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Full of fear: really dreadful

Fear is a basic emotion in all living creatures, because it makes them recognize and avoid danger. It is therefore no wonder that so many words for it have been coined. Language can describe fear by registering the physical reaction to it, for instance, shaking and trembling (quite a few words for “fear” in the Indo-European languages belong here) or trying to flee from the source of danger, as in Greek phobós, known from the suffix –phobe and all kinds of phobias (phébomai “I fear; I flee from”; its Russian cognate beg– designates only “running”). Russian boiu(s’) “I am afraid” is related to German beben “to tremble.” If Engl. bow “to bend” is akin to Latin fugere “to flee,” as in fugue, fugitive, refuge, and so forth (Old Engl. būgan has also been attested with this sense), then perhaps the initial meaning of this verb was “to cower in fear.” Or the word for “fear” can concentrate on some change in the person’s appearance. Thus, appall means (literally) “to make pale.” The ancient root of horrible (and horror) is easy to see in Latin horrēre “to stand on end” (said of hair). In a slightly different form, we recognize this root in hirsute.

Shaking in his shoes. Image credit: “Man Scared Frits Fear Shelter Leader Boss” by PublicDomainPictures. CC0 via Pixabay.

Last time (20 June 2018), I mentioned the pair start and startle. To be sure, not every word for “jumping” is connected with fear. Most of them aren’t. Consider jump itself, spring, leap, bound, and hop (all of them of questionable or unknown origin). Yet the connection between leaving one’s place and fright, fear, or apprehension is old and natural. German entsetzen means “to horrify” (add to it the adjective entsetzlich “abominable”; ent– is a prefix, and setzen is “to set,” the causative of sitzen “to sit”: on causative verbs also see the previous post). The reference must have been to unseating one, to the movement toward (or away from?) the place where one sits. Purely for entertainment’s sake, I may add that, according to what is said in the Old Icelandic Saga of the Sworn Brothers, a valiant man has a small heart, because such a heart contains less blood, and a bleeding heart bespeaks fear. Such a small heart beat in the breast of the hero Thorgeir (depending on the edition, you will find this passage at the end of Chapter 17 or 19).

From the etymological point of view, one of the most enigmatic words for “fear” is dread. Yet the oldest forms of the verb dread are well-known. Old English had a- and on-dræden “to fear greatly” (with long æ). Its congeners have also been recorded, but only in Old High German and Old Saxon, that is, in West Germanic, to the exclusion of Gothic and Old Norse.  The word seems to have an obvious prefix, and, at first sight, should be divided into on– or anddræd (-en is the ending of the infinitive), but this root has no cognates (or at least no certain cognates) and, if examined in isolation, means nothing. That is why it has been suggested that initially the word was divided into ond– and –ræden. With time, that division might have been forgotten, and the verb lost a wrong first syllable. By the way, all the recorded cognates of the Old English verb also exist only with prefixes, so that the verb must have been like German entsetzen, cited above.

Hirsute but fearless. Image credit: “Orang Utan Monkey Ape Red Cute Hair Lazy” by Free-Photos. CC0 via Pixabay.

Examples of such “mistakes” are many. In English, misdivision often involves n. For instance, nickname goes back to eke-name, that is, “an additional name” (eke, as in eke out), but the word was, not unexpectedly, often used with the indefinite article an. As a result, an ekename became a nekename and finally degenerated into the meaningless nickname. Many words have acquired their initial n as a consequence of this process, while adder, apron, and umpire have lost their initial n, which was taken for the last sound of the indefinite article. English speakers do not doubt that outrage is out + rage; yet its French etymon outrage has the root outr– “beyond” and the suffix –age, as in plumage and footage. In professional books, this process of misdivision is called rebracketing or metanalysis.

Thus, there are two etymologies of dread. Those who deal with the root dread say that the word’s past is beyond reconstruction. This verdict appears in numerous authoritative dictionaries. Some attempts to save this root from obscurity have of course been made, the last time in an excellent article by Helen Adolf (1947), to which I owe several examples in this post. However, I don’t think that her rescue operation was successful. (Helen Adolf, who lived to be almost 103 years old, was an outstanding person, and I am sorry I never met her.) Earlier (1907), the famous Norwegian philologist Alf Torp offered a clever hypothesis, but it required an inadmissible phonetic trick and found no support.

Between 1907 and 1947, an attack on dread was made by the American Francis A. Wood, and his proposal found favor (to use a solemn style) with two other distinguished scholars, but Wood compared the Germanic word with an equally, if not more, obscure Greek one and thus broke the golden rule of etymology: “Never expect a word of unknown origin to shed light on another opaque word. The result will always be wrong.”  Outside dictionaries, dread has not been discussed too often (my database contains only nine items, not all of them of equal value). The most recent of them was written by Alfred Bammesberger (1977), who, however, missed Adolf’s work. As far as I can judge, no one has suggested that dread is a word borrowed from some non-Indo-European substrate (on this issue see again the previous post).

A man with a big body and a small heart. Image credit: Eric the Red by Arngrímur Jónsson. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

It was the great and incomparable Jacob Grimm who observed that perhaps ondræde has the prefix ond-. In this case, a fully transparent root appears: we still have it in German raten “to advise” and Engl. read, which in the past had the same meaning (also, “think, etc.”). It may be useful to explain what etc., above, means. These are some of the glosses of the Old English verb: “persuade; consult, discuss, design; decide; rule; possess; arrange; equip; guess; explain; put in order.” “Put in order” is probably the initial meaning of this verb, but to summarize its senses and the senses of its Old Icelandic cognate ráða is not much easier than to give an overview of Modern Engl. get.

However, Grimm saw a few serious obstacles to such a seemingly excellent suggestion, and preferred to stay with a word “of unknown origin.” These difficulties have been explained away (not explained!), and there is no certainty that we know the origin of dread. Bammesberger argued for the division ond-ræden or rather resuscitated the arguments of his distant predecessor Alois Pogatscher (a researcher whose name says nothing to non-specialists). If ræden is the root of the old word, then, with its prefix, it meant something like “make one lose one’s composure.”

This man-of-war is a dreadnought. It has no heart and knows no dread. Image credit: USS New York (BB-34) Underway at high speed, 29 May 1915. Photograph from the Bureau of Ships Collection in the U.S. National Archives. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

I occasionally refer to The Universal Dictionary of the English Language by Henry Cecil Wyld. It is a first-rate dictionary with very useful etymologies, though at present few people consult them. Even Bammesberger did not expect to find anything of use in it. Yet this is what Wyld wrote, among other things, in the entry dread: “The most probable explanation is that the word is a very old West Germanic compound ond-, and-, & Germanic ræd, ‘council, advice’ &c. Old Engl. ondræden, then, would be ond-ræden; compare Old Saxon an- and anddrādan, & Old High German intrāten, ‘to fear’, originally ‘to set the mind against; compare Modern German entraten, ‘to do without’. The final -d of the prefix was, as it were, detached, and prefixed to ræd, whence the later formation of –drædan.  Middle Engl. drēden.” (The abbreviations have been expanded; æ is long throughout.) No doubt, Wyld knew his Pogatscher. Etymologies are offered, rejected, forgotten, and revived. It is a story of the eternal return.

At present, the vowel in dread is short. Shortening occurred rather regularly in monosyllables, especially before d, as in bread, head, good, and the like (the process goes back to early Modern English; our archaic spelling still reminds us of the length long gone). Nothing to be afraid of here: vowels are like humans, and, when they cannot lengthen, they usually shorten.

Featured Image: Fear saves lives. Featured Image Credit: “Cheetah Gazelle Hunting Running Chasing Cat” by jc112203. CC0 via Pixabay

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