At the end of 2019, I wrote about the origin of the verbs eat and drink. The idea was to discuss a few other “basic” verbs, that is, the verbs referring to the most important functions of our organism. My next candidate is breathe, but, before I proceed to discuss its complicated history, it may be useful to look at the derivation of the names of the organs that allow us to inhale the air and get the food through. Windpipe and trachea are self-explanatory, though it may not be immediately clear that the Greek word is an adjective meaning “rough”: the reference is to a rough artery (called in Latin arteria aspera). By contrast, throat is a Germanic noun, and its etymology is far from obvious, even though modern dictionaries choose not to discuss the conflicting hypotheses of its origin; they state their opinion as dogma or as a plausible conjecture.
Here is one of such conjectures. The Old English verb þrēotan meant “to trouble, vex, annoy”; hence Engl. threat (þ had the value of Modern Engl. th in thin). Its past participle was þroten, with the vowel (short o) at the same grade of ablaut as in the noun, and the most ancient sense of the root must have been “push, thrust.” The closely related Latin verb trudere, familiar to English speakers from intrude “to force, thrust in,” meant the same. The etymology I am citing here connects threat and throat, and the throat emerges as an organ for the thrusting of food down. Curiously, the verb throttle also refers to force, but to preventing the throat to function rather that performing its duty. Throttle was recorded only in the fourteenth century; yet its derivation is hardly in doubt.
The German cognate of throat is Drossel, and the verb er-drossel-n also means “to throttle, suffocate,” though it surfaced in texts only in the sixteen hundreds. Many will remember Drosselmeyer from The Nutcracker, and those who can read German fairytales in the original will think of King Drosselbart “Beard on the throat,” literally “throat-beard” (Thrushbeard does not translate Drosselbart!). The double s in –drossel– corresponds to Engl. t, because in German, p, t, and k were in some positions shifted according to a peculiar law, known as the Second (or German) Consonant Shift. That is why English has eat, from etan, while German has essen.
As far as I can judge, this etymology of throat has been abandoned, but such is the fate of numerous hypotheses on the origin of words: they are forgotten, rather than disproved. Anyway, here is another conjecture. Throat, that is, Old Engl. þrote ~ þrotu, resembles Old Engl. þrūtian “to swell.” Hence the possibility that the reference is to the part of the neck that projects, or swells. Only Adam’s apple projects more or less visibly. Yet some of the best researchers have endorsed this etymology. At one time, þrūtian was invoked to explain the meaning of the Gothic name of leprosy, but that etymology failed. Many years ago, I wrote a long article about this subject. If someone is interested in such obscure matters, let me know it: I’ll dig up the article and send it to the questioner.
To complicate our investigation or to facilitate it (everything depends on the point of view), we notice that the Dutch word for “throat” is strot. The first consonant need not bother us: it is the well-known s-mobile, the mysterious prefix that appears in front of numerous roots for no obvious reason. Strot is, as far as we are concerned, s-trot. Now, if throat has a related form outside Germanic (in Greek, Latin, Celtic, Slavic, Baltic, and so forth), this form, obedient to the inexorable First (or Germanic) Consonant Shift, must begin with t (compare my standard example: Latin trēs versus Engl. three). However, after s, the consonants p, t, and k were not shifted, so that Engl. throat and Dutch s-trot are a perfect match. Quite naturally, strot has the same cognates as throat, including German Drossel. Dutch dictionaries do not go beyond the idea of either “swollen” or “protruding.” The sought-for etymology of throat depends, at least partly, on our success in digging up a non-Germanic cognate, and it has been produced, but, in my opinion, the form is not without a wrinkle.
The cognate has allegedly been found in Slavic and Baltic. The Russian word trost’ “walking cane” once meant “reed.” Now, a reed is a tube, and of course that is what we may expect the oldest meaning of throat to have been, for the throat is indeed a passage. This etymology (throat allegedly cognate with trost’) found the support of several leading scholars, but trost’ has s in the middle, and so do all the Slavic words and their Lithuanian cognate, while Germanic does not. The protoform of Greek thrýon is also given as trusom (naturally, with s). That is why I have discussed in some details the history of s in German Drossel: this consonant is not original: like s in German essen, it is the product of a later change. Nor does a cautious comparison with strut (s-trut), whose earliest meaning was “to swell,” answer the troubling question about s in the Slavic and Lithuanian forms (or rather about its absence in throat).
A quick look at what the throat is called outside Germanic provides no clue to our problem. English has the word gullet “esophagus,” rather than “throat.” It is a word taken over from Old French, a diminutive, which derives from Latin gula “throat,” possibly related to German Kehle, another name for “throat.” The protoform of gula seems to have begun with gw-, but it still bears some resemblance to Engl. gurgle ~ gargle (nearly the same forms exist elsewhere in Germanic) and Latin gurgulio “gullet.” Those are rather obviously sound–imitative (echoic, onomatopoeic) words, like glug-glug, and so is probably French gosier “throat.” Glutton and gorge may also belong here, even though not directly. Russian gorlo “throat” (stress on the first syllable) sounds amazingly like the Romance words, but it is native. Throat is obviously not sound-imitative.
We seem to have come out of the reeds with the English word throat devoid of a clear etymology, unless we agree that the throat was understood as “swollen,” and perhaps this idea can be salvaged. As is well-known, the same word often applies to several adjacent organs and body parts, and their etymology is often obscure (such are, for instance, crop and craw). In looking through various lists, I discovered that in related languages, the throat and the neck are sometimes called the same. If throat was first applied to the neck and only later specialized with reference to its front part (the passage to the lungs or stomach), then “swollen” would provide a more or less acceptable clue to its etymology. But the evidence to this effect is wanting. To my mind, this etymology remains in limbo. To reinforce the statement about the same words designating different parts of our anatomy, I may add that the Germanic cognates of neck mean “nape,” and nape is, alas, a word of “undiscovered origin.”
Feature image credit: KC Ballet dancers Amanda DeVenuta and Joshua Bodden with company dancers. Photograph: Brett Pruitt & East Market Studios. CC by 2.0 via Flickr. Image has been cropped to fit.