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How to chide according to rule, or the thin edge of the wedge

Fifteen years ago, I mentioned the verb chide in a post but have never returned to it. Chide remains a word “of unknown origin,” even though the Online Etymological Dictionary mentions the hypothesis suggested in my 2008 An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology. Perhaps it might be interesting to some of our readers to know the history of research into the etymology of this verb.

Two circumstances should be noted. First, verbs meaning “to chastise” often originate in low slang and thieves’ cant or are borrowed from equally vituperative but more eloquent neighbors. Second, though Old English cīdan has a long vowel, its root (cīd) resembles verbs and nouns like dig, bug, cog, and so forth, some of which are sound-imitative or sound-symbolic and do not have an ascertainable etymology. The Old English noun gecīd means “strife, altercation,” and we cannot know whether the verb was derived from the noun or the noun was a back formation on the verb. Nor does the solution matter for discovering the origin of the root. As a curiosity, the modern verb to kid (as in you are kidding) may be mentioned. It is a relatively modern word taken over from slang and has nothing to do with cīdan, but the similarity is curious. Perhaps cīd is also a word devoid of “respectable” ancestry.

In cīd, k- became ch– before ī (the same change would have occurred before a short front vowel), and ī turned into a modern diphthong by another regular change (the Great Vowel Shift). As far as the etymology is concerned, verbs going all the way from German schelten “to scold” (and perhaps—only perhaps—related to scold) and Dutch kijven “to quarrel” to Finnish kidata and kittistä “to creak, shriek; press together,” with Sanskrit, Greek, and Latin verbs beginning with k thrown in for good measure, have been cited as possible sources or analogs of chide.

Chiding an employee. (Image by Sebastian Herrmann.)

The modern Finnish etymological dictionaries call kittistä onomatopoeic, though the complex kit hardly renders any noise. In the world of sound imitation, strict rules are few. For instance, English thud, with its open vowel, makes us think of a noise produced by a heavy blow. Yet Old English had þyddan “to thrust, push,” a verb with a high vowel. Greek kudádzo and Old Russian kuditi “to scold” (stress on the second syllable) are close to cīd-, but they cannot be its regular cognates because they begin with k (by the First, or Germanic, Consonant Shift, their Germanic “relative” should have begun with h: compare Latin quod and Old English hwæt “what”), while the borrowing from either Greek, let alone Russian, is most unlikely.

One may also remember the undoubtedly sound-imitative verbs English tickle, German kitzeln, Latin titillare (the same meaning: cf. English titillate), and quite a few others bearing some resemblance to Old English cīd. In the past, lexicographers cited many such look-alikes, so that the entry chide in old dictionaries, regardless of whether their authors knew the Old English source of the modern form, consists mainly of long lists taking us nowhere. They only list many verbs sounding like chide and meaning about everything from “strike” to “creak” and “tickle.” Even Walter W. Skeat, in the first edition of his English etymological dictionary, mentioned a few verbs that might be close to chide. This is, apparently, a road nowhere. Therefore, such lists gradually disappeared from dictionaries and chide acquired the status of an isolated verb of unknown origin.

This was a natural outcome: the stricter our method of discovery, the less guesswork we find in our authoritative works. Only once have I come across a new tentative congener of chide in a reliable modern dictionary. Icelandic kiða “to rub, scratch, move with short steps” has been known since the seventeenth century and is as isolated in Scandinavian as chide is in English. The senses of kiða (the corresponding noun is kið) and Old English cīd do not match, and, even if the words in question are related, nothing follows from this fact about their origin.

A wooden wedge. The prototype devoutly to be wished? (Image by beprop.)

The reason I ventured to step into this etymological quagmire is that I think I have found a word with the same root as Old English cīd. In Middle High German (this term covers the history of the German language roughly between the thirteenth and the middle of the fifteenth century), the word kîdel “wedge” turned up (î designates a long vowel, the same as in Old English cīd). It was, most probably, an ancient word, and its reflex (continuation) still exists in modern dialects as Keidel, a doublet of the much better-known German noun Keil “wedge.”

The weakest link in my reconstruction is the attempt to trace the meaning of the root in kîdel to something like “cudgel,” though, as noted, the recorded sense is “wedge.” In many languages, the word for “wedge” is of obscure origin (as is typical of technical terms) and seems to refer to pricking, but just the root of Keidel probably means “to break up.” Meanings in this group of words fluctuate widely. Old English cycgel “cudgel” (German Keule) seems to be related to German Kugel “bullet.” The family name Keidel also exists, but its origin is disputable and therefore sheds no light on the common noun. If I am right, the original meaning of Old English gecīd was in the beginning not “strife” but “attacking an opponent with a stick; an exchange of blows,” while cīdan could be glossed “to brandish sticks.” If so, “scold, reprove” is a later figurative use of the same.

A somewhat more severe form of chiding! (Image by pxfuel.)

Rather close semantic parallels are not wanting. One of them is English rebuke, ultimately from Old French rebuschier. The verb buschier meant “beat, strike,” properly “cut down wood,” for busche designated “log.” The development was from “beat back” (note the prefix re-!) to “reprove.” English chicane and chicanery are of course also borrowings from French. The great French lexicographer Émile Littré traced chicane to a Persian word for a club or bat used in polo, via Medieval Latin and Medieval Greek. This idea has not been endorsed but never rebuffed. If trounce is related to truncheon, we have one more analog of the process suggested above. Given this sequence of events, chide will emerge as a Germanic word. Discussing the origin of its root would take me too far afield. In this post, I only tried to find a slot for chide in the welter of lookalikes in various languages.

Perhaps someone is reading this essay in Kent, GB. There is a famous village there called Chiddingstone, formerly Chidingstone  (“all on one side”; this phrase often occurs in English idioms); near the church, a certain stone is (or was) popularly known as Chiding Stone. “The village tradition is that on it the priests used to chide the people, whence the name.” (Notes and Queries, Series 7, Vol. 7, 1889, 445-46.) But more probably, the stone owes its origin to a proper name. (See also a rather detailed entry on Chiddingstone in Wikipedia.) Was Mr Chiding or Mr Chidda related to his German double Herr Keidel? Does the stone still exist? Stones are rather permanent fixtures. If someone from Kent sends us a photo or a drawing of it, we’ll post it in this blog with appreciation and gratitude.

Featured image by Nigel Chadwick via Wikimedia Commons

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  1. Alan Mighty

    For images of the Chiding Stone, see: https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/chiddingstone-village/features/the-chiding-stone

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