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Sweet (and sour)

The post on the origin of the word smell (August 21, 2019) has been read by more people than any other in recent months. On the wave of this unexpected popularity, I decided to write an essay or two on related themes. If they arouse enough interest, I may continue in the same vein. The future will show to what extent see, hear, feel, touch, and a few other verbs belonging to this sphere are worthy of our attention. In principle, I tend to avoid the words whose origin is known and noncontroversial. Anyone can look them up in a good dictionary, and nowadays the Internet provides lots of reliable information, so that there is no need to beat a willing horse. (It has always amused me that to beat a willing horse and to beat a dead horse mean the same. However, the reason is quite obvious.)

I would like to begin with the adjective sweet. The word is Common Germanic, though it does not occur in the fourth-century translation of the Gospels from Greek into Gothic (the reason is clear: sweet and sweetness are very rare words in the Bible). Yet it surely existed in the language of the Goths. The Old English for sweet was swēte (with a long vowel in the root, as, for instance, in Modern German Peter). The original Germanic form must have sounded approximately as swōti. Some languages lost w in the root, as seen in Modern Dutch zoot, German süß, and Icelandic sætur. In English, the adjective sweet broadened its meaning and became a vague synonym for “pleasant, lovable, enjoyable.”

Whatever you may say, a rose smells sweeter when it is called a rose. Image by abeer alabdullah from Pixabay.

This broadening is especially noticeable in Shakespeare. We all remember that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. But sweet is probably the most frequent epithet in the sonnets. Before and after the familiar when in the session of sweet silent thought (Sonnet 30), the word occurs again and again. As noted, Gothic must have had a word for the taste of honey, but by chance it has not been recorded. However, in that language (and apparently, only in it, as far as Germanic is concerned) an adjective for “pleasing” existed. It was used to translate épieikēs, which in Classical Greek displayed a great variety of senses, all of them positive: “proper; sufficient; correct; gifted; virtuous,” and the like.

The session of sweet silent thought. Daydreaming by Jaka Ostrovršnik, CC-by-2.0 via Flickr.

In the Gothic text, it occurs in 1 Timothy 3:3, in the chapter on the qualities needed for the office of a bishop. In the King James Bible, the verse sounds so: “Not given to wine, no striker, not greedy, of good behavior, given to hospitality, apt to teach.” Thus, “no striker” (hence the English gloss “gentle, yielding” in our Gothic dictionaries and manuals). The noun un-suti (with a negative prefix) also turned up and meant “uproar, tumult.” The Gothic adjective’s comparative form corresponds to “more tolerable” in M XI:24 of the English text. Whether the Gothic word is related to sweet and whether the vowel in its root was short or long remains a matter of dispute, but rather probably they are indeed related, while the phonetic niceties are in our case irrelevant.

Not a striker. From “Military and religious life in the Middle Ages and at the period of the Renaissance.” Public domain via Internet Archive Book Images on Flickr.

The root of sweet is easy to trace to the rest of Indo-European. In Latin, suāvis “pleasant, delectable” corresponds to it. Via Old French it reached English; hence suave. The verb suādēre meant “to advise” (apparently, from “to make something pleasant to the one being advised”); after some travels over Europe, it ended up in English as per-suade. We also know it from the opposite, namely dis-suade. Dissuaders are, arguably, not suave. I’ll skip the details about the Greek digamma and the change of initial s in Classical Greek to h, and state dogmatically that Greek hēdús “sweet” is a good congener of sweet; it meant “tasty, smelling delicious.” From the Greek noun of that root English acquired hedonism, etc. Sanskrit also preserved svādú- “sweet.”

The ancient Indo-European protoform must have sounded approximately like swād-. In Germanic, final d changed to t by the First Consonant Shift, also known as Grimm’s Law. The most probable development was from “sweet” (that is, tasting like some natural product) to “pleasurable.” What was that product, or what was the initial meaning of the phonetic complex swād?

In dealing with this Indo-European root, we find references not only to things tasting sweet but also to condiments, salt (!), and even vinegar (!!). This fact should not baffle us, because words with a broad general meaning (in this case, such as refer to taste) often narrow that initial meaning. A classic parallel is Russian sladkii, for solódkii “sweet” (the other Slavic forms are similar). Solódkii goes back to sólod “malt.” Although Lithuanian saldùs and its Latvian cognate also mean ”sweet,” the original meaning of the adjective was, it appears, “salty, tasty, spicy,” and the word is thus related to salt. Consequently, reference to “sweet” is a late development of a much more general or a much vaguer concept.

One expects a word like sweet to have a transparent etymology. Thus, bitter, most probably, means “biting.” A still easier case is salty, that is, “having the taste of salt.” According to what we have seen, Russian sladkii should be understood as “having the taste of solod ‘malt’.” Yet the situation is not always so clear. For example, Engl. tart is obscure, and so is Russian gorkii “bitter,” known to most from Maxim Gorky’s name or at least from Gorky Park.

Not all juices are sweet. Photo by Marco Verch, CC-by-2.0 via Flickr.

The only remote etymology of sweet, that is, of swōt, has been offered by the German scholar Elmar Seebold, whom I often mention in connection with the latest edition of Kluge’s German etymological dictionary (Kluge-Seebold). He suggested (first in 1984) that swōt is a sum of two roots: swō and t. The second of them (t) is said to go back to the Indo-European word for “give,” as in Latin da-re. As for swō-, Seebold associated it with the West Germanic noun for “juice,” as in Old Engl. sēaw “juice, sap; moisture” (the Old English adjective ge-sēaw meant “succulent”) and Old High German sou (the same meaning; see the obsolete word sew in the OED). He glossed this putative compound as “producing (having) the taste of juice.”

This ingenious reconstruction raises a few questions. We are not told which juice is meant. The primary sense of Old High German sou and its cognates elsewhere was “moisture,” rather than “juice,” while the continuation of sou in the Middle period denoted not only “moisture” but also “food” and “poison.” Finally, the entire structure looks a bit bulky, and experience shows that complicated etymologies are seldom correct. But Seebold had a “hidden agenda”: he set out to show that sweet and sour go back to the same root, which, in principle, is quite possible (see the story of Russian sladkii). Whether this agenda holds water will become clear some time later.

Feature image credit: From “Breeder and sportsman.” Public domain via Internet Archive Book Images on Flickr.

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