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Going out on a limb

Etymologists traditionally deal with two situations. They may face an impenetrable word, approach its murky history from every direction, and fail to find a convincing solution (or even any solution: “origin unknow,” “the rest is unclear,” and the like). But equally often they deal with a group of words that seem to be related, and yet the nature of the relationship is hard or impossible to demonstrate. Demonstrate is a more appropriate term than prove since proof is a rare commodity in etymology. Such groups are particularly instructive to investigate. I have long been interested in a possible connection between limp (adjective), limp (verb), and lump. Limp1 and limp2 surfaced in English late (they did not exist even in the Middle period), but, judging by one old compound, the verb or the adjective was known in the language at least a thousand years ago. The compound limphalt “lame” (given here in modernized form: with regard to halt, compare the halt and the lame) does not make it clear which limp is meant, because “wanting in firmness, floppy” and “to walk lamely,” with regard to their references, are close.

To coin a word with the root l-mp was apparently easy. In the sixteenth century, English lump “to look sulky” appeared, and much later to lump at “to be displeased at something” turned up: a verb “of symbolic sound,” as The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology tells us. (Incidentally, dialectal English lump “to beat” also exists.) What is symbolic about lump? Sure enough, it rhymes with clump and slump (more about which anon, as they used to say in Shakespeare’s days), dump, grump (the root of grumpy), hump, plump, stump, thump, and trump “trumpet,” all of which seem to be expressive or soundimitative. Is the assumption about lump “to be displeased” safe? This is an important question, because, if at least one English word pronounced lump is “symbolic,” can limp also be such?

Old English limpan meant “to happen; correspond, etc.” In the modern languages, we recognize this root in German glimpflich “mild”; g- is the remnant of the old prefix ge– (today, the German adjective is used mainly in the phrase glimpflich davonkommen “to come out unscathed”). On another grade of ablaut, Middle High German lampen “to hang loosely” seems to belong here (by the way, gilimpf was also said about things hanging down together). Amazingly, Sanskrit lámbate means “hangs down.” It is amazing because a word seemingly limited to West Germanic has such an exact counterpart in Sanskrit, bypassing Greek, Latin, and the entire Romance-speaking world.

Limping indeed! (Image © David Dixon, CC BY-SA 2.0.)

To be sure, if all such words are expressive (“symbolic”), they can be written off as examples of “primitive creation,” to which I often refer in connection with the almost forgotten but valuable works of the Swiss linguist Wilhelm Oehl (he called this process elementare Wortschöpfung). Once we agree that l-m-p is a root denoting things suspended, shaky, and the like, all our worries are at an end. To limp and the adjective limp will easily fall into the pattern. But haven’t we made a shortcut? Perhaps not.

Let us return to lump. German Lumpen means “rag” and is known to many from the word Lumpenproletariat “lower orders, impoverished and not interested in class struggle,” a pejorative term made popular around the world by Marx and Engels. Well, rags certainly “hang loosely.” A cognate of Lumpen, namely lomp “rag,” has been known in Dutch texts since the seventeenth century. According to at least one opinion worth considering, lump ~ lomp ~ lamp are nasalized forms of the root we can see in the Modern English noun lap, now remembered mainly from the noun lapel (whose formation and stress inspire nothing but surprise) and the phrase in the lap.

A limp limb may be a virtue. (Image by Tomqj, CC0.)

Thus, lu-m-p seems to have emerged as a root with a nasal infix (m, like n, is indeed a nasal consonant). Such an infix is not a ghost conjured up for the sake of this essay. It appears in the formation of numerous Indo-European verbs and elsewhere. Some of the anthologized examples of n, now present now absent, are Latin vincere “to conquer” (compare English invincible), as opposed to its past participle victus (as in English victor, victory, victim, convict, evict, etc.), and winter, believed to be related to water and wet (an etymology always cited as an argument that the people who coined the word winter lived in a region with a moderate climate).

Those who expect the evidence of lap to supply a dazzling brilliance to the obscurity of lump (sorry for borrowing Dickens’s diction wholesale) will be disappointed. Indeed, lap has cognates all over Germanic and, quite probably, even in Greek. But an array of similar forms does not amount to an etymology, and we still wonder how lump ~ limp were coined. Lump reminds us of clump and clamp, whose so-called ultimate origin is also enveloped in darkness. Dutch klomp means “lump.” Surprisingly, most words being discussed here point to Low German (that is, northern) and Dutch. Perhaps they were indeed coined in that area and spread far and wide, but nearly all of them were recorded rather late, have a colloquial, sometimes even slangy tinge, and could have arisen at practically any time. In the sixteenth and the seventeenth century, the European languages adopted numerous colloquial words (mots populaires, as they are called in French), and their form returns us to the material that interested Wilhelm Oehl (primitive creation).

In the lap of luxury. (Image by Louis Hansel.)

Is, then, lump “symbolic”? Or, to ask this question in a different way: did people say lump, limp, klomp, and the like because those sound complexes evoked the idea of something unfastened, hanging freely, flapping, flopping, slapping, slipping, slopping, and so forth? Quite possibly so, even though it is hard or even impossible to explain the nature of the association. I tried to get help from the entry slump in The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology, and this is what I found: “Of symbolic origin, like clump, lump, plump.” Thus, plump, adjective and verb, also joins the club. The word is again from Middle Dutch. Incidentally, the great linguist Otto Jespersen thought that Latin plumbum “lead” (metal, “a word of obscure origin”) was sound-imitative: one throws a heavy piece of lead into the water, and it goes “plum” down. It would be worthwhile to discuss in this context the origin of limb (lim-b), but an additional paragraph will not add anything of substance to what has been said above, and I’ll dispense with it. Wherever we look, we find the same answer. Is closing the circle the name of the process?

Quite probably, the idea that limp, lump, clump, slump, and the rest are formations of onomatopoeic or sound-symbolic origin is correct, and I would like to repeat the suggestion I have often made in this blog. It appears that etymological dictionaries should combine two formats. Some words require serious discussion, bibliographical references, and all, while others should be lumped together in a longer entry, because they form a group, and their history becomes clearer when they are treated as a group. In a way, words are like people at work: each of us needs a CV, but not everyone deserves a biography.

Next week, I hope to address another group of the same type.

Olympus. Origin unknown. It has nothing to do with our story. Neither does galumph. (Image by Deensel, CC BY 2.0.)

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  1. […] enigmatic are the ties that were the object of my recent post (21 April 2021): the wanderings from limp to lump and Dutch lomp “rag” and of all […]

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