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The dwarfs of our vocabulary

I receive all kinds of questions about etymology. Unless they are responses to my posts, they usually concern slang and exotic words. No one seems to care about and, as, at, for, and their likes. Conjunctions and prepositions are taken for granted, even though their origin is sometimes obscure and their history full of meaning. In my work, I have dealt only with if and yet in detail and found both etymologies highly complicated.

The sorely neglected members of etymology.

One thing can be said with certainty about conjunctions and other so-called form words. Their change into connectives was a gradual process. Today they are usually very short. For instance, the Russian for “and” is i (the vowel as in Engl. it), while one of the prepositions for “at” is u (as in Engl. put). In the past, all such words were longer. The process of abridgment can sometimes be observed without any knowledge of historical linguistics. For example, the Scandinavian languages lost final n, so that the cognate of Engl. in there is just i. The English indefinite article goes back to the numeral one. It still has n before vowels (an apple), but before consonants only a remains (a pear).

A modern conjunction could once be an adverb. Such is the history of Engl. but, which not too long ago meant “outside” (it still does so in some British dialects). The Old English forms of but and about were būtan and abūtan respectively, so that their similarity needs no proof. Both words have lost their second syllable (-an). However, the root vowel of about preserved its length and became a diphthong by the Great Vowel Shift, whereas in būtan, which stood in an unstressed position, ū was shortened; hence the modern form but, as in shut, cut, and so forth. Būtan was a sum of a preposition (be or bi) and ūtan “out” (such sums are common: compare Engl. within and without). Therefore, it comes as no surprise that but, with its ancient reference to things “outside,” has turned into an adversative conjunction.

Even more instructive is the history of the words for “and.” The Latin for “and” was et, recognized from French, where it has stayed unchanged in spelling, and from et cetera. In Gothic (a Germanic language, recorded in the fourth century), the exact correspondence of et is (þ has the value of th in Engl. thin). If Slavic ot– “from; against” has the same root, we witness another case of a symbiosis between a conjunction and a preposition. This iþ ~ id was all over the place in Old English, German, Saxon, and Icelandic, though in all those languages it had lost part of its independence, turned into a prefix, and functioned as the first element of compound words.

English has its reflex (continuation) in at least two words: in eddish “aftermath; stubble,” which was called edgrow in Middle English, and in eddy “a small whirlpool.” If eddy had existed in Old English, it would have sounded as edwǣg (wǣg “wave”: cf. German Woge), that is, approximately “wave and another wave.” Since eddy was recorded only in the fifteenth century, it might have been a borrowing from Scandinavian (Old Icelandic had iða, a close counterpart of eddy).

This is a whirlpool, or eddy, signifying the importance of the conjunction and.

We can now return to and. It looks like a cognate of Latin ante “before.” The word from which it was derived meant “across; separated; in front of.” It can be seen in Engl. end, whose Gothic cognate is andeis, and Old Icelandic enni “forehead.” Both the end and the forehead are indeed “at the font.” German und had many variants, anti, enti, and inti, among them. It would be easy to refer this plethora of vowels to ablaut and in one case to umlaut (in enti, final i would have turned a into e, but Icelandic had en ~ enn, a safe cognate, and there was no i in it).

Why did Old High German need so many variants of such an outwardly simple word? Full-length essays and even a book have been written about this conjunction. Characteristic of the mess one encounters in dealing with form words is also the multitude of senses Middle High German unde ~ und ~ unt had: “and; likewise; but; meanwhile; namely; as; as long as; which.” In translating the great Middle High German poems, one often wonders what this short word means.

In one’s own language, the speaker rarely notices such a lack of precision. Consider Engl. as “to such a degree; according to; when; because” (as soon as possible; as I said; as the night was drawing on…; as there is no quorum….). Something along the same lines can be said about since (it has been years since we met; since so many people are absent…). Usually the context disambiguates the message. Yet even in a living language trouble is not always excluded. German wenn means “when” and “if.” Therefore, wenn ich komme means either “when I come” or “if I come.” This is rather inconvenient, but unschooled people are not even aware of the problem. Engl. as is derived from alswā, that is, “also.” We see the same scenario occurring again and again. It appears that every conjunction, a short connective, reduced to one or two sounds, was once a full-fledged word. Repeated hundreds of times in the role of a link and occurring in an unstressed position, it would lose its weight and become a syntactic ligament.

Depressed by the vagaries of English syntax.

However simple the word and may seem, old languages often distinguished between the connective link between words and a synonymous link between clauses. A special particle meaning “and” might be added to words and words only. Such are Latin –que and Gothic –uh. The particle appended to the end of a word is called enclitic. Old Germanic (especially Old Icelandic) is full of enclitics. In the earliest stages of the Indo-European languages, subordinating conjunctions were rare. It is easier to say something, add and, and go on (the way children recount an episode they have just seen; this system is called parataxis). Etymology shows how notional words gradually turned into connectives, so that as, since, etc. emerged; how prepositions acquired the role of conjunctions (consider Engl. for indicating purpose—for you, side by side with for “because”) and how our modern system of hypotaxis, with its plethora of subordinating conjunctions, came into being. Characteristically, in Old Icelandic, the conjunction er meant “as, when, which, etc.”: its sole function was to show that a subordinate clause is setting in. Modern readers often wonder how to interpret such sentences.


We can sometimes guess the origin of a conjunction by looking at it. Thus, because is obviously be and cause. But short words may need reinforcement, and this is how languages produce monsters like whatsoever, notwithstanding, insofar as, and inasmuch as. The last of them troubled Winnie the Pooh’s friend Eeyore, who spent some time ruminating on its meaning: inasmuch as what? We may leave the melancholy creature to its own devices but note that the history of conjunctions shows how human thought produced abstract concepts (from “the front part” to the additive and and again from “in addition to” to and), how it encouraged prepositions and conjunctions to exchange hostages, and how, to remedy the confusion, it made people coin long and unwieldy phrases, some of which can depress even a toy donkey.

Image credits: (1) “Snow white 1937 trailer screenshot (2)” by Petrusbarbygere, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons. (2) “The Corryvreckan Whirlpool” by Walter Baxter, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons. (3) “Eeyore” by Christene S., CC BY 2.0 via Flickr. (4) “Caught Reading” by John Morgan, CC BY 2.0 via Flickr. Featured image: “Imp, Santa Claus, Dwarf” by brisch27, Public Domain via Pixabay.

Recent Comments

  1. Maggie Catambay

    Prof. Liberman,

    Fascinating essay with adorable photos! You put a big smile on my face this morning.



  2. Cynthia

    Fascinating post. Thank you. I’m one of those weird people that likes reading about this stuff.

  3. Janet Byron Anderson

    Wonderful article on the history of some of our most underappreciated words.

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