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Etymology and delusion, Part 1

In 1931, Ernest Weekley, the author of a still popular English etymological dictionary and many excellent books on the history of English words, brought out an article titled “Our Early Etymologists.” It appeared in Quarterly Review 257. In our fast-paced, Internet-dominated world, few people are inclined to leaf through old periodicals. Nor do they  always realize how interesting and informative The Gentleman’s Magazine, Edinburgh Review, The Nineteenth Century, Long Ago, The Dial, and others like them on both sides of the Atlantic were. I constantly sing praises to Notes and Queries, but the world of popular journals was wide, and contributions by prominent scholars made them truly valuable.

Weekley applied the term monomaniac to the people who traced the words of all languages to a single source. The idea that inspired such researchers should be evaluated in the context of that time. Old linguists believed that the protolanguage had been Hebrew or Aramaic, because Adam and Eve spoke it in Paradise. Allegedly, the Tower of Babel made havoc of that language but did not ruin it: the fragments could, it seemed, be compared and reveal their past. Classical Greek and Latin were also considered as viable candidates for the sought-after fountainhead.  As late as the eighteenth century, etymologists derived English, German, and Dutch words directly from those three languages. As always, there were aberrations: an ingenious scholar “proved” that Dutch did not go back to Hebrew, but was the language spoken by Adam and Eve. Today, deriding those experiments is not worth the trouble. More important is the lesson such experiments teach us.

Speaking the protolanguage. The fall of man by Peter Paul Rubens and Jan Brueghel the Elder. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Amazingly, it appears that tracing words of all languages to any single source is not too hard. In any case, nobody who embarked on this mad venture came home empty-handed. I am the proud owner of a modern dictionary that shows how hundreds of various words owe their origin to Russian. Another dictionary prefers Arabic. Arabic is related to Hebrew and Aramaic, so that the prospect of Paradise Regained begins to look real. Such authors are usually motivated by considerations of national pride. Probably the best-known example of this delusion is the dictionary of English by Charles Mackay (1877; the Scottish pronunciation of Kay is ki, not kay, as this name is pronounced in the United States). The title is The Gaelic Etymology of the Languages of Western Europe…, though the focus is on English. Mackay had the book published by a renowned press (Trübner), but out of pocket. Sadly, Mackay was a good poet and wrote several worthy books about the history of English words. Even sadder is the fact that his dictionary became well-known, and some people still refer to it.

The Tower of Babel, the creator of the departments of foreign languages. Photo by Sibeaster. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

An even more ingenious monomaniac was John Bellenden Ker (JBK). The inspiration for his gigantic project came from idioms. It seemed to him that idioms are silly and are therefore garbled versions of some formerly much more straightforward sayings. His idea was not totally indefensible. A look at the literary production of the post-Classical epoch (that is, the prose and poetry in Old and Middle English, German, etc.) will reveal rather many similes (a ship was likened to a swan, or a hero was said to look like a tall stalk dwarfing low plants around him), but usually no metaphors. In reading Beowulf, one won’t come across something like “The outcome of the battle with Grendel’s mother was unclear, not by a long chalk” or “Grendel died, and the Danes were on cloud nine.” In those days, the king would not say to his subject: “You are pulling my leg.”

If you have mastered Old English grammar and have a good dictionary of this language, you will understand everything written in that language. In Germanic, only Old Icelandic had all kinds of metaphorical expressions. The image behind them was usually clear, as, for instance, in the modern English phrase about something left on the back burner. Our modern idioms do not usually predate the Renaissance. Even when we wonder why we say her mind went woolgathering or under what circumstances the cat was let out of the bag, we still assume that some people, even if under the circumstances unknown to us, gathered wool and felt distracted, and that the cat and the bag refer to the familiar objects. We are also ready to agree that some colorful expression reached English from the Bible, from another language, or from someone’s (for instance, Shakespeare’s) idiosyncratic usage. Granted, some misunderstanding could produce an idiom, whose wording makes no sense to us. Finally, some words can disappear but survive in an idiom. Let them: we needn’t worry what the lurch looks like in which we are often left.

JBK had a much more general idea. He wrote: “My conviction is, the words in their original forms did convey the import they were used for at the time, but in the course of use, and through the mutability peculiar to our language, those forms have been confounded with others, of a similar or nearly similar pronunciation, which have subsequently found their way into the tongue and supplanted them.” He reconstructed an Old Low Saxon dialect resembling Modern Dutch and “translated” hundreds of words and idioms into it. I’ll cite two examples.

A toad under a harrow as a concept of etymology. The Red Skeleton Show on CBS, 1963. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

“TOOTH I believe to be as teeth in the collective sense; the se [formerly tothe]. Toe u’s; q. e. to is you; to, is yourself; without to, you are nothing; to and you are one; to, is you all. Toe, has the sense of ended, finished, closed, as when we say the door is to, that is, shut, and also that of entrance, approach, as when we say he is gone to London…. The feminizing terminal s of the Dutch [old form of our language] shades off into th; groes and growth are the same word.….” (p. 165 of Volume 1), and so it continues for another page and a quarter. You may say that the style and reasoning are unmistakably those of a madman. But don’t hurry. JBK was a serious botanist, a scholar respected in his field. Also, he was well aware of the work of his predecessors, but shrugged it off or dismissed with contempt.

I’ll also reproduce his etymology of an idiom. He cited the phrase to live like a toad under a harrow and explained its meaning (his explanations are detailed and often useful): “To have lost all share in the control of your own happiness from want of resolution; to suffer indignities from one over whom you were constituted the master, he that should have been looked up to by the other; and thus to permit the order of things to be reversed in regard to yourself.” This is the translation of the English idiom into “Low Saxon”: “T’u leve lijcke er dood, ander er haar vrouw; q. e. to you love is like death, the case is different with your wife; your affection is as painful as death to you, while your wife is delighted by your suffering…. T’u, to you. Lever, liefde, love. Lijcke, is like, resembles. Er, in your case, there. Dood, death, German tod. Ander, quite another affair, quite otherwise, the reverse. Er, there. Haar frouw, your wife, unless it is heer vrouw, and thus master wife, and I think it was. D and t are the same sound. V a mere aspirate and not sounded between to rs” (p. 39). I have left out a few lines about wives abusing their husbands.

Beware of monomaniacs. No entry by Morgaine. CC by-sa 2.0 via Flickr.

What a miracle of ingenuity, what an anguished cry of a henpecked or cuckolded husband! There are two volumes of this incredible stuff. The title of the book is An Essay on the Archaeology of Our Popular Phrases, and Nursery Rhymes (1837). Vol. I is mainly about idioms; Vol. II is devoted almost entirely to words. But JBK also wrote four volumes (!) in which he purported to explain the true meaning of nursery rhymes. In the Essay, only a few specimens of such poems are given, but the linguistic base underlying that branch of his research is the same. He believed that all ditties were cleverly disguised anticlerical compositions, and “restored” their initial text, allegedly forgotten with time, in “Low Saxon.”

Beware of amateur etymologists. Some of them are deranged and devilishly ingenious.

Feature image credit: No Entry by jill, jellidonut. CC by-sa 2.0 via Flickr.

Recent Comments

  1. Bob Ball

    I think comments are not required.

  2. Constantinos Ragazas

    Dear Anatoly,

    “Beware of amateur etymologists.”

    I agree! But such truisms don’t bring us any closer to the truth. An open, honest and well reasoned discussion might.

    In the search for truth, no voices should be excluded. And all arguments must stand on their own.

    The central question is: Is there a mechanism that makes an etymology plausible? Those you have discussed don’t. All my proposed do.


  3. Constantinos Ragazas

    Further…as for “monomaniacs”, I again agree.

    We must not be motivated by such ambitions and agendas. But should only commit to objective truth and sensible reason.

    But what if it is true? Would it still be “monomaniac”?

    Rejecting what may be true because we reject “monomaniacs” is just as wrong.


  4. Alexandra

    “In reading Beowulf, one won’t come across something like “The outcome of the battle with Grendel’s mother was unclear, not by a long chalk” or “Grendel died, and the Danes were on cloud nine.” In those days, the king would not say to his subject: “You are pulling my leg”…

    Just a note to say that Beowulf is full of metaphor, specifically kennings, that sometimes require some thinking. e.g. banhus = “bone house” = body; ‘hwaelweg’ = “whale way/road” = sea. And there are numerous examples of using parts to refer to the whole, e.g. using a keel to refer to a whole ship, which is also metaphor. Understanding Beowulf needs a lot more than just translation, and some turns of phrase are certainly lost to us now.

  5. Vivian Ramalingam

    There’s the problem of misapprehension, so that idioms are changed. (“Mumpsimus” for “sumpsimus”, which now has a history of its own.) In my neck of the woods, “not by a long chalk” would be “not by a long shot”, a version of “a miss is as good as a mile”. BTW, it’s “Red Skelton”, not my childhood’s “Skeleton”, which always made us children “laugh to scorn”.
    — For all the world is idiom . . .

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