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The skin of etymological teeth

Like the previous post, this one owes its origin to a reader’s question. Is English skin related to Greek skēnḗ? Skēnḗ means “a sheltered place; tent; stage; scene,” and it is from scene that all of us know the word. Its origin is obscure (Latin had scēna and scaena), but, in any case, skēnḗ and skin cannot be reduced to the same etymon. Regardless of this fact, the story of skin and some other words, partly synonymous with it, is worthy of attention.

It may cause surprise how many words we have for “the outer covering of the body”: skin, hide, pelt, fell, leather, to say nothing of fleece, while a specialist in skin diseases is a dermatologist (from Greek dérma). Skin surfaced in English texts only in the eleventh century and meant “the hide of an animal stripped off,” a sense that should not be overlooked. If we want to discover the etymology of this word, we should know whether the reference was to the covering of a human body or to a fell, or perhaps to the way animal fells were used. However, in English, skin surfaced late. The Old English for “skin” was hȳd (Modern English hide). Judging by its cognates (Dutch huid, German Haut, and others), this was the oldest West Germanic name for “human skin.” Hide is related to Latin cutis “skin” (its root is the source of English cuticle) and Greek kútos “hide; husk; pod.” Apparently, the word referred to “covering, integument.”

Wolf in sheepskin, as it were. (Image by Francis Barlow.)

Since English skin is a borrowed word, it will tell us little about the sought-for etymology. The initial group sk– in Middle English must have come from Scandinavian (the native sc– would have become sh), and indeed Old Norse had skinn, which meant only “the hide of cattle.” The Old Norse sense may be secondary, but the line between the words for “human skin” and “the skin of an animal” was easy to cross; we’ll see that such is the usual case. Skin has a few related forms in German dialects. They mean “bark; the skin of fruit” and add nothing to what we already know. But the Old High German and Dutch verb (scindan, etc.) meant “to peel off, flay”; Modern German and Dutch still have the verb schinden, even though its meaning has changed somewhat. The original sense returns us to the question: “Whose skin did our word designate?”

In everyday life, our skin interests us to the extent that we protect it from wounds, burns, and diseases and in general take care of it (for example, cover it with tattoo), while animal skins (and fur) have been used for clothing and other purposes since the earliest times. People did not need borrowed words for “human skin,” but, if they learned how to flay animals or tan skins from their neighbors, the special term might be foreign; such is, for example, English tan (from Old English, from Medieval Latin, perhaps eventually from Celtic: note this last detail). Is skin also a loanword?

The most famous fleece in the world. (Image via Marie-Lan Nguyen.)

Unfortunately, the answer lies hidden in the depths of civilization, and language shows only one thing, namely, that the words for “human skin” and “animal pelt” tend to be used interchangeably. Perhaps the most astounding example is Russian kozha “skin,” derived (such is the recognized opinion of all specialists) from koza (stress on the second syllable) “goat.” If some of our readers are aware of the family name Koziol, let them have no illusions about its origin: it means “billy goat” (from Polish; the Russian word sounds almost the same).  It follows that in Slavic, at one time, goatskin acquired the meaning “skin (in general),” even though a word for “animal skin” also exists. Latin pellis meant both “skin” and “hide,” and so do its reflexes (continuations) in the modern languages: French peau and others. English speakers use skin, while referring to smaller (and younger) animals: goatskin, sheepskin, and so forth. Even though some of the words mentioned above have broad Indo-European connections (Latin pellis is related to English fell, while pelt is directly from French; and English hide is a cognate of Latin cutis—I’ll refrain from listing other cognates), the question—human or animal skin?—usually remains unanswered.

We have seen that in Germanic, the root of skin can be detected in the verb meaning “to flay, peel off.” This is a common situation. The root of Greek derma “skin” corresponds sound by sound to Old English teran “to tear.” (I am not sure whether I should remind our readers that ancient Germanic consonants underwent a shift: the old Indo-European p change to f—hence Latin pellis but English fell; k changed to what is now h: hence Latin cutis but English hide; d changed to t—hence Greek der– but English ter-, and so forth; the t ~ d correspondence in cutis ~ hide needs a longer explanation, with which, in this blog post, we can dispense.) Tearing, like peeling off, again makes us think of processing animal skins.

Take good care of your skin. (Image by Jayson Hinrichsen.)

What then is known about the etymology of skin? The answer is: very little. This rather isolated word has been traced to the root skenþ– “to cut,” but, as usual, the ancient root set up by linguists tells us nothing new about the history of the noun skin or the verbs related to it. In another attempt, the ancient root has been reconstructed as sek– (also with the meaning “to cut”). If this is correct, English saw “a cutting instrument,” from Old English saga, and section, straight from Romance, are related to it. English shin, allegedly, goes back to skei-, again “to cut.” Were there once, we wonder, three synonymous roots: skenþ, ske-i, and sek-? The first two look like variants of the same entity.

Outside Indo-European, only Celtic words resemble skin, and they mean approximately the same, but no one suggested that skin is a borrowing. The origin of the Celtic look-alikes is also unknown. Similar is the situation with leather: several Germanic cognates and a few Celtic words that match the Germanic ones. The attempts to explain how leather got its name (and this is of course the only question we want to ask) failed to bring convincing results, and I’ll let them be. No one knows whether the Celts taught their Germanic neighbors the production of leather (as happened to the use of iron and some niceties of jurisprudence) or whether the influence went in the opposite direction, or, finally, whether the word and the “thing” reached all of them from some outsiders. Skin does not seem to have an ascertainable Indo-European etymology. Yet our wanderings have not been quite fruitless. We have discovered that people tend to distinguish words for human and animal skin but constantly confuse them, and that the word for “skin” tends to be related to a verb meaning “to cut, to tear, to peel off.” Not much, but better than nothing.

Featured image via Pixabay

Recent Comments

  1. Gavin Wraith

    I thought the origin of ‘leather’ was Greek ‘dipthera’, from the verb ‘depho’ ( = I soften by kneading), becoming ‘littera’ in Etruscan.

  2. Constantinos Ragazas


    “English skin related to Greek skēnḗ?”

    Not likely that Greek, but likely “σκοινι” (rope). Attested in ancient Greek. Such “rope” made from the “skin” of certain trees and plants.
    This also relates to your association of “skin” with “bark” and “peel off”.

    You write,

    “Skin has a few related forms in German dialects. They mean “bark; the skin of fruit” and add nothing to what we already know. But the Old High German and Dutch verb (scindan, etc.) meant “to peel off, flay”; ”

    What do you say now?

  3. Bob Hepburn

    Thank you, Anatoly, for answering the question in such a substantive and fascinating way. Kudos!

Comments are closed.