Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Digging into the innards: “liver”

Etymological bodybuilding is a never-ceasing process. The important thing is to know when to stop, and I’ll stop soon, but a few more exercises may be worth the trouble. Today’s post is about liver. What little can be said about this word has been said many times, so that an overview is all we’ll need. First, as usual, a prologue or, if you prefer, a posy of the ring. Our classification of body parts and inner organs is to a certain degree arbitrary. The existence of two eyes and two ears is an obvious fact, but, for example, the division of the extremities into two parts is an avoidable complication.  Many languages do not distinguish between leg and foot, finger and toe, arm and hand. And where exactly does the breast end? The situation with our organs is even less clear, because we don’t see what is inside us.

A posy of the ring. Image credit: Gold posy ring found while metal detecting in 2005. Submitted under the Treasure Act and now in the keeping of the British Museum, by Sonofthesands. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Last time, I noted that, to establish the origin of words like heart, brain, groin, and their likes, we should try to understand what function our remote ancestors ascribed to those organs. Quite often, confusion is our only reward. A typical example is Greek phrēn (in its forms and derivatives, ē alternates with short e), from which, via Latin and French, English has frenzy and frenetic. The word, which occurred mainly in the plural, meant “midriff; breast; heart; sense; mind”; in translation, “soul” is sometimes called for. The word’s root is obscure, to use the etymologists’ polite jargon. If it has a respectable Indo-European past, the word must have begun with ghw-, and no connection with Engl. brain, from Old Engl. brægen, is possible. Even when the function is clear, we often feel puzzled. Thus, the Greeks, who developed the theory of humors, associated the spleen with the black bile and suffering. Elsewhere, for instance, in the Talmud, the same organ was said to make people laugh. Why so? Like frenzy, spleen reached English by way of Old French, Latin, and Greek. End of the prologue.

What do we and what did our ancestors know about the liver? They probably enjoyed eating the liver of the animals they hunted and associated it with grease. Today’s liver sausage (liverwurst, Leberwurst) needs no advertising. The English word liver has unmistakable cognates everywhere in Germanic, but only there, and this makes historical linguists unhappy. You may remember that at the end of Hemingway’s tale, the Old Man dreamed of lions. Etymologists dream of Indo-European protoforms. In dictionaries and scholarly books, reconstructed forms (that is, such forms as have not been attested but can be assumed to have existed) are supplied with asterisks. (For example, Old Engl. brægen is believed to go back to *bragnam.) So we may say that historical linguists, while breaking through all kind of obstacles, dream of stars (per aspera ad astra). How are those stellar pinnacles to be reached if we start with liver? The Latin for “liver” is jecur (more properly, iecur), a word that bears no resemblance to liver. The Greek word (hēpar) is, unfortunately, familiar to us thanks to its genitive hēpatos, from which hepatitis, literally, “inflammation of the liver,” was coined. The Latin and the Greek words are related (I’ll dispense with the details). The Germanic tie will be discussed below.

Per aspera ad astra. Image credit: Neil Armstrong works at the LM in the only photo taken of him on the moon from the surface via NASA photo as11-40-5886. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

The Greeks considered the liver, rather than the heart, to be the most vital organ and the seat of passions and emotions. The speakers of Old Germanic also set great store by the liver. This is made clear by the evidence of Old Icelandic. From Old Icel. lifr “liver” the words lifri “brother” and lifra “sister” were formed. Some other equally picturesque Icelandic words for “brother” were blóði (ó is long o, and ð = th in Engl. this), that is, in Mowgli’s language, “we be of one blood” (blóð “blood”); likewise, barmi (from barmr breast: “the offspring of one breast”) and hlýri, from hlýr “cheek” (someone with whom you are cheek by jowl?). Thus, lifri ~ lifra meant: “We be of one liver.” The Germans have the saying welche Laus ist dir über die Leber gelaufen (gekrochen)?–literally, “what louse has run (crawled) over you liver?”, that is, “what made you so angry?” Is it an echo of the old view of the liver?

The Germanic protoform of liver must have sounded approximately as *librō-, and it has been suggested that the ancient root of liver is the same as in many words for “fat” (so in Greek liparós and elsewhere; remember Leberwrust?). Italian fegato “liver” is usually cited in this connection, because fegato goes back to Latin jecur ficatum “fattened liver.” This is fine, but not good for the Indo-European protoform, because the beginning of liparós and hēpar don’t sound alike (l- versus h-). Perhaps liver is not related to words like Greek liparós, but only experienced the influence of some such word, so that l- was added to the name of the liver. In principle, this is not improbable.  Consider the Indo-European words for “tongue.”

Dreaming of lions. Image credit: “Fishing” by sasint. CC0 via Pixabay.

The protoform *tungō, with initial t, goes back, as usual, to non-Germanic d-, but the Latin word is lingua! Clearly, something went wrong in Latin. Lingua may have acquired its l- under the influence of the verb for “lick.” On the other hand, some obscure sound change might be at work. Thus, Engl. tear (from the eye) is a cognate of Old Latin dacruma, with the expected correspondence of t- to d-. Yet the familiar Latin word for “tear” is lacruma ~ lacrima (known to us from lachrymose and “Lacrimosa,” part of Mozart’s Requiem). The enigmatic alternation d ~ l has been much discussed, but with slender success, as they used to say in the 19th century. Also, in the names of body parts and organs, taboo was often in play, so that the words were deliberately distorted, to ward off the influence of evil spirits, which would hear the word but miss its meaning and do no harm.

Sure enough, the tongue licks, but why did l appear in liver? No reason suggests itself. If l- in liver is secondary, we obtain a possible common Indo-European origin of this word. However, it is also possible to reconstruct the meaning of the Indo-European word for liver without sacrificing l.  The same root as in liver is very probably present in the verb leave, whose original meaning seems to have been “to stick, adhere; smear.” See Greek liparós above! Leave may be a good fit even without smearing. A bold hypothesis avers (asserts, suggests) that the liver, the most valuable organ in the opinion of the ancients, was “left” to the gods as a sacrifice.

Where are we at the end of such a tortuous way? Perhaps the Indo-European name of the liver existed and sounded approximately as *liekwer(t). In Greek and Latin, it presumably lost the initial sound (no reasons for the loss are known), while in Germanic it was retained. The word, related to the verb leave, meant “a part left over.” How realistic is this story? Very moderately so. Quite likely, there was no Indo-European word for this organ, and we should satisfy ourselves with a Germanic word, whose true meaning evades us (“greasy?”).

The Goncourts: of one blood, one breast, one cheek, and one liver. Image credit: Photography of Edmond (left) and Jules (right) de Goncourt by Félix Nadar. {{PD-US}} via Wikimedia Commons.

A non-specialist cannot help wondering: Do such exercises deserve the name of scholarship? Yes, up to a point. Historical linguists try to understand the processes that allowed the speakers of old to name the objects around them. The naming happened very long ago, and the light from the past is dim. Speleology requires brave efforts, because caves are deep and usually dirty. If you are afraid of bats and ghosts, stay away.

And does live have anything to do with the story? No, nothing at all. Fast livers are the heroes of an entirely different “post.”

Recent Comments

  1. Stephen Goranson

    In your “Annotated Survey of English Etymological Dictionaries and Glossaries” in Dictionaries journal (1998) page 22 you mentioned that you had not by then seen the relatively rare book, J. Harrison, The Etymological Enchiridion (1823). In case it’s of interest, it’s available online now:

  2. Gavin Wraith

    I thought ‘ficatum’ meant ‘stuffed with figs’.
    The Hittite for tear is ‘ishahru’ which looks not too dissimilar from Greek ‘dakru’. Any chance of a connection with English ‘sorrow’? The d-l
    connection seems to be down to the Etruscans’ difficulty with d. Thus Odysseus -> Ulysses, diphthera -> littera, etc.

  3. Constantinos Ragazas

    “The d-l connection seems to be down to the Etruscans’ difficulty with d. Thus Odysseus -> Ulysses”

    Actually, there is no “d” sound in Greek alphabet. We write, instead, “nt”. The ‘delta’ “d” sound in Greek is more like the “th” in English.

    Which makes Gavin’s “d-l [‘th’-l] connection” even stronger. Since making the sounds “th” and “l” requires very little change in the physiology of making these sounds.

    Greek “dacrima” (tearing) and Latin “lacrima” are thus etymologically equivalent.


  4. Paul Nance

    The liver was also considered the seat of emotions in the ancient Near East. In the Ugaritic Baal cycle, for instance, it is said that the goddess Anat’s liver exulted. The other role of the liver in Ugarit was in divination, as in extispicy in Greece and Rome. Could that role suggest other linguistic connections?

  5. Fred de Vries

    Greek phrēn: Some argue that the kidneys were the (paired) seat of intelligence and that phrēnes should be identified with Latin rēnēs (kidneys).

Comments are closed.