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Etymology gleanings for December 2020 and January 2021

There were no gleanings in December, not because the soil was frozen hard but because of the break in the world’s activities during the holiday season. Except for the most recent post (idioms from India), my winter posts were devoted to the names of baby animals. Such names often defy etymologists’ efforts, because they are so simple: kid, cub, bunny, and so forth. They seem to be (and probably are) “rootless”: just arbitrary syllables (some say cub, some say cob, while others prefer cat or bun). Most surfaced in print late and refer to several creatures. They resemble or really are baby words. Perhaps some of them were indeed coined only three or four hundred years ago (language creativity never stops), but they could equally well be three or four thousand years old. That is why I wrote that impulses behind word formation never change. This statement surprised one of our readers. However, if we assume that most “natural” words are, at least to some degree, sound-symbolic and/or sound-imitative (onomatopoeic), such monosyllabic complexes as kob, kab, keb, kub, kid, kat, and their likes must have arisen again and again in the course of language history, even if every time they were tied to different objects.

Another reader said that everything in creation and in language begins with sounds. Who will disagree? But both God and the Devil are in the details. I often refer to the works to the Swiss etymologist Wilhelm Oehl, whose works are full of what is called thought-provoking statements, but a bird’s-eye view is good only for the origin of huge groups of words, dealt with in one fell swoop. Nostratic linguistics, a branch of etymology developed by knowledgeable and talented scholars, has discovered such obvious ties among the words of seemingly unconnected language groups that the idea of their common origin suggests itself. But many details, those great spoilers, remain unexplained. My tireless Romanian colleague Ion Carstoiu has collected numerous lists of words showing that the same idea underlies the names of certain objects all over the world (the sun, for example), but every time I look at the recorded history of the Germanic, Romance, and Slavic words I happen to know, I find a host of unanswered questions. Our regular correspondence goes many years back.

Here are two examples inspired by the comments of our readers. English calf resembles the Arabic (I should add: Common Semitic) word for “dog.” As mentioned several weeks ago, this is a well-known fact. The reconstructed proto-root kwalb- ~ kwelb- will easily produce both the Semitic words and English calf and whelp. Those interested in this connection and in many others of the same type will find pages and pages of interesting examples in, for example, Albert Cuny’s book Invitation à l’étude comparative des langues indo-européennes et des langues chamito-sémitiques, 1946 (the dogwhelpcalf connection is on p. 110/4; providentially, I once indexed this book for my purposes). If this root existed, did it mean “something round”? Perhaps, though we may be dealing with a migratory word, rather than a common root. The Semitic-Indo-European connection has been explored in many pre- and post-1946 books.

A quarrel of etymological siblings. (Images by L: Miguel Ángel Díaz Magister, R: Daniel Lincoln.)

Another reader wondered whether globe belongs here. Quite possibly so. Globe is a Romance word, related to Latin glēba (the source of English glebe), from the earlier glaeba. The root is believed to have meant “to roll up into a ball; to stick together.” English clump (from German) and cleave “to stick fast” seem to belong here too. The more words we include, the vaguer the contours of the picture become.

A bunny of unknown origin. (Image by Erik-Jan Leusink.)

This conclusion is borne out by trying to discover the origin of English bun(ny), which aroused the curiosity of one of our constant readers. My favorite statement about this word will be found in Henry Cecil Wyld’s The Universal Dictionary of the English Language: “Suggested etymologies appear improbable and to be mere desperate shots.” People of Wyld’s, Walter W. Skeat’s, and James A. H. Murray’s caliber could afford such statements, but hardly anyone else. Bunny is of course bun with a diminutive suffix. The entire bun-/bin– group is an etymological nightmare. Bun “a sweet bread” turned up in English texts in the fourteenth century. Then comes our animal name. At first, that is, in the sixteenth century, it meant “squirrel” (as it still sometimes does in American English), but now it mainly refers to the rabbit. Origin unknown. The same word as bun “bread”? When one deals with monosyllabic complexes, there is a suspicion that we have found chance coincidences. Bunch, along with hunch (as in hunchback) and dialectal clunch, is obscure. Bunt “to push” and bunt “part of a sail” fare no better. Bung is from Dutch, but the Dutch word has doubtful antecedents. Icelandic bunga means “swelling” and is a borrowing from Low German, but it is related to several words beginning with bing– and having the same meaning. And what about binge? There is dialectal binge “to soak a wooden vessel.” It is anybody’s guess whether binge (“heavy drinking”), which emerged from slang, is related to this binge.

The prototypical bun? (Image by Florian Klauer.)

Why did Dickens call Oliver Twist’s tyrant Bumble? He may have associated this embodiment of pomposity with the idea of being inflated. But what word suggested this association to him? Or did he think of bumblebee, a pernicious buzzer? (The word bumblebee developed from humblebee!) Sound-imitative? Incidentally, English bun also means “a dry stalk,” a cognate, a twin, or a borrowing of Irish bun “stock, root.” These are wanderings in an etymological desert, unless we give up and say that the sound complex bun (with the variants bum, bin, and a few others like them) made speakers think of rotundity, swelling, or a dull sound (thud) and produced similar words in the Germanic, Celtic, and Romance languages. Thus may the names of rabbits, sweet bread, and other objects have come into being. Such a conclusion will perhaps satisfy our reader who asked why so many sn– and sk– words tend to refer to similar concepts. See also the post for May 1, 2019 and the post on snout—sniff—sneeze. Returning to the beginning of today’s essay, let me repeat: this is what I meant by the eternal impulses of word formation and why I referred to Wilhelm Oehl with his idea of elementary, or primitive, creation. But in any case, the possibility of multiple borrowing by English from French or Celtic is always open.

To some of the letters I replied privately. Greek koutabi “cub” is, apparently, a post-Classical noun and a coinage not related to cub. But one question I cannot answer. English plum is an etymological doublet of prune, because Latin prūn-um is the source of this word in all the Germanic languages. The change of final n to m is usually referred to assimilation: initial p is labial, and now final m is also labial (moderately convincing; the same holds for the suggested influence of the Greek form proûmno). Surprisingly, not a single historical grammar or etymological dictionary explains the much more visible change, namely of pr– to pl-. Dutch has pruim (a similar form occurs in some German dialects)! But German (Pflaume) and all the Scandinavian languages have pl– (Old Icelandic plōma, and so forth). The same variation (r ~ l) has been occasionally recorded elsewhere. Thus, the German for “church” is Kirche, but in some southern dialects, the form is Kilche. Naturally, an analogy does not explain anything. The statement that r and l often substitute for each other will not account for the history of the word plum as related to prune either. Perhaps some of our readers will offer an explanation!

Feature image via Pixabay

Recent Comments

  1. Constantinos Ragazas

    “Greek koutabi “cub” is, apparently, a post-Classical noun and a coinage not related to cub.”

    Really? Convince us… What is better than that?

    What about “goat” from Greek “gidi”?

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