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Bizarre the world over

The posts for the last two weeks dealt with the various attempts to trace (or rather guess) the origin of the word bizarre, and I finished by saying that the word is, in my opinion, sound-imitative. In connection with this statement a caveat is in order. Sound imitation (onomatopoeia) is fine when there is something to imitate. Meow, baa-baa, and moo are indeed sound-imitative, and so is buzz. But bizarre people don’t buzz. Whenever etymologists begin to speak about onomatopoeia, the ghost of sound symbolism raises its head: short i makes us think of small objects,  gl– suggests glowing and glamor, sl- is all about slime and sleaze, and fl- about fluttering, flowing, flipping, and the rest. But, alas! i occurs not only in tit but also in big, while gl- is the initial cluster of glum and gloom, the least glamorous things imaginable; even glitter once meant “to shine brightly” (remember not all is gold that glitters?) and now it means “to shine faintly.”

Any reference to sound imitation and sound symbolism, outside the obvious and trivial, is doomed to remain a hypothesis, and yet both played and play a significant role in coining words. In most cases, their existence cannot be proved, especially because words belonging to this group tend to be nearly identical in unrelated languages and do not obey the phonetic laws of comparative linguistics. Those who believe that bizarre goes back to an unattested Gothic word or to some Latin noun will not change their opinion. Two outstanding Romance philologists who suggested that bizarre is sound-imitative offered no discussion. My aim is not to dissuade anyone; it is rather to produce a context for this hypothesis.

What Germanic adjectives, verbs, and nouns resemble bizarre? English busy perhaps. (See the post for May 3, 2006 about the odd spelling of this word.) We look it up in etymological dictionaries and find: “of unknown origin.” German böse “evil, wicked; angry” (also erbost “furious”) are close by. Where did they come from? So many words look like böse, and so many are the directions in which their meanings go that no clear conclusions can be drawn. This is the verdict in the latest edition of the most authoritative etymological dictionary of German (thus, again “unknown”). Böse has no obvious cognates, while English busy does. The Dutch for “busy” is bezig. Close to it are Dutch biestert, which at one time seems to have meant “running wildly, etc.,” verbazen “to amaze,” German dialectal baseln “run madly around,” and Swiss dialectal (German) bausen “to do useless work in the kitchen; rummage,” among quite a few others. Similar-sounding Germanic words seem to have reached the Romance territory, if Old Catalonian basarda “fear” (noun) belongs here. Perhaps the fifteenth-century French slang word basir “to kill” is also part of the “family.” In some way, they too refer to a hectic activity.

Hardly the inspiration for busy or even boast. (Image by Raymond)

As early as 1912, Wilhelm Braune, a famous German philologist of the past, cited numerous French words of this type and suggested their Germanic origin. He did not mention English busy, but Leo Spitzer, another distinguished scholar, in 1935 did cite busy in connection with two French verbs meaning “to stun, bewilder.” The problem with such passing mentions is that they are needles in a haystack, and it is no wonder that English etymologists did not notice Spitzer’s idea. Icelandic has bisa “to work hard; drag an object along.” It is a late word (no records before the seventeenth century), but Norwegian bisa, which means “to talk nonsense,” seems to be related. In this almost endless list bVs words (V = Vowel), we find such senses as “carouse” (hence English bouse ~ booze), “swell,” “twaddle,” “exert oneself,” “do harm,” “rush along,” and “puff up.”

This is what the wind bise (la bise) looks like in real life, rather than in etymology. (Image by Janusz Dominik)

The puffing up, that is, swelling is said to underlie English boast. German Bise “the wind from the Northeast” and English beestings may or may not belong here. I’ll skip the bVs ~ bVz words for “kiss” and “female genitals” and the names Bisinus ~ Basina, known from medieval Germanic tales, because their meaning is unclear. But English busy, I believe, does belong to that club. Its etymology is “unknown,” because, strictly speaking, it has none: just an onomatopoeia, endowed with certain associations. The same should probably be said about German böse. Indeed, it is surrounded by such a motley crowd that a semantic nucleus cannot be found and should probably not be sought.

We have a buzzword, so to speak (sorry for the feeble pun), and its progeny is spread all over Germanic. Perhaps in the Middle Ages it reached the Romance-speaking world, but parallel development supplementing borrowing needn’t be ruled out. Words like English boast suggested to some students of Indo-European that such formations go back to the root bhou– (with a short or a long vowel) “to swell.” I am afraid that this ancient root is fiction. It is only a common part of several historically unrelated but semantically similar words. They are “related” (to use the metaphor I have often used before) like soldiers from the same regiment: all have the same uniform and may even perform the same duty; yet they are not brothers.

Bizzarro! (Image by Gustave Doré for Ludovico Ariosto’s “Orlando Furioso”)

My conclusion should by this be time be obvious. It seems that bizarre is one of many b-s ~ b-z words. A bizarre person might swell himself and be furious, valiant, and prone to heroic deeds. Or this person’s behavior might be odd; hence “peculiar, eccentric.” Not improbably, this adjective is of Germanic origin, but, as pointed out, while dealing with such formations, one never knows. Russian borrowed from Polish the word bzik “whim, caprice.” It earlier referred to the behavior of the cattle running away from hornets, horseflies, gadflies, and their likes. This is exactly what French dialectal beser and several German dialectal verbs (biesen ~ biessen and busseln) mean! I’ll leave it to specialists in Slavic and Romance to decide how this group of words originated. I’ll also leave Russian bystryi “quick, fast” to them. Allegedly, it is related to some of the Germanic words mentioned above. My task, as noted, was to provide a context for bizarre and, by the same token, for Italian bizza “whim.”

Only a short postscript is now in order. Friedrich Kluge (1884) traced busy to the root bhēs “active,” Francis Asbury Wood (1902) glossed it as “feverish,” and Victor V. Levitsky (2010) was, in principle, of the same opinion but considered the closeness of this root to the root bus “hot, proud, precipitous.” In French, as noted in the first part of this series, bizarre crossed the path of the equally enigmatic bigarré “motley.” Pierre Guiraud, the author of a provocative dictionary of words of unknown origin (Dictionnaire des étymologies obscures, 1982), reconstructed the root big– “bent, crooked” and combined bizarre and bigot. This solution strikes me as improbable. Other than that, to repeat: I doubt that we should look for some good ancient root. A common semantic denominator like “active, quick, feverish” seems to have existed. Many words had the structure bVz and resembled the onomatopoeic buzz, perhaps first only in Germanic. A picture of cows fleeing wildly from pestiferous insects should inspire us in a search for the etymology of bizarre and its kin.

Recent Comments

  1. Margaret Catambay

    Speaking of sound similarities, I was curious about the word “bazaar”. Its origin is Persian, but I don’t think it has anything to do with “bizarre”, or does it?

  2. Raphy ELDAD

    Hello, there are in Hebrew the words “Zar” (זר) meaning strange or stranger, and also “mouzar” (מוזר) meaning exactly bizarre. The additional prefixes are common conjugation in Hebrew.

  3. Constantinos Ragazas

    There are also in Greek such words, e.g. “βιτσια” (quirk), with similar meaning and similar sounding. But don’t know when these were coined or borrowed. May have come from the Italian bizza “whim”.

  4. Fred de Vries

    Could modern Frisian ‘bjuster’ (strange, unusual, unfamiliar, surprising) as used in ‘bjusterbearlik’ (amazing, astonishing) be part of the same family of words?

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