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Blood is thicker than water

Not too long ago (12 October 2016), I wrote a post about the etymology of the verb bless and decided that my next topic would be blood, because bless and blood meet, even if in an obscure way. But more pressing business—the origin of liver (21 March 2018) and kidney (11 April 2018)—prevented me from meeting that self-imposed deadline.  Today, Dracula-like, I am ready to tackle blood.

The pronunciation of this word deserves our attention as much as its origin. Blood is a parade example of the unpredictability of English spelling. It has once been calculated that the vowel we hear in blood can be spelled in five ways: with the letter u (cut, but, run), with the letter o (come, some), with the group ou (double, trouble, enough), with the group oe (apparently, in one word: does), and with oo (in blood and flood). To this I would like to add one and once, which, in principle, go with come and some but have a nice initial sound at the beginning.

Blood is raw. Image credit: “Blood Knife Kill Murder Red” by Twighlightzone. CC0 via Pixabay.

The pronunciation of blood is the product of a long and partly erratic process. In Old English, the word had a closed long vowel (blōd). The attribute “closed” is important, because later, in Middle English, closed o coexisted with open long o, as in stōn “stone.” (“Closed” and “open” refer to the movement of the lower jaw: open your mouth wide, and the vowel will also be open). Still later, by the Great Vowel Shift, closed ō changed to long u (ū), the sound we now have in school. Therefore, blood should have rhymed with mood, but it does not, because, instead or remaining long, this ū became short, and in early Modern English, quite regularly, changed to the vowel we still have in blood. It is the shortening that has never been explained, even though it occurred in numerous words, for instance, in good, book, cook, hood, look, and others in which the spelling with a double letter (oo) still reminds us of the pronunciation in Middle English. Elsewhere, only an etymological dictionary can inform us that the vowel was long—so in done, glove, month, stud, and many others.

The best blood expert in the world. Image credit: Gianni Lunadei interpretando al Conde Drácula, en una versión televisiva del año 1980 by Alejandro Lunadei. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

 While discussing the etymology of liver and kidney, I mentioned briefly how researchers try to reconstruct the most ancient meanings of such words. One cannot imagine that millennia ago people knew the function of our organs. For example, if my hypothesis about brain is correct (see the post 21 February 2007), brain is related to bran: just a mass. Liver was probably first and foremost a part of the slaughtered animal used for food (hence the name, as explained in the old post), and so on.

No word for “blood” common to all the speakers of the Indo-European languages existed, though some covered a large territory. Such is the Slavic word (Russian krov’, and so forth), with cognates far and wide. It is related to Engl. raw, from hrēaw, and by the same token to Latin crūdus, from which English has crude. Why raw and crude? Because the words in question referred to raw meat and other objects with blood dripping from them (for example, bloody weapon). Our remote ancestors needed words for various “kinds” of blood, rather than the generic term.

In English, blood is such a generic term, while gore is clotted blood, from a word for “filth” (thus, blood shed and coagulated). Old English had a corresponding pair: blōd and heolfor. Heolfor occurs in Beowulf. The Danes go to Grendel’s former habitat, and on their way they see a pool full of heolfor, the stagnant blood of Grendel’s old victims. The word has related forms in Classical Greek and Sanskrit. They mean “spot, dirt.” German, too, once had a close congener. Strangely, the word did not stay even in archaic dialects. In English, it was supplanted by gore.

Blue blood. Image credit: Le bal paré by Antoine-Jean Duclos. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Red blood. Image credit: “Blood Vial Analysis Laboratory Test Medical” by PublicDomainPictures. CC0 via Pixabay.

Still another Old English word relevant to our story is drēor. The adjective drēorig “bloody” has yielded Modern Engl. dreary “bleak; lifeless,” traditionally rhyming with weary, the very opposite of sanguine. (Of the three extant Latin words for “blood” English speakers will immediately recognize only sanguis, because of sanguine. In the Middle Ages, an excess of blood was believed to make one cheerful.)

Given so much specialization, it does not come as a surprise that the origin of most words for “blood” has not been discovered. An additional difficulty consists in that some of such words could have a ritual meaning (“the blood of a sacrificial animal”) and be subject to taboo. There have been many attempts to connect blood with Old Engl. blōtan “to sacrifice” (this is where bless came in in my old post), and many people still share this etymology.

Blood is a word common to all the Germanic languages, but only to them. It is very old because Gothic, which was recorded in the fourth century, already had it. No phonetic variations have been recorded, except for those that are “regular” (Gothic bloþ, German Blut, etc.), and the meaning is the same everywhere. The fewer variants, the harder it is to trace the word’s distant past. We can only risk the hypothesis that the last consonant (such as þ in Gothic) belongs to an old past participle. All the rest is guesswork, and, characteristically, even the conjectures about the etymology of blood are few.

William Harvey (1578-1657), the physisian who discovered the phenomenon of blood circulation. Image credit: William Harvey by Daniël Mijtens. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Those sources that don’t say origin unknown suggest that the root of blood is the same as in blossom and bloom. English still has the archaic verb blow “to bloom, flourish.” The ancient root seems to have meant “swell, puff up; gush” (no connection with blow, as in to give a blow). If this etymology is correct, perhaps the inspiration for our word was the picture of the blood flowing from a wound. Conversely, if we start from the idea suggested by the phrase to be in full bloom, perhaps the word referred to the red color of the substance people shed so freely. One thing is rather clear: the generic sense of a word for “blood” is always a late development.

As noted above, the use of sacrificial blood might result in tabuistic coinages, that is, instead of calling blood by its name, people invented harmless synonyms, for instance, “a thing flown.” We remember that much later references to blood were deemed sacrilegious. Hence the oath ’sblood (that is, His blood), known from Shakespeare, and the once unpronounceable adjective bloody, immortalized by George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion.

Featured Image: “A Glass Of Water Color Ink Blood Red Dissolved” by frolicsomepl. CC0 via Pixabay.

Recent Comments

  1. John Cowan

    “Now Sam McGee was from Tennessee / Where the cotton blooms and blows.” –Robert Service, “The Cremation of Sam McGee” (1907, but perhaps written earlier). The poem has numerous other archaisms, like moil (sometimes printed as toil, but lectio difficilior potior applies) and marge.

  2. John Cowan

    “Now Sam McGee was from Tennessee / Where the cotton blooms and blows.” –Robert Service, “The Cremation of Sam McGee” (1907, but perhaps written earlier). The poem has numerous other archaisms, like moil (sometimes printed as toil, but lectio difficilior potior applies) and marge ‘margin, edge’.

  3. Lionel Burman

    In NE England the double o (book, cook) is still pronounced whilst the log a (bath) is pronounced short

  4. Michael

    As an American, I would also add the spellings ‘au’ and ‘a’ for that vowel since the words ‘because’, ‘what’, ‘was’, and maybe a couple others I can’t remember have shifted to that vowel in their strong form in (most dialects of?) American English due to their tendency to be reduced.

  5. Rudy Troike

    Thanks as always for this. “Crudo” still means “raw” in Spanish. The parallelism of
    blow blood
    flow flood
    certainly seems suggestive. For a different sort of etymology of the stereotyped African-American pronunciation of “bress” for “bless”, you might see my paper in American Speech for Jan. 2015.
    On another topic, have you discussed the initial cluster “wr-” ? My Merriam-Webster shows few cognates in Gmc, and only two in I-E, none with initial “w-“, It seems strange that the “w-” is not reconstructible even in Gmc, (Of course, absent written records, we would never know it had existed in English.)

  6. […] A. (2018). Blood is thicker than water. Oxford University Press Blog. […]

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