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Etymology gleanings for January and February 2020

Three comments on the most recent posts

Hunt: etymology

The Greek verb meaning “chase, hunt” has the root kīn (with long i), and that is why some speakers of British English pronounce the first syllable of kinetics as in kine. Long i in the Greek verb goes back to a diphthong. Kīn is the full grade of the root. Its zero grade has the vowel i (short). There is no way from ī to short u, as in hunt. Also, the most ancient meaning of the Indo-European root kei– must have been “to set in motion,” not “chase.” Last time, I said that the Greek verb had not attracted the attention of the oldest English etymologists. I should have avoided the plural, because only John Minsheu (1617) cited the Greek word at hunt, but in Minsheu’s dictionary the line between cognates and synonyms in various languages is sometimes hard to draw. The great Early Modern philologist Francis Junius was an especially strong proponent of the Greek origin of English words; he did not even include hunt in his dictionary (he may have had nothing to say about it). George William Lemon, another old etymologist, traced hunt to the root of Latin canis “dog,”, because, I assume, hunting was inseparable in his mind from hounds. Noah Webster was prone to deriving English words from the languages strewn all over the world; yet he offered no conjectures. Finally, Hensleigh Wedgwood, another great master of stringing together remote words, had no suggestions either. The reticence of even the oldest philologists when it came to deriving hunt from Greek should warn modern amateurs against such wild guesses. The origin of hunt remains unknown.

Engl. breath, German Atem, and Greek átmus

Are Atem and átmus “vapor, steam,” the latter known to us from atmosphere, related? Most probably, they are not, even though t in German Atem goes back to th (þ) and though the original vowel in Atem was also long. The vowel á in átmus is the product of a contracted diphthong (ae), with the digamma (F) in the middle. Indeed, some dictionaries hedge and say that perhaps the words are related after all or add that they have the same type of word formation. Those polite evasions are hardly needed. It will be remembered that the problem of Atem arose because Murray isolated br- in breath (see the post on January 22, 2020). As a curiosity, I may mention Henry Cecil Wyld’s puzzled question about where Murray found this element. Yet a few pages later, while discussing the etymology of bring, he pleaded for the protoform br-ing. No one in the world is perfect.

The root mo

In a comment on the most recent post (Muddy waters), in which I discussed Germanic words for “earth,” almost identical Uralic forms were cited. At the same time, my Rumanian colleague Ion Carstoiu wrote me a letter with similar examples. We may be dealing with either a Nostratic or a sound-symbolic word. However, even if we call it Nostratic, we will still be left wondering why, over such a large territory, such a syllable was chosen as the name of the earth. Is it because “earth” and “mother” are coupled in the consciousness of most or even all people, and the word for “mother” usually begins with m? Just guessing.

Answering letters

The Great Silk Road, one of the most famous roads in history. Caravan on the Silk Road, Abraham Cresques, 1375. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

The word silk

This is the letter I received from our French correspondent: “When using the picture of an electric cable, a professor of Arabic used the phonetic translation of silk. Since a natural thread is known to be very resistant… and given the Silk Road traveled by merchants importing the cloth ran through various Arabic-speaking lands, it would make sense for the etymology of silk to be ‘strong string’ and not the ser of serigraphy as told by many.” I have consulted numerous sources and believe that the traditional etymology can stand. The reason for my conclusion is that the Old English words for “silk” was sīde (compare German Seide) and sioloc. The first word was an obvious borrowing of Medieval Latin seta, and the second goes back to Sērica (from which we have serge; Sērica is the name of some people in the East, probably the Chinese). The source of both forms must have been Latin saeta Sērica “Serian hair.” The l ~ r variation is due to the fact that in several regions of the East these sounds are not distinguished they are in the European languages. I believe that only an etymology that can account for both silk and sīde will carry conviction.

Horned squirrels

The German for “squirrel” is Eichhörnchen. In this word, Eich means “oak,” and –hörnchen means “little horn.” A correspondent from Germany suggests that the form of the squirrel’s ears could be the reason the animal received its name. He also appended two pictures: of a squirrel and of an owl, both with horn-like ears. However ingenious, this hypothesis has no historical foundation. The word’s protoform must have sounded approximately as aikurna. It is anybody’s guess whether aik– has anything to do with oak (German Eiche; probably not: squirrels have no special liking for oaks), but urna could not mean “horn.” Folk etymology produces all kinds of funny associations. The anthologized example is Engl. asparagus, sometimes pronounced as sparrowgrass, though sparrows are not known for their attraction to that vegetable.

Beware of wearing horns. Red squirrel by Peter Trimming. CC by 2.0 via Geograph.

Can bad and better ~ best be related?

Cases of enantiosemy (this term refers to words combining two opposite meanings) are not too rare, so that, in principle, bad ~ better might go back to the same root, but I doubt that we have such a case here. To begin with, both words are of unknown or disputable origin, and conclusions from such data are usually wrong. Second, better is a Common Germanic word, while bad has a narrow and rather insignificant Germanic base outside English, even though, contrary to what dictionaries say, it is not isolated. In my opinion, bad is a baby word (see the posts for June 24, July 8, and July 15, 2015 and don’t miss the comments: they contain some arguments against my conjecture). No evidence suggests that the root bat– has similar origins or that it is related to any other word supposedly akin to bad. Reconstructing ancient roots on such a flimsy foundation cannot be recommended.

Davy Jones: not a self-portrait. Illustration by George Cruikshank, 1832. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Davy Jones

Tracing that name to some Low German phrase should be avoided. There was a noted botanist, John Bellenden Ker, who decided that he had discovered the Low German origin of numerous English idioms and words. His two-volume book An Essay on the Archaeology of Our Popular Phrases and Nursey Rhymes is a tribute to the theme “Etymology and Delusion,” even though Ker was perfectly normal. He derived hundreds of idioms and rhymes from an impossible dialect of his own concoction. Reading that book will prevent anyone from following his example. Legends about the famous pirate are many. Davy Jones’s locker means “the bottom of the sea.” May the secret of his origin reside there.


The origin of this word, though “unknown,” is rather obvious. There is a similar French dance, so that perhaps the English word is a borrowing, rather than native. Several factors should be considered. Both the French and the English words were probably “low,” avoided by serious writers, so that their occurrence in books says little about the time of their coining. Also, numerous words beginning with and ending in j are sound symbolic, expressive, and onomatopoeic; their etymology is bound to remain doubtful.  Old French giguer meant “gambol, sport.”. But jek-, je-g, ji-g, and their likes seem to have been the bases on which various slang words designating movement back and forth and sudden movement (jerks) were formed in Germanic and Romance; hence jig-jig, jig-a-jig, etc. for copulation. Fligmejig and frigmjig referred to women of loose character. It follows that, though we will never know whether the name of the dance is English or French, the idea underlying the coinage is transparent.

This is what the jig is all about. La Trénis, 1805. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.


Belong is a truly puzzling word. Many years ago, I wrote a post about it (September 13, 2006: “The long arm of etymology…”). Disregard some strange typos in that text; usually the posts are free from them.

A few look-alikes: How are whence/hence, thence/then; where/there, and what/that related?

In hence and thence, the historically correct spelling would be hens and thens, because s in them is the ancient ending of the genitive case, which in those words acquired an adverbial function. A relic of that case is our s-possessive (John’s, Mary’s, etc.). We can detect the same historical s in once, twice, thrice, since, else, and towards. Words like when and where began with hw-. The modern spelling with wh– is misleading. No doubt, people noticed the pattern in the rhyming words where/there, when/then, and their likes, but that similarity does not mean affinity. From the historical point of view, final t in what and that is the ending of the nominative. The roots are not related but they rhymed, and their closeness could not escape the speakers. The ancient root of where was the same as in who and what; there shared the root with that and the.

Finally, I want to thank Mark Jacobs for calling my attention to Laura Riding’s musings on words. Hers was a typical poet’s attitude toward language. She was not Interested in the etymology of words the way Skeat or Murray were: she listened to words and discovered “phonetic sympathies.” Among others, Roman Jakobson often wrote about the relations between poetry and etymology and about such

Featured image credit: The Silk Road via lwtt93. CC by 2.0 via Flickr. Image has been cropped to fit.

Recent Comments

  1. Constantinos Ragazas

    Anatoly, you write

    “The Greek verb meaning “chase, hunt” has the root kīn (with long i), ”

    The Greek word (ancient and modern) for “hunt” is “κυνηγι”. The ancient Greek word for “hount” is “κυνος”.

    The Greek “υ”, as in “κυνηγι”, often becomes the Latin “u”, as in “hunt”. For example, Greek “υπερ” and Latin “super”.

    Consider also, “In early Greek … [“υ”] was pronounced [u].” https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Upsilon

    You write, “There is no way from ī to short u, as in hunt. ”

    Where do you find that in my argument?


  2. Rudy Troike

    My trusty Merriam-Webster Collegiate gives a possible source for OE sioluc / seolc as Greek serikos “silken”. No dates are given, but this would at least put the source of the OE form closer geographically to the source of the material, and make it less likely that Latin was the proximate source. It is perhaps not irrelevant that Scandinavian languages have silke, and Finnish has silkki. Could these reflect the ancient Scythian trade route across the north, which likewise brought dragons and decorative patterns (see Sutton Hoo) in metalwork directly from Chiina?

    NB: I sometimes wonder if my comments are ever received, as I never see them posted, and only once have I seen a reaction to a suggestion.

    NB2: The l / r variation is rampant in Romance, and must go back to an earlier Latinian source. In Korean, the sounds are allophones of one phoneme, and Japanese lacks an l, but Mandarin has both. On the other hand, Chinese varieties sometimes interchange /l/ and /n/, and the Greek name “Sinai” referred to the Chinese. This could get us closer to the /i/ found in “silk”. One might also want to look at names of cities which were sources of the woven material (cf denim).

  3. Margaret Catambay

    I think squirrels eat acorns which are baby oak trees.

  4. Rudy Troike

    BTW, squirrels are particularly interested in oaks, since they depend on them for acorns.

  5. Constantinos Ragazas


    This escaped my notice the last time, but several of the comments to this post brought it to notice.

    “The German for “squirrel” is Eichhörnchen. In this word, Eich means “oak,” and –hörnchen means “little horn.” A correspondent from Germany suggests that the form of the squirrel’s ears could be the reason the animal received its name.”

    You could have ended all such fantasy by arguing for the true etymology of “squirrel”. Nothing to do with “oak” or “acorns” or even “horns”!

    The English “squirrel” comes from the Greek for “squirrel”, “σκιουρος”. Which has the Greek roots “σκια” (shadow) + “ουρα” (tail) for the furry tail casting a big shadow.

    Check the Oxford Dictionary on this!


  6. Constantinos Ragazas

    …as for “belong”, may I suggest the contraction of “be along”!

    Makes sense to me. What belongs to somebody is found “being along” with them.

    Yet another example of words formed through grammatical contractions of pronouns and such other words.


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