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Etymology gleanings: May 2018 [Part 2]

With one exception, I’ll take care of the most recent comments in due time. For today I have two items from the merry month of May.

The exception concerns Italian becco “cuckold.” I don’t think the association is with the word for “beak; nose.” Becco “cuckold” is probably from becco “male goat.” If so, the reference must be to the horns, as discussed in the previous post.

Engl. lug

There are several English words, spelled and pronounced as lug. Most often, an English word ending in g suggests borrowing from Scandinavian. Though this is not a “law,” the absence of an obvious Scandinavian etymon of a g-word usually poses a problem.  As an example, I can cite Engl. log. Its origin is obscure, even though Old Icelandic lág (etymologically, “something laid”) has the same meaning. (The vowels don’t match: á designates long a, that is, ā, while o in log is short.) Perhaps the Normans who heard the Danish or Norwegian word and coined the attested verb loggiare “to cut into logs” reproduced what they heard “with an accent”; hence log. This is not even a conjecture, but what the French call jeu d’esprit (“a light-hearted flight of fancy”). Skeat risked connecting loggerhead with lág, but gave no comments. To emphasize our ignorance, I should add that unanimity about the origin of several English words pronounced as lag has not been reached either. Monosyllables like dig, big, bug, dog, rug, hug, fog, rag, and so forth are almost always obscure: they are too short to have a respectable pedigree.

Lug1 “to pull, pluck” is certainly from Scandinavian.  In Swedish and Norwegian, we find lugga ~ lugge “to pull one’s hair” and lugg “forelock.” Engl. lug “flap, lappet” turned up in the fifteenth century. The sense “to drag a heavy object with great effort” looks like a derivative of this lug; hence also “a heavy object” and, figuratively, “blockhead; an uncouth, aggressive man.” The Scots word lug2 (usually in the plural: lugs) means “ear; lobe of the ear.” Not improbably, “lobe” was its original sense. It is rather shocking to admit that the ears and the forelock were primarily understood as objects fit for pulling, but compare “to tug one’s forelock” (a sign of extreme deference) and the phrase to take time by the forelock. A more humane interpretation will allow us to interpret lug as “an object protruding or hanging loose.”  Attempts to connect lug and lobe via the intermediate form luw– should not be taken seriously: lobe is a borrowing from Latin.

Enjoying her lugs. Image credit: “Adult Crazy Expression Face Female Fun Funny” by PublicDomainPictures. CC0 via Pixabay.

Then there is lug3 “a rod or pole; a (now obsolete) measure of length.”  It is anybody’s guess whether there is a connection between this lug and the verb lug “to pull.” The word has long since been written off as opaque. Below is part of a letter by T. Llechid Jones, published in Notes and Queries, vol. 155, for October 6, 1928, p. 243:

“…I wonder if the Old Welsh word llog, plural llogau, is a cognate, if not the origin of it [the English noun]. The Garreglwyd MS. 605, in the National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth, is a survey of a farm, called Gwenynog, in Anglesey, taken in May, 1618, by Hugh Owen, the translator, into Welsh, of A’Kempis’ ‘De Imitatione Christi,’ which was published in  1684. He gives the total measure as,—‘llogæ 64, llathenæ 13, paladræ 4; viz. 242 acres 74 perches.’ The last two of the Welsh denominations are mentioned in books bearing on such matters within my reach, but I can find no information about llog or llogas….”

When Celtic and English words are nearly or wholly identical, only meticulous research can answer the question about which language is the lender. As a rule of thumb, it can be accepted that the lender is the language in which the etymology of the word under discussion has been ascertained. But no one knows the origin of either lug or llog. In any case, lug4 “a large marine worm” may be of Celtic origin, so that Jones’s idea has some potential. The Century Dictionary says tentatively: “Perhaps from lug,” which is defined so: “Anything that moves slowly or with difficulty; something of a heavy, lumpish or sluggish nature.” This guess returns us to lug1 (“to pull, drag”). It is astounding that lug means, among other things, the same as slug! And yet slug is not related to slow, and neither of them is related to lug.

This is a lugger in all its beauty. Image credit: Jugendwanderkutter “Kersten Miles” by sunflare. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Still another Engl. lug (lug5) may be the first component of lugsail (a sort of square sail). “Probably from the verb to lug; the sail is easily hoisted by a pull at the rope attached to the yard. Or named from lugger, its apparent derivative, as if a ship furnished with lugsails; but cf. Dutch logger, which seems to mean ‘slow ship,’ from Dutch log ‘slow, East Friesic lug. (Doubtful.)” (Skeat). The other conjectures I have seen are similar. The phrase “named from its apparent derivative” refers to what is called back formation. Compare the verb sculpt, which is derived from sculptor, but it seems that sculptor is from sculpt, as reader is from read. Dutch dictionaries do not shed new light on lugsail, because Dutch logger is a borrowing of French lougre, which itself is a borrowing of Engl. lugger. The word does not mean “slow ship”! Case closed.

The above discussion is not unimportant from a more general point of view. When a short sound complex, especially a very short one, is endowed with multiple meanings, it is often extremely hard to decide how many different “items” we are dealing with. Perhaps several unrelated words have coalesced, but perhaps the same root produced dissimilar branches. Faced with such a vague nucleus as “to pull, pluck, drag (with a difficulty),” it is easy to obtain anything from “ear” to “a large worm” and from “an object dragged with force” to “blockhead.” Our correspondent wondered whether the Celtic god Lug(h) has anything to do with Engl. lug, whatever its meaning. No, nothing at all. Lugh was a god of many functions, but, most probably, when his name was coined, it signified “shining light.”

And this is a slug: not so majestic but also beautiful. Image credit: Arion rufus by Guillaume Brocker. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

John and Jack

The question was about why Jack is the familiar form of John. By way of introduction, I may say that many such variants—Dick for Richard, via Rick; Bill for William, via Will; Bob, Rob, and Hob for Robert (h and r are especially prone to playing leapfrog), and Peggy, via Maggie, for Margaret—are truly puzzling. One needs a long story to get from Jacob to Jim. Old English had no sound designated by j in Modern English, so that we owe the final shape of John, James, etc. to French. With regard to Jack , the history was made clear by Edward W. B. Nicholson, who wrote numerous letters to the periodical The Academy and finally put them together, revised, augmented, and recast in the form of a densely written booklet The Pedigree of ‘Jack’ and Various Allied Names. London: Alexander and Shepheard (sic), 1892. 35 pp. His main thesis was that Jack, which surfaced in late Middle English, was not derived from French Jacques but that it comes from Jankin ~ Jankyn, a diminutive of Middle Engl. Johan, that is, John. The French name was derived from Latin Iacobus and has always meant “Jacob” or” James.” This interpretation looks plausible, even though it requires some phonetic legerdemain to produce Jon from Jankyn. However, if Margaret could beget Peggy, nothing is impossible in the realm of proper names.

King John of England (1199-1216), known as John Lackland. Image credit: From Cassell’s History of England published in 1902. A picture of King John of England. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Spelling Congress: An Aftermath

The first session of Spelling Congress took place on May 30, and work on putting together a proposal for revising English spelling has begun. I’ll keep informing our readers about the progress of the Reform.

Featured Image: Jack of all trades. Featured Image Credit: “Man Office Businessman Business Multitasking” by SerenaWong. CC0 via Pixabay.

Recent Comments

  1. peter maher

    Please give us a citation of “becco” (cuckold) in collocation with other term(s), not just a bare lemma.

  2. Johs

    In Danish the verb “luge” means “to hoe” or “to weed” a garden.

  3. Maggie Catambay

    I am a subject in a psycho-acoustics study here at the U on hearing loss and neuroscience.

    Since I am a “Margaret” with a nickname (one of many) “Maggie”, I can see how “Maggie” could easily become “Peggy”. When I tell some people my name, they often say, “Peggy?”

    I’m learning more about hearing loss and how the brain interprets ambiguous inputs.

    Are you familiar with the “Laurel or “Yanny?” This discussion and explanations are on several websites a fe weeks ago?

  4. Constantinos Ragazas

    Maggie Catambay writes,

    “I’m learning more about hearing loss and how the brain interprets ambiguous inputs.”

    This will certainly transform words from one culture to another.

    As also physiological propensities of people which favor one letter for another. For example, “l” for “r”. Or introduce letters when going from two syllables into one syllable. As, for example, “horn” from Greek “honi”.


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