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Two cruces: “slave” and “slur”


The word slave would have attracted much less attention if it did not sound like Slav. Modern people should get rid of ancient sensibilities. Slave and Slav are probably not related, but, even if they were, why should the events of a thousand or so years ago be regarded as a slur on the modern descendants of the Slavs? National pride is a dangerous tool in etymology.

Essays and notes on the origin of the word slave appeared in many languages. My bibliography of English etymology was published in 2010, and by that time, I had read only a fraction of the relevant literature, but I was aware of the two especially important articles on the subject, and, although today I know much more about the debate than I knew ten years ago, below I’ll refer only to those two publications, because between them they summarize the earlier sources in a satisfactory way. However, their conclusions differ.

One of the opening statements in the 1962 article by Henry and Reneé Kahane sounds so: “There is no argument about the identity of the morpheme: sklav ‘slave’ continues slav ‘Slav’.” Yet this is exactly what the entire argument is about. One can hardly adduce a similar example of the word for “slave” coinciding with a so-called ethnonym. The ever-repeated case of Welsh in English (see my post “A Linguistic League of Nations” for May 15, 2019) is different: Old Engl. welisc meant “foreign,” not “enslaved,” and the Germanic invaders found themselves in permanent contact with the Celts. Some old sources also cite Serb, allegedly from serve. This is nonsense.

Why should Slavs have been singled out for supplying the source for the word meaning “slave”? This is the only question that should be answered. Instead of that, the Kahanes offered an exhaustive survey of the spread of the word in Eurasia and its use in Byzantium, Romance- and Germanic-speaking countries, and by the Arabs.  It is instructive to quote The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology: “Medieval Latin sclavus… identical with the ethnic name Sclavus SLAV, the Slavonic races having been reduced to a servile state by conquest.” All the Slavonic races? By what conquest?  The above formulation was borrowed from the original edition of the OED and reflected the scholarly consensus of the time.

Slavery in Ancient Egypt. Image credit: “Illustrerad verldshistoria utgifven av E. Wallis. band I” by Ernst Wallis et al. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Elsewhere, we read that in the early stages of their recorded history, the Slavs were prone to subjugation by foreign military powers. They allegedly had a very loose social and political structure. Their military organization was poorly developed. These facts, together, with the primitive Slavs’ predilection for cattle grazing and agriculture, are said to explain why nomadic invaders in the form of a seasoned body of well-armed cavalry gained control of the Slavic tribes. Such is the opinion of a Czech historian, whom no one would try to accuse of an anti-Slavic bias. But we again notice the absence of concrete facts in the argument. The entire passage seems to have been written to justify the equation Slav= slave, rather than to investigate the situation in detail.

Among the independent English lexicographers (that is, such as dared to express non-traditional opinions), only Henry Cecil Wyld wrote about slave: “Of unknown origin.” The discussion I found on the Internet is uninspiring. All the sources rehash the OED; sometimes Ernest Klein is referred to (the word slave allegedly goes back to the time of Otto the Great’s putting down the Slavic rebellion). Few people realize that Klein’s English etymological dictionary is the last source they should consult. Non-specialists exchange their opinions about the origin of the word slave (as though in such cases opinions, rather than facts, matter) and discuss the previously unnoticed problem: Is it OK to use the word slave if it sounds like an insult to the Slavs? Fortunately, most discussants agreed that nowadays no one associates Slavs with slaves and that no renaming is needed. By the way, only English has lost k in the group skl– (compare French esclave, German Sklave, and so forth). Slave came to English from French, and in English, the group scl– was regularly simplified. The same change occurred in slander, muscle(in which the spelling and the adjective muscularremind us of the oldest form), and a few others.

Words, not unlike germs, travel with people. “Le Vieux Musicien” by Édouard Manet. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

In 1970, Georg Korth brought out an article on the subject that interests us. It appeared in a German philological journal (Glotta), and in German. The story (as had always been known) began with the Greek word Sklabēnoi; this is what the southern Slavs were called in Byzantium. In the eighth century, the word reached Italy. Later, it became widely known. Neither the Greeks not the descendants of the Roman Empire needed a new word for “slave; servitor; prisoner,” but the ethnonym Slav did coincide with one of the already existent words for “an unfree person”; hence the illusion that we are dealing with the same word—a typical example of folk etymology.

As early as 1882, slave was derived from the root of the Greek verb eskleío “I include,” with the idea that those “included” were kept in their new habitat against their will. Even more convincing is the derivation of our word from Greek skūlon or skúlon“spoils of war” (y instead of would be a better transliteration). Korth’s article convinced Elmar Seebold, the editor of Kluge’s German etymological dictionary, who used its conclusion in the entry Sklave. Unfortunately, he said nothing about the history of the question, which is a pity, because in etymological dictionaries, dogmatic statements defeat their purpose. Of course, Seebold referred to Korth (among other sources), but who, except for a few professionals, follows the references in small print? It seems that the latest version of the etymology of slave is indeed preferable to the traditional one. The Internet shows that a handful of discussants from Russia noticed it (they have read Seebold, not Korth) and approved, but only because the hateful association slave = Slav has been debunked. We, however, will leave politics to politicians.

The etymology of the ethnonym Slav is also highly controversial, but it needn’t bother us here.

When a slur is not a slur. “Українська” by Микола Лисенко. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

This post looks like my last shot at sl- words. As pointed out a week ago, some words with initial sl– may have an “unetymological,” movable s (s-mobile), so that sometimes the ancient root has to be looked for among the nouns and verbs beginning with l. Quite a few sl– words came to English from Old French, Low German, and Middle Dutch. Dictionaries often cite the related forms but have nothing to say about their origin. Obviously, a list of cognates does not amount to an etymology, even though it specifies the word’s dispersion field. Finally, we have a residue of “words of unknown origin.”

Slur is troublesome because it combines several distinct senses. Yet they can be reduced to two: 1) liquid mud and 2) gliding. Similar formations occur in Low German, Dutch, and the Scandinavian languages (the range is wide, from “slut” to “slurping”), so that, while dealing with English, one should consider the possibility of borrowing or so-called wandering words. Apparently, it was easy to form the names for “slime,” “slush,” “sludge,” “sleaze,” “slobber,” “saliva,” ”slum,” “slim” (originally, slim meant “bad”), and “slut.” In a way, they told their own story, and the whole looked like a game. Linguists have invented several terms for such sound-symbolic, expressive, emphatic, and phonesthetic words. The term primitive creation reminds us that such coinages are universal in the languages of the world, but the mechanism of producing each individual item remains partly unclear. Slurp and its German congener schlürfen are probably not only “expressive” but also sound-imitative (onomatopoeic). I sincerely hope that my prevarication will not be looked upon as a slur on my escutcheon.


Slurp, slurp. “Drinking Milk Bottle” by tung256. Pixabay License via Pixabay.

Featured image: “Longships Are Built in the Land of the Slavs” by Nicholas Roerich, Museum of Oriental Art, Moscow. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. Constantinos Ragazas


    I agree there likely is no connection between “slave” and “Slav”. Do we know, however, what the Slavs were called before they were called Slavs? If this happened in Byzantine Times, that’s not too long ago.

    About the etymology of “slave”, however, imho this may be from the Greek “sklavo”.

    The ancient Greek “sklavono” has the root “lavo”, which means to “seize, capture”. So “sklavono” would mean to “capture” in war. As compared to “skotono” which means to “kill” in war.

    It all makes perfect sense to me! But you need to know some Greek to see it!


  2. Constantinos Ragazas


    I agree there likely is no connection between “slave” and “Slav”. Do we know, however, what the Slavs were called before they were called Slavs? If this happened in Byzantine Times, that’s not too long ago.


  3. Constantinos Ragazas

    About the etymology of “slave”, however, imho this may be from the Greek “sklavo”.

    The Greek “sklavono” has the Ancient Greek root “lavo”, which means to “seize, capture”. So “sklavono” would mean to “capture” in war. As compared to the ancient Greek “skotono” which means to “kill” in war.

    It all makes perfect sense to me! But you need to know some Greek to see it!


Comments are closed.