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Still plowing with my heifer

This blog was born on 6 March 2006, more than fifteen years ago. Since that date, my posts have been appearing every Wednesday, except when the New York office of Oxford University Press was closed for some holiday. Today’s post is number. 800, and every hundred numbers I, in complete solitude, celebrate the event. It takes two years to write a hundred essays. Since I fear to plan so long ahead, this time I decided to wish myself many happy returns of the day in public.

What can I say fifteen years later? Like every diligent researcher, I have learned more than anyone else from my work: hundreds of pages read, countless hypotheses weighed, a few seemingly useful conclusions reached. When I began, I expected that I would be showered with letters, William Safire-like. Most fortunately, this did not happen. Safire was not a linguist. He called specialists when he did not know the answer, while I have only myself to rely on. (His columns have been gathered in numerous volumes and made him famous, another great difference between us.) Also, I am fully employed at my university, no remuneration is expected for the blog (it is hard to imagine how often the question about this point, with a giggle or demurely, has been asked since 2006!), and etymology is only one of the many things that occupy me. Yet over the years I too have received hundreds of letters and seen numerous comments by friendly or irascible correspondents. The readership of this blog stays at about 500 people (on an average), but a few posts attracted several thousand. I have no doubt that enough people follow my writings, because as soon as I make a mistake, I am immediately taken to task.

I have received all kinds of questions and requests. Six-graders asked me to write their papers for them, which I never did, but I have given many recommendations to serious boys and girls and especially to college students and learners from abroad. Some questions were so interesting that I devoted long posts to them, rather than relegating the answers to my traditional monthly gleanings. The queries ran the gamut from the obscene to the nearly incredible. Quite early in my career as a blogger, I was asked to explain how a blowjob got its name, and recently, a correspondent has compared English wick ~ wicked and French mèche and méchant (the French pair has exactly the same meaning). The coincidence is unbelievable and yet fortuitous! With blowjob I was not so sure but managed to produce some sort of a response: after all, I had the nascent reputation of an Oxford etymologist to live up to.

William Safire, 1929-2009. (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

My goal has always been to discuss only such words as pose etymological problems, while, for instance, Merriam-Webster, which has an excellent “word of the day” program, deals with all kinds of interesting nouns, adjective, and verbs; etymology is not the main focus of that program. I soon discovered that the origin of some of the best-known words (big, put, dig, bread, dear, dream, and countless others) are real etymological cruxes. Yet I tried to say something about them one could not find in popular dictionaries or on the Internet. At the outset of this enterprise, I was advised to use as few foreign words as possible and to avoid diacritics. I promised to follow this recommendation and wish I could keep that promise!

Illustrations appeared rather late. One day, I wrote about the word teetotal, and a correspondent sent us a photo of the statue of the man who started the movement. I asked my editor whether we could reproduce the photo. Yes, we could! Ever since, every essay has had between three and five illustrations, and selecting them takes a lot of time.

Now back to my heifers, as promised in the title. Twenty-five years ago, quite by chance, I looked up the etymology of heifer in a dictionary and discovered the statement: “Origin unknown.” Other dictionaries were not much more informative, and I decided to pursue the subject. Thanks to this chance episode, etymology became my profession. Since I have briefly told this story in my book Word Origins, there is no need to repeat it here, but every time I am asked about my favorite word (all word hunters have to answer this questions more than once), I always say: “Heifer.” If I had a coat of arms, I would let an image of a frisking heifer appears there against the bend sinister.

This is a heifer. It bothers etymologists more than cattle breeders. (Image by Loan via Unsplash.)

Despite all my efforts, the origin of heifer remains undiscovered (that is, no consensus on it exists), to use the jargon of professional lexicographers, but some conjectures can probably be discarded as unpromising and others looked upon as reasonable. The word occurred in Old English (it first turned up in a text in the year 900), and even then it must have been partly opaque. This is strange, because we are not dealing with an animal name like calf, deer, goat, or sheep, each with numerous cognates and an unclear initial meaning. Heifer goes back to Old English heahfore, apparently, a compound (heah + fore), but this sum does not yield any meaning (to us). The competing forms (heahfru, heafre, heafare, and a few others) are, apparently, variants of heahfore.

At first sight, heahfore poses no problems: heah “high” and fore, related to faran “fare, walk, go.” Time and again, heifer has been glossed as “high-stepper.” Yet this interpretation makes no sense, for what is a high-stepper, and how does such a name fit a young cow? Old English distinguished between short and long vowels, but length was not always and not uniformly designated in medieval texts. Thus, we are invited to choose among heahfore, hēahfore, heahfōre, or even hēahfōre. Every combination yields a different sense. For example, –fore resembles Old English fear ~ fearr “bull,” but why should the name of a cow that has not yet calved have such a “counter-intuitive” reference? Middle English farrow “not in calf” (compare Scottish ferry cow “cow that is not with calf and therefore continues to give milk throughout the winter) looks a bit (just a bit) more promising. But, to repeat, why high?

Heifer has the dialectal variant heckfore, and this form may contain a clue to the word’s etymology, as was first recognized by Hensleigh Wedgwood, the main etymologist of the pre-Skeat era. Relatively few of his solutions have survived, but this one seems to have merit. I’ll skip all kinds of fanciful suggestions about the origin of heifer and write only what I think is the most reasonable approach to it. (If someone is interested in more details, consult my book An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction.) The most ancient form of heahfore was probably hægfore. Hæg– must have meant “enclosure.” Compare Dutch hokkeling “heifer,” from hoc “pen.” Young cows were kept in enclosures, to protect them from full-grown bulls. The second element –fore is less clear, but it seems to have existed as a suffix of a few animal names (the same element probably occurs in fieldfare, which has often been interpreted as “field walker,” a rather meaningless gloss for a bird name).

If we could ask him about the origin of our word! (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

By later phonetic change, hægfore became hehfor and heahfore (with short heah: no reference to “high”!). It probably had a doublet hecfore, in which hec– also meant “fence, gate,” with the same suffix –fore. In some dialects, heifer preserved the diphthong ei (in them, heifer rhymes with chafer). In others, the pronunciation heffer prevailed, as in Standard English. Amusingly, Modern English preserves the spelling of the first group and the pronunciation of the second.

How persuasive is this etymology? Fairly persuasive, to my mind. To be sure, the form hægfore has not been attested. But if it had surfaced in Old English texts, the etymology of heifer would have been solved three centuries ago. While dealing with this word, Wedgwood referred the mysterious animal name to the practice of cattle breeding; no one had done this before or after. Reference to the name of a bull cannot even be imagined in this case, and English farrow surfaced only in the Middle period. It could very well have existed earlier, but why should farmers have called a young cow “not in calf”? This train of thought is not very likely. Most important: the entire compound, rather than this or that part, must make sense. Finally, did the suffix I detect in heifer and fieldfare exist? Next week, I’ll say what I know about the etymology of fieldfare. Perhaps with a bird on its shoulder, my young and innocent cow will feel a bit more comfortable.

To sum up: is the origin of heifer still debatable, as stated above? No doubt, but perhaps we are now on somewhat safer ground than before. Etymologies, unlike theorems, can seldom be proved.

Featured image by Kenneth Allen (cc-by-sa/2.0)

Recent Comments

  1. Maggie Catambay

    Congratulations, Prof. Liberman, on your 800th Blog!

    As always, your research is fascinating and informative! Keep up the great work. I also enjoy the photos and drawings.

    I have a special affection for cows, as both my dad and husband were involved in dairy production and we all love ice cream!

    Your faithful reader,


  2. Elizabeth Riddle

    Congratulations on your anniversary of 800 postings! I enjoy your blogs a great deal, including your sense of humor. I will be incorporating many into my History of English course in the coming fall.

  3. Richard Hollick

    “But why should farmers have called a young cow “not in calf”? — If you are a dairy farmer, surely this distinction would be rather important I’d have thought. When animals are ranging together it is basic to be able to identify and categorize them. All the cows I remember had personal names, and Mona was the one to lead them into the byre for milking.

    My childhood memory is that the word “stirck” was used in the Borders for a young male “cow”, though Chambers defines it as both male and female.

  4. V.Vijayaraghavan

    As You atre wishing yourself, I also want to wish You as many more happy returns. But one thing You should think of, that so many latest infrastructures are available for plowing, why You are using the heifers still. Treen yourself for lattest trends.Give rest for the heifer. Thank You.

  5. Alan Mighty

    Your discussion in AADEE convinces me. Hedge + ‘female cow too young to stand in front of the bull’.

    I was however intrigued by Kluge’s entry on Farre (just above his entry for Färse) with his references to Greek and Sanskrit, particularly when read in conjunction with AADEE where you wrote: “Of interest is Skt gr􀀂s􀀂t􀀂íh􀀂 ‘heifer.’ Uhlenbeck calls this word unexplained (KEWAS, 82) and does not discuss it (and so on, too long to quote here)”

    What struck me was the parallel between Fay’s conjecture (Skt grstih <- g(h)rd(h)-sthis standing in a stall; and, in Kluge, his focus on rr <- rz(rs) and then pointing to Greek and eventually Skt prsati.

    For now, I'll go back to working my way through your discussion of buoy and beacon in AADEE (and the implications for bulge/bilge/bunt etc).

  6. Maurice Waite

    How unfortunate for méchant to appear as *mèchant (unless since corrected) just before you reveal that have been advised to avoid diacritics. Never mind!

  7. David Campbell

    Swedish ‘hage’, German ‘Hecke’, English ‘hedge’, i.e. the thing doing the enclosing? I enjoy your blog.

  8. OUPblog team

    Hi Maurice – many thanks for noting this typo. Now corrected! With kindest regards, the OUPblog team.

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