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How far can a flea jump?

Stinging and gnawing insects are not only a nuisance in everyday life; they also harass etymologists. Those curious about such things may look at my post on bug for June 3, 2015. After hovering in the higher spheres of being (eat, drink, breathe: those were the subjects of my most recent posts), I propose to return to earth and deal with low, less dignified subjects. For now, I’ll say what I know about insects and will begin with flea. A curious fact: flea is a common word with solid cognates, and no secure etymology! I have 26 citations on flea in my database, not counting, of course, the entries in numerous dictionaries. As we will see, this embarrassment of riches will fail to produce a definitive result. A mountain can give birth to a mouse, but, apparently, not to a flea.

Here is our protagonist in its full glory. Image via Wellcome Images, CC by 4.0.

The word has been known since the oldest period: Old Engl. flea(h), Old High German flōh, and so forth. The protoform must have sounded approximately as flauh-. One would expect that this form meant “to jump” or “to sting,” or “black.” Unfortunately, such clues lead almost nowhere. It is only easy to notice that in other languages this insect has a similar name: Latin pūlex, Greek fýlla, Russian blokha (stress on the second syllable), etc. The worst part in that list is etc., because the flea may have approximately the same name even outside the Indo-European family.

I am not sure when this fact was first noticed. In my database, the earliest citation along such lines goes back to 1923. Hermann Güntert, at one time an active and highly respected researcher, compared Latin pūlex with Korean pyårak. If we take into account the confusion of l and r in Korean, the form begins to look almost the same. Günter’s article has a characteristic title, namely “Concerning the Homeland of the Indo-Europeans.” Korean is of course not an Indo-European language, so that the question was about the original territory of the Indo-Europeans, who did not inhabit the Far East.

Alfredo Trombetti. From the journal The Critic, v.47 (1905). Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

The Indo-Europeans lived in contact with the speakers of other language families. Moreover, for a long time some linguists have pleaded for a single origin of all the languages of the world. In a way, this idea returns us to the story of the Tower of Babel, but that story has not been supported by “hard evidence,” while Alfredo Trombetti (1866-1929), the scholar who argued for the monogenesis of all languages, wrote numerous works in defense of this idea. Unfortunately, he wrote all of them in Italian, a language not widely read outside Italy, and none of his articles and books have been translated into French, German, or English. His works are hard to find even in good libraries outside Italy, though now quite a few of them are available on the Internet. Since his time, a branch of scholarship, known as Nostratic linguistics, has become prominent. In light of the Nostratic hypothesis, a word known over such a vast territory does not look like an exception.

But is there a chance that flea has a more geographically limited etymology? We notice that it begins with fl-, to which pl– corresponds outside Germanic, and both sound groups play an outstanding role in the formation of sound-imitative words. Fly, flow, flicker, flutter, flimsy, (snow)flake, and Latin fluere “to flow” refer to movement, often unsteady. Fly is especially interesting, because we have the verb fly and the noun fly, the name of another insect. No doubt, the fly got its name because it can fly—at first sight, too vague a name, because mosquitoes, gnats, and many other creatures can also fly. It would be more natural to call a bird “fly”! Can flea be simply one of such fl-words? Perhaps so, though such an etymology would be too general to carry conviction.

Goethe thought of what happened if fleas were raised to a position of power. Music from “The damnation of Faust”, 1880s. Public domain via Flickr.

Flat also begins with fl-. The flea is rather flat, but flatness is certainly not its most conspicuous feature. Yet Ukrainian has the word bloska “bedbug,” whose etymology is uncertain: perhaps it goes back to the root of the Slavic word for “flat” (Russian ploskii, etc.) or to some root meaning “to squeeze.” Francis A. Wood, whose opinion I often mention in this blog, seems to have traced flea to the idea of quick movement or of being able to detach itself from the place where it rests, and cited many words glossed as “bast; ravel out; pluck, pull; hairs; snowflakes,” and so on. This list is not particularly impressive. Wood concluded that flea and fly share the same root, but this is tantamount to saying that fly and flea are fl-words (with all the implications of this thesis), which they certainly are, but too many questions remain unanswered.

Etymological dictionaries have nothing to say about the origin of flea. They list the oldest form and a few unquestionable cognates. This information can be translated into the familiar sad formula: “Origin unknown.” Even Hensleigh Wedgwood, the most active English etymologist of the pre-Skeat era, never at a loss for some distant parallel or ingenious suggestion, offered the shortest entry in his thick dictionary (of which four editions exist): “German Floh.”

We should return to the beginning of our story. Old Germanic had flauh-, Russian has blokha; next to them we find Latin pūlex and Greek psýlla. Incidentally, in Celtic, among other forms, floh and floach turned up! Even a beginning student of language history will notice that the correspondences according to The First (Germanic) Consonant Shift have been violated, as also happened when we put Engl. flow and Latin fluere side by side. Celtic fl- cannot correspond to Germanic fl-. Latin p and Greek ps do not form a union. Russian bl– is irreducible to pl– of fl-. Korean pyårak is an odd man out. Faced with this puzzling diversity of forms, we find the long discussion about whether Russian blokha and Germain flauh– belong together rather uninteresting. In the list above, nothing belongs together, though everything resembles everything else. Consequently, a search for some protoform, with reference to Indo-European, will hardly yield convincing results.

I will restrain from a binding suggestion. The flea, as I have read, can catapult over a distance up to 200 times of its body length. Its etymology seems to have lived up to the insect’s abilities. It looks as though we have an ancient name, whose place of origin may be beyond discovery. This name traveled far and wide and assumed different forms, which are amazingly similar.

To complicate our task of finding the etymology of flea, one more factor should be taken into consideration. The names of dangerous creatures have been subject to taboo: people were afraid to call a flea a flea for fear that it would hear, consider the word an invitation, and pay a visit (the same fear plays an important role in the way people named wolves, bears, and other wild animals). To put it differently: there may have been a common Indo-European word for “flea,” but it was garbled intentionally, to ward off the vermin. Between such propositions (an itinerant word, or Wanderwort, as the Germans call it, and a dimly defined Eurasian name of a dangerous insect) we may never know how the story began: just some sound imitative or sound symbolic bl-/ pl-/ fl– formation with an arbitrary vowel to follow? To alleviate your fears, look at the picture of a flea market in the header: the place is only moderately dangerous.

[Editor’s note: This post originally referenced the Greek f-, when in fact the Greek ps- was meant, as pointed out in a comment. This has been fixed.]

Featured image credit: “Whitechapel Street Market” by TheeErin, CC-by-SA 2.0, via Flickr.

Recent Comments

  1. John Cowan

    A fly and a flea in a flue
    Were imprisoned, so what could they do?
    “Let us flee!” said the fly,
    “Let us fly” said the flea,
    So they flew through a flaw in the flue.

  2. Jevgenijs Kaktins

    Why do you ignore fleece? Latvian blusa doesn’t look the same bht sound rather close

  3. Constantinos Ragazas

    Anatoly,

    I think you may have mistaken the Greek letter “fi” with the Greek letter “psi” in the Greek word for flea ( “fylla” by you but actually “psylla” in Greek). These two Greek letters when written look very close, and so could be mistaken.

    How would this change some of your thoughts here re:”flea”? For example, you say “Latin p and Greek f do not form a union”. But Latin p and Greek “psi” certainly do.

    BTW, the Greek “psylla”/”flea” (also attested in ancient Greek) has the connotation of “very small, worthless”. This sense is also attested in other similar Greek words, like “psiha” (crumb). And so may point to the true origins of the word “flea”.

    One further point. This being a very ‘primitive’ word, it likely went through many various transformations and manifestations attested in various IE languages over thousands of years. But only the Greek, I believe, provides the best sense and explanation for this word. It’s likely its origin.

    Kostas

  4. Vivian Ramalingam

    Psyllium is a form of fiber made from the husks of the Plantago ovata plant’s seeds. It sometimes goes by the name ispaghula. The fibers are commonly used as a laxative.The whole seed looks remarkably like a flea. The plant is grown in Northern India.

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