries. Or perhaps ivy was thought of as a poisonous plant, like Old High German gund–reba, which means “poisonous grass.” It is a tempting etymology, provided it is correct. For the truth is, as always, evasive. After all, ivy could be a substrate word, like ibex! Or it could be a migratory word, disguised by its attested forms beyond recognition. Barring such agnostic conclusions, for the moment, ivy “bitter plant” is the best interpretation of this hard word known to me.
Images: (1) Harvard by Monica Volpin, Public Domain via Pixabay. (2) “Aberlemno” by Xenarachne, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons. (3) hagengebirge capricorn by Nationalpark_Berchtesgaden, Public Domain via Pixabay Featured image: Heather by Didgeman, Public Domain via Pixabay.