Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World


Harlequin’s environment

Marley was dead, to begin with, as all of us know. Likewise, the origin of the word Harlequin is controversial, to begin with. Henry Cecil Wyld’s excellent dictionary, to which I often refer, says that all ideas about the etymology of Harlequin are mere speculations. This is not true and was not quite true even about a century ago, when Wyld’s dictionary was being put together. But before coming to the point, it may be of some interest to have a quick look at the words that surround Harlequin on a dictionary page.

Our friend Harlequin. (Image via Wikipedia)

We’ll skip harmony and begin with harrow, as in harrowing of hell. This verb is an etymological doublet of harry and goes back to Old English; its root is har-, which, as far as Germanic is concerned, means “army, host” (but read on!). Strangely, Old French had a close synonym, so that in English, the twins were possibly confused. However, the origin of the French one is debatable, and we’ll leave it alone. When it comes to Germanic etymology, we may suggest that harrow “rake” has an onomatopoeic (sound-imitative) origin, from the grating sound its teeth make. Another telling example is the Germanic name of the harp. Final consonants alternate in it across languages. Thus, the Old Norse for “harp” was herfi, while the Dutch form is hark: p ~ f ~ k. (German Harfe has f from p: compare English help and German helfen.) The harp has no teeth, but it has strings, so that we may again be dealing with an onomatopoeic word. Although this musical instrument can be the source of wonderful music, the verb harp “to talk again and again on the same subject” arouses no pleasant associations. Plucking a string need not always produce mellifluous sounds.

Scrooge’s ancestor, Harpagon, the famous miser (image via Wikipedia)

Latin harpa “harp” is a borrowing from Germanic. Curiously, Latin had the word harpago “grapping-hook,” from which, via French, English got harpoon “a barbed missile” (hence, of course, the name of Harpagon, the French miser, immortalized by Molière, and the Greek harpies, the merciless snatchers, which figure prominently in the story of the Argonauts). Harpago has a Greek congener. English harp cannot be related to it, because its initial h should correspond to Greek and Latin k, and, in this case, borrowing does not seem likely. If the Greek and the Latin words are not related to Germanic harp ~ hark, it is curious to observe how the names of stringed and toothed metal objects resemble one another across Indo-European. What a leap from an Aeolian harp to a harpoon!

The Old Germanic word for “troop, army” (it was mentioned above) must have sounded approximately like Gothic harjis. Gothic is a fourth-century Germanic language; the New Testament in it was translated from Greek. Harjis is familiar to some modern speakers from the German reflex (continuation) of the same root, namely, Heer “troop, army.” Its Baltic cognates mean “war,” rather than “army,” and here I would like to suggest a most adventurous etymology of Heer, harjis, and the rest. It occurred to me decades ago, but I never tried to publish my ideas, because it would have been unsafe to voice them in a scholarly paper (no journal will risk accepting an article containing such wild fantasies). By contrast, a blog allows the writer a measure of freedom: one can venture an unsafe hypothesis in the hope that it will be discussed, rather than ridiculed and rejected offhand.

Aeolian harp
An Aeolian harp, a linguistic relative of a harpoon (image by Tim Stuart via Geograph)

What is war, and what should it be called? The concept is only too familiar: human beings have warred ever since they emerged on the surface of the earth. Curiously, in Old Norse, there was no basic word designating this concept: for “war”, speakers used the word ú-friðr “un-peace” (compare German Frieden “peace”); ú in this negative prefix designates a long vowel, and ð has the value of th in English this. Úfriði, almost the same word, meant “attack.”

“Peace,” unlike “war,” tends to refer to harmonious communal living. Latin pax is related to pact. Russian mir “peace” means “community,” and so on. In Indo-European, this usage has been investigated in minute detail. I read the relevant literature while trying to discover the origin of the strange Gothic word for “peace,” which, if my conclusion was correct, meant something like “good fortune” (this conclusion can be found in print). People have warred forever and forever prayed for peace.

War and Peace
Unpeace and peace (image via OUP)

War is indeed the disturbance of peace, and speakers had to invent all kinds of neologisms for it (unless they went the Old Norse way, which, as far as I can judge, they hardly ever did). Curiously, the origin of Latin bellum (compare English bellicose) is unknown, even though many good dictionaries connect it with duel (allegedly, “war” from “a combat between two groups of people,” a rather improbable derivation). Likewise, German Krieg “war,” an isolated word in Germanic, is a mysterious neologism. We only know that the initial meaning of Krieg was “effort; obstinacy,” both senses referring to strong emotions. And here comes my fanciful suggestion.

Numerous kr- ~ cr-formations are onomatopoeic, croak, creak, and crash (German Krach) among them (incidentally, crazy belongs here too). So, it occurred to me that the har– and kr-words, discussed above (harry, harrow, harp, harpoon, etc.), as well as German Krieg, are all sound-imitative, with the semantic base referring to tumult, uproar, noise, and the impression they produce. Some of them were coined in Greek, others in Latin, still others in Germanic—products of ancient word-creating impulses, as Wilhelm Oehl, to whom I have often referred in the past, called them (his German term was elementare Wortschöpfung). Later, such primitive coinages might remain at the initial elementary level (crack, Krach) or develop more sophisticated senses: “strong effort; strife; war.”

What then is the immediate environment of Harlequin in an English dictionary? Well, harry, harrow, harp, and harpoon of course! Harpy and Harpagon are here at our beck and call, and, amazingly, harlot, harridan (an old haggard woman), and harass. Do at least some of those belong here too? And, more importantly, what does any of them have to do with Harlequin, Arleccino, the famous trickster, the lover of Columbine ~ Columbina, the best-known of all Zanies? Zany is a proper name (a cognate of John), Columbina is also transparent, but Harlequin, with his variegated dress and black mask? How did he rise to such prominence? We know the names of some English clowns. One of them is Merry Andrew (few people seem to remember him). Who else? Pulcinella, Punch and Judy, the German Hanswurst, that is, “Hans-sausage.” No, none of those resembles Harlequin.

We must find out where Harlequin was born, how he ended up being the most popular buffoon of commedia dell’arte, and of course what his name means, but the origin of a word cannot be discovered unless we know the nature of the “thing.” Wait for the story to be posted next week!

Header image: The Harpies Driven from the Table of King Phineus by Zetes and Calais, François-Alexandre Verdier (1651–1730), via Wikimedia

Recent Comments

  1. Jacqueline Reid walsh

    This is fascinating since I study harlequinade turn up books. I thought the term came from the Italian

  2. […] am picking up where I left off last week. In the post for August 26, 2020, I discussed some words that surround Harlequin on a dictionary page. He ended up among harlots, […]

  3. Fred de Vries

    Thus, the Old Norse for “harp” was herfi, while the Dutch form is hark: p ~ f ~ k

    The Dutch form is ‘harp’ (not ‘hark’). A ‘hark’ is a ‘rake’ in English.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *