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My dearest foe in heaven, or: not near but dear

It was Hamlet who was ready to meet his dearest foe in heaven. In addition to dear “regarded with affection,” from dēor(e), English once had dear “savage, wild, grievous,” from dēor. Shakespeare used this word many times. It often occurred before him (for example, in Beowulf and in the Middle period) but slowly disappeared, possibly because having homonyms with two almost opposite meanings caused confusion, even though their coexistence had not bothered anyone for centuries and though such cases are known. There even is a learned term for this phenomenon (enantiosemy; consider Latin altus “high” and “low,” that is, “going all the way up or down”). A natural question springs to mind: are we dealing with two different adjectives or with one, despite its confusing semantics? Though James A. H. Murray, the OED’s first editor, refused to commit himself, he found the idea of homonyms somewhat more appealing. In any case, the German scholar to whose publication he referred in the entry could not imagine such a violent clash of senses in the same word.

A good deal depends on understanding the origin of dear1 and dear2. As ill luck would have it, the etymology of dear1 is debatable, and that of dear2 supposedly unknown. Yet the difference between “debatable” and “unknown” should not be disregarded. Dear, as in my dear friend, has cognates in other languages, while dear “savage” is seemingly isolated. This isolation comes as a surprise: adjectives, do not appear from nowhere. Old English dēor(e) (our dear1) has been recorded with the following senses: “beloved; costly; valuable, precious” and “glorious, noble, excellent.” In the Germanic languages of the early Middle Ages, love seldom meant “very strong affection, a feeling between two individuals.” It habitually referred to things pleasurable, worthy of attaining, and hard to get. Dear developed from some such nucleus, that is, “costly.”

Dear and near? (Image by Elroy Serrao via Flickr)

It is curious how ramified the senses of the words related to “dear” are.  English dearth is a noun with the same suffix as in wid-th, heal-th, warm-th, and slo-th, among others; despite the difference in today’s pronunciation, its root is dear. What is costly is, naturally, scarce. In Frisian, we find the verbs with this root meaning “to endure; to punish” and “to have the heart to do something,” while in Middle High German, the reference is “to feel compassion for one.” The Modern German for “dear” is teuer “dear.” It is related to the verb (be)dauern “to regret” (never mind the t ~ d difference: it has been accounted for). In Middle English, the verb douren, probably “to grieve,” is close to (be)dauern. Should we interpret “to regret; feel pain” as reference to things too costly (“dear”), requiring too much effort? The connection is not improbable.

The verbs dauern ~ douren throw some light on the fact that in the Slavic languages, dur– is the root of numerous words meaning “wild; mad; stupid” (Russian durak, stress on the second syllable, means “fool”). “Wild” reminds us of English dear “fierce, wild, ferocious,” and this fact is a strong argument for treating dear1 and dear2 as (from a historical point of view) being two senses of the same word, rather than homonyms.

A very dear warrior. (Image by Shakko, via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0)

In the history of the adjective dear, one sense is, I believe, of special importance. Old English dēor(e), as we have just seen, could have meant not only “hard to get, available after a serious effort” (hence “desirable and inspiring strong feelings”) but also “noble.” The same holds for Old Icelandic dýrr. Curiously, the noun dýrð, an exact counterpart of English dearth, mentioned above, means “glory; splendor; excellence”! Despite this great multitude of senses, it is probably reasonable to assume that the most ancient meaning of the adjective dear was “requiring a strong effort”; hence “fierce, wild; hard to obtain; costly; precious,” and of course “dear,” whether “expensive” or “priceless.” According to what we know about the Old Germanic ethos, monsters and heroes were believed to be endowed with similar qualities, but what was “noble, valorous, praiseworthy” in the hero was “ferocious, deadly” in his enemy. In Beowulf, Beowulf, as well as his opponents Grendel and the dragon, are occasionally called by the same word āglǣca, glossed in our editions as “assailant.” Its root means “awe, misery.” One pays a dear price for experiencing both.

This then is how dear must have developed in two seemingly opposite directions. The situation is the same as with Latin altus: if you look up, altus is high; if you look down, altus is low. Likewise, the end of a thread is its beginning: a piece of thread has two ends or two beginnings, if you wish. Some good authorities hesitatingly (very hesitatingly!) admit that Old English dēor(e) and dēor are two senses of the same word. In my opinion, both their hesitation and the common statement “origin unknown,” applied to dēor “savage, fierce,” are groundless. True, the English way was rare, for neither German teuer (along with its West Germanic cognates in Frisian and Dutch) nor the cognates or reflexes of dýrr in the Scandinavian languages ever meant “savage.”

Yet such individual developments are not uncommon. For instance, in Old English, dream meant “joy; music” and had no reference to slumber. Etymologists tend to look upon it as a homonym of dream “vision in sleep.” In the spring of 2019, I devoted a series of three posts to the refutation of this idea (27 March, 3 April, 10 April). As far as the use of dear in later English literature is concerned, it may be worthwhile to quote Ernest Weekley: “In Anglo-Saxon and Middle English poetry, revived by Spenser and used by Shakespeare and later poets, by whom it was probably felt as an oxymoronic application of dear1.” Perhaps so, but we are interested in the early stages of dear1 and dear2.

Beginning and end: which is where? (Image by A R on Unsplash)

The great German etymologist Friedrich Kluge believed that dear was related to deer. Deer, as is well-known, once meant “animal” (as do Dutch dier, German Tier, and the related Scandinavian forms) and only later acquired the sense “hunted animal” (hence “the most often hunted animal”). The origin of deer and its cognates (Gothic dius, etc.) poses no problems. Everywhere in Indo-European, the root of those words means “to breathe”; hence “spirit, soul.” The same underlying meaning can be seen in animal (anima!) and, very probably, beast. The creature called “dius,” etc., from Germanic deuzam, was a wild animal. Passion, ferocity, impetuosity, and all kinds of uncontrolled emotions were taken for granted in naming that deuzam. A direct path leads from deuzam to dear “savage.” There are indeed some problems with ablaut here, but they are hardly insurmountable. Though Kluge’s etymology was dismissed by later scholars (I never see it mentioned), it solves the genesis of the English adjective in the best way possible. Regrettably, he stopped in the middle and dissociated dear1 from dear2 (“ferocious” from “expensive”). The other hypotheses, including the Welsh origin of dear, strike me as less appealing.

The rather mysterious phrases dear me, o(h) dear no, and dear knows (the latter Scottish) were at one time an object of controversy between Walter W. Skeat and A. L. Mayhew. Mayhew defended the hypothesis presented in the OED: dear is allegedly the product of omission, from Dear Lord. Skeat derived the phrases from French. The OED’s point of view seems to carry more conviction.

Featured image by Scott Carroll via Unsplash

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  1. […] “My dearest foe in heaven, or: not near but dear.”—”It was Hamlet who was ready to meet his dearest foe in heaven. In addition to dear “regarded with affection,” from dēor(e), English once had dear “savage, wild, grievous,” from dēor. Shakespeare used this word many times. It often occurred before him (for example, in Beowulf and in the Middle period) but slowly disappeared, possibly because having homonyms with two almost opposite meanings caused confusion, even though their coexistence had not bothered anyone for centuries and though such cases are known.” […]

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