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A mild case of etymological calf love

A Happier New Year! After a short break, the Oxford Etymologist begins with a post having the magic number 777. (Yes, since 1 March 2006, this blog series has appeared on the OUPblog 776 times.) A quick reminder: in December 2020, there were no “gleanings” (wait for the last Wednesday of this month). My topic was a farm inhabited by very small animals: one post bore the title “A Zoological Kindergarten” and the other “The Ubiquitous Whelp.”

These are all mothers and calves. (Image by Albert Bridge.)

In passing, I wrote that one day I might perhaps deal with calf. There was a reason I was not sure whether calf deserves a special essay. As far as I can judge, the origin of this word contains relatively few riddles, and in this blog, I prefer not to repeat what can be found in solid dictionaries and on reliable websites. But there is a hitch in relation to the frolicsome calf. When the letter C in OED was being put together, the etymology of calf remained almost unknown, and James A. H. Murray only listed a few indubitable cognates. In January 2021, calf remains unedited in OED Online, while The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology (1966) missed the later literature and repeated the original version. The same holds for the other calf (the calf of the leg), whose origin has also been discovered. Several later dictionaries do give part of the needed information but offer little discussion. That is why I decided to give calf a chance. Also, it may be reasonable to begin the year we rang in with such great hopes on a tranquil note: everything is clear, everybody is happy, and the etymology of all the seemingly impenetrable words has been found.

These are all mothers and calves. (Image by Kavyagupta100.)

Calf is a Common Germanic word, and it sounded almost the same in all the older languages. The Old English form was cealf, with ea going back to a, so that the form has not changed since Day One (only l has been lost in the middle). Dutch kalf, Modern German Kalb, and Danish kalf, to cite a few examples, are still recognizable as related to the English noun. Even the Gothic Bible, recorded in the fourth century, had kalb-o. The meaning of the old word has not changed either, but today, calf refers not only to the young of the cow: giraffes, whales, elephants, and many other large mammals also give birth to calves. Perhaps the same usage prevailed a thousand years ago (see below).

Emperor Galba
Emperor Galba. He reigned only one year and was not fat.

The vowels in our word’s root varied by ablaut. Old High German kilbur ~ kilburra meant “ewe,” apparently, with reference to that animal’s ability to give birth. If so, calf may have been a cover term for several young mammals even two thousand years ago. An exact cognate of Germanic kalb– is Latin Galba, a vulgar nickname (later an accepted cognomen), familiar from Roman history. The Romans believed that the word was of Celtic origin, and there is no reason to doubt their belief. Galba meant “pouch, fat belly.” Since outside Germanic, k corresponds to g, galba and calf are a perfect match. Latin globus also belongs here (the vowels vary by ablaut).

The ancient Indo-European root of our word appears to have been gal-, with -b being some sort of suffix, or “extension,” as such opaque suffixes are called in special works. If so, Gothic kil-þ-ei “womb, uterus” (þ = th, as in English thick) is related to cal-f. I mentioned kilþei in the post “An Etymological Kindergarten.” Its English cognate is child, another “young animal.” “Fat belly; womb” (and “the fruit of the womb”)—such are the words having the old root gel– ~ gal– (Germanic kel- ~ kal-). All such observations were made at the end of the nineteenth century and expanded in numerous works in the twentieth. Etymologists concluded that the root meant “swelling,” and this conclusion seems acceptable. I’ll skip one or two fanciful derivations of calf as being of no interest in the present context. Among the animal names usually listed as having this root, a few may not belong here, and perhaps the root gelb- ~ galb- had a variant beginning with gw. All such obstacles notwithstanding, calf, rather certainly, meant either “a round mass” or ”the fruit of a round mass” (that is, “womb”).

These are all mothers and calves. (Image by Herbert G. Ponting.)

We can now go on to calf of the leg. The word surfaced in English texts only in the fourteenth century and was believed to be a borrowing from Scandinavian (Old Norse kálfi; á designates a long vowel, but it is the product of later lengthening and won’t affect our reasoning). This conclusion looked plausible, because leg is certainly a loan from Scandinavian; it superseded the native name of the lower extremity, which was shank. But kálfi did not supersede anything. Similar-sounding words occur in the Modern Celtic languages (calpa and the like), and some researchers looked for Irish Gaelic as the source of English calf. However, Irish lp would not have become English lf. The borrowing must have gone in the opposite direction, the more so as the Celtic words have no ascertained origin.

These are all mothers and calves. (Image by Veronika Ronkos.)

Yet no such conjectures are needed. It may seem incredible but calf “the young of the cow” and calf “part of the leg” are two senses of the same word. Old Norse had kálf-r and kálf-i, and before concluding that the English noun was a borrowing, etymologists, naturally, asked how the Scandinavian words are related. They failed to find an answer and said that the origin of kálfi is unknown. But note the definition of calf, noun 2 in the OED: “the fleshy hinder part of the shank of the leg,” that is, again “a swelling, the bulging part of the body.” The connection seems strained only at first sight. Convincing analogs will dispel all doubts. Manx bolg designates “belly,” while balgane, literally “little belly,” means “calf of the leg.” George Hempl, a distinguished language historian, wrote an excellent article about such words as early as 1901 (Modern Language Notes XVI, 280-81).

These are all mothers and calves. (Image by Gozitano.)

An especially illuminating case is Russian ikra “roe, spawn of a fish” (stress on the second syllable) and (!) “calf of the leg.” The analogy is of course not between “shank” and “roe” but between two “swellings”: the organ that produces roe and the fleshy muscle of the leg. The Russian pair has exact analogs elsewhere in Slavic. In Dutch, too, kuit has the same two meanings as in Russian. Those interested in other similar cases will find them in several indigenous languages of Alaska: “roe” and “calf of the leg”; “roe” and “kidney” (International Journal of American Linguistics 51, 1985, p. 485).

The Slavic-Dutch-Alaskan case does not only provide us with a most interesting association. It clinches the entire deal. Calf did mean “a round mass,” as was suggested long ago, and it is no wonder that quite a few other animal names have the same root. To be sure, it would be good to know why a round mass or a swelling was called gal– by our distant Indo-European ancestors, for what do we gain when at the end of a long journey we triumphantly produce such a meager trophy as a monosyllabic unit endowed with a certain meaning? A sound-symbolic or sound-imitative complex? I am afraid we’ll never be able to go so far. This is where etymology stops, and vague, though not unprofitable, psychological musings begin.

Feature image by Natalia Kollegova

Recent Comments

  1. Maggie Catambay

    Welcome back to a better new year, too! What a delight to be greeted by the photos of baby animals and their moms.

    I happened to run across the Arabic word for “dog”—Kalb. I am guessing it is a loan word related to calf? Or is that too much of a stretch? I often get bamboozled by words that look alike!

  2. Stan smith

    Galb / globe?

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