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Feeling my oats for the last time this year

Having sown my wild oats (see the post for December 12, 2018), I can now afford the luxury of looking at the origin of the word oat. It would be unfair to introduce the holiday season by discussing a word of unknown etymology. A Christmas carol needs a happy end, and indeed I have something reassuring to say.

The Latin for “oats” is avena, a word known to some from botany and to some from the family name Avenarius “pertaining to oats,” oaty, or oatsome, as it were. Two special terms exist: avena sativa and avena fatua. They mean “cultivated oats” and” wild oats” respectively (fatuus is “stupid, idiotic,” not exactly “fatuous”). The Old English for oats, or rather oat, was āte. As always, the macron over the vowel designates length, so that ā sounded more or less like a in Modern Engl. father. The recorded examples are few, with most of them occurring in the parable of the enemy who sowed tares—avena fatua, it would appear—in a grain field (Matthew XIII: 24-30). But in Middle English, the word, now pronounced as ōtes (with o as in Modern Engl. or, but without r) came to mean “avena sativa.” The plural predominated, and it still does. James A. H. Murray believed that the word had denoted an individual grain, not the plant or produce in the mass; hence the plural. We’ll return to his formulation later.

Today, avena sativa often refers to the so-called “green straw” and is advertised all over the place. On the Internet, I found the following information. The plant, we are told, “which has been passed down through generations, was a herbal supporter of health—especially in women. It also has a reputation as an aphrodisiac [of course!] for both men and women, with the saying sowing your wild oats thought to have originated with regard to this particular benefit of Avena sativa.” Since the text has a herbal rather an herbal, I assume that it originated in the UK, rather than the US. Why, oh why, didn’t they say who thought the idiom owes its existence to the salubrious qualities of the plant? Medieval assurances (“wise people say,” “as is well-known,” “widely traveled men told me,” and the like) no longer suffice.

Besides āte, Old English had ātih “weeds,” continued in northern English dialects as oatty “oats of very short stalks” and “mixed with wild oats.” The names of weeds and cultivated plants often sound alike, because several species of grain arise from weeds growing in sown fields or because they resemble one another. A typical example is Dutch tarwe “wheat” and Engl. tare. The two words are related, even though tare has been known from texts only since the Middle English period.

Richard Avenarius, once famous for his philosophy of empirio-criticism. Image credit: Richard Avenarius (1843-1896) by Ohne Angabe. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Some of the most dependable dictionaries say that oat is an isolated word. This is wrong, for good cognates of it have been found in Frisian and dialectal Dutch. Their existence shows that we are dealing with a word of limited distribution in West Germanic but tells us nothing about its origin. Oat has a few suggestive look-alikes. The first of them is Gothic atisk. As often mentioned in this blog, in the fourth century, Bishop Wulfila translated the New Testament from Greek into Gothic. Of his translation, which is the oldest consecutive text of great length in any Germanic language, many parts are extant. Mark 2: 23 and Luke VI: 1 are among the surviving fragments. In the text of the Authorized Bible, we read: “…his disciples began… to pluck the ears of corn” and “…his disciples plucked the ears of corn” (corn “grain”). In both places, the Gothic word atisk “grain field” occurs. The Greek text has sporímon “cultivated area” (in the accusative). The root of this word is familiar to English speakers from spore and its cognate sperm.

The Gothic noun does not designate any plant, but the similarity between atisk and Old Engl. āte is unmistakable. Also, a bridge between “grain field” and “oats” is rather easy to draw. To be sure, we don’t know what kind of a field it was, and whether oats rather than wheat or rye seduced the hungry disciples. But, as always, the main trouble is of linguistic nature. The Old English word, we remember, was ātes, and in that language long a (that is, ā) was the product of the old diphthong ai contracted into a long monophthong. For instance, Gothic had stains “stone,” and in Old English, stān corresponded to it. Again and again, I refer to the inexorable laws of ablaut. In the old Indo-European languages (and English belongs to this language family), vowels alternate according to strict rules, and it so happens that ai (the source of Old Engl. ā) and short a belong to different series and cannot break the magic circle around them.

Yet the temptation for special pleading is great. Hans Kuhn (1899-1988), a distinguished and at his time extremely influential scholar, conjured up the ghost of an ancient fashion for short a (!), which allegedly set in when the Indo-Europeans were learning agriculture. “Common sense” suggested to him that oak (from aik-) and acorn, as well as ait– “oat” and Gothic atisk, were related pairwise. Common sense is a wonderful asset, but ablaut is a good thing too, and, if we disregard the strict laws of etymology, our companions will be medieval scholars with their fanciful ideas. A fashion for short a? It is more prudent to stay away from such concepts.

To complicate matters, goats seem to have a fondness for oats, and, surprisingly, the words for “goat” and “oat” sound alike (even identical) in several languages. Could oat get its name because of an association with the animal? Few etymologists are ready to endorse this idea, but it once had famous advocates. Also, Latin ador “spelt” (the cereal) and some forms of the verb eat have been compared with oat (our oldest English etymologists explained that this culture is “forage for horses in all places, and in some, provision for men”), but both ideas died unmourned. And so did a few others, even though they too had their day in court. That is why so many good reference books dismiss oat as a word of unknown origin. Yet not a bad hypothesis has been offered, and I think it has potential.

Who said that oats do not swell? Image credit: Oatmeal & Berries by Melissa Belanger. Public Domain via Unsplash.

We are returning to phonetics. Old English ā developed from the diphthong ai. In German and Icelandic, the continuation of ai is not ā but ei. Walter W. Skeat, as early as the first edition of his etymological dictionary (1884), cited Icelandic eitill “nodule in stone” (it also means “nodule in wood”) as related to oat. He reconstructed the original sense of this word’s root, which has cognates in German and elsewhere in Scandinavian, as “swelling,” and concluded that oat belongs with eitill. He found some allies, but the best authorities dismissed or rejected his hypothesis. True, the sense is not specific (why was it chosen for oats, rather than for any other cereal?), but Old Engl. ātan (plural) designated “darnel, cockle, tares (lolium, zizania)” and may in prehistorical times have been applied to several kinds of weeds. Other than that, with oats it is as with barley: “The sultry suns of Summer came,/ And he grew thick and strong;/ His head weel arm’d wi’ pointed spears,/ That no one should him wrong.” Skeat’s etymology did not satisfy Murray’s OED, but, as pointed out long ago, it tallies well with the idea that oats primarily denoted not the plant or the produce in the mass, but an individual grain. Skeat never changed his opinion. He had the greatest respect for Murray’s etymologies, but here he did not budge, and he may have been right.

A FAREWELL TO 2018:

This blog was born on March 1, 2008, and ever since, those interested in word origins have been able to read my essays on OUP’s website every Wednesday. This post is No. 675. For staffing reasons, there will now be a break. The next post will appear on January 9, 2019. So I am hastening to announce my New Year resolutions. I have completed work on a middle-sized etymological dictionary of English idioms and prepared a selection of the most interesting essays from this blog in book form. In the coming year, I hope to submit both books to the publisher. And to our readers I want to say: “May any evil you have seen/Become like vapor in ’nineteen!”

A HAPPY NEW YEAR!

Featured image credit: What rain paid off by Kylo. Public Domain via Unsplash.

Recent Comments

  1. Frank Regis

    May you too have only vapors in ‘nineteen!

    Thank you for the articles – enlightening and entertaining every week (or so).

  2. Vivian Ramalingam

    So fascinating that the supermarket scales allow for the “tare weight” of the cardboard or st styrofoam that encloses pre-packaged items (milk, cheese, cereal, usw). Is this a suggestion about how weeds were used, in earlier times, in the transfer of goods?

    Anyway, may your 2019 tares enwrap good things.

  3. Maggie Catmabay

    Dear Prof. Liberman,

    Congratulations on finishing your books! Your discussions are always fascinations and informative.

    Happy Holidays and all the best in 2019!

  4. Vero

    Tan fascinante que las básculas de los supermercados permiten el “peso de tara” del cartón o espuma de poliestireno que contiene artículos preenvasados ​​(leche, queso, cereales, usw). ¿Se trata de una sugerencia sobre cómo se utilizaron las malas hierbas, en épocas anteriores, en la transferencia de bienes?

    De todos modos, que tu cizaña del 2019 envuelva cosas buenas.

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