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Earth word origin

Many words for a small world and a little-known centennial

What do we call the world in which we live? The specifically Germanic noun world (German Welt, Old English werold) is perhaps the most puzzling word known in this area. It was once a compound consisting of “man” (wer-, related to Latin vir: compare English virility) and “age” (-old). The word referred to the time one spent on the earth, rather than space—from our point of view, an odd confusion of concepts. The Scandinavians had a similar word, but it appeared in the extant texts late and was probably borrowed from their neighbors. The Old Scandinavian native word for “world” was heimr “home,” a cozy name indeed. Someone who never traveled, a stay-at-home, was called heim-sk- “stupid.” They named “inhabited earth” mið-garðr (ð, as th in English the), that is, “middle yard,” a territory fenced in, or perhaps their “yard” was situated on the vertical axis, between heaven and earth.

Other than that, we observe a surprisingly wide list of words for the place people inhabit. Earth has a few recognizable cognates. Apparently, th was some kind of suffix. The phrase some kind of conceals our ignorance of this element’s function; historical linguists call it an enlargement. Once, in an old German religious text, ero “earth” turned up. In an Old English incantation (charm), some goddess apostrophized as Erce seems to be invoked. The beginning is: “Erce, erce, erce, earth’s mother.” Nothing is known about her; perhaps this treble repetition of the same word is magic rigmarole (not even a name). Yet the syllable er- is suggestive, because er- was indeed the ancient root of the word earth.

The triumph of etymology: Bears are brown, grass is green.
(Image by mana5280 via Unsplash)

We of course would like to ask why er– was chosen as the root of the planet’s name. But wherever we dig, we encounter the same syllable. For example, in Homeric Greek, ‘éra-dze meant “to earth.” An Old Icelandic noun with another “enlargement” was jörfi, that is, jör-f-i (from the reconstructed earlier form er-wan) “sand mound”; the word is still current in Icelandic. Even if we assume that the root er- meant “sand” or “soil,” we’ll be none the wiser. To repeat: why er-? This is of course the main question that interests us. Those who ask etymologists why a fish is called fish and why summer is called summer want to know only this. A list of cognates and discussion of enlargements and of vowel or consonant alternations interest only professional linguists. Sometimes an answer is available. For example, the name of the animal name bear is rather probably derived from the color word “brown.” Grass and green are related to grow. I am aware of only one, perhaps successful, attempt of making sense of the root er. In 1921 (so a hundred years ago!), Otto Hoffmann, a distinguished Classical scholar, cited several er-words that refer to splitting and sundering, referred to a convincing parallel, and suggested that the earth had been conceived as a “separate territory.” To be sure, we are left wondering why er– should have been endowed with such a meaning, but sooner or later etymologists always run into this wall (unless, to repeat, the roots are obviously expressive). To make our task even more complicated, we note that in Ancient Egypt, A’aru was the name of the field of the dead. Can earth be a migratory word (Wanderwort)?  Probably not, though some evidence of the world-wide currency of this root is suggestive.

We may be less ignorant when it comes to land, because the words that are related to it display a wider variety of senses. This was the main problem with earth: all the cognates mean just “earth.” The Celtic cognates of land refer to “open space, enclosure.” The idea of enclosing one’s territory played an important role in the coining of words by our ancestors. One should only not carry this valid point to its extreme, as was done by the prominent German linguist Jost Trier, who saw fences everywhere. Some of his suggestions were inspiring, while others look fanciful. In any case, Irish land ~ lann does mean “enclosure, open space, plain,” while the Slavic cognates mean “heath, desert.” If we assume that in the history of words concrete senses usually precede the more abstract ones, land-, it seems, first meant “uncultivated field” or something like it. Yet the main (crucial!) question of course remains: “What was there in the syllable land that suggested to speakers the idea of an open space (overgrown with grass)?

The hell dog Cerberus was one of the most famous chthonic creatures.
(By Antonio Tempesta, Metropolitan Museum of Art)

When we deal with short roots, we can often answer those who want to know where a certain word came from only when it is sound-imitating (onomatopoeic) or obviously expressive. Perhaps this is what happened in the history of ground. In Old English, ground meant “bottom of the sea.” Ships can still run aground and are sometimes grounded. Ground is, most probably, related to the verb grind by ablaut (vowel alternation). The initial cluster gr- is indeed expressive, and I have often written about it: grit, grip, grumble, groan, grim, grouch, gruesome, and quite a few others arose as sound symbolic words, even though gr- may evoke dissimilar associations. The Old English monster Grendel did not get his name for nothing. Among others, gr– might produce the idea of a strong effort, so that the word ground perhaps made people think of breaking the resistance of the soil on which they built their houses or grew their crops. The verb break, which begins with br-, a similar sound combination, is almost certainly expressive. The same holds for the adjective brittle, related to the Old English verb brēotan “to break,” allegedly of unknown origin! (Br– is fine, but where did the rest of the verb come from?)

While travelling over the world of Indo-European speakers, we observe again and again how many words for “earth” we encounter. Latin terra comes to mind first, because it has left so many traces in English (terrain, territory, terrestrial, subterranean, and so forth). Perhaps terra is related to torrid. If so, its first sense may have been “very dry earth.” The oldest Indo-European word for “earth” seems to have been humus, and it is widely believed that Latin homo “human being” has the same root. (While we live, we cannot be lower than the ground; hence, via French, English humiliate and humble, the latter with an excrescent b in the middle). Humus (no connection with Arabic hummus) is related to Russian zemlia “earth” (stress on the second syllable).

This what the Greeks thought of Gaea’s appearance.
(“The Birth of Erichthonius. Gaea, goddess of Earth … presents the young Erichthonius to Minerva.” Via The New York Public Library Digital Collections.)

The adjective autochthonous “indigenous” is bookish but not too rare. Khtōn is still another Greek word for “earth.” It is related to Latin humus, mentioned above. A more specialized adjective with the same root is chthonic, often used in mythology: the chthonic deities lived in the underworld. And finally, let us not forget Gaea, “the earth,” so familiar from geology, geometry, and geography. It is comforting to know that Gaea is both the child and the wife of Heaven (Ouranós), but, sadly, nothing is known about the origin of her name (the root is ; it must have referred to something very earthy). Perhaps the guttural beginning of khton and Gaea had some sound-symbolic value, but this is unproductive guesswork.

Feature image by NASA via Unsplash

Recent Comments

  1. Gavin Wraith

    The earth was always dark or black: ‘dankui tekan’ in Hittite, ‘epi gan melainan’ in Sappho.

  2. Sam Bleicher

    This post was truly worthwhile to read. I wanted to say thank you for the key points you have pointed out as they are enlightening.

  3. Clancette Clift

    Very interesting & entertaining ,

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