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Cut and dried, part 2: “dry”

The murky history of the verb cut was discussed two weeks ago (June 24, 2020). Now the turn of dry has come around. When people ask questions about the origin of any word, they want to know why a certain combination of sounds means what it does. Why cut, big, den, and so forth? Instead of an answer, they are often told that a word is a borrowing from another language, or they may be given a list of cognates and a reconstructed ancient root (unless the verdict is: “origin unknown”).

However, non-specialists do not need that information. They expect an etymologist to tell them when and how c-u-t, b-i-g, and d-e-n happened to acquire the meanings familiar to language speakers. They don’t realize that, outside the sound-imitative moo, bow-wow, giggle, and a few expressive verbs like jerk, which probably attempts to describe a jerking movement by verbal means, we’ll never discover the answer, even though we may sometimes try to reconstruct the impulse behind the process of word creation. The process must have been elementary, because “first words” were simple things, or so it seems. But too many centuries may stand between us and the word’s birth for the historical linguist to be able to jump over that chasm. Even some recent words, especially slang, are almost impenetrable.

So how could a word meaning “dry” come into existence? Perhaps the history of wet may suggest an approach to the problem. Wet is related to water, not derived from it as is watery, but formed on another grade of ablaut (vowel alternation) of the same root, approximately as the noun drove is formed from the root we have in the verb drive. No doubt, wet must have meant “watery” or “saturated with water.” Here the sought-for process is evident even millennia after this adjective came into existence (watery, like water, was attested in Old English). It would be good to discover some object so “existentially dry,” so devoid of moisture (dry as dust or dry as a bone) that its name could inspire the coining of the adjective. Dry, like water and watery, has been known in the language since the Old English period. Dutch droog and German trocken (the same meaning) are related, which shows that the word is old, much older than the earliest English texts, which go back only to the mid-seventh century.

A drove is called this because it is driven. Photo in the public domain via Need Pix.

Another possible approach to the riddle, as often happens in etymology, is through synonyms. If we could guess the etymology of at least one word for “dry” in any language, that might help. Dry does not seem to need synonyms (the reference is so unambiguous). Yet, strangely, Old Germanic had two words meaning, as far as we can judge, the same. In the Gothic Bible, recorded in the fourth century CE, the word was þaursus (pronounced as thorsus). It occurred with reference to a withered hand and a fig tree. The cognates of this adjective occurred in the entire Germanic-speaking world. Its Modern German reflex (continuation) is dürr, and several German words have the same root, for example, dörren and its elevated synonym dorren “to dry (up).” But perhaps more interesting to us is the German noun Durst “thirst.” Durst, like thirst, is an ancient noun. Gothic also had its cognate (þaurstei, pronounced as thorstee). The corresponding Old English adjective þyrre “dry” has not continued into Modern English, but thirst, from þurst, has.

Dry as dust. Credit: NOAA George E. Marsh Album / Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Not only are draug– and thaur(s)-, the Old Germanic sources of the two adjectives for “dry,” synonyms. They sound very much alike: d and th are phonetically close, and the vowels in the root are compatible. Moreover, draug– has no related forms outside Germanic, while thaurs– does. One of them is familiar to us from Engl. torrid, a borrowing of Latin torridus “parched up.” The root of torrid is also interesting in the context of some earlier posts, because it recurs in torrent (a late borrowing from French). The Latin participle torrens meant “boiling (!), roaring, rushing,” and once again we see that water and fire tend to form a union in people’s minds. The reference is to a fierce, passionate action. See the post on brand for June 17, 2020. Later (next week), we will see that dryness and water may also be partners. (For curiosity’s sake, I may add that Engl. toast “to parch” goes back to French and further to the past participle of the same Latin verb torrēre.)

What, we wonder, is the origin of torr-, that is, what did this root refer to? What was “torrid” in the minds of those who coined this ancient Indo-European word? A close neighbor of torr– is Latin terra “land,” an almost isolated word in Indo-European. If this closeness is not an illusion, then the ancestor of torrid may have referred to scorched or at least very dry earth. The connection between terra and torrid is questionable, and one obscure word can never explain the origin of another equally obscure one. Yet, if as a last resource or for the sake of argument, we accept this connection, it would not have meant anything to Old Germanic speakers, because their word for “terra” was earth. In any case, they did have a word for “dry” (the one we have seen in Gothic þaursus). Why did they coin another one?

The root of þaurs-, as we have seen, recurs in Engl. thirst, while the root of dry recurs in Engl. drought. Could it be that the most ancient Germanic word denoting dryness referred to a parched throat, while much later, a word referring to the lack of moisture in the soil was coined from the elements of its synonym? As time went on, one of two such close synonyms was destined to disappear or modify its meaning.  It therefore causes no surprise that Old English þyrre, a congener of thaurs-, has been ousted by dry, a reflex of drȳge (from draug-). Modern German has both trocken (related to dry) and dürr (related to þaursus), but they are stylistically different. All the other modern Germanic languages do with one adjective: Engl. dry, Dutch droog, Icelandic þur (from þurr), and so forth.

Such is an introduction to the history of the word for “dry” in Germanic. All we can say with some certainty is that dry is a newcomer. My idea that once upon a time there was an adjective used about a dry throat and that later a synonym (an artificial neologism) emerged referring to dry earth is an arrow into the air, though in Part 2 of this essay, I’ll try to recover it. Gothic þaursus, as we have seen, referred to a withered hand and a tree that stopped bearing fruit, but Gothic had only one word for “dry,” so it, naturally, fit(ted) all situations, and its existence sheds no light on our problem.

Let no fruit grow on thee henceforward…. The Accursed Fig Tree by James Tissot. Public domain via the Brooklyn Museum.

Other synonyms for dry exist too, and we’ll have a look at them next week in the hope that they will tell us something about the English adjective, the main object of our investigation. At present, we have only one dubious clue to the etymology of dry, namely, a possible connection between dryness and earth. But if þaursus ~ torrid is not related to terra, then even this clue fails us.

To be continued.

Feature image credit: photo by Anthony Bley, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers / Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. Vivian Ramalingam

    Does “thyrsus”, the (garlanded) staff, topped by a pine cone and carried by Bacchus and his followers, have a place in your story?

  2. Constantinos Ragazas


    You may get closer to the truth associating “dry” with “water”!

    Of course, “dry” is “not wet/water”. And in ancient Greek that is how “dry” in fact is defined! “ανυδρο” (not wet). We readily recognize “υδρο” in “hydrogen”. Even if we may not know Greek.

    Following Greek “ανυδρο” in English…, by dropping the first part “ανυ-” we get a monosyllabic word in English (very typical of English!). We get “dry”!!!


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