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Coming to terms with recalcitrant kids and with mots populaires

A look at such English animal names as pig, cow, bull, bun (that is, bunny), cat, dog, tyke, horse, and quite a few others reveals a certain uniformity: their roots have always been monosyllabic (except for an occasional case ending), and dictionaries tend to call their origin unknown or uncertain. Does it follow that their etymology is as simple as bow-wow, oink-oink, as cluck-cluck? Surely, this is not the whole story. Also, camel and elephant are not reducible to animal cries. The same holds for English heifer, from heahfore, one of my favorites, because the neglect of it in etymological dictionaries inspired my work on the origin of English words more than twenty years ago. Those who have read the previous posts on calf and cub are also aware of the fact that the same sound complex often designates several animals. The initial meaning of such a complex might be something like “a soft, round creature (object).” From the history of camel and elephant we can see that many animal names are borrowings. Such loans from other languages do not have to be several syllables long, like hippopotamus, armadillo, and platypus. Cat seems to have reached Europe from Africa, and it is monosyllabic (once again: never mind an occasional ending) in the languages all over Europe. We’ll return to animal cries and migratory words some time later.

A chip off the old block. (Image by Sabine van Straaten.)

Kid, the subject of this blog post, has a few relatives outside English, but in an English text it appeared only around 1200, in a poem so strongly influenced by the language of the Scandinavians that the fact of borrowing is incontestable: kid is an import from Danish. Old Norse preserved kið (ð has the value of th in English this), and the Modern Danish form is kid. However, West Germanic also had this word, even though Old English lacked it, as evidenced by German Kitze “fawn” (!), going back to the oldest period.

Last time, in anticipation of today’s story, I wrote that old animal names are being constantly ousted by new ones. And indeed, the speakers of Old English called a kid ticcen. Though there was no great need to substitute a Scandinavian word for it, this is what happened. In ticcen, –en is a diminutive suffix (thus, a little ticc-). Apparently, ticc– meant “goat.” Modern German Ziege and Zicke continue this form (in addition, there is Zick-lein “kid”). I also noted that the names of small animals do not typically derive from the names of their parents (cow ~ bull versus calf, ewe/sheep ~ ram versus lamb, dog/bitch versus ~ whelp, and so forth, including of course cub), but for some reasons, the word for “kid” often has the same root as the name of its mother. In fourth-century Gothic, gait-s “goat” occurred, and the kid was called gait-ein (the same word with a diminutive suffix). A similar picture can be seen in Russian (koza ~ kozlyonok). To increase our amusement, we find Latin haedus “kid” (not “goat!”), an almost certain cognate of English goat and Gothic gaits.

Now, if Germanic gait– has the same root as goad, from gaid-, the goat may have received its name from its horns (a rather realistic fantasy). Were the insect tick and Old English ticcen also called this for their stinging “horns”? Possibly so. Some monosyllables might refer to concrete objects, rather than being mere verbal playthings, like cob, cub, cib, ceb (products of badly definable emotions?). One often witnesses the type of coining that falls under the denomination of “Language at Play.” Ticcen has the root tik– (cc, that is, the long consonant kk, is, like many geminates, a feature of emphasis), and kid– looks like tik– with its consonants reversed! One gets the impression that this game has no hard and fast rules.

Here you see a tick, a probable etymological sibling of the horned kid. (Image by
Erik Karits.)

Dialects provide us with an almost endless list of words like the ones mentioned above. Here, my source of information is an article by Felix Wortmann in the periodical Niederdeutsches Wort 4, 1964, 53-76. Wortmann borrowed numerous examples from Joseph Wright’s great English Dialect Dictionary, but some of them have universal currency: kid “seed vessel, etc.,” kipper ~ gib “salmon,” kib “a bone in the leg of a sheep,” gibby “children’s word for’ sheep’,” keb “sheep louse,” kit “a young hare,” chit “young of a beast; a very young person; potato shoot” (ch before i goes back to k), along with chi ~ chice ~ chiddick “a tiny bit,” chips and chitters “fragments,” and many others that are not connected with animals, small size, or cutting to pieces. The situation elsewhere in Germanic is the same.

In dictionaries, such words are discussed individually, though they make more sense as a group. This is the information we find in The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology. Chit: obscurely related to Old English cīþ “shoot, sprout, etc.” (þ = th in Engl. thick), with cognates elsewhere, from the root – “split.” Chip is not derived there from any root. Kipper is called a word of obscure history, perhaps related to Old English coppor “copper,” with allusion to the color of the male salmon. At kið, the main etymological dictionary of Old Icelandic mentions the derivation from a call to the animal as the most plausible hypothesis. The idea that we are dealing with the root kī- (this hypothesis goes back to the nineteenth century) is called less persuasive. In the most recent etymological dictionary of German (at Kitz), the root kid-, with the emphatic variant kitt-, is cited. Klaas Heeroma, a distinguished Dutch scholar, wrote in 1944 an article on emotional words and preferred to trace kid to the root meaning “a thick formless mass.”

Such is the state of the art. I am not suggesting that individual words of this type do not deserve attention. A bird’s-eye view of probably a hundred nouns won’t reveal their etymology in one fell swoop, but a few conclusions seem obvious. First, referring animal names to the words used to call such animals is not wrong, but unsafe. If someone calls a pussycat by saying puss-puss-puss, we cannot know which came first: the name or the call. And what did people say to kids a thousand years ago? Alas, those kids and callers are all dead. Nor would they have been able to provide an answer. Second, the idea of an Indo-European or Germanic root from which such words arose is based on circular reasoning. Indeed, some complex like ki– or kī can be “abstracted” from a multitude of nouns vaguely belonging together, but we have no way of showing that they derived from this reconstructed root. (The same logical error mars the reconstruction of all old roots.) Finally, it appears that, in coining words for small animals, small children, and small objects, people, perhaps rather arbitrarily choose certain sound complexes and play with them, without caring for so-called sound laws. Some such words must be mildly sound-symbolic or sound-imitative, but neither the symbolism nor the imitation is obvious enough in kid, cub, cild “child,” and so forth, for us to draw definite conclusions. Perhaps such multitudes first appeared arbitrarily and later became models for more coinages.

These are all kids. (Image by Lukas.)

Etymologists often cite words like kid and calf in non-Indo-European, especially Semitic, languages (the same sound shape and the same or similar meaning, though, as we have seen, meanings are unstable here). This fact suggests neither a great language unity in the past nor multiple borrowings. It more probably points to near-universal psychological impulses in calling small, especially round, creatures all over the world (as Wilhelm Oehl might have suggested; I often refer to his interesting but largely neglected work on “elementary word creation”).

Kid “child” used to be low slang, and the details of its history are obscure. Most likely, in dialects, the word always had a broad range of meanings (“little goat,” “any little animal,” “child”). The amazing fact is not the emergence of this sense, but its acceptance and triumph in the language of the educated class.

Recent Comments


    I note that newspapers no longer use the words Mother, Father, Child but Mum, Dad, Kid. Is this a drive to promote infantility, or simply language-change?

  2. Constantinos Ragazas


    “elephant” and “hippopotamus” are clearly Greek. And likely also “goat” from “γιδι” (goat).

    Thought you ought to know!


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