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An etymologist is not a lonely hunter

The posts for the previous two weeks were devoted to all kinds of bloodsuckers. Now the time has come to say something about hunters and hunting. The origin of the verbs meaning “hunt” can give us a deeper insight into the history of civilization, because hunting is one of the most ancient occupations in the world: beasts of prey hunt for food, and humans have always hunted animals not only for food but also for fur and skins.

When lions hunt antelopes and fleas hunt dogs, they do not reflect on the results of their actions, while people take hunting seriously. In the remote past, they could not draw a line between humans and animals and endowed beasts with the same capacity for reasoning they themselves had. They wanted to explain to their prey why they had behaved so cruelly toward it, apologize, and, if possible, propitiate the masters of the creatures they hunted.

Primitive hunting. Hunting Bison in USA by George Catlin, 1844. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

This approach also had a practical side. Killing a bear, for example, was believed not only to enrage other bears; it diminished the chance of being successful a year later, because, when the next hunting season came to an end, it was understood that the bear brought home was the same one they had killed earlier: reborn. To ensure the bear’s rebirth, elaborate feasts were celebrated. All this is known from the descriptions made by ethnographers, and, obviously, such rites go back to the hoariest antiquity. The words for “hunt” had the status of religious terms, and they are sometimes notoriously hard to etymologize.

One of the reasons for the difficulty is that sacral terms were not supposed to be pronounced “in vain” and often fell victim to taboo. For example, the real verb might be “to kill,” but it would be distorted or replaced by a gentler or vaguer synonym or even by a word of the opposite meaning. One of such words is German jagen “to hunt.” It occurred in the oldest period; yet the few attempts to explain its derivation resolve themselves into “intelligent guessing.”

Another important German word is Weidmann “hunter,” probably not related to weiden ”to graze.” The corresponding old verb was weidenen “to hunt.” It resembles Engl. win, from winnan, and Latin vēnāri “to hunt.” (From the root of the Latin verb English has venery “the art of hunting” and venison “the flesh of an animal killed in the chase”: such an animal was in the days of Robin Hood the deer, and that is why the Germanic word for “animal,” such as German Tier, has acquired the meaning “deer.”) But winnan seems to have meant “to toil; suffer,” that is, “to attain something after hard and painful struggle” (so in Gothic, a Germanic language recorded in the fourth century).

The contours of this picture become blurred, because next to win we find Latin venus “love” (hence the name Venus, and compare Engl. venerate, venerable, and alas, venereal). The root must have meant “to desire,” and it is usually said that Germanic winnan and Latin venerāri are reflexes of the same protoform, but that in Germanic, the verb acquired a specific meaning (“to struggle” or “to suffer”). However, they may have been homonyms.

What concerns us here is Latin vēnor “to hunt” (compare vēnātor “hunter”). The verb hardly referred to toiling and suffering. It was rather a taboo word: one “loved” one’s prey. The word hid the hunter’s intention and turned killing into its opposite (as far as the language was concerned). The love-hunt symbiosis has a close parallel in Slavic: thus, the Russian for “hunt” (noun) is okhota (stress on the second syllable), its root (khot-) means “to want, wish.” Incidentally wish, a cognate of German Wunsch (the same meaning), shares the root with win. Thus, the Slavic hunter is a “wisher,” who “desires” (“loves”) his prey, a close semantic relative of the Latin vēnātor.

Fox hunting, until recently, a favorite pastime of the British leisured class. Foxhunting: Clearing a Ditch by John Frederick Herring, Sr. 1839. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

All this should be enough to show where etymologists cast their net in the hope of understanding the origin of the verb hunt. Perhaps the most revealing parallel for us is Engl. to hunt versus French chaser (the same meaning). The words of the modern Romance languages for “to hunt” and “hunter” do not continue Latin vēnor and vēnātor. For example, French has chasser and chasseur. The Latin verb sounded as captare “to chase,” and Engl. chase, borrowed from French, is, obviously, related to the same verb. The simplest word that will interest us is Latin capere “to take, seize.” English is full of borrowed words containing its root: captious “catching of faults,” captive, captivate, and so forth. Engl. chase goes back to the same root and is an etymological doublet of catch.

Falconry played an outstanding role in the life of the medieval aristocracy. It left some traces in the modern last names. Search for the sculptures of Étienne Maurice Falconet and read or reread Prosper Méremée story ‘Matteo Falcone’. May: a falconer. Public domain via The European Library and the National Library of the Netherlands.

Can it be that hunt, too, once meant “to catch, to seize”? The verb has existed for centuries: its Old Engl. form was huntian, and it seems to be related to hentan “to seize”; hent can still be found in the largest dictionaries of Modern English, marked as obsolete or dialectal. A moderately promising cognate outside English turns up only in Gothic. Outside Gothic, we draw a blank. Icelandic has veiða, a cognate of Germ. weiden, mentioned above. The modern Scandinavian languages borrowed Germ. jagen, while Frisian and Dutch have its close cognates. Greek has gone its own way and used compounds for “hunting.” The seemingly relevant Gothic verb is –hinþan “to take captive.” However, hunt ends in t, rather than th or d. To explain away this inconsistency, two parallel roots—kent and kend—have been reconstructed (a typical face-saving trick, or, to use a more dignified term, an ad hoc explanation).

To complicate matters, the Gothic verb and its obvious cognates, such as Old Engl. hūþ “booty,” are items of the military vocabulary, whereas hunt is not: it usually emphasizes the result of pursuing, catching, obtaining, and the object of prey is the catch, not a captive. Hunt has often been traced to the root of hand. Once again we have the t ~ d problem, and the semantic bridge is also weak: the hunter’s prey is not caught manually. Viktor Levitsky, to whose Germanic etymological dictionary I have referred in the past, traced hunt to the root (s)kent “cut” (with s-mobile, the villain of many earlier posts), with the well-attested development “cut”—“draw a line”—“seize.” He did not exclude the connection between hand and hinþan, but admitted that the problem of d ~ t had never been resolved.

None of the conjectures mentioned above looks particularly impressive. Even the closeness of hunt to hent may, and probably is, due to chance (hint surfaced in texts only in the seventeenth century, and its origin is obscure: a variant of hent?). Predictably, it has been suggested that hunt is not an IndoEuropean word, but rather a relic of some substrate language. However, one wonders why the speakers of Old English, in whose language there may have been cognates of German weidenen and jagen, needed a borrowing, obviously not from Celtic or Latin, but from Pictish, whose influence on English is minimal, and all that for one of the most useful and common verbs in their vocabulary. Did the speakers of that mysterious substrate language teach the invaders a rare and especially efficient way of hunting? In the extant books, there should have been some references to this method. Is hunt the product of taboo? The verb hurt seems to have been coined in Germanic. Could hunt be a deliberate distortion of hurt? Another arrow shot into the air. We can see that many people have tried to disclose the remote past of the word hunt—unfortunately, with moderate success, but it is always a pleasure to share a sportsmanlike spirit with other worthy people. “Home is the sailor, home from the sea, and the hunter home from the hill.”

Hunters like telling tall tales. In this picture by Vasily Perov (1833-1882; stress on the second syllable), you can see one of such scenes. Its Russian title (“Zavralsia”) means approximately: “Lost in His Own Lie”; two hunters give their companion the lie. 1871. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Featured image credit: Female lion versus buffalo at Serengeti National Park by Demetrius John Kessy. CC-by-2.0 via Flickr. Image has been cropped to fit.

Recent Comments

  1. Constantinos Ragazas


    “Viktor Levitsky,… traced hunt to the root (s)kent “cut” (with s-mobile, the villain of many earlier posts), ”

    The Greek for “hunt” is “κυνηγι”. Also attested in ancient Greek. Its connotation (also found in other similar Greek words) is “to chase, pursue”. Which also fits the meaning of English “hunt”. And thus very likely provides the etymology of “hunt”.

    As for the “s-mobile”, likely a Greek grammatical contraction. Just as so many other “s-mobiles” I’ve argued for in the past.


  2. Constantinos Ragazas

    … and another point!

    If the true meaning of “hunt” had anything to do with “cut” or “kill”, the phrase “hunt and kill” would not exist.

    That would eliminate most all of what you and others have proposed. And only the Greek “κυνηγι” would be left standing true to the meaning of “hunt” as “chase, pursue”.


  3. Constantinos Ragazas

    The Greek word for “hunt” (“κυνηγι”), has the same root as in “kinetics”.


  4. Yves Rehbein

    Nice that you should return to hunt.

    German “Jagd” (hunt) looks like a rebracketing to me, reconstructed as *hatjana, PIE *keh2d-yeti- (I’m refering to wiktionary for asterisky forms, again).

    That would be extraordinary, whereas I have no idea where the velar came from, but “Hetzjagd” as a standing idiom might be inductive, akin to “hate”, while “to hunt” implies an old disparity, if the reconstruction *huntona, PIE *kend- (Pokorny) or *ḱn̥t-néh₂-, *kent- or *ḱent- (Guus Kroonen apud wiktionary; there also *hinþaną) is correct and if comparison of the similar forms is allowable. Further “to hinder”, Ger (German “hindern”) comes to mind, and now it gets weird: Ger “hindern” could well derive from *hinþaną, but there only Norse and Gothic reflexes are listed (“hinna” and
    “frahinþan” respectively), I’m not sure what else; “hunt” has no Germanic cognates listed by the way; English “hinder” is compared to “behind”, reconstructing *ḱem-ta-, from *ḱóm (“Latin contrā …Old Welsh cant, Ancient Greek κατά”; I have doubts about kata), which rather derives German “hinter” (der Hintern – the behind); So one of either has to be a loan, or a mighty coincidence, because the meaning very well matches, as far as I can tell; further, I thought “hind” rather belongs with “under”, “anti”, “other”, at the root, I just cannot remember at all like, how often did I have to look it up.

    Another parallel, since at least two of the roots are glossed “catch”, would be “hand”, possibly from *kmt-, but your rule about unknown unknowns very much applies, if one is bound by economic imparatives not to get lost in the dark trails of uncharted territories.

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