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From Halloween to Thanksgiving

In the continental United States, Thanksgiving is celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November. Before this date, some newspaper usually sends me questions about the origin of turkey, because turkey is the most conspicuous ornament of the traditional Thanksgiving dinner. But, for a change, I’ll deviate from this practice and turn to another subject. Both thank and give deserve our attention! And it is those two outwardly unexciting words that I’ll offer today as part of our etymological feast. The verb give is harder, and it may be more practical to begin with it.

Some of our readers may be surprised to learn how much trouble give has caused word historians. Only one thing is clear about it: though give is a Common Germanic verb, from a broader, that is, Indo-European, perspective it is an innovation. The ancient Indo-European root has been preserved in Greek, Latin, Slavic, and elsewhere, but not in Germanic. The Latin for I give is do, which we recognize in the English verb do-nate. Hence the formula do ut des “I give, so that you may give (back).” Donatus (that is, “a gift from God”) and Donatello are well-known names; they derive from the past participle of Latin do, dedi, datum, dare.

Since the earliest days, gifts presupposed a return gesture (hence the phrase gift exchange), and the idea of exchange that underlies giving resulted in an outwardly surprising confusion of “give” and “take” in the languages of the world. For example, Old Irish gaibim means “I take”; yet the root vowels ai in Irish and e in Germanic geban are incompatible, and despite the endorsement of this etymology by many good scholars, it remains unclear whether the two words are related. However, the ancient custom of exchange is a fact.

This is a picture of possibly the first edition of Ars Minor by Donatus, an immensely popular grammar by a Roman scholar.
(Donatus, Aelius: [Ars minor]. [Basel] : [Michael Furter], [1496?]. Universitätsbibliothek Basel, DC V 13:3, https://doi.org/10.3931/e-rara-16603 / Public Domain Mark)

The Old English form of give was g(i)efan, pronounced y(i)evan. Its Scandinavian cognate was geba, and the Modern English form with hard g- is the result of borrowing. But for the Viking victories in the Middle Ages, give (as well as get) would have begun with the sound we today have in yield and yearn, both of which withstood the pressure of Old Danish. If the ancient form geban (compare Modern German geben) was an innovation, how did it arise? Words, unless they are sound-imitative (like oink-oink and thump, among many others) or symbolic (like probably the verb spit), are produced from the requisite stock-in trade.

Two more or less similar look-alikes suggest themselves as the material from which give (that is, geban) was formed. One is the verb have (the earliest recorded Germanic form—so in Gothic—is haban). The association between “give” and “have” hardly needs proof. According to the traditional point of view, Indo-European had the consonants bh, dh, and gh. From the third of them, g-, as in geben, and h and haban, could have evolved. I am sorry for repeating the same dictum again and again, but experience shows that one obscure word cannot shed light on another word of unknown origin, and as regards etymology, Germanic haban is indeed obscure. It is a seemingly illegitimate twin of Latin habeo (the same meaning). Germanic h (as in haban) should correspond to non-Germanic k- (as between Engl. head versus Latin caput “head”; compare Engl. capital, decapitate, and so forth), not h. Many pages have been devoted to the origin of the Germanic verb. Could it be taken over from Latin? Of course, it could, but why should people have borrowed such a basic word as have? Since the original form of have remains a matter of debate, we cannot decide whether give was derived from it.

The other close neighbor of Germanic geban is Latin capio “to catch” (compare Engl. capture). The correspondence is again imperfect. This time, we need Germanic h-: see the caput ~ head pair above. But words people coin to refer to getting hold of objects are indeed expressive. The Swiss linguist Wilhelm Oehl, to whose half-forgotten works I keep referring with some regularity, devoted an illuminating essay to them. People catch objects and say hop, hap, gop, gap, and the like all over the world. I may cite Russian khapat’ “to seize” and gop!, a shout accompanying a successful jump. Oehl offered long lists of similar words. These exclamations do not obey regular sound correspondences, cross language barriers, and finally become fully respectable items in our vocabulary.

Hop, gop!
(Photo by Chris Chow on Unsplash)

This is all true, but the relation between give and have is at best a clever hypothesis. Those who will take the trouble to look up give in good etymological dictionaries will find a list of secure cognates and a sad admission to the effect that the ultimate answer evades us. I can only repeat: “Do ut des!” and, if you need more Latin, carpe diem! “seize the day,” that is, enjoy the glorious present. You may not think that the present moment is glorious—enjoy it all the same.

We can now go over to thank. It is related to think. The same picture emerges from other Germanic languages. For example, German has danken “to thank” and denken “to think.” It should be remembered that the original root vowel of think was a. The oldest Germanic verb was pronounced thank-j-an (j has the value of Engl. y in yes). The suffix j caused umlaut, which changed the root vowel a to e. The Dutch and German for think is still denken, that is, from the historical point of view it is dänken. And thank has always been thank-! English has widened the distance between the two words even more, because the root vowel e became i before n: hence think.

Is he harboring only kind thoughts?
(“Le penseur de la Porte de l’Enfer (musée Rodin)” by Jean-Pierre Dalbéra, via Wikimedia Commons)

If, while dealing with give, we were in trouble with phonetics (the consonants refused to math), here we are puzzled by the development of meaning. Think and thank had the same root, namely thank-, but how did the meaning develop? The tie between thinking and thanking goes back to the beginning of recorded time. In Old English, the noun thank meant “thought” and (specifically) “kindly thought.” The Old Icelandic senses are even more revealing: “thought” and “joy.” Apparently, think, in addition to the expected senses (“conceive, consider”), suggested the idea of remembering and remembering things well or kindly. Such secondary overtones must have been primary. To think “cogitate” is an extremely abstract concept. It probably developed from a more concrete nucleus, such as “remember; consider things in their true light; appreciate the fact of knowing an important fact.” In an oral culture, such associations must have sprung up in a natural way. Only one step separated kind thoughts from gratitude.

This conclusion seems to be a proper way for an etymologist to celebrate Thanksgiving. Catch and enjoy the day of rest and think kindly of the world, even though it does not always treat you kindly.

Featured image by Viktor Talashuk via Unsplash

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