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On tokens, beacons, and finger-pointing

People have always tried to foresee the events that might occur in the days to come. This attitude did not depend on whether they believed that the future was behind or ahead of them (I am saying it in allusion to my post “The Future in the Past”). Obviously, the English verb foresee presupposes that in our (modern, Western) view, the future is before us. To penetrate the darkness separating today from tomorrow, our ancestors used all kinds of omens and, in thinking and speaking about them, usually distinguished between good and bad augury. In the Germanic languages, two words are particularly relevant to our topic: token and beacon. Beacon may sound unexpected in this context. Therefore, it will be more practical to begin with token.

Token is a Common Germanic word. The forms are Old English tāc(e)n, Old High German zeihhan, etc. The English noun combined the senses “sign, signal” and “portent, marvel, wonder.” German Zeichen and Dutch teken are still alive but mean only “indication, sign.” Old Icelandic had teikn (its cognates exist in all the modern Scandinavian languages) and then borrowed the related similar-sounding form from Old English: Old Icelandic tákn meant “wonder.”

Gothic, a Germanic language recorded in the fourth century (part of the New Testament in this language is extant), also seems to have had two nearly identical forms: taikn “token” and taikns for “token” and “miracle” (but the occurrences are so few that there is no certainty that we are really dealing with two words). The Gothic Bible was translated from Greek, and the two Greek words that Bishop Wulfila, the translator of the text, saw were ‘éndeigma and sēmeîōn. The word occurs in 2Th, 1.5. In the Authorized Version, this place in the epistle sounds so: “Which is a manifest token of the righteous judgment.” The Gothic verbs with this root meant “to show, manifest; exhibit; revelation” and—the most interesting gloss to us— “teach.” In the oldest period, English teach also meant “to show.” Teach and token are indeed related words: the root of both was taik– “to show” (one teaches, instructs by showing). A series of regular phonetic changes resulted in that the sounds in the modern forms token and teach look so different.

A vulgar token: no mystery at all. (Image via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0)

The Indo-European etymology of token poses no problems. Everywhere, as in Germanic, the root of this word meant “to show,” and the story might have ended here but for the existence of the Gothic verb tēkan “to touch.” By ablaut (that is, by regular vowel alternation) it is related not to token but to Old Iceland taka, which was borrowed into Middle English and became Modern English take. Unexpectedly, the origin of take and of its Gothic cognate tēkan is all but unknown. The Greek form Wulfila translated as tēkan was ‘aptesthai “touch”; the prefixed form at-tēkan also meant “touch.” Note this gloss!

Now, touch came to English from Middle French. Its Romance source sounded toccare or tuccare. It did not continue any Latin verb and must therefore have been a “popular” innovation. In the modern Romance languages, this verb often means not only “to touch” but also “to strike.” Since it has no Latin source, its origin poses problems, and several hypotheses have been advanced to explain it. Finally, Romance scholars agreed that the mysterious verb was onomatopoeic, from toc (toc-toc), that is, from the sound we hear when we knock on (or touch!) wood, literally or figuratively. The figurative meaning will soon come us in good stead. “Knock,” “strike,” and “stroke of a bell” are among the most common senses of the modern cognates of this verb in Romance. (In Russian, the imitation of the sound for knocking on the door is tuk-tuk, with u as in English put. Likewise, stuk means “knocking”; s- is a prefix).

English tuck “to pull” is usually explained as a borrowing from Continental Germanic (the related German and Dutch verbs mean almost the same), because it surfaced only in the Middle period, but Henry Cecil Wyld, in The Universal English Dictionary, pointed to Old English tucian “to disturb; torment; punish” as the verb’s possible source, and he was not alone in thinking so. Even though his hypothesis is at odds with chronology, the reference to tucian (a verb of unknown origin!) need not be disregarded. We seem to be dealing with a group of tuk-tok verbs that at one time designated knocking, striking, and touching.

Doubting Thomas. (Image by Hendrik ter Brugghen via Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

English tug “to pull with force,” most likely from Scandinavian, is a synonym of tow. Both verbs are related to Modern German zucken “to pull” and to Latin dūcere “to lead.” The senses “lead” or “drive” are not too remote from “pull” and “push.” And here we can return to touch. Wyld believed that the Romance toccare had been borrowed from Germanic. Considering how widespread the use of the tok– ~ tuk– root is, it is hard to choose between a borrowing and parallel development.

At this stage, one expects a solution, but we have only amassed a group of words vaguely referring to sound imitation, touching, pulling, and the like. No solution would perhaps even have presented itself if in their discussion of Gothic taikn and tēkan so many good researchers had not mentioned, almost apologetically, Latin digitus “finger,” another word of undiscovered origin. No one knows what to do with it, but I suspect that it conceals a clue to our riddle. Perhaps digitus has the same expressive root as the words discussed above, and I would like to suggest that the semantic core of all of them was the concept of “finger.” (By the way, I once devoted two essays to the etymologically obscure English word finger: see the posts for 25 September and 2 October 2019.) People knocked, pointed to things, taught, and knocked on wood or touched wood with a finger for the purpose of divination. This may be the reason the word for token (that is, “mark, sign”), a thing touched, was used with such consistency in magico-religious sense. The Germanic noun made its way into Finnish; taika means “divination, portent.”

Hoping for good augury. (Image by Pete Souza, via Wikimedia Commons)

The relevant Germanic and Romance verbs began with a t. If the Romance borrowed toccare ~ tuccare from Germanic, then we are limited to this one branch of Indo-European. In Latin and Greek, the same root possibly began with a d. Latin digitus and Greek dáctulos “finger,” I propose, may belong here too. If all those words were related in a regular way, then the d ~ t correspondence would be natural, but the names chosen for the finger and the token (such as Gothic taikn or taikns) need not have been related to digitus. Long ago, I devoted a post to the English verb dig and concluded that this obscure verb was expressive and referred to the effort accompanying the process of digging. It appears that the t-k and d-g sound complexes were natural candidates for coining such words. As time went on, the root t-k “grew flesh,” and short and long vowels appeared between the consonants. In Germanic, the Indo-European word for “finger,” if it existed, was replaced with an innovation (finger is a Common Germanic noun), and that is why its origin remains a matter of guesswork. The history of token and its illegitimate Gothic brother tēkan “to touch” may have begun with pointing and the word for “finger,” the arch-pointer.

The main characters in our drama have been token (teach), touch, tuck-tug-tow (not to be confused with tic toc toe), and (a cameo appearance) digitus. Beacon was also promised in the title of this post. It will take center stage next week.

Featured image by Womanizer WOW Tech on Unsplash 

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