It is well-known that words for abstract concepts at one time designated concrete things or actions. “Love,” “hatred,” “fear,” and the rest developed from much more tangible notions. The words anger, anguish, and anxious provide convincing examples of this trend. All three are borrowings in English: the first from Scandinavian, the second from French, and the third from Latin. In Old Norse (that is, in Old Icelandic), angr and angra meant “to grieve” and “grief” respectively. But in Gothic, a Germanic language known from a fourth-century translation of the New Testament, the adjective aggwus (pronounced as angwus) meant “narrow.” Being (metaphorically) in “a narrow place”—between the hammer and the anvil, for example, or between the Devil and the deep sea—produced anger and anguish. Modern German still has enge “narrow” and Angst “fear.” Angst has even made it into English, along with Schadenfreude, Weltschmerz, and a few other German words for troublesome emotions.
The development from “narrow” to “pain; extreme unease” is not only a Germanic phenomenon. Related to German enge are Russian uz-kii “narrow” and uzh-as “horror” (the root once had n after the vowel), Latin angor “anxiety,” and their cognates in the Iranian languages (Sanskrit and Avesta), Celtic, and Baltic. Engl. anger turned up close to the end of the twelfth century, in Ormulum, a poem mentioned in this blog more than once. Anguish appeared in texts more or less at the same time. Anxiety, anxious, and angina are the latest newcomers from Romance. Angina suggests stenosis, which is indeed a narrowing of a passage in the body, a spasm in the chest (Greek stenós “narrow”). Stenography “writing in shorthand” is a much more peaceful word, but it has the same Greek root.
We observe a similar picture, wherever we look at words designating fear. For instance, the relatively innocent English verb startle belongs here. In Old English, steartlian meant “to kick; struggle.” In some British dialects, it still means “to rush.” Even in Shakespeare’s days, to startle meant “to cause to start.” But when we start or are made to start something with surprise, we are startled. Much more dramatic examples are German Schreck “fright” and schrecken “to frighten.” A thousand years ago, the verb meant only “to jump up,” and a trace of it has been retained in the German name of the locust (Heuschrecke, that is, “hay jumper,” which modern speakers take for “hay horror”). We jump up in fear, when we are startled; hence schrecken. The noun Schreck is a so-called back formation from the verb; it looks as though schrecken were from Schreck, but this impression is wrong. However, a noun derived from a verb by back formation is indeed most unusual. As a rule, the process goes in the opposite direction: kidnap form kidnapper, babysit form babysitter, and so forth. Adjectives are also occasionally curtailed in this way: compare sleaze from sleazy.
Strangely, the origin of the noun fright, though it has congeners all over Germanic, is obscure Comparison with numerous words in Greek, Latin, Tocharian, and other languages is unrevealing, because those putative relatives also mean “fright” and therefore tell us nothing about the possible initial meaning. It seems that the word is specifically Germanic. Naturally, it has been suggested that its origin should be sought in the substrate (some non-Indo-European language of the indigenous population of the lands later settled by Germanic speakers). Since nothing is known about that mysterious language or the conditions under which fright was presumably borrowed, we, who are not faint-hearted, will let this hypothesis be and go on.
As a consolation prize, we are allowed to examine fear. Old Eng. fær (long æ) meant “sudden calamity, danger.” Its cognates have instructive meanings: “ambush” (Old Saxon); “ambush; stratagem; deceit” (Old High German); “misfortune; damage; enmity” (Old Norse). In earlier German, “fear” also turned up as one of the senses of those words. Ambush looks like an ideal semantic basis for “fear,” but, of course, it can be a derivative, rather than the source of “fear” (we are afraid and think of an ambush, the place of great danger: one never known who is hidden in the bushes round the corner; perhaps there is an ambush there).The Modern German noun for “fear” is Gefahr, and, among its older meanings, we find “deceit” and “pursuit, persecution.” All in all, the idea the word fear conveyed was rather probably connected with “pursuit” and “ambush.”
In English, the native word met Anglo-Norman afrayer “to alarm, startle, frighten,” whose past participle eventually yielded afraid, but fear seems to have developed independently of its partial French look-alike. It may be worthy of note that folk etymology connects German Gefahr with the verb fahren “to travel.” Its English cognate is fare (the noun and the verb: pay your fare, she fared pretty well; farewell), but its reconstructed Indo-European root por is of unclear origin. Be that as it may, even though in old days travel was fraught with danger, Gefahr is not a product of fahren (Old Engl. faran).
By contrast, Engl. ferry is indeed a congener of fare (verb). Some verbs are related the way sit is related to set (I wanted to write “as lie is related to lay,” but then thought better of it and left that pernicious pair alone). Set means “to cause one (or something) ‘to sit’.” That is why such verbs are called causative. Occasionally they are easy to recognize (set versus sit poses no problems; neither does raise next to rise). Others have a more, even much more complicated history: thus, the causative of drink is drench (hard to guess!), and the “real” causative of rise is rear: raise is a borrowing from Scandinavian and is irregular form the phonetic point of view. (Startle, in its obsolete meaning “to make start” would be a causative of start.) The causative of Old Engl. faran was ferian, Modern Eng. ferry. The German causative verb of fahren is führen, known only too well from Führer.
Above, I expressed doubts about the substrate origin of fright. But of course, nouns and verbs meaning “fear” can be borrowed. Such are Engl. horror, terror, and panic (panic goes back to the name of the Greek god Pan, whose shouts struck terror in the hearts of those who heard them). However, English is a special case: in the Middle Ages, it absorbed thousands of French words and later added numerous words taken over from Latin. Yet to justify the idea of a loan word from a substrate, one needs more than the historical linguist’s inability to find that word’s origin. In any case, let us rejoice that heebie-jeebies is a native coinage. The word’s author is the American cartoonist W. B. Beck, who used it in his comic strip Barney Google (1923). Just Google for it. Another native word is dread, the subject of the next installment.
Featured Image: Only a narrow escape is possible from this script. Featured Image Credit: A selection of George Halliday’s journal written in Pitman shorthand by George Halliday. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.