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Monthly gleanings for April 2021

I have received two letters: one asked me about the origin of dog, the other about bodkin. In the past, I have written about both words. As regards dog, see the post for 4 May 2016 (the beginning of a series). I have nothing new to say about this enigmatic animal name, but it might be useful to expand the post on bodkin (7 October 2015), which, by association, was followed by a post on body (14 October 2015).

Bodkin and its kin

There is no need to repeat in detail what I wrote five years ago, and I am returning to bodkin (revisiting it, as linguists like to say), because I wish to reinforce the idea that researchers have missed an important Slavic connection and not made enough of the symbolic origin of b-d and b-t words all over Europe. The Slavic verbs with the root bad- ~ bod- mean “to prick; sting; pierce” and, characteristically, “to butt.” Nouns like bodak (with stress on the second syllable), bodika, bod, and body are numerous and refer to stinging, pricking, and cutting objects, including thistle. My suggestion depended on the idea that the similarity between bodkin and the Slavic words may not be accidental.

The borrowing of bodkin directly from Slavic is out of the question. Yet in no other language group of IndoEuropean do we find such a multitude of bad- ~ bod- words referring to stabbing and cutting. Other than that, it appears that verbs like beat, butt, bat, batter, along with such monosyllables as put, pick, kick, cut, dig, and a few others of the same type are of symbolic (occasionally of sound-imitative) origin. They refer to strenuous efforts and may have emerged as spontaneous expressions, almost like interjections accompanying such actions.

Bending forward and over backwards: an etymologist at work. (Image via the Mugar Memorial Library.)

It is instructive to look at their geography. Bat “cudgel” (an old word in English, from which we have the verb to bat) resembles (Old) French batter “to strike” and, unexpectedly, English beat and Old Slavic biti (the same meaning). To pick, is for all intents and purposes, the same verb as Dutch pikken, French piquer, Italian piccare, etc. Cut goes together with Icelandic kuta. Dig hardly owes anything to French diguer “prod, stab” but sounds like it. Kick has Scandinavian look-alikes, such as Icelandic kikna and keikja “to bend over backwards” (in the direct sense of the phrase!), among others. It is therefore not unthinkable that bod– in bodkin is part of the same multitude (indeed, multitude, rather than family). In such cases, I often refer to an image of many mushrooms on a stump: no roots but a family!

The Old Germanic word bad– meant “battle.” Note again how close bad– and bat– in battle are! (For my non-traditional ideas on the origin of the unrelated English adjective bad see the posts for 24 June and 8 July 2015). The word was common and is also extant in such ancient names as Baduarius (a Latinized spelling of course), Baduvila, and Baduhenna. In the earlier post on bodkin, I mentioned the Old Icelandic name Böðvarr, literally “battle + fight,” a name certainly worthy of a prospective hero. It is anybody’s guess whether bad- “battle” has the symbolic origin suggested for Slavic bad- ~ bod-. However, some of those Germanic names had close ancient Celtic counterparts, so that the root was not isolated.

To conclude: however obscure the origin of bodkin may be, it does not seem improbable that bod– in it refers to cutting. We have no way of deciding whether the fashion for bod– words reached Western Europe from the Slavs. Some names for swords and axes did reach Europe from the East.

The suffix –kin is Dutch, but its presence in English does not always testify to the word’s origin in the Low Countries. For example, the root of napkin is French, while the history of the whole is obscure. In pumpkin, –kin may be the product of a relatively late assimilation, while bumpkin appears to be pure Dutch (a little barrel; squat figure, an English coinage for a derogatory name of a Dutchman). In discussing bodkin, modern dictionaries cite similar Welsh and Gaelic forms and either look on them as the source of the English word or conclude that neither is close enough to be regarded as its etymon. When all is said and done, we may risk a guess that bodkin was coined from foreign elements on the native soil.

Bumpkin and pumpkin: they have nothing in common except for the suffix. (Image one by Elias Shariff Falla Mardini, image two by S. Hermann & F. Richter, via Pixabay.)

It appears that I cannot offer a secure etymology of bodkin, but I believe that boyd-, bid-, bad-, and bod– with various suffixes traveled all over Eurasia as the names of a small pointed instrument, and diminutive suffixes or suffixes of the agent noun clung to them easily. If this is true, such words functioned like so many other elements of artisans’ and handymen’s lingua franca. Compare the post on adz(e) (25 March 2020).

From such musings Constantinos Ragazas (cf. his comment on the previous post) concluded that I had given up “etymological algebra.” Nothing can be farther from the truth. Sound correspondences are the backbone of etymology and have served it well for more than two hundred years, but they don’t cover the entire terrain, and marginal phenomena are as useful to study as those which are governed by rules. I also believe that before mocking algebra, one should try to master it. By contrast, Alan Mighty’s list of more b-n words (another comment on the previous post) is suggestive. The danger is that in such cases one never knows where to stop. I probably needn’t say that my ideas on b-n words are close to those on b-d words. Iconic (symbolic and sound-imitative) formations exist in great numbers, but, while walking over that field, one should be aware of mines. Once again, I may refer to Wilhelm Oehl’s works. They are useful but should be treated with caution.

The family name Bodkin is usually derived from Baldwin, with the same diminutive suffix as above. I am not aware of any refutation of this etymology. (This is an answer to the question asked several years ago. Better late than never.)

And now the phrase to ride bodkin, which means “to occupy a seat on a coach, wedged in between two others.” The earliest citation in The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) goes back to 1638, to a time when it was still common, one would think, to make one’s quietus with a bare bodkin, and the OED does not seem to have any trouble with the origin of the metaphor. But it may be of interest to read what the contributors to Notes and Queries (a wonderful weekly at that time) had to say about the subject after the publication of the fascicle of the OED with bodkin. I’ll quote only two statements: “It has been suggested to me that a place in which to set a sword (or bodkin) used to exist in the old traveling coach or chariot between the two occupants of the ‘front seat’.” “The ‘sword case’ in old carriages was not a perpendicular socket, but a horizontal recess [!] in the upper part of the back, the full width of the carriage.” Finally, F. Adams, whose letters often appeared in the periodical, pointed out that in the earliest examples there is no connection of wedging in between two others.

Two British (regional) words

Stroil ~ sproil: sprawling indeed. (Photo by John Tann, CC 2.0.)

To lomp is a phonetic variant of to lump, and to the extent that it is still a colloquialism (in whatever sense), it reflects a dialectal pronunciation of the better-known form. The question was whether I know this word. I have seen it mentioned in dictionaries but never heard or used it.

The origin of stroil ~ stroyl “couch, or quitch grass” is unknown. Most words ending in the diphthong [oil] (boil, coil, foil, moil, oil, soil, toil) have reached English from French and sometimes display the variation of the rile ~ roil type. Therefore, stroil may go back to strile (as boil “inflamed tumor” goes back to bile), but strile has not been attested. On the other hand, stroil alternates with sproil, which is a variant of sprawl. (I found this information in Joseph Wright’s inestimable The English Dialect Dictionary.) Could the plant get its name because it sprawls? If so, then stroi! ~ stroyl would be an alternate variant of sproil. Mere guessing, as Walter W. Skeat used to say.

Feature image by Arwen Wood of the Portable Antiquities Scheme, on Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.0)

Recent Comments

  1. Constantinos Ragazas


    “… I had given up “etymological algebra.” Nothing can be farther from the truth.”

    Too much to hope for! Though you are selectively using “proper ablaut and regular consonant alterations” (what you called “etymological algebra” and I claim is contrived and aspirational) to reject my etymology proposals, while upholding your etymology proposals by not using.

    So which position is more intellectually honest?

  2. Daniel Milton

    In our time, “to ride shotgun” = to sit next to the driver is explainable, but seems just as unlikely as “to ride bodkin”.

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