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Revenons à nos moutons!

I keep returning to my sheep and rams because the subject is so rich in linguistic wool. Last time (see the post for 11 October 2017), I looked at the numerous etymological attacks on sheep and came to rather uninspiring results. It should perhaps have been added that even the indomitable Charles Mackay, who traced countless English words to Gaelic, had no clue to the origin of sheep. He only wondered where the slangy idiom to cast sheep’s eyes “look furtively,” said, as he explained, of a bashful lover, came from. He of course found an Irish Gaelic source, as was his wont, but his discovery presents no interest. We may only pay some amused attention to his formulation: “It is doubtful, notwithstanding the easy acquiescence of philologists in the commonly received derivation of these words [earlier, he also mentioned sheepish], whether they have any relation to the animal called the sheep. [In anticipation of this statement I began my first post in the series with the puzzled question about the adjective sheepish, but had no suggestion to offer.] The sheep is no more timid, though considerably more stupid than other animals. The French say ‘béte comme un mouton’, where the English say, ‘stupid as an ass’. Neither is a sheep’s eye a particularly amorous one.” Then he offered a list of words (seap or seop “to slink away, to steal off furtively, etc.”) and went on to the next word in his dictionary. Human beings are so superior, aren’t they? What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, etc. In comparison, sheep are sheepish, and asses are asinine. And yet we cannot explain the simplest idiom or the origin of a monosyllabic animal name. Let us leave sheep to their devices and, as said in the title of this post, revenons à nos moutons.

Casting sheep’s eyes?

The German etymologists who compiled their dictionaries in the first half of the nineteenth century and even later (some of them, however unsatisfactory from today’s point of view, were inspired by Jacob Grimm’s insights, while others produced fantasies) knew no more about the history of German Schaf than their English colleagues knew about sheep. But the first modern etymological dictionary of Dutch (1892) suggested that schaap “sheep” was a cognate of Engl. shave. Johannes Franck, the author of the dictionary, most probably, came to his conclusion under the influence of August Fick (whom I mentioned in the previous post), for Franck believed that the sheep perhaps acquired its name on account of its wool as it is used by people. This opinion got the endorsement of the dictionary’s later editor, the celebrated Dutch linguist Nicolaus van Wijk, but it received little support outside the Netherlands (as we have seen) until it was revived in the late 1980’s. Today, Franck’s derivation seems to enjoy a tepid approval in our etymological dictionaries and special publications.

Little Bo-Peep will find her sheep, possibly wagging their origins behind them.

Curiously, in 1923, Ferdinand Holthausen, one of the best-read and most active Germanic and English etymologists of his time, asked whether sheep ~ Schaf ~ schaap had anything to do with German schaffen “produce, create.” Even he did not know that almost a century earlier Charles Richardson had the same idea (see again the previous post). He must have been aware of that dictionary but probably could not expect to find any useful information in it, and he was right, but outdated books may, almost by mistake, contain useful guesses. That is why a solid etymology should begin with a survey of everything ever said about the origin of the word being examined. Even serious researchers tend to come up with old hypotheses, correct or refuted by their predecessors, and admire their originality. Later, Holthausen must have thought better of his idea and did not return to it, but the entries in his etymological dictionary of English, of which three editions exist, are disappointingly brief (a sentence or two) and give no idea of his vast store of knowledge.

Even if sheep and shave are related, some questions remain, the hardest of them being why our word is known only in West Germanic and, in more general terms, why the Indo-European noun, whose English reflex (continuation) is ewe, had to be replaced not only in West Germanic but also in Scandinavian, where the sheep is called fær and the like. Ewe has cognates in numerous languages and always means “female sheep.” Did the ancient Indo-Europeans coin that animal name before they learned the art of wool shearing or even before they domesticated the sheep, so that later they needed a new word to emphasize the new skill? And what is the origin of the consistently feminine noun ewe (Germanic awi-, Indo-European owi-)? Did it mean “the mother of lambs”? No one knows for sure.

A shorn sheep, or progress in domestication.

The conjectures on this score I have seen are as follows (my source is Richard N. Bailey’s summary, though my database contains about fifty titles dealing with ewe: it is, as could be expected, a much-discussed word). 1) Owi– has the same root as the verb meaning “to look after; help, search” (here the pattern of ablaut is wrong and the development of meaning is unclear); 2) owi– is related to the hypothetical root glossed as “to get accustomed,” allegedly, from the idea of wild sheep accustomed to the flock for breeding” (an unprofitable fantasy, and the reconstructed root  may not have existed); 3) the word derives from the root meaning “bed,” as in Greek: thus, from the idea of “mother-animal with lambs in a lair” (this reconstruction presupposes that female sheep were needed only as the producers of lamb), and 4) the root of owi– is the same as in some recorded words meaning “to dress, to clothe.”

Naturally, those who think that sheep is akin to shave cite the fourth etymology as correct, but the obvious semantic parallel may work against rather than for them. Assuming that even the ancient word owi- already suggested the idea of clothing, who needed synonyms like sheep and fær with the same or approximately the same reference? Perhaps sheep is indeed related to shave, but, if so, the best hypothetical etymology of ewe begins to look uninviting. In the previous post, I mentioned the obscure idea that the coining of skæpe-, the protoform of sheep, signified progress in the domestication of sheep. Granted, people learned the art of sheep shearing late. However, the idea that, once they acquired the new skill, they invented a new word for the old animal looks strange. Yet something like that might have happened, provided owi– had nothing to do with wool. At first, the word could have been a technical term or slang (“wool-beast,” “shear-beast”). Later it became part of the “Standard.”

To make things even more complicated, let us remember the archaic verb to yean “to bring forth” (said about a ewe), that is, “to lamb.” This verb seems to share the root with Latin agnus, familiar even to those who know no Latin from Agnus Dei “Lamb of God.” The Indo-European form of agnus must have sounded approximately like agwn-, and it hardly has anything to do with ewe, from owe-.  If someone wants to know more about the sheepfold, consider Old Icelandic smali “sheep,” that is, “small (cattle).” And, naturally, I’ll stay away from cattle, chattels, and all things bullish, bovine, pecuniary, and others which are too peculiar. Alone the wealth of synonyms for “sheep” and “lamb” is astounding. The words are extremely old, and we have little hope of penetrating the darkness. However, it does not follow that our wanderings have been entirely unprofitable. I never get tired of this optimistic, formulaic flourish.

Agnus Dei.

Recent Comments

  1. Constantinos Ragazas

    Dear Anatoly,

    An old word for a thing can certainly be replaced by a new use of the thing. That, I think, is perfectly plausible.

    That said, could “sheep” have derived from “shear”? A timeline of these two words may help answer the question.

    Hard etymologies are easy to write! Try some easy etymologies instead!


  2. Jevgēnijs Kaktiņš

    It seems a cow and a ewe might be closely related, as govs and avs in Latvian. Zivis (fish) too, as some of the basic commodities in the ancient world.

  3. Jevgēnijs Kaktiņš

    I would also add to the list words for sow *suvs now retained in sivēns for piglet, and ķēve for mare probably replacing more ancient *asva but who knows maybe it also was *asvs/asvis or kind of equus . In English sheep goes well with both sleep and keep.

  4. Olivier van Renswoude

    Speaking of PIE *h₂egʷnó- ‘lamb’, it might have survived into a strain of Germanic as *akka- (by Kluge’s law) and from there as Low German nak ‘sheep’ (pl. nakken), in the province of Groningen in the Netherlands. It’s not used much and the normal word is schoap.

    The likelihood of this etymology is not high to begin with, of course, and even further reduced by the existence of similar words for farm animals like Early Dutch negge ‘small horse’, English nag ‘small or useless horse’ and Yorkshire English nack, a child’s name for (and call-word) to a pig.

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