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Sheepskin and mutton

This is a sequel to the previous post of 4 October 2017.  Last time I mentioned an embarrassment of riches in dealing with the origin of the word sheep, and I thought it might not be improper to share those riches with the public. As a rule, I choose to say only the most general things about the attempts by scholars to solve a hard etymological problem, but the story of sheep is so intricate that it calls for a change of the habitual format. How then did language historians try to explain the origin of sheep, a word known only in West Germanic?

Our earliest etymologists believed that the words of modern languages could be traced to Hebrew (presumably, spoken by Adam and Eve in Paradise). If Hebrew failed to reveal the source, they turned to Greek and Latin for help. Surprisingly, look-alikes usually turned up. John Minsheu (1617) cited Hebrew kespebh or kesebakh “lamb.” He followed his predecessor Helvigius, the author of the first etymological dictionary of German, who, while searching for the etymons of German Schaf, suggested Hebrew scheh or Greek skepáō “I cover,” the latter “on account of a sheep’s rich fleece.” (See Andreas Helwig in Wikipedia. The article there needs a correction: Helwig’s dictionary appeared in 1611, though it is easier to find copies of the 1620 edition.) Both dictionaries were written in Latin, but Minsheu combined Latin with English glosses. The transliterations of the Hebrew words are by Helvigius and Minsheu, but both also printed the words in their original spelling. Today, the familiar transliteration of the Hebrew word for “sheep” is kebes.

What did they call the lamb in the bottom right-hand corner? Semantics hardly bothered them at that moment.

In principle, neither conjecture is improbable. The animal name could migrate from or into Hebrew, and, when it comes to the etymology of sheep, references to fleece are no less common today than they were four centuries ago. Kebes and West Germanic skæpa– (with long æ) are more alike than it seems at first sight, for, as mentioned more than once in this blog, many words in Indo-European have “movable s,” that is, a root can begin with s or lose it for the reasons that have never been found out. This means that we are allowed to compare kebes and (s)kæpa-. Animal names are easy to borrow, but the relatively few very old words that Semitic and Indo-European undoubtedly share are due to the proximity of the tribes that spoke those languages. Nowhere in the course of ancient history were the Semites in close contact with the speakers of West Germanic. Skepáō and skæpa- also sound alike, but they cannot be related, for the vowels match badly, and Greek p should have corresponded to Germanic f. Borrowing from Greek is out of the question for the same reasons as those mentioned above.

In the first half of the nineteenth century, few researchers risked an even tentative etymology of sheep. One of them was Charles Richardson, whose huge English dictionary appeared in the late thirties. His source of inspiration was Horne Tooke (see the post of 2 August 2017 and Stephen Goranson’s comment), and this is one of the reasons his etymologies lack merit. They are useful only in so far as the entries in the dictionary contain surveys of earlier opinions. But I think his derivation of sheep is his own.  He mentioned German schaffen “to do, make, create” and schieben “to push.” From a historical point of view, the two verbs have nothing in common, and only schieben could have shed light on sheep. Richardson referred to Greek próbaton “cattle,” from the verb probáinein “to advance,” and suggested that sheep had once meant “moving, going, driven cattle; drove.” It was not a bad idea, and semantic analogs of the Greek concept of cattle exist in several languages, Hittite and Old Icelandic among them. However, neither schaffen nor schieben has anything to do with sheep, though schaffen and sheep once turned up as cognates in a list by a modern scholar (1971).

Moving property. And the shepherd, the “herd” of sheep, is also here.

Hensleigh Wedgwood, Skeat’s most active predecessor in the area of English etymology, believed that sheep was a borrowing of Polish skop “wether, (castrated) ram.” (The Gothic cognate of wether meant “lamb”! If I am not mistaken, in the United States, few English speakers recognize the word wether despite the existence of the once popular tongue twister “I wonder whether the wether will weather the weather or whether the weather the wether will kill” and the unforgotten word bellwether.) According to Wedgwood, sheep had been referred to the Polish word before. Most probably, he found this etymology in the once popular German dictionary by Konrad Schwenck. He supported his derivation by the history of French mouton, allegedly from Latin mutilus “maimed,” but mouton is, most probably, a Celtic word from a different root. Compare mutilate and see mutton in dictionaries.

I wonder whether the wether will weather the weather.

The phonetic match (skop ~ skæpa) is imperfect, because skæpa– had a long vowel, but, to be sure, while taking over a word from another language, people could modify the pronunciation of the source. Again we encounter the ghost of a loanword! Skeat said in the first (1882) edition of his dictionary that the Polish word had been borrowed from Germanic and set up the nonexistent root SKAP “castrate.” This was a false move. The fully transparent Polish noun has several exact cognates in neighboring languages and is indeed related to the Slavic verb meaning “to castrate,” while sheep never referred to castration. Already at our time, a distinguished Slavic linguist believed that skæpa– had been borrowed from Slavic. However, his scenario is as unlikely as Skeat’s: the vowels are again too different, and the meanings do not match. The weak aspect of this etymology is made especially clear by the existence of German regional Schöps (Middle High German schopz ~ schöpz) “castrated ram.” This is indeed a borrowing of Czech scopec (stress on the first syllable)!

I promised a long walk through the explanations of the origin of sheep because I wanted to make it clear how much stands behind a line or two in our dictionaries. In 1880, a leading German philologist (his name is August Fick) cited Sanskrit chāga “bull,” posited the variation -g- with -p- in chāga ~ skæpa-, and thus reconstructed the Germanic word’s Indo-European heritage, even though the oldest meaning of the word remained unclear. He was supported by a prominent Greek etymologist and by the great Friedrich Kluge, who refused to change his opinion despite the fact that in the field of Germanic he found no allies. In one important dictionary, he could even read that the Sanskrit word certainly has nothing to do with sheep! Fick’s chāga appeared in all ten editions of his dictionary. After Kluge’s death, his amanuensis (Kluge was blind for many years), favorite pupil, and editor of his etymological dictionary quietly removed the Sanskrit word from the entry Schaf, and it never appeared there again.

The same name often applies to several animals. So why not to “wolf” and “sheep”?

This is not the end of the story: for the dénouement you will have to wait another week, but don’t expect a sensation, the more so as last time I cited the most possible solution. Yet if you are in the habit of opening dictionaries to discover the etymology of English words and one day decide to look up sheep, you will find a short string of indisputable cognates and the verdict: “Origin unknown.” Even if this verdict has merit, it is instructive to know how many frustrated efforts stand behind it.

Recent Comments

  1. Constantinos Ragazas

    Hi Anatoly,

    I don’t think “próbaton” means “cattle,” in Greek. But rather “sheep”. Unless there is a deeper forgotten usage I don’t know.

    Thought you may want to know.


  2. peter

    “Cattle”, from Latin “capitalis/ caput” certainly refers to bovines in English, but on rare occasion also to sheep. See V. G. Childe. “Head” of livestock.

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