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Returning to the cutting edge: “sword” (Part 1)

Those who have read the posts on awl, ax(e), and adz(e) (March 11, 18, and 25, 2020) will find themselves on familiar ground: once again “origin unknown,” numerous hypotheses, and reference to migratory words. This is not surprising: people learn the names of tools and weapons from the speakers of neighboring nations (tribes), adapt, and domesticate them. Dozens of such names have roots in the remotest prehistory. Another complicating factor: the line separating tools from weapons is easy to cross. An ax, for example, can cut a tree and cleave a skull with equal ease. What once was a tool may become a deadly weapon.

Beating swords into plowshares, or say no to warmongers. Sculpture by Yevgeny Vuchetich, photo by Fuenping. CC-by-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

From Old Germanic three words for “sword” have come down to us. Two of them occurred in the fourth-century (CE) translation of the New Testament into Gothic. The verses with the word for “sword” are L 2. 35 and E 6. 17. In the King James Bible, they sound so: “(Ye, a sword shall pierce through thy own soul, also)” and: “…take the helmet of salvation and the sword to the Spirit, which is the word of God.” The Greek text has mákhaira and rhomphaía. Bishop Wulfila, who either translated the entire text or at least edited it, used hairus (pronounced as herrus) and meki (with ē, long e). The Greek for sword, memorable from Homer and Hesiod, is ‘áor, but, for some reason, it did not satisfy Wulfila.

When dictionaries cite glosses, such as “Gothic hairus translates Greek mákhaira,” they do not tell the complete story. In Classical Greek, the word meant “a knife used for human sacrifices (it was also used as a short-range weapon, that is, as a saber and a dagger); razor.” It came to mean “sword” only in New Testament Greek. Rhomphaía, at least in Classical Greek, designated a short Thracian sword with a long broad blade. One wonders what image the word evoked in the minds of the users of the Greek gospels and what exactly Gothic hairus and mekis meant.

The origin of both Gothic words is unknown, but it is amusing that, when we put side by side mákhaira, mekis, and hairus, the Germanic words look like echoes of the Greek one. Yet the similarity is accidental, because hairus has exact correspondences (cognates, congeners) in Old Icelandic, Old English, and Old Saxon, while meki is known even more widely. Also, Germanic speakers fought the Romans, not the Greeks and would have had no need to borrow Greek words. And of course, borrowings would have been much closer to their source.

The bottom sword is a reconstruction of a mákhaira-type sword. Image by Janmad. CC-by-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

A cognate of meki showed up even on a runic inscription dated to approximately 250 CE, and the cognates of hairus occurred all over the Germanic-speaking world, but the Goths probably did not know a word like sword, while the rest of the Germanic world did. In the modern languages, only Icelandic has retained a reflex (continuation) cognate with hairus, while meki or maki– died without issue. However, its close relatives have been recorded in a Caucasian language and in the Slavic-speaking world (for example, Russian mech). Were swords bearing this name forged in the Caucasus, became famous, and spread over most of Eurasia? Even if so, the word’s etymology remains a mystery. The same is true of hairus despite some ingenious conjectures on this subject.

An image of a rhomphaía. By MittlererWeg. CC-by-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Sword is equally mysterious. If it is not a Germanic noun, but a so-called culture (migratory) word that traveled form land to land with soldiers, we have little chance of finding its ancient source. Attempts to trace it to a Germanic root have also been moderately successful. Let us note that from a historical point of view awl does not mean “piercer,” ax does not mean “cutter,” and so on. We have also seen that the same word may mean “knife; dagger; razor,” and then “sword.” By the way, the origin of knife is obscure, and the same holds for bodkin. In any case, sword need not have meant “piercer” or “cutter” and been an analog of razor, which is, raz(e) + –er.

Three approaches to the etymology of sword have been tried.

1. Perhaps, we are told, the word either migrated from afar or is a cognate of some very ancient word (compare Gothic meki and Old Slavic mech’). Not long ago, the Luvian (or Luwian) cuneiform word shi(h)ual “dagger” (here given in a grossly simplified English transcription) has been cited as a cognate of sword. Allegedly, the root of both means “sharp.” Something should perhaps be said about the phrase Luvian cuneiform. Cuneiform was a system of writing, invented in ancient Mesopotamia. The texts have been preserved on multiple clay tablets, and the “letters” were wedge-shaped marks (hence the name: Latin cuneus means “wedge”). Luvian (Luwian) was spoken in Mesopotamia and northern Syria. Those who think that cuneiform is something exotic and marginally significant should remember that Hittite texts were written (inscribed) in cuneiform and that the world-famous epic Gilgamesh was recorded on such tablets. I will skip the technical part of this hypothesis (it is too complicated, and there seem to be some phonetic difficulties in it), and as regards the conclusion, I prefer to remain uncommitted. One could have expected to find some Germanic words with this root and some traces of it between Mesopotamia and the regions inhabited by the ancestors of modern Germanic speakers, though the home of the Germanic peoples remains a matter of controversy. I also try to follow the “law” I once formulated for myself: the more complicated and ingenious an etymology, the smaller the chance that it is true.

2. One should look at other words meaning “sword” in the hope that light will come from that source. In an excellent old etymological dictionary, written by two Norwegian scholars, sword (or rather its ancient protoform swerðam-; ð = th in Engl. this) was compared with Greek ‘áor “sword,” mentioned above, on the assumption that the ancient root was (s)ver “to lift” or “to weigh along” (s in parentheses designates movable s, a mysterious volatile prefix often mentioned in this blog). This reconstruction presupposes that the sword in Greek and Germanic got its name because it hung from the fighter’s hip. Though shared by several eminent etymologists, this idea fails to convince. Could the ancient sword in two languages be called from such a secondary feature? A weapon from a baldric, as it were?

The sword of Damocles: it certainly “weighs along,” but not from the hip! Image: The Sword of Damocles by Giuseppe Piattoli. Public domain via The Met.

3. Perhaps the solution is less convoluted. Are there any Germanic words that sound like sword and provide a clue? Yes, indeed, but whether they conceal the desired “clue” is far from obvious. Though I believe that one guess is promising, here I am in the minority. Anyway, wait until next week.

To be continued.

Feature image credit: Ancient Assyria Divided into Syria, Mesopotamia, Babylonia, and Assyria by Philippe de La Rue. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. Constantinos Ragazas


    FYI, the Greek μαχαiρι (long knife) likely comes from the Greek μάχη (battle). Or both may have a common source. Both are attested in Homer and early ancient Greek. And both were used continuously up to the present time.

    As so many other ancient Greek words. Often found in “unexpected places”, like English and German. If you have the ear to see them.

    “The origin of both Gothic words is unknown, but it is amusing that, when we put side by side mákhaira, mekis, and hairus, the Germanic words look like echoes of the Greek one. Yet the similarity is accidental, …”

    No accident! The Greek word μαχαιρι is split up to the words mekis and hairus . Their common meaning shows this is not an accident. We’ve seen this before.

    “…Germanic speakers fought the Romans, not the Greeks and would have had no need to borrow Greek words. And of course, borrowings would have been much closer to their source.”

    Such Greek words were introduced into the English and Germanic languages not by the Romans. But by the Neolithic Aegean people that settled in these places. And nothing is “closer to their source” than the native language of their ancestors!

    Keep up with the recent aDNA scientific findings! It will answer many of your “improbable” questions!


  2. Constantinos Ragazas


    “By the way, the origin of knife is obscure”

    “knife” may derive from the Greek “ξίφος” (long knife, sword). That will explain the “k” too. Since “ξ” carries the “κσ” sound.

    Further, “Greek mákhaira,” may be very old and primitive and come from the Greek “mak” (long) +”haira” (hand). Which is what happens when holding a knife (or earlier, pointed stick) in the hand.

    Just some thoughts worth considering and sharing!


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