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Monthly gleanings for March 2021

Some of the letters I received deserve detailed answers; hence the length of this post. I once wrote a series of essays on the origin of the word bad (24 June , 8 July, and 15 July 2015). Today, considering the responses to part three, I would have written a few things differently. Anyway, our reader noticed that I had mentioned the word evil and wondered whether I know the origin of that adjective and of the word wicked.


This word has cognates elsewhere in West Germanic and in the fourth-century Gothic translation of the New Testament, but not in Old Norse, though some Scandinavian words sound similar and may be related. Dutch euvel, German übel, and Gothic ubils are three easily recognizable cognates of evil (Old English yfel). It is not clear whether ubil– (s is an ending) constitutes an entire root or whether we have ub– with the suffix -il. Those who preferred to treat ubil– as an indivisible morpheme cited a few similar-sounding Celtic words, but the status of such vague look-alikes is dubious, and the view of il as a suffix carries more conviction.

What then is the meaning of the root ub– if it ever existed? Perhaps it is the same as in the prepositions (adverbs) over, German über, and so forth. Then (whatever the function of the suffix –il, related to –il in Latin, as in agilis “agile,” fragilis “fragile,” etc.), evil referred to “going over the top, exceeding due limits,” something like English overweening “presumptions, thinking too much of oneself” (ween “to think; suppose; expect”). This etymology is acceptable. Epithets deteriorate easily, and the distance from “tyrannical” to “evil” is not long.

Overweening, but not evil. (Image by Grant Ritchie.)

But there is another approach to evil. Middle English had the adjective evel, apparently, an old word, which, like its Middle High German cognate evel, meant “proud, haughty.”  The German word can still be detected in the noun Frevel “sin; crime,” corresponding to Old English frævel ~ frevel “cunning, sly; arrogant.” Those words would then have the prefix fr– and the root cognate with Old English afol “strength, might.” The semantic change looks the same in both cases (from “mighty” to “evil”).

I am not sure who offered the second hypothesis, but my earliest reference to it is in a 1911 paper by the once extremely active and distinguished American historical linguist Francis A. Wood. The Indo-European etymological dictionary by Walde-Pokorny accepted it, and so did Ferdinand Holthausen, the author of the only etymological dictionary of Old English, but he, like Walde-Pokorny, reproduced the hypothesis of evil from ev-il. It seems that frevel and evil may be covered by the same explanation. Elmar Seebold, the latest editor of Kluge’s German etymological dictionary, doubts the connection between evil and over ~ über but offers no discussion.


A wicked wicca? (Image by Ray_Shrewsberry)

Although this adjective surfaced in texts only in the Middle English period, it must be old, because of its obvious ties with Old English wicca “wizard,” the masculine partner of wicce “witch.” The meaning of the root is not known. The idea that witch ~ wicked is related to a verb meaning to “turn away” (as Walter W. Skeat and several others thought) is not particularly attractive.

Both evil and wicked are hard words to etymologize. Yet ill is much harder, and I may devote a post to it sometime soon.


Another letter concerned the noun sward. See the posts for 27 May and 3 June 2020. I compared sword and sward. Our correspondent asked whether anyone had been interested in the origin of sward for its own sake. The most  detailed discussion can be found in the Norwegian etymological dictionary by Hjalmar Falk and Alf Torp (its German version Norwegisch-dänisches etymologisches Wörterbuch has the advantage that more people outside Scandinavia can read it and that in addition to some corrections, it has a German word index), pp. 1222 and 1561. In English, only a page in Robert A. Fowkes’s paper in the journal Language 21, 1945: 345-46, is known to me. Fowkes supported the idea that the root of sward meant “to cover.” None of those researchers compared sward and sword. My suggestions will be found in the post for June 3.


In the post titled “An Etymologist is Not a Lonely Hunter” (12 February 2020), I discussed the origin of the verb hunt. A recent comment returned me to it. Can hunt be related to hound? The similarity is striking, and Friedrich Kluge, the author of the most important etymological dictionary of German (see evil, above), never gave up the idea of deriving hound (Old English hund) and hunt from the same root. But his posthumous editors removed this comparison. The problem is that neither word has a definitive etymology, and in historical linguistics, making one unknown entity support another never yields convincing results. Hound is especially obscure, even though its cognates exist all over the Indo-European world. The alleged common root meaning “to seize,” which fits hand, hardly fits hund “hound,” that is, “dog,” and the derivation of hunt from hund is out of the question.

Running with the hare and hunting with the hounds. (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

Greek thraúō “break” and English trash

They cannot go back to the same root. Trash is a very late word in English. The relation between t and th, if the words were cognate, would have been reverse, and short a (ă) does not alternate with au by ablaut.

The Future in the Past

The reference is to the post for 17 March 2021. I have received two letters objecting to my interpretation and a comment (among others) referring to Thorleif Boman’s book Hebrew Thought Compared with Greek. I know the book and at one time read part of it in its German original but now looked through the relevant sections again. Boman discusses the way of thinking about time: spatial versus temporal. He also mentions the ambiguity of some of our expressions. Indeed, before may refer to what is in front of us (as in Byron’s: “I see before me the gladiator lie”) and to what is behind (as in Before Adam, the title of a novel by Jack London) but did not touch on the meaning of the enigmatic Germanic word that could allegedly mean both “yesterday” and (rarely) “tomorrow.”

In fourth-century Gothic (see the post), the word gistra-dagis, a counterpart of English yester-day, was once used to gloss (translate) aúrion, apparently, “tomorrow.” Yet, at least from a folk-etymological point of view, the Greek word consists of the adverb (particle) “further; once again” and the noun ríon “mountain peak; headland, promontory.” To the Greeks of even the Homeric period it must have meant “tomorrow” only because it pointed to some faraway object. And this is probably how Wulfila understood it. Gothic gistra– corresponds letter by letter to Latin hesternus “belonging to yesterday.” The reference must have been to any “adjoining day.” Karl Brugmann (see his portrait in the post) explained the situation well but, to my mind, did not go far enough; the situation puzzled him. The occasional translation of Old Icelandic í gær as “tomorrow,” in addition to “yesterday,” is misleading: the reference is to some other day. Only Modern Scandinavian i går means “yesterday” in our sense of this adverb.

No Common Indo-European word for “tomorrow” existed, and those in individual languages were descriptive phrases (like the Greek one), referring to the “day to come.” Some were etymologically impenetrable (like Latin crās, which also meant “sometime in the future”). For “the future” the speakers of Old Germanic had no word. Dutch toekomst and German Zukunft refer to things “coming toward one,” and both were coined only in the Middle period. Old English tōcomman meant “to approach.” (Latin futūrum is the future participle of esse “to be,” thus, also “about to happen; approaching.”) Although of course, those people knew that the future existed, in their perception of the world, it merged with the present (hence their ability to prophesy and detect its visual marks), and that is why they had not developed the concept of the future as an abstract category. Apparently, one did not need a special adverb for “tomorrow.” “Tomorrow” continued “today,” since no fixed boundary separated them: “tomorrow” set in whenever one woke up (“the morrow” could begin at any moment). By contrast, yesterday (though also of course “another day”) belonged unambiguously to the past and was easy to define. However, when needed, the word for it could be pressed into meaning its opposite, like English be-fore (fore “in front”! Compare fore and aft).

Advanced Elegant English

♦“For millennia we have followed the rule to not speak ill of the dead.” ♦“…[he] urged Americans to not allow themselves grow “numb,” as…”  ♦“Business groups… called on Democrats to instead work with Republicans and industry groups….” ♦“We do not ask a woman to keep their child, only to let the child live.”

Nor do I ask English to stop changing, only to let it live.

Feature image by numerologysign.com (CC BY 2.0)

Recent Comments

  1. Constantinos Ragazas


    “Greek thraúō “break” and English trash”

    The word is “θραυση”! You missed the “ση”/”sh” connection!

    As for “θρ” not becoming “tr” or “αυ” not becoming “a”, that is a matter of academic opinion, not fact.

    You ignored the Icelanding synonyms for “trash” as being “tros and drasl”. Notice how well the “dr-” matches the “θρ-“. Coincidence? I think not!

    As for the origin of English “sword” try Greek “σπαθη”.

  2. Fred de Vries

    …evel, apparently, an old word, which, like its Middle High German cognate evel, meant “proud, haughty.”

    In modern Dutch there exists ‘wrevel’, with the meaning of being angry, irritated, and annoyed’.

    So, the meaning of that word seem more in tune with ‘evil’.

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