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Fingers feel, or feel free!

Now that I have said everything I know about the etymology of the word finger (see the posts on feeling fingers), and those who agree and disagree with me have also made their opinion public, one more topic has to be discussed, namely, the origin of the verb feel.

These are the basic facts. The verb feel has been attested only in West Germanic. Old English had fēlan, from fōljan, and the forms in Old Frisian, Old Saxon, and Old High German go back to the same root. All the rest is intelligent guessing. Naturally, since the Germanic root is fōl, the search concentrated on the non-Germanic root pōl, with the p ~ f correspondence by the indispensable First Consonant Shift (my recurring reference is to Engl. father versus Latin pater). Long o, that is, ō, alternates with short a, that is, ă, by ablaut, and the root pal surfaced early in the discussion of feel. Latin palpare “to touch,” familiar from palpitate and palpable, presented itself as a possible cognate, even though the comparison ignores the presence of final p in palp-.

That is what feelers are for! Image by Zeimusu, CC by-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

The original meaning of feel was “to touch, examine by touching,” as in “We… felt over innumerable feet of dark wall for electric light switches” in The Great Gatsby (the beginning of Chapter 8). The metaphorical sense, as in I felt nothing, came later. Assuming for the moment that palpare and feel are related, we may wonder what the origin of the Latin verb is. Palp– begins with and ends in the same consonant and sounds a bit like Engl. plop or pulp. Plop is sound-imitative. Pulp, from Latin, is a word of unknown origin, and, incidentally, so is pulpit, also from Latin. One can always suggest a borrowing from an unknown language (and this has been done for pulpit), but equally probable is the conjecture that we are dealing with sound-symbolic or sound-imitative formations, even though it remains unclear what they “symbolize” or imitate. Engl. plop is of course not a problem.

What do pulp and pulpit have in common? Both words are of unknown origin and may be sound-symbolic. Pulp image by Hans Braxmeier via Pixabay; pulpit of Gerona Church by Ramon FVelasquez, CC by-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Palpare is perhaps not wholly opaque. If the concept of feeling goes back to touching gently and caressing with the fingers (such is the common and seemingly reasonable opinion), there may be something in the complex palp that suggests such a movement: plop is loud, while palp is soft and pacifying. With these fantasies and the mysterious pulpit behind us, we may return to feel or rather fōl ~ făl, and on our way back to Germanic pay attention to Engl. floss “rough silk,” from French floche, from Old French flosche “down; pile of velvet.” Down and velvet are certainly soft and gentle to the touch.

Germanic exhibits numerous verbs beginning with fl-, some of which I have discussed more than once in connection with the verb flatter. (The other group, connected with the Engl. F-word, such as fickle and fidget, poses similar questions.) Their sound-symbolic or sound-imitative origin is rather obvious. The list contains flutter, flitter, flicker, flit, fling, flounder, flip, flap (compare also flip-flap and flippant), flop, flirt, and quite a few others, including flow. Flip is especially instructive, because the noun fillip “a flick of the finger” may be related to it. Fillip contains the group fl with a vowel between f and l, and we are reminded of feel, from fōl.

Especially characteristic is Old Icelandic fitla “to fumble; fidget,” a doublet of fipla (the same meaning); the latter resembles Engl. fillip and flip, mentioned above. Contrary to what is said in some sources, Germanic fōljan, the ancestor of Engl. feel, is hardly related to Latin palma “palm of the hand,” with congeners elsewhere (Old English had folm), because we touch things with fingers rather than with an open palm. Old Icelandic falma “to fumble, grope around” (Modern Icelandic fálma), a doublet of felma and a close synonym of fitla, bears a strong resemblance to feel, but its relation to palma is far from certain.

Feeling fingers. Image in the public domain via Max Pixel.

Felma reemerges in felmtr “alarm, fear,” felmta “to feel frightened,” and a related Gothic word that also means “frightened.” If, as Guðbrandur Vigfússon, the author of the great Old Icelandic dictionary, suggested in passing, the idea behind “fright” is “trepidation” (I am not sure whether he was the first to think so), that is, “tremor, tremulous agitation,” then we return to the idea of fitful movement, and a tenuous link is established between feel and the Icelandic words cited here.

It will have become clear by this time that, according to my suggestion, feel (from fōljan) is possibly one of many fl-verbs, denoting unsteady movement. As a rule, no vowel appears between f and l in them, but, just as flip appears to have produced fillip, another verb with a vowel inside our sound-symbolic and sound-imitative group might arise. If such is the origin of feel, it gives confirmation to Ari Hoptman’s idea that finger is also one of such f-words.

Scholars, it will be remembered, fear only two situations. They are either afraid of being original (how can I be right if no one else thinks so?) and of being non-original (what is the point of my work if I have nothing new to say?). It pleases me to report that in my treatment of feel I am half-original and thus enjoy the best of both worlds. Latin palpare has often been compared with Greek psállō “to pluck strings” (recognizable from Engl. psalm), as well as with some words beginning with psēl– and meaning “to stutter, stammer.” All of them have been tentatively explained as symbolic, that is, evoking the idea of touching, vibrating, plucking, and trembling.

Germanic fōljan “to feel” may be one of such words. If this conjecture has merit, it is not necessary to treat palpare, along with its problematic kin, and feel as cognates. Rather, they owe their origin to the same impulse. The origin of sound-imitative words is usually transparent: splash, hush, crack, creak, croak, moo, and the rest. By contrast, the presence of sound symbolism cannot be proved, though decades of research have shown that people do describe certain sound groups and even individual sounds in terms of various emotions. Some such vowels, consonants, and their combinations are regularly called warm, cold, gentle, harsh, pleasant, repellent, and so forth (students of phonetics are aware of metaphorical terms like soft n, thick l, and so on). The line between sound imitation and sound symbolism is often hard to draw.

The material at our disposal bears out the hypothesis that speakers associate f-l and p-l (the hyphen stands for a possible vowel) with vibrating, caressing, and touching. We probably have no way of discovering the psychological roots of this association.

The discovery of cognates of sound-symbolic words is often impossible. Yet some conclusions can be drawn. Comparing feel with palm and its related forms in Germanic (such as Old Engl. folm) does not carry conviction, because, to repeat, one does not normally “feel” with the palm, but, if folm goes back to the same symbolic intention, then, in some vague way, they may belong together. They are like a bunch of thin mushrooms on a stump: rootless but similar, or like a group of people in uniform: belonging together but unrelated. The often cited Slavic palets “finger” is a suspicious cognate of feel, because, as said in the post on finger, in the beginning the word meant “thumb,” not a typical “feeling” limb.

By this time you probably feel my pain. If you want to have a near-complete survey of the literature on feel and if you can read German, consult Volume 4, pp. 634-38, of the splendid etymological dictionary of Old High German (Etymologisches Wörterbuch des Althochdeutschen). Satisfaction guaranteed.

Feature image credit: Fungi on a log by sylvia duckworth. CC by-SA 2.0, via Geograph.

Recent Comments

  1. Maggie Catambay

    You have mentioned chain-shifts in your blogs: First Consonant Shift, English Great Vowel Shift, etc. I wonder how these begin. Do you think it is contact with speakers of other dialects or languages? Or do you think when children learn a language, they change the pronunciation slightly? Or maybe there are multiple answers?

  2. Constantinos Ragazas


    FYI, English “fright” derives from Greek “frikto” (fright), attested in ancient Greek. While English “flow” derives from Greek “plow” (flow). Also attested in ancient Greek. With your often mentioned p/f switch. Surely you must know this! Certainly now you do.


  3. John Cowan

    There’s a theory that pulpitum < Etruscan < πολύποδα ‘having many feet’. There are a number of such words in Latin that have been twisted by the highly non-IE phonology of Etruscan: burrus ‘red-brown’ < πυρρός ‘flame-colored’, amurga ‘sediment in olive oil’ < ἀμόργη ‘id.’, persona ‘mask, person’ < πρόσωπον ‘id.’, triump(h)us < θρίαμβος ‘hymn to Dionysus’, and catamitus < Γανυμήδης ‘Ganymede’ (probably from a variant Γαbυμήδης).

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