Whoever the Indo-Europeans were and wherever they lived several thousand years ago, by the time they began to write, they had produced a word for “eat” that sounded nearly the same all over the enormous territory they occupied. In Latin, Celtic, Slavic, Baltic, Greek, Sanskrit, and beyond, the verb for devouring food resembles Engl. eat. Eat, like be, belonged to a rare grammatical class. Only one example from Modern English can show how things stood. The first person singular of Engl. to be is am. Final m in it is an ancient ending. Compare Engl. (I) am and Russian (ya) yem “I eat.” (Engl. yummy and yum ~ yum-yum have nothing to do with it.) Such verbs were few. In Germanic, unlike what we observe in Slavic, the situation changed early (that is, with regard to the conjugation, eat joined the main group), but, since Modern English has lost all verbal endings except for –s (he/she eats), there is nothing for us to discuss.
Only the past tense of eat presents some interest to a modern speaker of English, because, whatever dictionaries may say, in educated British English, ate more often rhymes with let than with late, while in American English the situation is reverse. The historically justified variant is ate homonymous with eight, and therefore it does not come as a surprise that the colonists took this old pronunciation to the New World. The origin of the pronunciation et for “ate” is not quite clear. There may have been the Middle English form ēt, which underwent shortening. Since both variants have been known in England for centuries, their coexistence in America need not surprise us either. Problems arise only when such variants become shibboleths, markers of a social class. Since all people prefer their own pronunciation and tend to look on it as correct, some disagreement is inevitable. But we are familiar with the same situation in many other cases. Sneaked, not snuck! Dived not dove! As I said, not like I said. All such discussions are as inspiring as they are fruitless.
Back to the origin of the verb eat. Old English infinitive was etan. Its perfect congeners are Latin edere (familiar to English speakers from the borrowed adjective edible), Greek édein, Lithuanian édmi, and so forth. The correspondence of t in English to d outside Germanic is due to the constantly invoked and indispensable First Consonant Shift. The word’s root was ed, in which e alternated with other vowels by ablaut. Naturally, we would like to know why the process of consuming food was called ed-, for such is always the main question of etymology. There seems to be only one fairly reliable clue. To discover it, we have to turn to the history of the word tooth.
The Old English form of this word was tōþ (þ had the value of th). As is clear from the sign ō, the vowel in tōþ was long, but it had not always been such! At one time, the word contained a short vowel followed by n. This becomes clear when we look at the cognates of tooth. The Latin for “tooth” is dens, from dents (compare the genitive dentis; remember Engl. dental and dentist). The German for “tooth” is Zahn, with z, pronounced as ts, from t (h designates the vowel’s length in the modern language). The ancient root was tand, going back to tanth. Finally, Gothic had tunþus “tooth.” (Gothic is a Germanic language recorded in the fourth century.) So we have dent– (Latin), dand- (the oldest German), and tunth– (Gothic).
The vowels, highlighted above, alternated by ablaut, as they do in Engl. beget ~ begat and sing ~ sang ~ sung. Ablaut has “grades,” with the Germanic e ~ a representing the normal grade (such is the technical term). Some time before Gothic was put to parchment, stress in tunþus fell on the second syllable, and there was no vowel between t and n, just tnþús, or rather tnþúz. Only later did u insert itself in that position, probably to make the whole easier to pronounce. This u exemplifies the so-called zero grade, for it appeared to fill a void (nothing, zero).
The oldest English also had n in the word for “tooth” and sounded as tanth-, but lost n. By way of compensation, the vowel got length; hence, after a series of changes, the modern form tooth. In Indo-European, a vowel could also be long “by nature,” that is, not because it was lengthened as the result of some change. Then we witness the lengthened grade. For example, the perfect of Latin edo was ēdi (“I have eaten”). The upshot of this tiresome digression is that we have the root for “tooth” represented by two grades of ablaut: normal (e/a) and lengthened.
Now is the time to remember that once upon a time an elephantine mammal roamed the earth. Nineteenth-century zoologists coined the name mastodon for it from Greek mastós “breast” (some of our readers surely know what mastitis is) and odont– “tooth.” The root of odont is od-. And it has been suggested that this od– alternates with ed-, as in Latin edo “I eat,” by ablaut—of course by ablaut! If this comparison is correct, then the Indo-European verb designating eating and the word for “tooth” are related. It seems that eat once meant “to bite.” This reconstruction leaves us wondering how tooth (dent– or dant-, or dnt-) got its name, but that is another story, and today it need not bother us.
The rest is added for desert. English has the verb fret “to irritate.” But once, that is, in Old English, it meant “to devour” and “to gnaw” (also figuratively!). German fressen, a cognate of fret, means “to eat” (said about animals) or “to gobble up.” It would have been difficult to guess its etymology without Gothic, which preserved the verb fra-itan “to give away for consumption.” We have itan “to eat” with a “destructive” prefix fra-. (The English cognate of this prefix is for-, as in forget and forgo, among others.) Gothic was recorded many centuries before English, German, and the other Germanic languages. Therefore, it often contains the forms that have unmistakable cognates elsewhere, but in the later languages much was usually changed, partly by wear and tear.
English has two more words fret. One occurs chiefly in the form of the past participle (fretted) and means “adorned with carved or embossed work.” It surfaced in print in the fourteenth century and may be a borrowing from French. A third fret means “a ridge to regulate the pitch in some stringed instruments.” Although it has been around since the sixteenth century, next to nothing is known about its origin.
So let us rejoice that we can eat with a clear understanding of what we are doing and never be in a fret while enjoying our food (with the help of the teeth in several grades of decay and ablaut).
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