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On beacons, tokens, and all kinds of wonders

Two weeks ago (30 June 2021), I wrote about the origin of the word token and promised to continue with beacon. A set of gleanings intervened, which was a good thing and a good token: gleanings mean that there are enough questions and comments to discuss. Comments are not always friendly, but who can live long without making mistakes and arousing someone’s anger?

Let me begin by saying that the best authorities disagree on the etymology of beacon, and my suggestion with which I’ll finish this essay is my own. With very few exceptions etymological dictionaries (to say nothing of all-purpose dictionaries, even their recent online versions) rarely discuss the multiple conjectures that have accrued around the history of hard words. Nor is compiling such detailed surveys always worth the trouble. Modern (that is, post-medieval) European etymology is four centuries old, and a lot of rubbish has accumulated in journals and books between the early sixteen hundreds and today. In this blog, I don’t even try to present the endless controversy surrounding such cruxes as boy, girl, man, child, some animal names, and so forth, let alone slang. At best, I merely scratch the surface. That is why below I’ll confine myself to the most basic hypotheses concerning beacon. The obscurity surrounding it will remain.

The word surfaced early. Its Old English form was bēacen (ēa designates a long diphthong: ē followed by a). The other West Germanic forms were similar. Old Icelandic bákn was borrowed, more probably from some Low German dialect. But the exact lending language is of no importance in this context: whatever the source, the original noun seems to have been restricted to West Germanic. It does not occur in the fourth-century Gothic translation of the New Testament, and it probably did not exist in that language, because a proper context for it was present more than once. As far as we can judge, beacon is a relatively local word, and this fact complicates attempts to find its Common Germanic, let alone Indo-European, ancestor. Searching for a phantom and pretending to have found it does not look like a rewarding enterprise.

The best authorities disagree on the origin of beacon. (Image by UK Parliament via Flickr)

But before throwing a quick look at the picture, we should first keep in mind all the attested senses that Old English bēacen (which sometimes occurred with the prefix ge-) had: “sign, phenomenon, portent, apparition, banner,” and once “an audible (!) signal.” The word made its way into both prose and poetry. Only two glosses on Latin words (both compounds), namely bēacen-fȳr (fȳr “fire”) “lighthouse” and bēacen-stān (stān “stone”) “a stone on which to light a beacon,” testify to the early existence of bēacen in its modern sense. The cognates of beacon in the related languages regularly refer to miraculous events. That is why the word easily passed into religious and philosophical language. In Old English, we find gebēacnung “categoria” (-ung is a suffix). In Low German, boken glossed Latin misterium, omen, while Middle Dutch bokene was explained as “phantasma, spectrum.”

Of special interest is Old Icelandic bákn. In the extant texts, it turned up only twice, both times in a verse. It seems to have meant “a sign with which one hopes to ensure victory” (the exact sense is hard to establish because the occurrences are so few). Clearly, in the north, bákn sounded exotic and was chosen for a special effect, the more so as it occurred in a verse (a most unusual thing for a borrowing in Old Icelandic). Since it was a loanword, it may have preserved the sense it had in the lending West Germanic language. One thing is obvious. If we want to understand the evolution of beacon, we should remember that “lighthouse” is almost certainly not the beginning of its semantic history. We should rather begin with “portent; miracle; ominous sign.” The opposite way, from a mundane lighthouse to miraculous and supernatural phenomena is unlikely (though such a way has been considered). Incidentally, the English verb beckon is directly related to beacon, but the shortening of the root vowel destroyed the connection. Beck in the idiom at one’s beck and call is a shortened form of beckon. We seem to be no longer aware of that connection either.

An ancient beacon. (Image: Ancient beacon of the Mediterranean: The Pharos of Alexandria, via New York Public Library)

All attempts to discover the origin of beacon remain guesswork.

1) In the Germanic languages, some words begin with b-, which is a remnant of the old prefix be-. For instance, German bleiben “to stay” goes back to be-leiben and is cognate with the English verb leave. Perhaps the root of beacon is auk-n-, with auk– meaning “eye,” as in German Auge? Beacon will then emerge as “a thing seen.” The origin of final –n remains unexplained.

2) Or the root of beacon means “shining,” but the supporting evidence is meager (one unclear Icelandic word).

3) Or beacon is in some way connected with such words as German Baum ~ Gothic bagms “tree.” However, early “beacons” (signs, apparitions, monsters, banners, and funeral mounds) were certainly not trees. Nor were they exclusively signal fires, which makes all etymologies of beacon based on the concepts of sheen and brightness suspect.

4) If beacons were initially audible signals, perhaps we should look for the best solution in comparing beacon with Latin būcina “signal horn,” which has come down to us as English bassoon. Or perhaps German Pauke “kettledrum” contains a better hint of where beacon came from.

Baltic, Celtic, Hebrew, along with German regional lookalikes, have also been suggested as helpful clues and discarded or even never considered seriously. Yet it seems that a fairly realistic solution was suggested more than a century ago, though it did not deal expressly with beacon. Even eighteenth-century researchers noted that English and German words beginning with b- and p- often convey the idea of swelling. Such are big, bag, bug, buck, pig (the Dutch for “pig” is big!); bud, pod, poodle, and many, many others. We are dealing with a group of similar “expressive” words transcending the borders of the Germanic family. Swollen and noisy “bogeys” cross language barriers and defy sound laws.

These are the presumed linguistic relatives of our beacon. (Image by (L) prof.bizzarro, (R) Tam Tam, via Flickr)

I believe that the original meaning of beacon was “apparition; specter, etc.,” which only later acquired the specialized sense “signal fire.” Such creatures are of course able to swell, howl, shine, and frighten people. This view is only partly mine. If it deserves consideration, we should agree that beacon has no Indo-European roots (this is something I have suspected all along). The Germanic protoform was bauk-.

The question that has not been addressed in this reconstruction is the origin of –n. Here I depend on my own hypothesis. I notice that token and beacon were very close, almost interchangeable synonyms in Old English, and that is why I began this two-part series with token. Above, I listed the recorded senses of Old English bēacen. Compare the senses of Old English tācen: “symbol, sign, signal, mark, indication, suggestion; portent, marvel, wonder, miracle; evidence, proof; standard, banner.” It seems likely that the two words interacted and influenced each other and that beacon acquired its –n form tācen. No proof is forthcoming: all that a matter of verisimilitude.

Closely connected with the history of beacon is the history of buoy, but the etymology of buoy cannot be discussed in a postscript to this essay. I may return to buoy but not in the immediate future.

Featured image by Mitch Mckee via Unsplash

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