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Dry and thirsty, part 2: “dry”

The beginning of this story appeared a week ago, on July 15, 2020 (Cut and dried, Part 2), and we found out that the Old Germanic languages had two words for “dry”: thur-s– (from which Modern English has the noun thirst; thors is the Gothic form) and dreag-, the parent of dry. Seeing how concrete and unambiguous the idea of dryness is, we wondered why Germanic needed two synonyms for this word. We have also seen that thur-s– had at least one cognate outside Germanic, namely, Latin torridus “torrid,” but the origin of the root tor– remains unclear. It would be important to know what association suggested to people the idea of dryness. The idea must have come from some object which was indeed very dry or from a sensation we, with our penchant for scientific terms, now call dehydration. (Wet, for example, is related to water.) Torrid looks rather isolated. Its best, though uncertain, connection is with Latin terra “earth,” another isolated word in Indo-European. Yet the idea that thur-s– was suggested by parched earth is feasible. Unlike thurs-, dreag– has no cognates outside West Germanic. It was probably coined locally, and that is why its etymology remains undiscovered.

Dry logs, hardly the source of the word “dry.” Image: public domain via pxfuel.

As mentioned last time, we might perhaps dispel part of the mystery if we found out what motivated the speakers of other languages to coin their words for “dry” and whether English can provide some help. Two English adjectives suggest themselves as candidates for a brief examination. The first is the verb to sear “to burn or scorch with intense heat.” It goes back to the oldest period and is related to the obsolete adjective sere “dry, withered.” Today, both are pronounced alike, but in the past, they were not homophones.

Sear has cognates throughout Indo-European, including Latin sūdus “dry; cloudless.” As though to mock us, the closest neighbor of sūdus was sūdare “to sweat; ooze, exude (ek-sude).” Is this unnatural proximity the reason Latin sūdus was replaced by siccus? Even if not so, we note that a language may have two words for “dry,” both native, with the newcomer ousting the old one, as also happened when dreag– replaced thur-s-. Siccus continued into the modern Romance languages and is known to wine drinkers from French sec and demi-sec.

The other reason siccus deserves mention in this story is the presence of cc in the Latin word. If we throw a quick look at the vocabulary of old languages, we will see that double consonants (geminates) are the product of either some late phonetic process (most often, assimilation, as in the Scandinavian languages) or emphasis.  Emphatic geminates are usually called expressive, and in siccus, cc (that is, kk), which does not owe its existence to assimilation, must be expressive.  What was the motivation for that emphasis? We can only indulge in second guessing, but, as noted in the previous post, dry is not a neutral word designating some trivial quality. It refers to thirst or drought, two mortally dangerous things.  The coining of the word must have entailed a good deal of negative emotion. Incidentally, Classical Greek iskhnós “dry” also has the middle consonant from an expressive geminate.

The other Classical Greek adjective for “dry” was kserós, recognizable from the English words beginning with xero– and the ubiquitous Xerox. But in Greek, it occurred rarely, only as an epithet applied to earth. The word may be related to Latin serēnus “cloudless.” Though the phonetic correspondence is plausible, the meanings do not match too well. The Greek adjective may be related to a word in Sanskrit and a word in Old high German. Yet from an etymological point of view the entire group is rather obscure.

The last station on our journey is Engl. arid, from French aride or directly from Latin āridus. For a change, here the origin is clear. Among the words in many languages related to arid, we find Gothic azgo “ash, cinders.” Gothic, it will be remembered, is an Old Germanic language, recorded in the fourth century. The ancient root seems to have meant “to burn.” Here is another approach to the coining of an adjective meaning “dry.”  Other (doubtful) connections can be ignored.

What then have we learned? Indeed, not much, but the adventure has not been useless. First, it has become clear that a word for “dry” is often obscure and that in this respect Germanic dry is not an exception. Second, we now know that the existence of two native synonyms for “dry” is not uncommon. A later neologism may supersede the old-timer, as also happened when dreag– replaced thur-s-. Third, the word for “dry” need not have been stylistically colorless (hence the geminates)—an important point. Fourth, regardless of whether torrid and terra are related, an adjective for “dry” has been attested that is mainly applied to describe earth. Finally, a possible motivation for coining an adjective for “dry” is the reference to burning (hence ashes) and perhaps brightness (if Latin serēnus belongs to our story).

An Old Scandinavian warrior: tough and firm, but not dry. Engraving of a bronze plate featuring a berserker on the right and Oden on the left. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Where then does Engl. dry belong? As noted above, the answer has not been found. Yet we should remember that it is not only some ancient root that we are looking for. We want to understand why thur-s– acquired a powerful rival. With regard to the root, two Old Icelandic words have been cited in connection with dry. One is drjúgr “tough, able to endure hardships.” The other is draugr “revenant, malicious ghost” and its unrelated homonym “man; warrior.” Obviously, the revenant need not bother us here, but draugr2 also meant “tree” and is often glossed as “dry tree, dry log.” Even if the sense “dry log” is valid, that is, if dry and draugr are related, this fact does not tell us anything about the root’s origin: “tree” must have received its name because it was dry, not “dry” from the dryness of the tree.

To make matters worse, it is far from clear that draugr meant “dry log.” Besides, draugr “man, warrior” is certainly related to a verb for “endure; serve in the army” (English has its remnant in the curious archaic phrase to dree one’s weird “to endure one’s fate.”)  This second sense has exact parallels in Slavic and may even be initial. Conjuring up drjúgr suggests that the development of the sense “dry” came from “solid, firm,” a possible, but distant path (one expects reference to a dry object, rather than another quality). Finally, it causes surprise that the only word, allegedly able to throw light on a West Germanic adjective, has been recorded only in Scandinavian.  I will skip some other, even less convincing, hypotheses and the suggestion that dreag– came to Germanic from an unknown substrate language, and will also pass over the discussion of the phonetic form of the Old English adjective.

My own arrow shot into the air, as I called my conjecture last week, is that dreag– was coined to express the difference between human thirst and the thirst of the soil (drought). Thur-s- supplied the material, but reference to drought filled people with such fear that they invented a taboo word, by “perverting” the sounds: they retained th (it later became d), added –g, and changed u to au; r was already there. This reconstruction cannot be proved (an example of one man’s dry humor). Yet it is perhaps more credible than reference to borrowing from a substrate and more inspiring than the verdict: “Origin unknown.”

The true inspiration for coining a word for “dry.” Left image: Ion Chibzii. CC BY-SA via Wikimedia Commons. Right image: _Marion. Public domain via Pixabay.

Feature image credit: image by Paul Barlow. Public domain via Pixabay.

Recent Comments

  1. Vivian Ramalingam

    I wondered if “sere” would take part in these explorations.

  2. Constantinos Ragazas


    “The other Classical Greek adjective for “dry” was kserós, ”

    You ignored the most relevant ancient Greek word for “dry”, “ανυδρο” (“not wet”). Why? I already drew attention to it in my post last week!

    This Greek word likely is the origin for “dry”. Since reducing this Greek word to a monosyllable “δρο” results in “dry”.


  3. N K Staite

    I wondered if ‘dry’ and ‘track’ might be connected, as ancient walkers would have need to navigate swampy and other wet ground by way of a dry route.

  4. John Hutton

    OE drȳge (adj) < *drūgiz (with i-mutation).

    Cf. (ge)drūgian (preserving the original vowel), and the nouns drūgoþ and drūgung. The nouns not only mean "dryness", but also "dry weather" and "wild/uncultivated land".

    We can suppose a PrG verb form *dreug- (pres.) ~ *draug- (past) ~ *drug-/*drūg- (past part.), but only the last of these has any reflexes to do with "dry" in OE.

    Possibly related is the verb (ge)drēogan "suffer", but your form, **dreag-, is at best the reflex of the past stem *draug-, and thus cannot be the source of "dry".

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