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An etymological meltdown: “thaw,” “dew,” and “icicles”

The last two posts were devoted to ice and snow. “The ground was covered with frost and snow, and the two little kittens had nowhere to go.” Perhaps you remember the poem about two little kittens which one stormy night began to quarrel and then to fight: they had not yet learned the virtue of caring and sharing. It was written by Jane Taylor (1783-1824), who was also the author of “Twinkle, twinkle, little star.” The latter poem is an object of an amusing parody in Alice in Wonderland. (“Twinkle, twinkle, Little Bat,” with an allusion to a professor at Oxford, nicknamed The Bat.) The kittens’ quarrel had a happy end, and so will my short series. Consider an old rime: “First it blew, / Then it snew, / Then it thew.”

A bit more is known about the origin of the words thaw and dew than about ice and snow. They are less impenetrable than those two, but they also contain riddles. Though both thaw and dew have some connection with water, the words don’t seem to be related, because one begins with th and the other with d. In searching for cognates, an etymologist should pay equal attention to vowels and consonants. Strangely, in German, both thaw and dew are Tau, that is, the words, obviously cognate with English thaw and dew, begin with the same consonant. This is unexpected. Compare the usual correspondences: English three ~ German drei, English dry ~ German trocken. English thaw should have had a German cognate beginning with a d! And the word we need exists. It is German (ver)dauen, but it means “to digest.” This is where the game begins.

Thaw is welcome—in both nature and politics.

Semantic bridges are often easy to build: given enough intermediate links, almost any two concepts may begin to look compatible. If we agree that digest means approximately the same as liquefy or dissolve, then “melt” will emerge as an acceptable bridge between “digest” and “thaw.” Swedish smälta, for instance, means both “to melt” and “to digest.” Old Icelandic melta, an obvious cognate of English melt, also means “to digest” (as usual, we’ll disregard the alternation m ~ sm and ascribe it to the existence of the inscrutable s-mobile). The common denominator is “to make soft” (as in Latin mollis “soft”— compare English mollify—or “dissolve”). Regular cognates of thaw are many: Russian taiat (verb) and similar verbs in Celtic and Greek are among them. Thus, we are left with an irregular German word Tau “thaw,” allegedly influenced by the other Tau “dew.”

A true analogue of some semantic bridges.
(Image by Backroad Packers via Unsplash.)

Not the whole history of dew in Germanic is complicated. (Incidentally, dew in English mildew is the same word.) Scandinavian has regular cognates: Icelandic dögg, Norwegian dogg, Swedish dagg ~ dugg, Danish dug, etc. The origin of final g in the Scandinavian languages need not bother us: it has been accounted for. All the rest is murky: German Dampf “steam” may be related (I am not citing English damp, because it was borrowed from Low German; Dutch damp still means “vapor, steam, smoke”). The main trouble is the merger of the German words for “thaw’” and “dew.” Not improbably, the confusion between such words is old. There was, apparently, an ancient root that meant “to rise in a cloud as dust, vapor, or smoke” and related, among many other things, to the notion of breath. Russian dukh “spirit” and English fume (the latter from Latin via French) belong here; d- and f- in the words cited above go back to Indo-European dh. The confusion in German (Tau “dew” and Tau “thaw”) may be part of that larger picture, as suggested by the Swiss researcher Wilhelm Oehl, who, while studying word origins, cast a very broad net but published his works almost only in the annual Anthropos and is therefore little remembered by modern etymologists. Likewise, Viktor Levitsky, the author of an etymological dictionary of the Germanic languages (2010), noted the proximity between the root designating “to flow” and “to move fast.” All such facts are thought-provoking, as the saying goes, but do not explain the merger of the two words (for “thaw” and “dew”) in German.

This is when the dew point is due.
(Image by Aaron Burden via Unsplash.)

(I cannot refrain from an irrelevant comment. In British English, due and dew are usually pronounced as the first syllable of jury, and in this blog, I have once mentioned my puzzlement on being advised by a knowledgeable person to join a certain learned society: for joining it, I only had—or so I heard the recommendation—to pay my Jews. On the other hand, in American English, due and dew are homophones of do, and I regularly receive emails from my students asking me when the papers are do, even though everything is written in the syllabus. Those letter writers also tend to spell professor with two f’s and one s.)   

For dessert, I’ll say something about icicles. You may remember that in the post on ice, I wrote that the word icicle consists of two components. The first is obviously ice, while the second is related to Icelandic jökull “glacier.” But both ice, from Germanic īs, and –ic(le) ~ jök(ull) are said to be related to the same Scandinavian word meaning “icicle; ice floe.” Icicle emerged as a tautological compound meaning “floe-floe” or “ice-ice,” or some other long word, whose first element means the same as the second one (compare pathway and sledgehammer). And indeed, Old English gicel did mean “ice,” a fact well-known but seldom discussed in this context. Long ago, some naïve people believed that in icicle, –icle is a mysterious Latin suffix. Today we know better. Perhaps, while reading this post, you remembered popsicle. It is an invented word. Whatever pop means in it, the end of this noun took its inspiration from icicle.

The truly amazing thing is the multitude of words coined by people for “icicle.” In 1961, Erik Roth, an eminent Swedish scholar, brought out a book (163 pages!) on this multitude. I’ll skip the German and the Scandinavian material, because British English also presents a motley picture. (The American Dictionary of Regional English probably has more words of this type.) To begin with, dialectal ickle is not dead. Among the rather numerous phonetic variants of this word, some, like eckle and aigle, are easily recognizable. One or two have even made their way into thick dictionaries. In the Middle English compound ise-yokel, s was assimilated to sh before y (compare the pronunciation of phrases like as you like it), is-shockle emerged, shockle “icicle” pried itself loose from the compound, and a new word was born. This is perhaps the best-known northern form of them all, but tankle exists too, along with icittle, ishicle, icelick, and so forth. In the south, we encounter clinker-bell (-bill) and ice-candle, the best of them all. An icicle looks like a dagger, another image that occurred to many (compare Scottish icedirk). A nice word is aquabob. Thus, shockle, shoggle, shackle, tankle, tanklel, –candle, ice-lick, eckle, and even ice-bug. Take your pick and prepare for the coming winter.

Ice dagger. Beware: it is sharp.
(Image by Frederick Dennstedt via Flickr.)

Featured image by Xena*best friend* via Flickr

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