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Why bother?

Yes, there is every reason to bother. Read the following: “One of the most common expressions in everyday life, and one which is generally used by all classes, is the expression ‘Don’t bother me!’ and the origin of the word bother has so frequently bothered me that I have spent some time in tracing its etymology. I was surprised to discover that, like a number of other words in our language, bother is a corruption of two words, viz., both ears; the original meaning of the word being ‘Do not annoy me at both ears’—id est, don’t deafen me with your noise.” This note appeared under the signature Scio in a popular Manchester journal in 1884. Who enlightened Mr. Scio after he “spent some time in tracing the origin” of the troublesome word, used by all classes? And where did he find such nonsense? By 1884 many dictionaries had been published, including Skeat’s, to say nothing of other works educated people used (Johnson and Webster among others). No one suggested anything like bother = both ears, but the motif of deafening will reemerge later in our story.

Even one of such ears is a great bother, to say nothing of both.
Even one of such ears is a great bother, to say nothing of both.

Bother is a late eighteenth-century addition to the vocabulary of English. It first surfaced in Anglo-Irish authors: Sheridan, Swift, and Sterne. Even later it was known so little that most dictionaries compiled in the first quarter of the nineteenth century did not include it, while those few that did called it slang. Three schools exist: according to one, the etymology of bother is unknown or uncertain (the latter is a genteelism for “unknown”); another school derives it directly from Irish; the third connects it with Engl. pother, though it admits that bother might be the Irish pronunciation of pother or at least influenced by pother. The first school has a noticeable advantage over the other two, but we will still have a look at the unsafe conjectures, before we flee from the battlefield.

To begin with, we may ask: “What is pother?” It means “choking smoke or dusty atmosphere; fuss, commotion.” If I am not mistaken, the first sense is “literary” and so archaic that hardly anyone remembers it. Pother appeared in English in the sixteenth century. At that time, it rhymed with mother, other, and the like. And the like is a tiny group. Mother, other, and brother have their present day root vowel from ō (long o), but a reconstructed form like *pōther leads nowhere (in historical studies, an asterisk before a form means that it has not been found in texts). That is what one can read in The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology (ODEE).

With regard to words like mother, other, and brother, I can think only of smother that rhymes with them. It goes back to smorðer, later smoþer (ð = th in Modern Engl. this, and þ = th in Modern Engl. thin). As far as we can judge, the loss of r did not affect the pronunciation of o before it. Consequently, the vowel in pother did not have to go back to long o: there could have been other scenarios. Unfortunately, the word’s history has not been discovered (however, see below). The ODEE says: “…no source is known; perhaps influenced by bother.” Thus, bother was possibly influenced by pother, and pother by bother. It is no wonder that few people are happy about this etymology. Words for “suffocating smoke” are often troublesome: see the post on qualm (August 13, 2014).

Skeat did risk offering a conjecture about the origin of pother. In his opinion, pother is the same word as podder, from pudder, which is a variant of the verb potter. Putter (around), potter (about), pudder, and podder are indeed variants of the same verb. In addition, we find Scots put or putt “to shove, throw, hurl,” familiar from golf, where putter is both a club and a person who putts. Finally, put ~ putt may be the same verb as Engl. put (in put in, put off, and so forth), even though one rhymes with shut and the other with soot. Apparently, pother can be related to that group if its sense “confusion” (“pottering about”) is primary and “choking smoke” secondary. But this is unlikely: the concrete sense (“smoke”) must have preceded the derivative one (again compare the history of qualm). Therefore, I think Skeat did not guess well. The origin of pother remains unknown and, for this reason, can tell us nothing about bother, another word whose history is obscure. The difference between dd to ð (podder versus pother) is not a problem: the two sounds often alternate before r, and there are certain regularities in the development of this group: compare father (from der) and udder, from ūder). Swift also used the form bodder, and note how Sam Weller pronounced farthing at the beginning of the previous post.

Jonathan Swift did not like to be boddered
Jonathan Swift did not like to be boddered.

We are now coming to the hypothesis that bother is a direct borrowing from Irish. Since the first authors to use bother were from Ireland, this hypothesis looks reasonable. The Irish words cited in connection with bother are buaidhrim “I vex” and the like. Since one of them means “deaf,” it is often said that the original sense of the alleged Irish source of Engl. bother and of Engl. bother was not just “vex,” but “to deafen, bewilder with noise.” I am not sure that this premise is so obvious. The sentences are: “With the din of which tube my head you so bother” and “Lord, I was boddererd t’other day with that prating fool Tom.” Two citations do not go far, the similarity of the contexts could be due to a coincidence, and the gloss “irritate, vex, bewilder” (without reference to noise) suits both situations, especially the second, to a T. I would prefer to stay away from “noise” and “deaf(en)” as the semantic nucleus of bother.

However, the greatest stumbling block in this reconstruction, which “bothered” all serious etymologists from the start, is the fact that buaidhrim and several related Irish words are not pronounced according to the image their spelling evokes: dh is mute, and one hears only a diphthong before r. The disappearance of any semblance of th in them goes back to the thirteenth century, while bother surfaced in English about five hundred years later. The distinguished scholar Alan J. Bliss made a heroic effort to prove that this chronological gap in Anglo-Irish can be explained away. Those who are interested in the technicalities are welcome to read his articles in Notes and Queries for 1968 (pp. 285-286) and for 1978 (pp. 539-540). I am not sure Bliss succeeded in deriving bother directly from some Irish word, but this is of course a matter of opinion.

Yet, as has been noted, since bother turned up first in the works of Irish authors, it may indeed have an Irish etymology, especially because no other source has been found. So those who disagree with Bliss suggested that bother is Irish pother “confusion” (whatever the origin of pother), pronounced with b instead of p. It is also a shaky etymology but perhaps a tiny bit more convincing than the one Bliss defended. Bother may have appeared in English as a noun (“vexation,” “confusion”). Today we have a noun (too much bother, I don’t want to put you to such bother) and a verb (don’t bother me).

This is both a pother and a bother.
This is both a pother and a bother.

Thus, the origin of bother remains half-solved at best. Some of our recent dictionaries hesitatingly repeat Bliss’s etymology (which, incidentally, was flaunted as indubitable in the same periodical Notes and Queries as early as 1875), others say nothing, and still others stick to the pother/ bother idea. Bother was slang, apparently, Anglo-Irish slang, “a low word,” as Samuel Johnson would have called it (in his 1775 dictionary, he passed it over; nor was it mentioned in the multi-volume revision by Henry Todd, 1818). In dealing with slang, one has to be especially careful. The less dogmatic one is in handling such material, the better, but being sent way with the verdict “origin unknown” is unjust and bothersome.

Image credits: (1) Elephant by Benjamin Vaughn, Public Domain via Pixabay (2) “Jonathan Swift” by Francis Bindon, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons. (3) Ashes eruption by Pexels, Public Domain via Pixabay. Featured image credit: “1771 Bonne Map of Ireland” by Rigobert Bonne, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. John Cowan

    There is no reason to be so tentative about put/putt, which is well understood. In Standard English, ME short /u/ mostly went to the STRUT vowel, except after labials. In Scots the exception is inoperative, so put is pronounced [pʌt]. The special golfing use was respelled putt when the English adopted the word.

  2. Rudy Troike

    BTW, is pronounced with a schwa in rural, less educated speech in Appalachia, probably reflecting Scots-Irish settlement.
    In Yorkshire, etc., the short /u/ still survives across the board.

    But re , though Irish English slang seems most likely, have you looked at Dutch as a possible source?

  3. Masha Bell

    The nice thing about ‘bother’ is its sensible spelling, unlike ‘brother’ and ‘mother, which epitomise one of the many stupidities of English spelling (listed on EnglishSpellingProblems). German words from the same Germanic roots, as English ones with daft spellings, invariably have more phonemic spellings (Bruder, Mutter) which are easier to read and spell.

  4. Robin Hamilton

    “smother … goes back to smorðer, later smoþer (ð = th in Modern Engl. this, and þ = th in Modern Engl. thin). ”

    This is not entirely correct. Thorn (þ) and Eth (ð) in Old English were simply graphic variants, both representing the same sound or sounds (either a voiced or a voiceless dental spirant, now written “th” — see Campbell, Old English Grammar, p. 20). The variations in earlier spellings of what becomes Modern English “smother”, as recorded in the OED, are simply the consequence of Eth dropping out of use before Thorn, with both finally replaced by “th”.

  5. Stephen Goranson

    In case of interest, here’s some of the evidence on how Limerick poems got that name (link provided, for little bother):


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