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Sheep and lambs on an etymological gallows

Animal names are so many and so various that thick books have been written about their origins, and yet some of the main riddles have never been solved. Today I’ll hang for a sheep. I am not sure why sheepish so often goes with smile and grin: sheep are excitable and skittish, they have “an intensely gregarious social instinct,” but they certainly never smile. “I feel sheepish,” an acquaintance of mine wrote me after missing an appointment, which I interpreted as “embarrassed.” When it comes to the etymology of sheep, we do suffer from an embarrassment of riches. Yet in this post I‘ll skip the so-called history of the question.

The oldest Indo-European name of the female sheep is related to Engl. ewe. Although its cognates turn up all over the place, as the main name of the species it has been supplanted in Germanic. Even the Goths called sheep lamb. It is instructive to see what happens elsewhere in the Germanic-speaking world. In Scandinavian, we find Old Icelandic sauðr (ð has the value of Engl. th in this). The word is related to a verb meaning “to cook; to boil.” One can guess its main ancient sense from Engl. seethe and sodden, the historical past participle of seethe. Sheep got this name because they were used for “boiling.” The situation is made clear by Gothic.

For a change, a lamb is neither prospective meat nor an animal to be shorn, nor a sacrificial animal.

The Goths, a Germanic-speaking tribe, were converted to Christianity in the fourth century, but coining an entirely new religious vocabulary is hard, and no tribe succeeded in accomplishing this task. The Goths needed a word for “sacrifice” and used sauþs (þ, as th in Engl. south), which had obviously been used for the pagan ritual. So that is why sauðr means “sheep”! It was a sacrificial animal, a sacrificial lamb. The old cognates of sauþs ~ sauðr are also instructive. They mean “spring” (as in spring water) and “well,” among a few other things, perhaps including “to burn slowly, while giving off smoke.” In this light, Engl. sodden “soaked through” does not come as a surprise (German gesotten still means “boiled”). A curious thing about Old Icelandic is that it had the compound ásauðr, with á, being a cognate of ewe (it is the accusative of ær), thus “sheep-sheep,” one of many tautological compounds in Indo-European (in such words, both elements mean the same: see the post for 11 February 2009).

Sheep may exist to be shorn, but wool shearing, unlike wool gathering, is very hard work.

But of course, sheep were also shorn. Hence Old Icelandic fær, which, like its rhyme-word ær, meant “sheep” (æ designated a long vowel and had the value of a in Engl. fat). The form fær goes back to fahaz. Its h was lost between two a’s; hence long æ. Among the cognates of the Old Icelandic word we find Od Engl. feht “sheepskin,” Middle Dutch vacht “fleece,” and Latin pecto “I comb.” (Fleece, another ancient word, has nothing to do with fær.) The fær received its name because it was a “wool animal.” English lacks cognates of fær (similar forms, borrowed from Scandinavian, have been recorded only in dialects), but one can recognize it in the name of Faroe Islands, literally “Sheep Islands.”

Faroe, or Sheep, Islands. They speak Faroese there.

We can now approach sheep. The most natural question is why so many Germanic words for this animal exist. Thus, fær is only Scandinavian, while sheep has cognates only in West Germanic. German Schaf and Dutch schaap, to mention two items on the list, are its exact congeners. Our surprise is increased by the fact that ewe and its kin did not disappear from the Germanic languages. Thus, Aue occurs in German dialects, and ooi is well-known in Dutch.  The Goths had aweþi “herd of sheep” and awistr “sheepfold,” both of which were compounds, with the first element akin to Engl. ewe, but Gothic speakers still preferred to call the animal lamb.

We know that such general names as sheep, horse, and ox tend to coexist with specific ones.   In a way, this is what we have already observed: sauðr is a sheep meant for sacrificial purposes or meat consumption, while fær refers to wool. Very common are the cattle names reflecting their age. For instance, twinter, a widespread word in British dialects, means an animal of two years, that is, winters, old (Germanic people measured time by winters: compare the opening of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 2: “When forty winters shall besiege thy brow….”).  Old Icelandic gymbr “a one-year old ewe,” extant in the form gimmer in English dialects, contains the root related to Latin hibernus “wintry” (compare Engl. hibernate). The same root can be seen in Old Icelandic gemla “a one-year old sheep” and a few other words. As for heifer “a cow that has not calved,” I have written a thriller about its origin.

Even against this rich background, the etymology of sheep remains disputable. The situation with ewe is even worse: we have a common Indo-European word meaning “female sheep” but cannot explain how the sound group owi– (Proto-Germanic awi-) acquired its meaning. Did owi ~ awi describe the sheep’s bleating?  After all, aw(i)-aw(i) would not be much worse than baa-baa, moo-moo, oink-oink, and bow-wow. Little Pig Robinson, the hero of Beatrix Potter’s long story, squealed wee-wee like a little Frenchman. Indo-European sheep have not changed since the beginning of creation. However, sheep is not an onomatopoeia! The Old English form of sheep was scēp (among a few others), a neuter noun, whose historical plural ended in u. After the loss of this ending, the singular and the plural merged; hence one sheep ~ many sheep today. The suggestions about why sheep ousted ewe as the main name of this animal do not go far and are too vague.

We are told that because of changes in habitat and climate there may have been no continuity in sheep breeding, with resulting new terms like sauðr, fær, and skæpa (the progenitor of sheep; this æ was also long). The coining of skæpa allegedly marked the progress the West Germanic tribes made in cattle breeding. Perhaps so. The emergence of a new term for a domestic animal might have been connected with a new specialized function. Not a bad guess. Inspired by the etymology of fær, we may follow the conjecture that skæpa has the same root as shave (Gothic skaban “to shear”). Quite puzzling is the substitution of lamb for the old word in Gothic. In that language, lamb came to mean both “lamb” and “sheep,” a loss of a serious distinction. Did the Goths prefer lamb to mutton and therefore allow the awi– word to disappear? In any case, they were certainly not inspired by linguistic considerations, for lamb is an even more obscure word than the cognates of ewe.

Every time we encounter a word that has an almost unrecoverable origin, someone suggests that this word was borrowed from a substrate language. Germanic speakers settled in the lands inhabited by the tribes that spoke non-Indo-European dialects. Plant names and the names of the animals that were new to the invaders were easy to borrow, but the sheep must have been familiar to the cattle breeders of old, and a corresponding Indo-European noun existed. Why should the speakers of West Germanic have borrowed the noun sheep, unless the natives had an entirely new breed of that animal? Be that as it may, in etymology, the influence of an unidentified substrate should be the port of last resort. I am saying this with a sheepish grin because so many scholars think differently.

The Oxford Etymologist with his habitual sheepish grin.

Image credits: Featured and (2): “Shearing the rams” by Tom Roberts, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons (1) “Mary had a little lamb” by William Wallace Denslow, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons (3) “Faroe islands map with island names” by Arne List, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons. (4) “Man, portrait” by Mario, Public Domain via Pixabay.

Recent Comments

  1. John Cowan

    Why should the speakers of West Germanic have borrowed the noun sheep?

    You might as well ask why puppy, brush were borrowed, displacing whelp, broom as the principal words for the objects in question? Borrowing is plainly not always driven by necessity.

  2. Peru Urban

    Regarding the Gothic origin of lamb.
    Would not lamb be onomatopoeic?

  3. Jevgēnijs Kaktiņš

    Latvian “lops” could be related to lamb as this diphthong o=uo derives from an, am. It denotes stock animals in general but can be also used as a mild swearword. If Estonian lammas/lamba ‘sheep’ is considered to be borrowed from Gothic/Germanic why couldn’t ‘lops’ be more general word either borrowed from Gothic (as klaips=loaf but not bread ) or derived internally (from verbs lupt, lobt for kind of plucking). Latvian avs-avis (sheep as a female i-stem) nowadays is replaced by aita and auns (Lithuanian avinas, its derivation), more archaic word is still used poetically e.g. paklīdušas avis (lost sheep)

  4. Gil Evans

    A very useful & informative article! It seems that the Dutch pronunciation of ‘schaap’ is ‘skarp’ not ‘sharp’, as in Schipperke (Skipperky). Very confusing when Dutch must be derived from Deutch (German) yet the Germanic spelling looks to be Sch as in Sharf. I’m researching the origin of the town name Skipton, which is said to be Sheeptown, but I think it derives from a basketmaking community using willow beds in local floodplains – ie. Scep / skip. I feel sure it predates the Norman invasion by centuries & comes from the ancient ‘ Brigantes’ tribe & Old Norse.

  5. Georgina

    How about “sheep” sharing an origin with the pre-Roman Spanish word “chivo/chiva” (allegedly if Celtic origin) meaning “buck/goat”? I mean, sometimes they could get a bit mixed up with species, and sheep and goats have historically been kept together in flocks.
    Love your work!

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