This story continues the attempts of the previous week to catch a flea. Anyone who will take the trouble to look at the etymology of the names of the flea, louse, bedbug, and their blood-sucking allies in a dozen languages will discover that almost nothing is known for certain about it. This fact either means that we are dealing with very old words whose beginnings can no longer be discovered or that the names have been subject to taboo (consequently, the initial form is beyond recognition), or, quite likely, both factors were in play. Common sense suggests that those names should refer to stinging, biting, color, size, and shape, or the parasites’ deleterious effect, but of course onomatopoeia should not be discounted either: though fleas and lice are silent, mosquitoes are not. It always amuses me that the standard etymology of the Russian word komar “mosquito” (stress on the second syllable) refers kom to sound imitation. Do those pestiferous insects buzz kommm? Hmm, perhaps. The German for “bumblebee” is Hummel, but bumblebees really “hum.”
To make matters worse, if the name whose origin we are exploring means “pest” or “biter,” or “buzzer,” it will fit more than one insect. What word can be simpler than tick? Doesn’t it tickle before it digs itself in? Tickle is rather obviously sound-symbolic. One of its variants is kittle (compare German kitzeln), and its shorter relative is tick (verb); tick-tack-toe also comes to mind. It does not seem that any dictionary is ready to connect tick and tickle. Armenian tiz means “beetle.” A cognate, a chance parallel? Irish dega “stag beetle” has been compared with tick, but how far does this comparison lead? Wherever we may look, we end up with similar lists. That is why when I see the reconstructed root of the word flea represented as bhsul– or bhlus-, I question their reality (was there such a “root”?). Nor does the occasionally invoked closeness between flea and fleece fill me with enthusiasm.
Insects are hard to exterminate, and their names are as hard to etymologize. More than once have I referred to two laws of etymology that I have discovered for myself and that seem to work in all cases. First: every time a word of dubious or unknown origin is expected to shed light on the origin of another obscure word, the result turns out to be wrong. Second: the more complicated an etymology is, the higher the chance that it is wrong, because correct etymologies are usually simple and almost immediately convincing. It is the second law that concerns us here.
The Russian for “louse” is vosh’. Its Slavic cognates sound very much alike. Lithuanian víevesa ~ vievesà, obviously a reduplicated form, looks like a good congener. Finnish väive was probably borrowed from Baltic. The origin of those words, as long as they remain in their Slavic-Baltic home, need not bother us here. English has louse, from lūs, and this form is similar all over Germanic. The apparently related Welsh form sounds as llau, and this fact led to the conclusion that in lūs, –s is some sort of ending, with the root being lū-. Now, in Sanskrit, the louse was called yūkā, while the Slavic vosh’ begins with v, apparently, from w-. The same holds for Lithuanian. Therefore, a brave attempt has been made to combine w- with l- and produce a protoform that would begin with l’. I find such attempts clever but moderately persuasive. Even if there was an Indo-European protoform, numerous changes have garbled it beyond recognition. With taboo and expressive formations always in play, the sought-after protoform is sure to escape us.
My skepticism should not discourage serious students of language history. For instance, Engl. hornet begins with h. Assuming that it has a non-Germanic cognate, it should begin with k- (by the First Consonant Shift, to which I refer in almost every post). And indeed, the Latin for “hornet” is crabro. But in Slavic, the consonant corresponding to Germanic h and Latin k is, in a certain phonetic environment, s, which became sh, and lo and behold! the Russian for “hornet’ is shershen’, which means that the hornet has nothing to do with horns (indeed, why should it?), and only folk etymology makes us think about them. Gambols, like those which connected hornet, crabro, and shershen’, are perfectly legitimate, because they are regular, that is, the same correspondences occur in all words of the same structure. But etymological games with flea and louse are individual exercises, invented for one occasion only, and therefore they do not inspire much confidence.
There are greater miracles than the travels of the Indo-European consonant k. Old Engl. loppe meant “spider” and (!) “silkworm.” Alongside of it, the word loppestre (with the variants lopystre and lopustre) existed. It meant “locust,” a borrowing of Latin locusta. But why lopystre ~ lopustre rather than locust? Not improbably, loppe also meant “flea” or some other jumping insect, and the locust gained its name under the influence of this loppe: just another jumper! If my guess has credence, lopustre is a folk etymological blend of loppe and locusta. (Blends are words like motel, Brexit, and the horrible incel.) But our voracious jumper did not stop there. Its elongated body aroused an association with a large marine crustacean, known to all of us as lobster. Quite an adventure! Many words for “beetle” and its kin seem to have denoted “sack, bunch, pin, etc.,” with reference to their shape; loppe looks like one of them.
Another endearing character in our drama is the nit. The word goes back to Old Engl. hnitu. Its Slavic cognates begin with gn– (Russian gnida, and so forth). Old Norse also had gnit, and so do its modern continuations in Swedish and Norwegian. Elsewhere, the name of the same creature begins with gl-, rather than gn-: such is Lithuanian glìnda. Naturally, all such forms have been traced to more or less appropriate verbs, meaning “to scrape,” “to destroy,” “to rot,” “to rub,” and so forth. But one wonders again: Were all such words derived from verbs? Were they not expressive formations, perhaps coined to resemble some verbs but not connected with them? Gn– and kn– are common beginnings of sound-imitating and sound-symbolic words: compare gnaw, gnash, knock, and their likes.
Indeed, have we forgotten gnat? All over Indo-European one runs into its kin, including of course nit, mentioned above. Consider Russian gnus “(a swarm of) very small insects” (believe me: no meshes in a mask are too small for that pest), Latvian knischi “flies swarming in the dust” (my spelling is probably obsolete), and others.
It is only fair to admit that the names of insects obviate the strict laws of etymology with great success. This conclusion should not be equated with the verdict “origin unknown”; rather it means that we are dealing with ludic forms, whose formation violates the rules applicable to the words chosen to designate less troublesome creatures than lice, fleas, flies, and gnats. Language is not algebra, and this circumstance constitutes one of its main charms.
PS. Last week, we observed Goethe’s and Mussorgsky’s celebration of the flea. The flea also graces Nikolai Leskóv’s tale about how a lefty shod this creature. The story was turned into a play by Yevgeny Zamyatin, the author of the famous dystopia We. Both are worth reading.
PPS. I would like to finish this short series by expressing my appreciation of the charming poem John Cowan posted in the comments to the previous post, and to Constantinas Ragazas for correcting my Greek
Featured image credit: Image by Hans Braxmeier from Pixabay.