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Wallowing deeper and deeper in the garbage can (part three)

This is the end of a long ill-smelling series. Trash and rubbish have been discussed (see the posts for the last two weeks, part one and part two), offal and refuse made their brief appearance and were sent to an etymological incinerator, and now garbage will keep us busy for a short time and join its disreputable fellows.

I have nothing new to say about trash, though I would very much like to know what specialists in Romance and English historical linguistics think about Leo Spitzer’s idea of the origin of rubbish. Several lines of investigation lead from rubbish to other words. According to the accepted point of view (which ignores Spitzer’s suggestion), rubbish may go back to the plural of the Anglo-Norman word that served as the root of rubble. Rubbish, allegedly, modified its former Romance ending –ous to the familiar English suffix –ish, while rubble has the root rob-, as in Old French robe “spoils.” Thus, in broad outline: rubbish from rubble, and rubble from robe. Where, one wonders, does robe “garment” come in?

A ceremonial robe, with no robbery involved. (Via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 2.0)

Robe is a Romance word (in Middle English, it is from Old French), related to rob. Rob also came to English from French, but in the Romance languages, it is a loan from Germanic, as shown by German rauben “to rob” and the archaic English verb reave, today familiar only from bereave. Obtaining clothes, regarded as spoils, is a familiar motif in ancient and medieval tales. To take off the clothes of a vanquished enemy (alive or dead) and leave him naked was the highest degree of humiliation for the losing party. In Old Icelandic, a special verb existed for divesting a corpse on the battlefield. The original sense of the Indo-European verb, represented by reave, must have been “break; tear; remove with force.” The link between it and rubble will survive, even if rubbish and rubble are not related.

Since outside the bow-wow and ga-ga group, the existence of sound imitation and sound symbolism is hard to prove, one can at best risk saying that the group r-b suggested to speakers the idea of tearing, scraping, and all kinds of abrasion. The “ultimate source” of rub and its near-homonyms elsewhere in Germanic is unknown (German reiben “to rub” once began with w- and is not related). Rabble and rap are, most likely, imitative, and so is perhaps riffraff. Dictionaries can say almost nothing about rip and ruffle. The same impulse may have given rise to rubble, rubbish, and some other r-b, r-p  words, but even if they began their way as onomatopes, the group viewed in its entirety is so heterogeneous that each word appears to be isolated. Such is the shortest history of etymological rubbish.

Of all the English words for “waste” garbage is perhaps the most obscure. Judging by its suffix (compare voyage, umbrage), it has a French look. Its appearance in texts does not antedate late Middle English, and its earliest recorded sense is “offal of an animal, entrails of fowls,” which confirms the statement made at the beginning of this series: though at present, trash, rubbish, and some of their synonyms refer to “waste matter in general,” in the past, all of them had a more concrete sense.

At first blush, garbage is the closest kin of garble “distort the meaning,” the verb that goes back to an Arabic term of Mediterranean trade. It once meant “to remove the rubbish from an imported consignment of spices”; for chronological reasons, it could not become the source of garbage. The two words were later associated because they sound so much alike, and both have negative connotations. Here again we find ourselves in an onomatopoeic quagmire, but in place of r-b words, g-r and gr-b turn up at every step. Such formations refer to grabbing, scratching (like German krabbeln), disorderly movements, and the like. French grabuge means “confusion; wrangling” and is probably a borrowing from North Italian (though some earlier dictionaries reconstructed the opposite direction: to Italian from French). Incidentally, grab is related to Russian grabit “to rob,” and we return to rubbish, rubble, and its obscure kin.

A garb and a sheaf: etymological siblings of garbage? (Images by (L) hanen souhail (CC0), (R) Zorba the Geek (CC BY-SA 2.0))

Alongside garb “dress” (a Romance word of ultimately Germanic origin: something made, prepared, adorned), English has garb “sheaf,” a cognate of German Garbe (the same meaning). Garb1 and garb2 may be “obscurely related,” as dictionaries like to call such cases. Walter W. Skeat thought that a sheaf was something that could be “grabbed,” and German etymologists share this opinion. But garbage as “handful” does not sound convincing. Even if it is correct that garbage emerged as a word of sound-imitative origin, with gr-b referring to things grabbed, selected, sorted out, and thrown away, such was only the remote beginning of the noun, whose root traveled between Germanic and Romance and which in the Romance-speaking world, too, occasionally crossed language borders.

This is what The Century Dictionary says about garbage (with the abbreviations expanded):

“The form is like Old French garbage, gerbage, Medieval Latin garbagium, a tribute or tax paid in sheaves, from Old French garbe, Medieval Latin garba, a sheaf; there may be a connection similar to that shown in German Bündel, the entrails of fish, literally a bundle, = Engl. bundle. There can be no connection with garble, a much later word in English, and one which could not have produced the form garbage.”

Jacob Verdam (1845-1919). (Via Wikimedia Commons, CC0)

Skeat’s influence on this etymology is obvious, but the formulation is not trivial, and the result sounds promising.

By way of conclusion, I would like to mention Dutch karwei “entrails of animals given to the hounds.” Two excellent etymological dictionaries of Dutch exist. Both give nearly the same explanation of karwei. Those explanations would take us too far afield but add nothing to what has been said above, because the authors’ reasoning is entirely different from that found in English sources. However, once, in 1890, Jacob Verdam, one of the greatest experts in the history of Dutch, compared karwei and English garbage. (The reference will be found in my Bibliography of English Etymology.) The similarity is striking. Are the current explanations of carwei a product of folk etymology? Verdam’s suggestion has never been noticed, let alone discussed in any detail.

And here comes my plea. The number of people reading this blog is sometimes as high as a thousand (in the past, some posts attracted much larger crowds, but I am not speaking about exceptions). Romance scholars have rarely responded to it. By contrast, specialists in Dutch and Frisian have more than once pointed to the facts I either did not mention or did not know. In the series on trash and its synonyms, I called attention to Spitzer’s hypothesis on the origin of English rubbish and now I have unearthed Verdam’s idea that Dutch karwei may have something in common with English garbage. Perhaps someone will comment on the forgotten findings by those two outstanding researchers. Resuscitating valuable ideas buried in the depths of old journals is an important part of etymologists’ work. Convincing refutation is as valuable as agreement.

Celebrating the Dutch word KARWEI. (Image via Wikimedia Commons, CC0)

Next week, I’ll post the delayed gleanings for March and early April.

Featured image: Claude Duval painting by William Powell Frith, via Wikimedia Commons (CC0)

Recent Comments

  1. Gavin Wraith

    Mathematics is constantly in need of names, like a jackdaw lining its nest with trinkets. “Sheaf”, “Faisceau”, “Gerbe”, “Stalk” were plucked in the last half-century.

  2. Richard Hollick

    Doesn’t reave survive also in “Border reiver” — the Scots who raid cattle in England? There’s a nice statue of one in Galashiels (shown at the Wikipedia entry).

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