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Sky word origin

The sky’s the limit

Last week’s post was devoted to the word earth. Time to move on, as they say after a serious but unresolved crisis (not the best Wellerism in the world). We can progress to Cloud Nine or seventh heaven, or wherever, but in all cases, we will notice that English (uncharacteristically) has two, if not even three, words for the sphere above us: sky, heaven, and firmament. The case of English is not unique but rare: usually a single word suffices. Sky and heaven can be used in the plural (for heavens’ sake; praise to the skies, and in more mundane contexts), while earth is just earth. We stand on the ground with both feet, and even though we distinguish between earth, land, ground, and soil, each word has its sphere of application and refers to something solid.

But what is the sky, that infinite expanse over us and the habitat of the gods? In the past, people had the same trouble defining the home of the sun, the moon, and the stars as we do. The medieval Scandinavians distinguished at least three skies. In the highest of them, the goat Heiðrún (ð = th in English this) lived, devoured the leaves of the world tree, thereby accelerating the end of the world, but produced a never-ending stream of mead for the gods and the warriors of Valhalla. Firmament means “the vault of heaven.” Apparently, it is firm. In ancient astronomy, the firmament was the eighth sphere, containing the fixed stars that surrounded the seven spheres of the planets. The sky is indeed the limit. The plural use of heaven and sky goes back to the oldest Hebrew tradition. By way of postscript, I may add that in the ancient mythology of the Indo-Europeans, the sky was represented as a male impregnating the earth (see the end of the previous post). With great regularity, the words for “earth” are feminine and the oldest words for “heaven” masculine. Latin caelum (it will reemerge below), which is neuter, has not preserved the original grammatical gender.

Heaving and supporting the heavens
(Atlas and the Hesperides by John Singer Sargent, via Wikimedia Commons)

Sky and firmament appeared in Middle English at approximately the same time (in the thirteenth century). Both are borrowings: the first from Old Norse and the second from Old French, the two languages that shaped the vocabulary of English in the most decisive way. As could be expected, the Scandinavian loan became a homey word, while the French one belongs to a more solemn register. Though the import from Old Norse meant “cloud,” rather than “sky,” ský drove out Old English (native) scēo. Thus, from a historical point of view, the word refers to a cloudy sky. The meaning of the ancient root has not been ascertained, and I will pass it by but note that a few related nouns in Germanic mean “mirror.” How are “mirror” and “cloud” connected? Presumably, the image in a mirror was understood as a shadow cast by the person or object in front of it. “Cloud” and “shadow” are indeed not incompatible.

From an etymological point of view, the most interesting word of those mentioned above is heaven, going back to Old English heofon. To begin with, it sounds like the related Old Saxon noun but does not quite match Dutch hemel ~ German Himmel. The difference between the final syllables –el and –on (Old Saxon –an) can probably be explained away: they were either always different or changed, for whatever reason, in Old English and Old Saxon. Since in Gothic, the earliest Germanic language from which we have a long consecutive text (a fourth-century translation of parts of the New Testament), the word for “sky” was himins, it seems that the ancient root was hem– (in Gothic, every short e became i), rather than hef-.

The meaning of this root remains an object of debate. The earliest guess was that heaven is something that has been heaved. Indeed, in some mythologies, the sky does mean a sphere raised, but we need a clue to the root hem-. The great German language historian Friedrich Kluge suggested that the word’s root is hai– and cited Modern German hei-t-er “bright.” This was a clever move. Old English hādor (from haidor) means “serene,” and close by we find the Latin word cael-um “sky, heaven” (cf. English celestial). Contrary to the Scandinavian-English cloudy sky, the southern sky of the Romans was bright. But the root Kluge cited meant too many things. Thus, the Modern English suffix –hood (as in childhood; Old Engl. –hād) and its cognates, meant “quality,” with many ramifications, from “sex” to “rank.” It did also refer to brightness, but only among others. Also, let us not forget that we need a root sounding like hem-.

A page of the Zend Avesta
(From Bodleian Library via Wikimedia Commons)

Kluge’s successors preferred to compare Himmel and heaven with words referring to “cover,” such as Old English hama “cloth; skin,” German Hem-d “shirt,” and so forth. Himmel ~ heaven emerged from this interpretation as “the cover of the world.” Old Engl. heofon-hūs ~ hūs-heofon, literally “heaven-house ~ “house-heaven” meant “the ceiling of the house.” One can find this etymology in several good dictionaries. Latin cam-ur “vaulted” (as well as nearly the same word in Greek) also corresponds to the Germanic root. (I need hardly remind our readers that k in Latin, Greek, and other non-Germanic languages corresponds to Germanic h by the First Consonant Shift, as in English heart versus Latin cor, cordis.) As regards meaning, “vaulted” and “heaven” certainly belong together.

I am now coming to the last hypothesis for today. The root of Himmel reminds us of the word hammer. Can the sky (heaven) be associated with a hammer? The most ancient hammers were made of stone. Consequently, our question should be reformulated so: “Can heaven and stone have anything in common”? In the text of the Avesta, a collection of religious texts in an old Iranian language (and it seems only there), the word asman– means both “stone” and “heaven.” The idea that in the past, the sky and stone were in some way connected in people’s minds was offered long ago (I believe, in 1913) and has both opponents and supporters. At present, supporters seem to predominate. We have already met the Old Scandinavian goat. We can now turn to the formidable god Þórr (Thor), the fearless giant-killer, but originally Thor was a (or the only) thunder god of the medieval Scandinavians. His main weapon is the hammer Mjöllnir, transliterated in English texts with one l (Mjölnir or Mjolnir).

Thor and his hammer
(Figure of god Thor, National Museum of Iceland, Reykjavik, via Wikimedia Commons)

Perhaps the sky was associated with thunder, and thunder made people think of a shower of stones falling from the sky (or of meteorites?). In mountainous regions, the sky god is usually associated with thunderbolts because of the terrifying echo, while in the landscapes with predominating plains, the supreme sky god more often kills his victims with lightning (as did Zeus-Jupiter).

Such is the state of the art. English has sky, heaven, and firmament. They have divided their spheres of application and coexist in peace. The sky is not always cloudy, the heavens are not necessarily made of stone, and only the firmament remains firm. It will be fair to say that the origin of heaven remains undisclosed. Yet we seem to be wandering not too far from the truth. In etymology, the goal often evades us, and movement toward it is sometimes all we can offer. The same is true of our journey heavenwards.

Feature image by Jelleke Vanooteghem on Unsplash

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