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Folklore and etymology: imps and elves (or COVID-19 and backpain)

With everybody talking about vaccines and shots, I thought it might be proper for me to contribute the etymologist’s mite to the discussion. I won’t say anything new or controversial, but the facts described below may not be universally known.

The German for “to give a shot, to vaccinate” is impf-en (-en is the ending of the infinitive). Impf– is an exact cognate of English imp. How can it be? Many centuries ago, impfen (in a slightly different phonetic form) appeared in Old High German as a borrowing of Medieval Latin impotāre “to graft.” Latin impotus, itself a borrowing from Greek, meant “graft”; Greek émphutos designated “grafted, implanted.” In German, the verb became a term of winemaking and horticulture and acquired the sense “to improve the quality of wine by bunging the vessel.” Centuries later, the term began to be used for “vaccination”: thus, from “corking a bottle” to “administering a shot.”

Devilish overtones galore. (Image by Simon Blocquel.)

It is the sense “graft” that determined the development of the same Latin verb in English. The Old English noun impe ~ impa meant “sapling, young shoot” (shoot: compare shot in the arm!). Later, sapling broadened its meaning and began to designate “child.” The train of thought is predictable: compare sap “juice,” the root of sapling “young tree” and still later “young person,” as in Shakespeare; scion also first meant “shoot, slip, graft.” With time, the word imp “sapling” acquired the sense “the child of the Devil” and still later “mischievous child.” Yet the devilish overtones in this ancient word have never been lost. Obstinate children and troublesome youngsters often get bizarre names. Thus, “urchin” goes back to “hedgehog” (French hérisson). Poor stickly-prickly hobbledehoys!

The origins of elves

I wonder how many people have heard the word elfshot. It means “lumbago, backpain.” Imps are the Devil’s children, but why elves? Forget Shakespeare’s elves, the creatures that merged in oral tradition with the fairies of the ancient Celts (hence fairy tales, which, at least today, have nothing to do with fairies). We are interested in Germanic elves. The old Scandinavians knew a good deal about them, but we know relatively little, even though dozens of good articles and books have been written about their nature and origin. Our most important source is Edda, a brilliant summary of ancient tales written in the thirteenth century by the Icelandic politician, poet, and antiquarian Snorri Sturluson. By his time, the ancient elf-lore must have fallen into desuetude, for in his work we find only a short passage about the elves’ “home,” called Álfheim (the Icelandic for “elf” was alfr, later álfr; á designates long a; please keep in mind this information). Snorri wrote this about their habitat: “…there live the people called light elves, but the dark elves live down in the earth and they are unlike the others in appearance and much more so in character. The light elves are fairer than the sun to look upon, but the dark elves, blacker than pitch.”

An early Danish edition of Snorri’s book. (Via Wikimedia Commons.)

Snorri was a great master of talking freely and saying little. Clearly, he had nothing to say in addition to the fact that, according to his information, light and dark elves existed. This is surprising, because belief in elves is very much alive even in today’s Iceland, and from the sagas we learn that the elves were venerated, that sacrificial food was left for them, that they protected the land and its inhabitants, and that some kings were associated with their cult. (The name Olaf has nothing to do with elf.) Much to our confusion, old and modern folklore has preserved the names of numerous supernatural beings resembling one another and endowed with similar functions. All of them belong to what specialists call lower mythology. Dwarfs were especially conspicuous, while elves appear in the extant tales of the Germanic-speaking peoples sporadically, and we are unable to produce a coherent picture of their role. Not improbably, their original habitat was under the ground and they seem to have been associated with the cult of the dead. Yet it comes as a surprise that in the constantly recurring formula of Old Scandinavian poetry, elves are paired with one family of the gods.

Naturally, scholars tried to derive the function of the elves from the root of Old Icelandic alfr, Old High German alba (Modern German Alp ~ Alpe), Old English elf ~ ylf, etc. I have often mentioned the greatest difficulty of etymological reconstruction: one cannot discover the origin of the word without knowing the function of the “thing.” Even when the application of the material object (such as an ax, a sword, a knife) or the nature of a movement (“go,” “sit,” “cut”) is absolutely clear, the names are not in a hurry to reveal the secret of their creation. Since the role of the elves is far from obvious (to us), the chance of guessing the etymology of elf is not high.

Two hypotheses compete in this area. One tentatively connects elf with the Sanskrit name of a semi-divine artificer. This is an old hypothesis and the only one tentatively mentioned in The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology (1966). The connection is impeccable from the phonetic point of view, but, as far as we can judge, Germanic elves were not artificers. Though that dictionary defines elf as “dwarf,” elves and dwarfs seem to have differed, at least in Scandinavian myths, for only dwarfs were great artisans (they produced all the treasures the gods possessed). The other etymology looks for the solution in Latin albus “white” and in place names like Albion. The connection is tempting only because Snorri knew something about white elves. It also remains unclear whether elves were ever believed to dwell in the Alps. Old English word lists did mention mountain elves but along with forest and sea elves. Elf must have become a generic term for “dangerous supernatural being.” The famous Erlking (Goethe-Schubert’s Erlkönig) means “the king of the elves”; he inhabited a forest.

Elves are very much alive in today’s Iceland. (Image via Piqsels.)

Wherever the truth may be, elves were feared (hence the necessity to sacrifice to them!). The German word Alptraum (-traum “dream”) means “nightmare” (-mare “incubus”). Consequently, elves attacked humans in sleep. But then all (all!) the invisible spirits of the remotest past inspired dread. The gods made people giddy, dwarfs (if the etymological connection is right) made them dizzy, and elves, well, elves could do a lot of harm. They could sit on a human being’s breast at night (as we have just seen), and they could also shoot! Hence elfshot, Old English ylfa gesceot. This runs counter to the rather benevolent picture of the Scandinavian elves that emerges from Snorri and the Icelandic sagas.

A last piece of nastiness comes from phonetics. English must have borrowed Scandinavian álf(r) “elf” early, because such borrowings usually occurred in the Middle period. Yet the first recorded forms of oaf, the descendant of álfr, go back to the 1620s. The word’s phonetic development remains unclear, and no book on the history of English explains when l was lost in it and why its au alternated with oa ~ ou. The loss of l before f did not happen in oaf regularly, “by law,” as it did in calf and half. In any case, after the loss of l, oaf no longer resembled elf, the more so because in seventeenth-century English, oaf meant “a changeling left by the elves” and only by implication, “dolt, halfwit,” rather than “elf.”

Here ends our journey from imp to oaf. Stay away from both and get vaccinated.

Featured image by US Government Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Recent Comments

  1. Richard Hollick

    Why with more than one elf do we find elves, while with dwarf we get dwarfs?

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