Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Etymology gleanings for February 2021

As usual, many thanks to those who commented on the posts and sent me letters with questions.

Skin and leather

Looking for Greek nouns beginning with sk– and declaring them to be the possible etymons of skin is an unprofitable occupation. For most words one can build a shaky semantic bridge to a similar-sounding word in any other language. The requirement to find strict phonetic correspondences serves as a barrier to bizarre etymologies. No word in Greek looks like a cognateor the source of skin.

The story of leather shows how unconvincing the search for fanciful phonetic correspondences may be. Once again, we probably encounter a technical term (see the post for 17 February 2021). It was (and is still) known all over the Germanic-speaking world. There is no attestation in Gothic, but the vocabulary of fourth-century Gothic is limited, because only parts of the New Testament in that language have come down to us. Secure Celtic cognates of leather exist, and, naturally, two hypotheses have been put forward: either the Germanic word was taken over from the more industrially advanced Celts, or the source in both groups is an unknown language (in this case, a dead-end hypothesis). Several historical linguists suggested that the ancient root began with p-. A form like pletro– would of course be perfect (Greek and Latin cognates galore: pella, pellis, etc.; related to them is English fell “hide”), but this root is fiction: there was no pletro-. A slightly less adventurous etymology refers leather to Latin lēvis “light,” with reference to a smooth object; yet the sounds and senses match poorly. “Origin unknown.” I may perhaps repeat the rule I formulated for myself many years ago: the more imaginative the derivation, the lower the chance that it is correct. Here is an unrelated query: Why skin bag? Where is the line between skin and leather? Dictionaries almost erase the difference between the two words.

This is a skin bag. Why is it not called a leather bag? (Image by Hailey Moeller.)

Sheela-na-gig

Dr Aidan Doyle (University College, Cork) informed me after the publication of my essay on Sheela-na-gig (see the post for 10 February 2021) that Irish speakers connect gig with a word for “breast.” Since I am not a specialist in Irish, I could have no independent opinion about this controversial phrase and only repeated what I had read in other people’s works. Yet I tried to provide a context for monosyllabic words like gig. Much to my relief, Irish scholars did not tear me to pieces, though, according to Dr Doyle, it might have happened, considering how often and how vehemently the phrase is discussed in Ireland. If gig means “breast,” fine, but I find it strange that “breast” refers to the image of an enlarged vulva. As a character in a Scandinavian myth used to say: “Let others decide.” However, eventually, that character came to grief.

Foreign and forensic

The words are indeed related. The starting point is Latin forēs “outside doors,” the plural of foris “door” (by the way, door and foris are related Indo-European words). Foreign (from Latin, via Old French) means “staying outside.” Latin forum referred not only to a marketplace but also to a place of assembly for judicial and other business. Hence forensic “pertaining to the forum or courts of law.” Rather unexpectedly, forest is part of the same nest (“outside tract”).

Forensic eloquence. (Image by George Cruikshank.)

Have I ever thought of herring and halec?

Surprisingly, I have! The problem is that since 1 March 2006, I have written close to 800 posts. All of them can be found in my computer, but there is no index, and I often cannot remember whether a certain word has been discussed in my blog. But I did recover herring: see the post for 11 July 2012. Latin (h)al(ē)x is mentioned there. The two words have once been compared, but they are not connected. The etymology of the fish name is obscure (see also Roland Schumann’s comment on that post). The name of the fish sauce may have been borrowed from Greek, but the vowels do not match too well. If we are dealing with a word that was current mainly among the “lower classes” or in popular culture, the initial form is particularly hard to reconstruct.

Why elves but dwarfs?

At the University of Minnesota, I teach, among many other things, Scandinavian myths. Dwarfs play an outstanding role in those myths, and I have a good deal to say about them. If I mention dwarfs, somebody always asks me why not dwarves, and, if, full of contrition, I switch to the voiced fricative, some malcontent hastens to pull me back. The consonant f was voiced before the ending e; hence thieves, wives, twelve versus thief, wife, twelfth, and so forth. (Note that language is quite sensitive to grammar: compare wives and wife’s, though both once had v before e.) Such are also wharves, shelves, and wolves. However, some vacillation remains: scarfs competes with scarves. Dwarfs seems to have been a predominant form for a long time. But Tolkien used dwarves, and, possibly because of the immense popularity of his books, the form with v took over. I grew up with seven dwarfs and prefer this variant.

Thievery

A thief in the night. (Image by TheDigitalWay.)

After the previous discussion of forms like thief’s versus thieves, my next item will look perfectly natural. I have been asked to explore the etymology of words like thief, steal, and pilfer. Both thief and steal are obscure. On thief see the post for 3 April 2013. Steal resembles Greek steréō, but why should a Common Germanic verb endowed with such an ignoble meaning have been borrowed, and why from Greek? To be sure, thieves’ cant is often international, and some words are garbled, to become incomprehensible to outsiders, or change their form under the influence of taboo. But the verb is old (it was known to the Goths and occurred in the Bible as one of the two synonyms meaning “to steal,” so that it could hardly be low slang). The other etymology is not much better. Pilfer and pelf are both from French, but their origin is again unknown. One thing is certain: their association with pillage is late. The other Gothic verb (hlifan) was an exact cognate of the Greek one: we know its root from English kleptomania. Steal needn’t mean only to “take without permission”: it may and often does refer to the “stealthy” nature of the act.

Odds and ends

  • L’ouvert as the source of Louvre is out of the question. This derivation would ruin the obvious connection between louver/Louvre and lobby ~ lodge. Also, final t was not lost in Old French. One should admire early seventeenth-century etymologies with caution.
  • A correspondent found several new possible cognates between Sanskrit and Proto-Canaannite. Indo-European-Proto-Semitic convergencies are always possible, but I am not a specialist and cannot judge how valid the examples are.
  • Can the word bed (from badjō-) have anything to do with a certain Egyptian hieroglyph? I think in this case, Egyptian should be better left alone. At least nothing I know about this subject (see my post for 10 June 2015) makes me think that there is a connection. Yet I would like to thank our correspondent for a kind assessment of my old essay.

Featured image by Bert Kaufmann

Recent Comments

  1. Constantinos Ragazas

    Anatoly,

    “No word in Greek looks like a cognate—or the source of skin.”

    There is a very probable connection here between the Greek “σκοινι” (rope made of the “skin” of certain plants) and the English “skin”. Of course, the “skin” of plants is like the “skin” of humans. No dispute there.

    No other etymology comes close to “skin” than this!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *