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Etymology gleanings for July 2021: tending my flock

In July, I have received several letters that did not need extended replies and answered them privately. As usual, my thanks for encouragement, disagreement, and abuse. Being noticed is the only reward a journalist (blogger) can hope for, while making mistakes is human and being unable to satisfy everybody’s curiosity should be expected. Also, I received a request for the article I once published on Gothic liugan and will send it to our correspondent as soon as I receive his email address (send to blog@oup.com). The offprint is in my office.

The only question requiring a detailed answer concerns the origin of English flock (as in a flock of gulls) and flock “a tuft of wool.” The student who looked up those words in a dictionary was surprised to discover that flock1 and flock2 are not related and that the origin of the first is unknown. I am unable to unravel this knot, but I can perhaps explain how the problem originated and venture a precarious hypothesis.

It may be best to begin with the English verb flow. The verb has been known since the earliest period (Old English flōwan). It is, almost certainly, native, which means that, if it has cognates outside Germanic (ideally, in Greek and Latin), those forms should begin with p (by the Germanic, or First, Consonant Shift, as in father ~ pater), and indeed, we find Latin pluo, pluere “to rain”; the meanings do not accord too well but they are close enough (all over Eurasia, some words for “rain” are etymological cruxes). But surprisingly, Latin also has fluere “to flow,” a much better semantic match. How could that happen?

Some dictionaries state unhesitatingly that because of the f ~ f correspondence fluere and flōwan are unrelated but suggest that the meaning of flōwan was influenced by its Latin near-homonym. Perhaps so, but why should such a common verb have been influenced by a foreign lookalike? Several excellent works have been written on this subject, and it appears that we cannot go beyond the idea that pl– and fl– in some mysterious way suggest the idea of a stream (or, to put it in a less scholarly way, flow and pluo reveal their meanings by their form, like, for instance, screech, thud, or bowwow). If flōwan and fluere are indeed not related, that is, do not go back to a common Proto-Indo-European form, then they are products of sound imitation or of the mysterious factor known as sound symbolism.

Historically speaking, all of these are flocks. (Top: Fort Rucker, Centre: Birmingham Museum, Bottom: RedCharlie)

A look at the fl- section in a moderate-sized English dictionary will show a surprising number of words of highly questionable or even undiscovered etymology. Here are some of them: flabbergast, flap, flag (in all its meanings), flake, flap, flare, flash, flat (“level”), flatter (verb), flaunt, flaw, flay, flea, fleck, fleer, flews (“the chaps of a hound”), flibbertigibbet (many senses; compare Shakespeare’s demon Flibbertigibbet in King Lear), flick, flimsy, fling, flint, flip, flirt, flog, flop, floozy, flounce, flounder (verb), fluke (only the fish name has an established etymology), flummox, flump, flurry, flush, fluster, and flutter. I have left out many rare, obsolete, and dialectal words, as well as English words borrowed from French (and other Romance languages), Scandinavian, and Dutch, where their origin is also unknown. Reference to fl-, characteristic of words imitative of striking or beating is common, but flare, flash, and quite a few others do not belong there. To be sure, some ties within the group seem to be obvious (flash and flush, for example). On the other hand, flap resembles clap and slap, to say nothing of rap and tap. I have once written in detail only about the word flatter and know how complicated its etymology is. A quick look at flash and flummox will reinforce anybody’s conviction that each word in the fl-set poses a host of problems.

In this context, two English words are of special interest: flock “group” and flock “tuft.” The first has exited since the Old English period and was then used only of an assemblage of people. The same holds for Old Icelandic (Old Norse) flokkr. In Middle Low German, vlocke also existed, but it is absent from Modern Dutch. It appears that the English-Scandinavian word was, among others, a military and legal term, something like detachment. From Icelandic sources we learn that in law five men made a flokkr; some other glosses on flokkr are “host” (of angels), “company; crowd; band,” and “troop.” The word looks like folk (Dutch volk, German Volk), with o an l transposed, but no rule can account for such a verbal joke (metathesis?), though the ancient Germanic word first probably also meant “troop.” In English, sheep and goats began to wander in flocks in the Middle period, while the phrase flock of geese first turned up only in Shakespeare.

The word has no pl- correspondence in any non-Germanic language. It is not even clear whether Old English and Old Norse coined the word independently of each other. All attempts to connect this flock with the verb to fly seem to shatter at the fact that initially flock had nothing to do with birds. On the other hand, one may ask why flock, previously used only about people, (suddenly?) began to be applied to goats and sheep and at the end of the sixteenth century, to birds. Didn’t all those senses exist in the remotest past but were current in different rural dialects? It should be remembered that English has the noun flight “act of flying” and flight “act of fleeing,” while in German there also are two words Flucht, one of which means “a flock of birds.” I am inclined to think that English flock “group” does have something to do with movement, even though flying and fleeing are hard to connect with it by rule. At least two excellent researchers have the same opinion, but this partial consensus means nothing, because in etymology, riddles are not solved through a plebiscite.

Another flock, taken over from abroad and unrelated? (Image by Wally Hartshorn)

In contrast, the other flock “tuft” has exact cognates in Germanic and outside it and is universally believed to be a borrowing from Old French (all the Romance languages have similar forms). The initial sense seems to have been “a small particle; fragment,” as also follows from German Flocke (Schneeflocke) “snowflake.” English flake surfaced only in Chaucer. Norwegian flak means “patch, flake,” and Swedish (is)flak means “ice floe.” One begins to suspect that Latin floccus and its Germanic lookalikes also refer to something flying or “flighty.” We return to the astounding similarity between English flow and Latin fluere. Another member of the vaguely fluent, flighty, fleeing family of sound-imitative or sound-symbolic words?

As stated at the outset, I am unable to offer an answer to the question that inspired this post, though I am inclined to think that English flock1 and flock2 may be related more closely than it is usually believed, even if the relationship lies in the sphere of imitation and symbolism. Last week (21 July 2021: “The decay of the art of lying”), I referred to Jacob Grimm’s suggestion that even remote homonyms in old languages tend to go back to the same root. Perhaps the case of flock confirms his intuition.

Feature image by Andrea Lightfoot on Unsplash 

Recent Comments

  1. Constantinos Ragazas


    “…if it [flow] has cognates outside Germanic (ideally, in Greek and Latin), those forms should begin with p ”

    And indeed, there is a Greek word “πλεω” (attested in Homer) that does begin with “p” and has the same meaning as “flow”.

    So, once again, we have a ‘primitive’ English word with origins in Ancient Greek!

    I know! You ask “how could that be?”
    And I will again give you the same answer as before.

    Recent aDNA studies have shown the Neolithic settlers of the UK to have originated from the Aegean/Anatolia region. Bringing with them their language. Which over time formed the substrate language that English later became.

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