Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Are you of my kidney?

It is perfectly all right if your answer to the question in the title is “no.” I am not partial. It was not my intention to continue with the origin of organs, but I received a question about the etymology of kidney and decided to answer it, though, as happened with liver (see the post for 21 March 2018), I have no original ideas on this subject.

Most likely, the people who gave kidneys their various names in so many languages had no clue to the function of those paired organs. Nor did their shape inspire them, for otherwise, they would have called kidneys beans. Yet such an idea did not occur to them. Even in Russian, in which the kidney is called pochka, a homonym of pochka “bud,” it is believed that pochka1 and pochka2 are not related. Perhaps the name of the organ pochka has the same root as Russian pechen’ “liver,” that is, pek- ~ pech’ “bake.” But what do the kidneys bake, or who bakes kidneys?

Engl. kidney is even less transparent. The word surfaced in texts only in the 14th century. It must have been preceded by some form like nēore; however, in the early period such a word never turned up, and we don’t know why a neologism superseded it. From late Middle English we have the singular kidnei and the plural kidneiren. The plural is suggestive, for eiren looks like the plural of the word for “egg” (compare Modern German Eiern “eggs”; Modern Engl. egg is a northern form). But what is kidn-? On the other hand, if we divide kid-neiren, everything looks fine at first sight, for Middle Engl. nere “kidney” has been attested.

Kid– poses no problems. Its probable cognates can be found without much difficulty. Cod is perhaps one of them. In Old English, it meant “husk”; today we recognize cod “scrotum,” because it is the first element of codpiece. Old Icelandic koddi meant “cushion,” while Norwegian kodd is both “testicle” and “scrotum.” The same word can rather naturally combine the senses “testicle” and “kidney” (“small glands”?). In close proximity is Old Engl. cwið “womb” (ð = th, as in Modern Engl. this), related to several similar words elsewhere in Germanic, including Gothic, but whether it is akin to cod cannot be decided. Here then is our dilemma: with the division kid-neiren we lose the precious reference to “egg,” while with the division kidn-eiren the tie to nere “kidney” disappears.

This is a codpiece, to protect and advertise. Image credit: Portrait of John Farnham by Steven van Herwijck. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

According to the usual tentative conclusion, some mixture occurred in Middle English: two words formed a blend. We cannot afford sacrificing nere, because it is a word with easily recognizable congeners all over Germanic. The Modern German for “kidney” is Niere (from nioro). In Icelandic, nýra is akin to it. Only the Icelandic form sheds some dim light on the original meaning of this word, and it does so in a rather unexpected way. Among the Old Scandinavian gods we find Loki and Heimdall (properly Heimdallr). Loki was a mischief-maker, with a shady past (at one time, he must have been feared as a god of death guarding the Underworld: all this is of course a matter of reconstruction), while Heimdall, the possessor of a horn that would announce the end of the world (again death?), is otherwise obscure. In any case, the two were known as traditional antagonists. No full-fledged myth describing Heimdall’s deeds has come down to us, though the disjointed, ill-fitting episodes are numerous.

In a stanza of an old poem, Heimdall and Loki are said to be fighting in seal shape for a hafnýra, that is, haf-nýra. Haf is “sea,” and the object the gods are fighting for is a famous necklace of great value. Apparently, the nýra was made up of (bean-shaped?) gems or pearls. Snorri Sturluson, the great Old Icelandic historian, knew the myth, but he tells us nothing about the shape of the necklace.

This is a reconstruction of the famous hafnýra, an object worth fighting and dying for. A great goddess once slept with four dwarfs to possess it. Image credit: Amulet Freyja (copy of find from Hagebyhöga) by Gunnar Creutz. CC0 1.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Middle Engl. nere and the forms related to it are akin to Greek nephrós “kidneys” (assuming we can account for the loss of the sound or sounds in the middle), and there are related Latin words, but it would be an exaggeration to say that we are dealing with a common Indo-European name of the kidney. Slavic, as we have seen, went its own way, and the Latin for “kidney” is rēn, the etymon of the corresponding words in the Modern Romance languages (the singular form was rare; usually rēnēs, plural, occurred).  Unfortunately, those who have not studied Greek and Latin know many anatomic terms from the names of diseases: nephritis, renal infection, and so forth. It so happens that rēn is one of the most impenetrable Latin words. Nothing at all can be said about its origin. Rēn rhymes with phrēn “heart, mind, etc.” (as in phrenology, schizophrenia, oligophrenia, and others), which I discussed last week (the post for 4 April 2018) in connection with brain, but no conclusions  follow from this fact.

When we confront such a situation, the question, naturally, arises: How can a word be so opaque? (Incidentally, a word related to nephrōs did exist in Latin.) I keep returning to this question every time we find ourselves in such an impasse. Although the distant meaning of the nere group is also unknown, we more or less expect the etymology of primordial words to be hidden. But rēn is a common Latin noun, rather than a reconstructed form whose beginnings are lost in prehistory. Once, in passing, I noted that the names of organs are often subject to taboo. Did the Romans decide to avoid the current word and, if so, did they invent a new one to ward off evil spirits? Such fantasies are tempting but fruitless.

Even with Engl. kidney we are on slippery ground. We have no reason to assume that the speakers of Middle English attempted to conceal the word from hostile forces and produced a blend. Why then replace a universally known name with a bulky compound, and why did they play this trick on the name of the kidney? A similar situation recurs again and again.  For instance, the history of head is a nightmare. The same holds for bone. Less troublesome but far from simple is the etymology of eye. One can hardly believe that leg is a borrowing from Scandinavian (wasn’t the English word good enough?). Is rēn also a borrowing from some mysterious substrate or a term of witchcraft and sorcery? Words for physical defects (deaf, for instance) pose the same problem.

Kidneys or liver, Sir? —Both! Image credit: Big Brothers Big Sisters Celebrity Waiter by repmobrooks. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr.

As noted, our ancestors must have known very little about kidneys. Nowhere do we find a link from kidney to urine. Yet in the 16th century, about two hundred years after the emergence of kidney as an anatomical term, it acquired the sense “nature, temperament”; hence the idiom a man of my kidney. We remember that it was the liver that allegedly regulated emotions. Then why kidney? Etymology is a wonderfully interesting branch of study. The same can be said about medieval anatomy and medicine. Books on this subject are many, and they read like novels. In the original, some of them are among the toughest texts to decipher (horror novels, that is).

Featured image: Which is Loki and which is Heimdall? Image credit: Male Northern Elephant Seals fighting for territory and mates, Piedras Blancas, San Simeon, California (USA) by Mike Baird. CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Recent Comments

  1. Ian Ritchie

    Latin ren backwards is ner. Merely coincidence or some form of metathesis or phonetic reversal?

  2. Constantinos Ragazas

    Dear Anatoly,

    The idiom “a man of my kidney” is intriguing. Never heard of it before. Never will use it in the future. But thanks anyway.

    Not knowing how and when this idiom was used, I am risking a wild guess here.

    Could it be this idiom is a play on words for “a man of my kind”?

    I think Ian Ritchie may have a point!

    Kostas

  3. Jevgēnijs Kaktiņš

    what could be a link between brain and gums? Smaganas and smadzenes in Latvian? Latvian lost Lithuanian gomurys which is for the palate,gāmurs somehow tranformed into the Adam’s apple or regional words for the larynx. But both words seem to go through some kind of metathesis. smag~gam/gum, smag-masg-mesg-merg-mreg-breg . well… :)

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *