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The ubiquitous whelp

Today, I will go on with my story of animal baby names (see the post “A zoological kindergarten” for December 9, 2020). The previous essay ended with the question: “Does whelp have anything to do with wolf?”

Where do whelps come from? The Century Dictionary explains: “The young of the dog, wolf, lion, tiger, bear, seal, etc., but especially of the dog; a cub: sometimes applied to the whole canine species, whether young or old.” This definition is broad. Most of us may say that dogs produce puppies and that bears give birth to bear cubs (rather than just cubs). Perhaps it is more common to associate whelps mainly with wolves. Rudyard Kipling mentioned the great black panther Bagheera, to which I referred last time, and his (his!) cubs, not whelps. In connection with the origin of language, I have read many works about the life of seals and their system of communication. There, if I remember correctly, baby seals are usually called pups.

Whelps without a riddle. (Image by diapicard)

It may be useful to repeat that the etymology of many animal names, horse, mare, sheep, and ram among them, is disconcertingly obscure. At first sight (but alas, only at first sight), a bit less opaque is the etymology of such homey words as pup, cub, and bun, though here too dictionaries tend to say: “Origin unknown.” Calf, fawn, colt, filly, lamb, and whelp don’t even look transparent. Does whelp have anything to do with wolf? Linguistic algebra connects wolf, Latin lupus, Russian volk, and other similar names in Indo-European. The most ancient form seems to have begun with wl-. Whelp, by contrast, once began with hw– (see the previous post). No secure Indo-European cognate of whelp has been found, but, according to the correspondence known as the First Consonant Shift, if such a cognate exists, it should begin with kw– (compare Engl. what, from hwæt, and Latin quod, that is kwod). This does not augur well for a much-desired family reunion: wl– and kw– do not belong together. We also find Latin vulpes “fox,” and no one knows whether it is cognate with lupus. (Vulpes and whelp have been listed as possibly related in the works by Gottfried Baist, 1853-1920, an excellent Romance scholar.) In the Scandinavian languages, the wolf is called varg(u)r, apparently, no relative of either wolf or whelp.

When a word is opaque, conjectures about its origin multiply. Some guesswork about whelp is not devoid of interest. Last week, I mentioned a curious circumstance: goslings, ducklings, and chickens remind us of their parents (the goose, the duck, and the cock), while baby mammals are given names that have nothing to do with those of their fathers or mothers. Yet English child shares the root with the word for the womb, as known from Gothic, the oldest recorded Germanic language (see again the previous post). A similar connection has also been sought for whelp. Old English –hwelfen meant “to arch, bend over, vault over; cover.” Related forms existed everywhere in Germanic. Thus, German had welben; its continuation is the modern form wölben. According to a fairly recent hypothesis, a word like Wölbung “curvature; arch” might refer to “womb,” with whelp being its fruit. Gothic hwilf-tr-jos “coffin,” Sanskrit garbhah “womb,” and Greek kٖólpos “breast” have been cited in this connection.  Mere guesswork, as William W. Skeat used to say in such cases, but, in similar fashion, Edgar Polomé, our contemporary (1920-2000), connected English bitch with Sanskrit bhaga “vulva.” Both hypotheses (of the origin of whelp and of bitch) strike me as extremely risky.

Can seals speak? (Image by Foto-Rabe)

Two types of hypotheses compete in etymology. One is learned and the other disconcertingly simple, so that an impartial observer is sometimes hard put to it to choose between them. English whelp resembles the verb yelp, obviously a sound-imitative word, like yap and yawp. Is it possible that such is the origin of whelp? In Old English, hwilpe, some bird (possibly a curlew) was mentioned, and a similar Dutch bird name is extant. Hwilpe is obviously a sound-imitative (onomatopoeic, echoic) word, like curlew and, incidentally, like cur! This derivation of whelp has been offered by several excellent specialists. (As usual, I am giving no exact references. Anyone interested in the literature on whelp or any other word I discuss in this blog will find it in my Bibliography of English Etymology or may write me an email. Satisfaction guaranteed.)

In an indirect way, the echoic hypothesis of the origin of whelp finds confirmation from another direction. The Germanic word sounds like some words for “dog” in Semitic (Arabic kalbu, Hebrew keleb, and so forth; other transliterations also exist) and very much like the Germanic word for calf (I mentioned calf last week). Here, my earliest citation goes back to 1946, but perhaps the similarity was noticed much earlier. Two explanations for this fact suggest themselves. Either we are dealing with a very ancient word that was common to the speakers of Semitic and Indo-European or the coincidence is due to chance (all people invent nearly the same onomatopoeic complexes while imitating animal sounds). Borrowing from Semitic into Indo-European or from Indo-European into Semitic is less likely, though a migratory word of this type may have existed. I am severely temped to accept some such hypothesis, but proof is wanting. The mysterious whelp is, rather probably, a widely traveled yelper.

Solving an etymological riddle. (Image by Robert Gramner)

Finally, in Hittite, an Indo-European language once spoken in Anatolia, the word hwelpi– turned up, with the same meaning as whelp. Since Hittite is not a Germanic language, a cognate of whelp in it should have begun, with kw– (see above). What is the explanation? Are we reading another chapter in the history of migratory words? Or has an echoic word once again crossed our path? We’ll never discover the only correct answer, but at the end of the way, we seem to be better off than those who open a dictionary and are told that whelp is the name of a young dog, wolf, tiger, etc., but that, though its cognates occur in several Germanic languages, its origin is, alas, unknown.

This is the last post for 2020. I am alive and well, but during the holiday season, strategic planning in the OUP offices is, naturally complicated. We’ll meet again on the first Wednesday of 2021. I’ll continue the series “Baby names,” and, if everything goes well, in early March, we’ll celebrate the fifteenth anniversary of the weekly blog “The Oxford Etymologist.” But so far, we are in 2020, and, as usual at this time, I hasten to thank my hard-working editors, the readers of my essays, and our correspondents and wish them a happier, safer, and healthier New Year than the one we are now leaving behind.

Feature image by congerdesign

Recent Comments

  1. Margaret Catambay

    I am looking forward to 2021 and more on baby animal names!

    Happy Holidays to you all!

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