Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

(Sweet and) sour

Last week (September 11, 2019), I discussed the origin of sweet and promised to tackle its partial opposite. Sour has been attested in nearly all the Old Germanic languages: nearly, because, like sweet, it never turned up in the Gothic gospels. The reason is familiar: sour is absent from the Greek texts Bishop Wulfila translated in the fourth century for the benefit of his followers. To the extent that I can trust the concordance at my disposal, the adjective sour occurs in the Bible only in the following passage of Ezekiel XVIII (the Authorized Version): “1 The word of the Lord came unto me again, saying, 2 What mean ye, that ye use this proverb concerning the land of Israel, saying, The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge?” In the modern European languages, the idiom sour grapes goes back to Aesop’s fable about a frustrated fox, but we can see that the image and the phrase were known not only in Ancient Greece.

The famous sour grapes. Fox and grapes by Daniel Schultz, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

The Old English for sour was sūr, and its cognates elsewhere sounded the same (in the Old Icelandic form súrr, the second r stands for an ending; ú, like ū, designated a long vowel). Such words tend to display a rather broad range of meanings. Therefore, it does not come as a surprise that Old Engl. sūr also referred to things “bitter” and even “extremely distasteful.” In dealing with sweet, we saw that it acquired the sense “pleasant.” Sour, naturally, came to mean “morose, peevish.”

Ezekiel, like Aesop, also knew that grapes can be sour. Prophet Ezekiel, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr.

The question confronting us is familiar: How did sūr acquire its meaning? At first sight, this complex is neither sound-imitating nor sound-symbolic. The history of sweet posed the same question, and the answer has not been found, even if we agreed that the earliest sense of sweet was “producing juice.” From the phonetic point of view, what is or was so juicy about the reconstructed protoform swōte?

As usual, etymologists begin their search by trying to find cognates. Perhaps, they hope, some related form holds a clue to the answer. Some native English words have cognates all over the map of Indo-European (borrowings are a special case and will concern us a bit later), while the distribution of others is limited. For some reason, secure cognates of the Germanic words for “sweet” and “sour” have been recorded only in the Slavic and Baltic languages.

To be sure, in Sanskrit we find sūra “the sap of soma” and surā, the name of some alcoholic drink, while Hungarian has sōr “beer,” but nothing in what little we know about the history of the adjective sour suggests inebriation. There have been attempts to detect the ancient root of sour (that is, sūr) in some place names, for instance, Greek Syracuse and Central Asian Syr Darya (a river name), but this wild goose chase holds out little promise. Equally uninviting is the idea that we face some extremely ancient migratory word (the name of a food product that originated somewhere in the east and spread all over the world with this product). Finally, Latin rūta “a bitter herb” has been pressed into service, with the hope that rūta once had initial s-mobile (then srūta). Those are all unproductive fantasies. In dealing with sour, it is advisable to stay in the Germanic-Baltic-Slavic territory.

Some rivers may perhaps flow with milk and honey, but they never flow with cheese. Syr Darya Oblast. Kazalinsk. Pier of the Aralsk Flotilla by Aleksandr L. Kun, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

In Russian, we find syr “cheese”; the other Slavic cognates are very similar. The adjective containing this root (syroi; stress on the second syllable: syrói) means “wet.” As already pointed out, Elmar Seebold derived sweet from the root meaning “wet,” ultimately, from “juice.”  Old Engl. sūr-īege, literally “sour-eyed,” meant “blear-eyed”; the word’s cognates in German and Icelandic meant the same. The image must have been of dripping from the eye. Perhaps Russian (Slavic) syr and Engl. cheese evoked somewhat similar associations, if Latin cāseus (from which Engl. cheese was derived) got its name from the idea of foaming and bubbling.

“Sweet” and “sour,” as we have seen, tend to develop metaphorical associations: “pleasant” and “disgusting.” The Lithuanian cognate of sour (sūras) means “salty,” but the most curious case is Russian surovyi (stress is again on the second syllable: suróvyi). The word contains the same root as in syr “cheese”; the vowels alternate in it by ablautSurovyi means “stern,” while its cognates elsewhere in Slavic mean “wet,” “hard,” “fresh; succulent,” and “raw,” in addition to “strict, stern.” All this goes a long way toward showing how careful one should be while working with historical semantics. The ancient complex sūr seems to have been applied to the technology of the dairy industry. A different idea, according to which we should look for the origin of the word in working with clay, rather than milk (it was promulgated by the famous Dutch scholar Jan de Vries, who followed the reconstruction of the German etymologist Jost Trier), looks rather uninviting.

Thus, long ago, people coined the word sūr. We more or less know what it meant (“wet like whey”?); the related Russian syvorotka (stress on the first syllable) does mean “whey.” But the initial impulse behind the coinage is lost. Such is the way of most etymological flesh.

Our story needs one last note. Though Germanic-Slavic-Baltic has been our terrain, we cannot ignore the fact that also in Old French, the adjective sur “sour” turned up. Modern French still has the adjective suret “sour(ish)” and the verb surir “to turn sour” (said about food). The existence of Old French sur may be used to support the idea of a Eurasian migratory word, but, more likely, we are dealing with a borrowing from Germanic, even though we cannot explain why the word made its way into French. Such words come from abroad with things. (Thus did Sorbian tvarog become German Quark.) Was there some German sour milk product that enjoyed popularity in medieval France?

English has preserved a single trace of that Romance adjective. The plant name sorrel is a borrowing of Old French sorele ~ surele. The reference is to the plant’s sour taste. Its homonym sorrel “(horse) of bright chestnut color” is a different word.

This is the end of our journey over the sweet and sour terrain.

Feature image credit: Image by Morana T from Pixabay.

Recent Comments

  1. John Cowan

    There is no actual word for sour in the Masoretic Text of Ezekiel 18:2. Rather, there is the single word בֹ֔סֶר (boser), meaning specifically ‘unripe grapes’. Versions of the same saying appear in Jeremiah, and we hear in Isaiah of boser ripening.

  2. Jevgēnijs Kaktiņš

    Lithuaninan sūrio sūris would be saltiness of cheese, in Latvian cheese transforms into siers (making relation to siet – tie, kind of siet sieru make cheese) but sūrs would be bitter for taste, getting transformed into hard work sūrs darbs, saldi augļi, or sūroties to complain or originally make bitter, another derivation sūrstēt is to be in constant pain for a longer time. I suspect *sūrus form with US as medus for honey, or alus for beer. Actually modern Lithuanian sūrùs /sū̃ris makes distinction in derivation of adjectives and nouns salty/saltiness vs sū́ris cheese

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *