I decided to make good on my promise to complete a series devoted to a few words referring to the most basic functions of our organism. The previous posts dealt with eat, drink, and throat. Now, as promised, a story of breath is coming up. The basic word here is the noun breath; it already existed in Old English and had long æ. The verb breathe is a later derivative of the same root; it also had a long vowel. The consonant in the verb was voiced (ð), as it still is. In the monosyllables of Early Modern English, vowels often underwent shortening, and that is why breath and breathe sound so unlike. English spelling is here, as in many other cases, conservative, but we are used to the alternation of þ and ð from pairs like bath ~ bathe, sheath ~ sheathe, loath ~ loathe, and so forth.
The Old English etymon of breath meant “smell, stink, exhalation, vapor,” not “breath.” The path from “smell” to “breath” is not too long; yet it has to be crossed. If we disregard a few fanciful ideas, early etymologists cited words like breast, breed, brood, brew, broth, and German braten “to roast” as cognates or sources of breath. The great Norwegian scholar Sophus Bugge, whose name I have never yet mentioned in this blog, though every one who is interested in Old Germanic studies should know it, cited Icelandic bræla “to burn and produce a lot of smoke.” This word surfaced in texts only in the seventeenth century and occurs, among others, in the alliterative phrase brenna og bræla (brenna “to burn,” og “and”). Bræla is suggestive, just because of the connotation of smoke, and one can well imagine that bræ- in it is the same root we have seen in West Germanic. I devoted a few lines to this conjecture, because modern researchers seldom have enough time to look through all the relevant sources. Bugge’s 1888 publication is mentioned in my bibliography of English etymology, but I decided not to wait for someone else to dig it up.
Some of the old etymological arrows, though “shot into the air,” fell close to or even hit the target, because the root of breath does seem to have been “heat” or “burn,” and brood ~ breed certainly belong here. But breath does not singe, and being hot hardly looks like its most noticeable characteristic. As could be imagined, there have been several attempts to explain the origin of breath by referring to sound symbolism or sound imitation. The groups br-. kr-, hr- occur in many onomatopoeic words. When we deal with break, bray, and even brawl; croak, cry, (s)cream, and their likes, the situation is rather clear. Whether dr- in drink has any sound-imitating value is much less clear, and I preferred to stay away from that option. The same holds for breath. How should br– refer to the process of exhalation? Unlike Bugge, Wilhelm Oehl has often figured in this blog. He listed breath among sound-symbolic words but did not go into detail, though in such cases, it is only details that count.
One of the scholars who tried to build a bridge between “smell, vapor, etc.” and “breath” was the great James A. H. Murray, the first editor of the Oxford English Dictionary. He cited the German cognate Brodem “vapor,” from bradam, and stated that in English the sense had passed through that of “heated air expired from the lungs.” Both bradam and Old Engl. bræþ had close synonyms and look-alikes: atum and æþm (all with long vowels in the root) meaning “breath.” Murray suggested that breath had received its modern meaning under the influence of æþm and its Scandinavian synonym andi, both of which had well-attested reflexes in Middle English. Elmar Seebold, the latest editor of Kluges’s German etymological dictionary, also thought that Brodem had experienced the influence of Atem.
Murray’s statement was misinterpreted by Ernest Weekley, who (in his very popular dictionary) explained breath as the sum of æþm and the prefix br-, so as a kind of blend. Strangely, Henry Cecil Wyld, who had a good grasp of Indo-European, quoted Weekley, ascribed this idea to Murray, and even wondered what the origin of the mysterious prefix could be. Such a prefix may have existed, and Wyld himself conjured up its ghost in his discussion of the etymology of bring, but Murray did not mention it. Sadly, Erik Partridge, who did not know anything about Early Germanic, copied his entry on breath from Weekley. Many other old etymologists discussed the origin of breath after Murray and did without the influence of æþm.
I think they were right. Murray seems to have guessed the original sense of breath correctly, for he mentioned steam and reek in his definition. Even though breath is peculiarly English, its semantic development does not look unusual. The underlying idea of breath must have been “vapor” or “smoke” as the effect of heat. We may return to Icelandic bræla “burn and produce a lot of smoke.” Bræla is an exotic example, but fume has the same range of meanings. In Modern English, fume is a borrowing from French. Yet its cognates tell us clearly what fumes stand for: its Russian cognate is dym “smoke.” Couldn’t it be, that the idea of breath developed from “heat” via “vapor”? Once established, it ousted its synonyms, but whether they influenced it in Old English is doomed to remain guesswork and should better be left out of discussion.
Featured image credit: “Looking out from the Smithsonian natural science museum.” by Jacob Stone, CC0 via Unsplash.