Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Our five senses: taste

Having discussed the origin of the verbs smell (The sense and essence of smell) and feel (Fingers feel, or feel free), I thought that it might be worthwhile to touch on the etymology of see, hear, and taste. Touch, ultimately of onomatopoeic origin, has been mentioned, though briefly, in one of the earlier posts. I’ll begin the projected series with taste.

Taste has an instructive history. It is a Romance word, which, in English, surfaced only in the thirteenth century, but at that time it meant “to examine by touch [again touch!], try, test.” The by now familiar sense “to have a particular flavor” does not antedate the fifteen hundreds. See and hear refer to rather easily described sensations. I see for “I understand” needs minimal explanation: if you see something, you see the light, as it were, and understand what you observe. Likewise, if you hear a signal, it registers in your brain. The taste of wormwood and honey poses no difficulties either, but having good taste in classical music does not presuppose putting anything in the mouth: sweet, sour, and bitter are irrelevant concepts here. This figurative usage goes back to French, and in French it seems to be from Italian. (Incidentally, Sweet and Sour has been the subject of two other recent posts.)

If you have a signal, you hear it. Image by PublicDomainPictures from Pixabay.

The etymology of taste is rather obscure. There must have been the Romance verb tastare, rhyming with its well-known synonym gustare (familiar from Engl. gusto and disgusting), but the details are lost, and I’ll let them be. More important is the fact that the English cognate of gustare is Engl. choose (Old Engl. cēosan, Gothic kiusan, and so on). It follows that the idea of tasting suggests not only touching but also choosing. That is why an etymologist investigating the origin of such words should cast the net rather widely.

You have good taste in classical music. Image by TravelCoffeeBook from Pixabay.

In today’s post, I will stay away from the Romance verbs and their congeners and look only at the Germanic word for “taste.” It has been preserved by all the West Germanic languages (Frisian, Dutch, and German), so once again, as happened to smell, by one branch of Germanic. This limited geographic distribution of words is a mystery, and we have to live with it. West Germanic presents a clear picture: the old root was smak; we find it in the Modern German noun Geschmack “taste” (ge– is a prefix) and the verb schmecken “to taste.”

Before I turn to these words, I must make a digression. English has two verbs smack. One is defined as “to taste; savor,” the other as “to open and close the lips noisily,” and it is the noise that will interest us here. Smack also means “to strike, spank” (compare the adverb: “I ran smack into the lamppost” and “The great oak is smack in the middle of the park”). Smack2 is obviously sound-imitative. There seems to be a near-consensus that, from the etymological viewpoint, smack1 and smack2 are different entities, and this is what I wrote in my post on smell (not because I thought so, but because I copied the opinion that looked like a recognized truth). But now that I have read all there is on the two homonyms, I am far from certain that the consensus should be accepted as final.

Suggestions that smack1 and smack2 are related probably go back to the publication of Francis A. Wood, an American etymologist whose name turns up in this blog with great regularity. His solutions should be viewed critically, but they are, to use the hackneyed phrase, invariably thought-provoking. He noted that, while tasting food, one often “smacks.” Perhaps this late verb was borrowed from Low German or Dutch, but it does not follow that the two homonyms are unrelated! Smack1 also has close Low German and Dutch congeners. Wood, I believe, was right.

Smell and taste are closely connected, and it is not surprising that a word may designate both. Dutch smaak, which is glossed as “taste” in modern dictionaries, in the past also meant “smell.” Similar examples occur in the German-speaking area, and the same symbiosis was recorded in Old Icelandic. We observe with some dismay that we have once again run into a sm-word. Some such words lack s-, but this is a familiar complication: the mysterious and ubiquitous s-mobile has been mentioned in this blog multiple times. My hackneyed example is Engl. steer “bull” versus the s-less Latin taurus (we even had a picture of the constellation Taurus not long ago). For variety’s sake and to remain true to the sm-subject, I may add Engl. smear versus Greek múron “ointment.”

This is the idea of the Russian chmok. Image by PublicDomainPictures from Pixabay.

Do we again encounter a sound-symbolic or a sound-imitative word like smell? Possibly so. No one doubts that smack “open and close the lips with a noise” is onomatopoeic. For comparison, I may cite a few Russian monosyllables of the same type: chmok (the closest analog of smack, with regard to sound and sense), shmyak “thud,” and shmyg (the reference is to a quick movement). In English, smash and smatter (mentioned in the earlier discussion of smell) belong here. Tracing them to remote Indo-European roots looks like an unproductive procedure. Yet it does not follow that such words cannot have cognates outside a narrow language subgroup. Lithuanian smaguriaî  “dainties, tidbits,” apparently, belongs here too, and, if we agree that “noise,” as in smack, is tangentially connected with eating, Lithuanian smôgti “to strike” may also join the list. After all, Old Engl. –smacian meant “to pat, caress,” not “taste.”

Perhaps the most curious word in this group is Gothic smacca “fig” (the fruit).  Gothic, it will be remembered, has survived, because, in the fourth century, parts of the New Testament were translated into that language. Long consonants are extremely rare in Gothic and are usually of expressive origin. Smakka has close parallels in Slavic: Russian smokva (stress on the first syllable), etc. It remains a matter of debate whether the Gothic word was a loanword from Slavic, whether the process of borrowing went in the opposite direction, or whether we are dealing with a migratory word, initially alien to both Gothic and Slavic. In any case, the smakka was the fruit from the fateful tree of knowledge, and the word for the fig tree occurs in the episode in Jesus’s life. It has been suggested that smakka is related to the root we find in German schmecken, so that the word meant “a very tasty fruit.” It is an attractive hypothesis. (What fruit really grew on that tree has been discussed many times but will not concern us here.)

There is one more smack in English. It denotes a sailing ship and may well be related to the verbs smack, described above, but its history may take us too far afield and will be left for some other occasion.

Here then is the summary of this post on smak, the Germanic word for “taste.” Arguably, smak designated the sensation people have when they put something in the mouth and the sound they make while eating (not a delicate sound, but we are present at an etymological, rather than a royal feast). The word is sound-imitating. I have no doubt that many points in this summary will invite discussion.

This a royal, rather than an etymological feast. Banquet du paon, unknown artist. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Feature image credit: Nathaniel Under the Fig Tree by James Tissot. No known copyright restrictions. Via the Brooklyn Museum.

Recent Comments

  1. Constantinos Ragazas

    Anatoly,

    “the mysterious and ubiquitous s-mobile has been mentioned in this blog multiple times.”

    A possible explanation for some such “s-mobile”:

    Often, a Greek verb is preceded by “se” (to you). For example, “se mirizi” (it smells to you). With “zi” being a grammatical verb ending. This could over time and in isolation be contracted to smeir”. And with the all too common r~l switch we get “smell”.

    Don’t you think?

    Kostas

  2. Tamas

    So does this mean that Polish smak “taste” etc. is a loan from Germanic?

Leave a Comment

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