While working on my previous post (“What do we call our children?”), which, among several other words, featured imp, I realized how often I had discussed various unclean spirits in this blog. There was once an entire series titled “Etymological Devilry.” Over the years, I have dealt with Old Nick, grimalkin, gremlin, bogey, goblin, and ragamuffin, and in my recent book In Prayer and Laughter… there is a whole chapter on the creatures whose names begin with rag-, but the plate is still full.
In 1895, Charles P. G. Scott brought out an article on the Devil and his imps (Transactions of the American Philological Association [TAPA] 26, 79-146). It is a most interesting work; the whole of it is now available online. The regular readers of this blog will remember that I have a soft spot for two woefully underappreciated etymologists: Frank Chance and Charles P. G. Scott. The obscurity in which they remain is particularly annoying because the English-speaking world has produced very (and I repeat: very) few truly great students of word origins. Two names shine bright: Walter W. Skeat and James A. H. Murray of OED fame. In the second tier, we find Earnest Weekley, who was resourceful but not great. Some recognition is due Hensleigh Wedgwood, and out of respect for our distant predecessors we should mention John Minsheu, Stephen Skinner, and Franciscus Junius, the younger. In the polite jargon of academia, today their contributions are only of historical interest.
Plodding through this semidry desert, we can hardly afford to ignore real talent. And yet this is exactly what has happened. References to Frank Chance, the tireless contributor to Notes and Queries, are rare (this is an understatement), and the name of Charles P. G. Scott, the etymologist for The Century Dictionary, means nothing to 99% of modern philologists (though Skeat knew and appreciated the opinions of both). We often hear that history will give all people their due. This is wishful thinking: history is too busy to take notice of all of us, and it seldom rejects bribes.
What follows has been inspired by Scott’s article. I should add that Scott was an ardent supporter of Spelling Reform, and his articles in TAPA reflected his ideas of how words should be spelled. I’d like to reproduce one of his statements, but will re-spell everything according to the still existing conservative norm and only italicize the words I “corrected”: “I might have been appalled by the troop of dark and yelling demons and bogles, or by the task of explaining their denomination; but it is well known that in the still air of etymology no passions, either of fear or hate or joy, can exist, and that etymologists, indeed, consider it their duty to feel no emotions, unless it be gratification at finding their work improved and their errors rectified, by another [spelled as two words] and a better etymologist. This sometimes happens.”
Many pages of Scott’s article are devoted to thurse. The OED features this word, even though today it is either regional or “antiquarian.” It was very well-known in Old English (þyrs; so in Beowulf) and Old High German (duris ~ thuris). Its reflexes (continuations) can be found all over the Scandinavian world and mean “giant; fool, etc.”: Old Icelandic þurs (or þuss); elsewhere, tuss, tusse, tosse, and so forth. In English dialects, thurse, in the form trash, among others, has been retained as the second elements of many compounds. One of them is guytrash “goblin; specter.” The word occurs in Jane Eyre. The idea that trash here is a variant of thurse is Scott’s, and it looks convincing. In Chapter 12 of Charlotte Brontë’s novel, the goblin is described so: “…a great dog, whose black and white color made him a distinct object against the trees. It was exactly one mask of Bessie’s Gytrash (sic)—a lion-like creature with long hair and a huge head; it passed me however, quietly enough, not staying to look up, with strange pretercanine eyes, in the face, as I half expected it would. The horse followed—a tall steed and on its back a rider….” After all, the figure turned out not to be G(u)ytrash, and the most frightening part of the description is the word pretercanine, most likely Bronte’s coinage on the analogy of preternatural (so “beyond what one could expect from a dog’s eyes”).
The spirit (“spreit”) of Guy was well-known in the sixteenth century, and this guy is probably our familiar guy. Thus, the goblin was a guy-thurse, with both elements meaning approximately the same (a kind of tautological compound: see the post from 11 February 2009). Scott concludes: “The word guy, meaning ‘any strange looking individual’, an awkwardly dressed person, ‘a fright’, is regarded as an allusion to the effigy of Guy Fawkes, formerly carried about by boys on the fifth of November. I suppose this is true; but it may be that the fading ‘spreit of Gy’, the Gytrash, is also present in this use of guy.”
Guytrash has relatives: Malkintrash “Moll goblin” (malkin is immediately recognizable from grimalkin); Hob Thurst, a hobgoblin, whose second element is identical with thurse, and a host of demons, specters, and goblins known under the names of thurse, thurst, thrust, thrush, thruss, and trash. Scott wrote his article before the appearance of Joseph Wright’s English Dialect Dictionary. There one can find many variants and examples of the names mentioned above.
The bird name thrush and the disease thrush (on the latter see the post from 28 June 2017) have nothing to do with that devilish cohort. Trash “junk” is harder to pinpoint. This word’s etymology is far from clear. Most likely, dialectal trash “hobgoblin” did not affect the meaning of trash “junk,” but one never knows, because that trash also seems to have reached the Standard from rural speech and has no obvious cognates. By contrast, thurse conquered many languages. Outside the Germanic group, we find its relatives in Celtic, as well as in Finnish and its neighbors, perhaps borrowed From Germanic. Its root has been sought in a verb meaning to “move with a lot of noise” (and indeed, words for giants often mean “noisy”) and in the root signifying “strong.”
In the remote past, words for “giant” were occasionally borrowed from people’s powerful and dangerous neighbors. In the Etruscan language, we find the ethnic name Turs. Were the people called Tursānoi by the Greeks the original “giants” of the Germanic-speaking people? Superstitions are local, but the words for feared creatures are often borrowed. Both Engl. giant and titan are of course Greek. Boogey ~ bogey and its nearest kin, as I have pointed out more than once, are “Eurasian”: they occur in the West and in the East. The most common word for “giant” in Old Icelandic was jötunn (related to Old Engl. eoten), and it too has been compared with an ethnic name (Etiones). On the other hand, Dutch droes “devil,” first recorded with the sense “giant, warrior,” resembles Old Icelandic draugr “specter; revenant,” and those nouns have been connected with the word for “deception (German Betrug, etc.)
Perhaps all those comparisons and conjectures are unprofitable guesswork, but, on the other hand, there may be some truth in them. Be that as it may, the part of the present essay’s title containing the adjective international is not unjustified. Despite my admiration for Charles Scott’s work, I respectfully disagree with his statement that in the still air of etymology no passions, either of fear or hate or joy can exist. When it comes to some offensive words, the hot air of etymological research begins to resemble what one can observe above a boiling cauldron. Opinions clash, reputations are created and ruined, and many a bubble bursts before our eyes with a deafening noise. Hot air indeed.