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Bizarre is who bizarre does: part two

This post continues the discussion of bizarre (see the previous one for 11 November 2020). After the Basque etymology of this Romance adjective was rejected on chronological grounds, bizarre joined the sad crowd of “words of unknown (disputable, uncertain, undiscovered) origin.” However, several good scholars have tried to penetrate the darkness surrounding it. Each offered his own solution, a situation, as we will see, that does not bode well.

A page of the Gothic Bible. (Image by Asta)

Obviously, if a word appears from nowhere and has no ascertainable native roots, it may be a borrowing. And here I must turn to the language of the Goths, which I mention with great regularity in this blog, because Gothic is the oldest Germanic language that has come down to us (if we disregard runic inscriptions from medieval Scandinavia): significant parts of the New Testament, translated by Bishop Wulfila in the fourth century from Greek into Gothic, are extant. Two Gothic kingdoms flourished in the past: one in Italy (with its capital in Ravenna, where tourists can still see Ostrogoth King Theodoric’s Mausoleum) and one in Spain, with the capital in Tolosa. The eastern kingdom existed only from 453 to 555, but this period was the time of the efflorescence of Gothic culture, its Golden Age. The Visigoth kingdom had a much longer span of life: from the early fifth century to 711, when it was destroyed by the Arabs. As could be expected, Modern Italian and Modern Spanish have preserved relics of many Gothic words, some of which did not turn up in Wulfila’s translation. Such words were reconstructed from the dialects spoken today: thoroughly assimilated inserts of Old Germanic in the speech of modern people. Hence the idea that bizarre may be one of such relics, a continuation of an old borrowing from Gothic.

Theodoric’s Mausoleum in Ravenna. (Image by Roger W)

In the previous post, I gave the chronology of the earliest known attestations of bizarre in the Romance languages. The first of them goes back to Dante’s Divina Commedia, that is, to the time many centuries after the disappearance of the Goths from the stage of history. This fact does not invalidate the Gothic hypothesis (let us call it this), because Italian bizzaro may have been a conversational word, even slang, or perhaps for a long time it remained current in a small area, in only one dialect. From the texts in Old High German we know the verb bāgen or bâgen: “to fight; quarrel” (both symbols—ā and â—designate vowel length), while the Norwegian adjective båg still means “resistant, unwilling, etc.” The idea that bizarre is a relic of Old Germanic occurred to the founders of Romance historical linguistics, but to trace the way from an unattested Gothic word to the Romance form, one must posit several unlikely phonetic changes. As far as I can judge, though the most recent author of the reconstruction mentioned above was a distinguished scholar, his etymology of bizarre is too complicated and unlikely.

Another attempt to penetrate the past of bizarre takes us to Latin vitiosus, which meant “vile, depraved” but occasionally had the connotations “artful; attractive.” This approach also looks like a blind alley. Vitium, vitiosus, and vitiare referred to vice and damage, rather than to fervor and eccentricity, and it would be a minor miracle if all the recorded senses of the Romance adjective were secondary and late. The phonetic hurdles one must overcome in moving from vitiosus to bizarre are perhaps not fatal to the reconstruction, but one of them is more serious than it may seem: vitiosus begins with v-, not with b-. No doubt, initial v- and b- alternate in many languages (compare Basil and Russian Va(s)sily, as in Vassily Kandinsky, among others). A reader, while commenting on my old discussion of bigot (see the reference to it in the previous post), pointed to the frequency of the interplay of b- ~ v-, which also occurs in some Romance dialects. But, as has been noted in a severe critique of the derivation of bizarre from vitium, bizarre has never been attested with initial v-. This, I think, is a serious objection. Reference to a certain even well-attested phonetic change does not suffice, because one expects the word under discussion to show traces of succumbing to it.

Kandinsky, un centro, 1924. To celebrate the alternation v ~ b. (Image by Sailko)

Let it be remembered: both hypotheses have been offered by outstanding specialists in the history of the Romance languages. Yet they probably deserve the same unkind verdict as the fanciful oldest conjectures I mentioned in passing a week ago. All this goes a long way toward showing that etymology is a minefield and that sometimes the best experts fail to detonate the mines visible to outsiders, or, if you like it, that the path of true love never runs smooth.

Here is now a last attempt to trace bizarre to a “respectable” Romance root. Latin invidia means “envy, jealousy, ill will.” Allegedly, it changed to imbidia (again v- to b– but here through assimilation after m), with in– being understood as a prefix or a preposition. So did in-vidia ~ im-bidia allegedly become bizarre (the troublesome suffix –arre will remain a problem in any reconstruction). This is an old etymology, rejected by two great Romance scholars and resurrected about fifty years ago. I don’t think it has gained recognition in the meantime, but scholarly problems are not solved by voting, and it does not matter how many people agree or disagree with a certain hypothesis. The whole world may believe that the earth does not revolve—Eppur si muove, even though Galileo Galilei, most probably, never pronounced those famous, potentially suicidal, words. (In connection with such apocryphal phrases I may mention the 2006 OUP slim volume What They Didn’t Say: A Book of Misquotations, edited by Elizabeth Knowles: more examples of the same type, including “Elementary, my dear Watson.”)

The derivation of bizarre from invidia, though ingenious, is not particularly attractive. However, it has one redeeming quality: next to bizzaro, we find Italian bizza “whim, caprice; freak; outburst of anger.” As if to mock us, the origin of bizza is also unknown, but it would be a minor miracle if the two words were not in some way related, and the linguists who traced bizarre to invidia assumed that bizarre and bizza (both are pronounced with voiced zz, as in English adze) belong together.

I have left the least exciting but perhaps the most controversial etymology of bizarre undiscussed. According to it, bizarre (and bizza) are sound-imitative (onomatopoeic) words. It is my conviction that this etymology has potential, and I will devote the next (last) post on the history of bizarre to the facts bearing on the subject. We’ll have to travel rather far afield.


Feature image: Pxfuel

Recent Comments

  1. Alex

    I would like to contact (e-mail) Anatoly Liberman. How to do it? I am interested in his translation of the verse ‘The Beetle’ by Nikolai Oleinikov. Thank you. my e-mail: [email protected]

  2. OUPblog team

    Hi Alex – thanks for getting in touch with this query. You can reach Anatoly by emailing [email protected], and he’ll be in touch. All best, the OUPblog team.

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