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To "see" is not to "follow". Monthly etymology gleanings for January 2022

Monthly gleanings for January 2022

The origin of the verb to see: the state of the art

See was the subject of the most recent post (26 January 2022). In this blog, I usually try to do without exact references, and last time, I also mentioned an authoritative recent book but gave no names. In my database, 74 references to see can be found, that is, to 74 articles in which the origin of see is discussed. No doubt, I have not licked the plate clean. But our readers may be curious to know that even the most recent hypotheses are old and that the conjectures current today were not only discussed but often refuted or at least called into question long ago. Etymologists tend to revive old conjectures because it is extremely difficult to cull all of them. Take the most popular one, according to which see has developed from a verb meaning “to follow.” It has been around for a hundred years. Also, the derivation of say and see from the same root looks like a daring recent hypothesis. Yet nothing can be further from the truth.

As early as in 1892, it was pointed out that the Gothic noun siuns, derived from the root of the verb saihwan “to see,” meant only “face” and “vision.” If “follow” had been the root’s nuclear meaning, the noun would probably have meant “following; sequence” or something similar. And around the same time, it was said that the development from “follow” to “see” is hard to imagine. Eighty years later, similar doubts about the derivation of “see” from “follow” were repeated, and an additional consideration was cited, namely, that in no recorded language, including Hittite, does a cognate of see mean “follow.” This may not be a crushing blow to the favored etymology, but it should be taken seriously. I’ll skip some other arguments: they are too technical to be discussed here. The string “to be seen”—“to show, indicate”—“to say” was also reconstructed more than a century ago. Indeed, Latin dicere means “to say,” while indicere means “to show, indicate.” The semantic reconstruction of this type does without the intermediate link “to cut,” discussed not unfavorably last week. Where then is the truth?

Echo and Narcissus
(By John William Waterhouse, via Wikimedia Commons)

This excursus is meant to illustrate how shaky almost any etymology is and how cautiously one has to take dogmatic statements even in good etymological dictionaries. One needs a complete picture, with multiple references, in order to get an informed opinion about the statements given there. They are not wrong, because no one knows the truth: they are lopsided. It does seem that see has nothing to do with following or hunting, among other things because to see is to keep something in sight, rather than follow a moving target (this consideration is also old!). It remains somewhat unclear to what extent see and say are related, and we are unlikely to reach a fully persuasive conclusion. Lithuanian sakýti “to say,” as opposed to sèkti “to follow the track” (mentioned in the previous post), both seemingly related to the Germanic verb, will haunt us as long as we remain on this perilous track. An enlightened reader needs a full discussion of all the existing conjectures, which means that every etymology, the references included, should be many pages long—apparently, a utopian project. A lay reader will be satisfied with a short summary of the state of the art and can dispense with a long list of cognates if it leads nowhere. Only apodictic statements should be avoided, because in too many cases the etymologist is doomed to offer a mildly intelligent guess, rather than a solution.


Baba Yaga
(By Darelle via Pixabay)

This word came up in connection with the origin of the verb hear, from Germanic hausjan. The Greek word had no initial aspiration. In mythology, Echo was a nymph, vainly pursued by Pan, who sent mad shepherds to tear her to pieces, but earth hid the fragments, which imitate other sounds. Another version connects Echo with Hera, who detested Echo, an incorrigible chatterbox, and allowed her only to repeat what other people said. More tales of the same nature have been recorded. Especially famous is the tale of Echo (she could hear only herself) and Narcissus (he could enjoy only his own image: the version is suspiciously too symmetrical to be genuine). The word echo resembles interjections (akh!, okh!, ekh!). Do all our readers remember that in nineteenth-century grammar books and even later, interjection was called ejaculation? Those innocent grammarians! Echo is probably a sound-imitating word, like the echo itself. Not even by the wildest stretch of imagination can one connect echo and Germanic hausjan.

More mythology: Baba Yaga

Baba Yaga (stress on the last syllable!) is a character in Slavic folklore. Her roles are many. Perhaps the most ancient one is that she guards the checkpoint between the world of the living and the world of the dead and will or will not allow the hero to cross the border. She lives in a revolving hut on chicken legs, and her nose is stuck in the ceiling. But in many tales, she steals small children and tries to thwart the heroine who comes to her sibling’s rescue. She flies on a broomstick and sweeps her tracks with the help of that implement. Baba means “woman” or “old woman” and has finished its career oversees in the perfectly innocuous sweet babka (at least so in the US) and babushka “kerchief” (also stressed on a wrong syllable!). The question was about the etymology of Yaga. The conjectures are rather many. In some Slavic languages, the cognates of Yaga mean “superstitious fear; awe; torture,” and outside Slavic, the proposed related forms mean more or less the same. Perhaps the name always meant “Lady Fright.”

These are babushka: the image is right, the stress on the second syllable is not.
(By Лариса Горбунова via Wikimedia Commons)


On 12 January 2011, I published a post on the word masher. Quite recently, Mr Michael Hocken discovered that post and sent me a series of photos by Samuel Hey of so-called black mashers. The main point, he says, is to confirm that the term black mashers does appear to have been in the late 1880s—and in the UK—to describe the performance more generally known as black minstrels. They appear in “blackface” in one of the images. It would be most interesting to hear from our readers what they know about those minstrels. Please post you answers in the “comments,” rather than in emails addressed to me.

Odds and ends

Maga ~ Mac

A correspondent asked me why Tamil maga “young man” sounds so much like Celtic Mac “son.” Knowing nothing about Tamil and very little about Proto-Celtic, I can only risk saying that this is a coincidence. Yet the consonant m often occurs in words for “we” and “one’s own.” The lips are pressed together, and this image provides a feeling of belonging. I have read some works explaining the otherwise incomprehensible change of wir “we” to mir in some German dialects and Yiddish. Russian for “we” also begins with m. But of course, this is not an answer to the question I received. More informed replies are welcome!

Mussorgsky – Pictures at an Exhibition – XIV. The Hut on Fowl’s Legs (Baba-Yagá)

Hebrew shekel ~ Indian sikla

Those are related. This monetary unit was known widely: Hebrew sheqel, Syrian shāqual, Persian síglos, Greek síglos ~ síklos, Late Latin siklus. Engl. lop-sided.  Lop is usually referred to lob (the variation p ~ b in such monosyllables is not uncommon, and at one time loppe and lobbe alternated as the name for the spider. The verb lob, of Low German or Dutch provenance, meant “to drop.” Lop-eared has a similar origin.

German hören “to hear” and aufhören “to stop”

I wrote that aufhören is a puzzle: Why should a combination of the adverb (or preposition) auf “on” and hören “hear” yield “stop?” In the comment, it was pointed out that aufhorchen also means “to listen attentively,” allegedly, “to stop, in order to listen.” But horchen without auf means the same! If the emphatic or frequentative suffix ch (from k) suggests “to listen with great attention” (and hence “to stop”), what follows with regard to aufhören without this suffix?

On staying in bed

Yes, indeed, German Gardinenpredigt is an excellent equivalent of Engl. curtain lecture, but the German phrase seems to have originated later than the English one. Could it be a translation loan from English? And yes, when a bed is beaten, a cloud of dust may rise, but bedposts don’t twinkle (apropos the post about the twinkling of a bedpost).


Those interested in the history of a white elephant may consult the website White Elephant party Origin Mental Floss. (I may add that the idiom is discussed in numerous websites.)

I’ll leave without comment a few interesting observations because I have nothing to add. The Hittites, as I learned from a very knowledgeable reader, seem to have believed that stars imbue water with magical properties and left vessels on the roofs. Likewise, I absorb comments and am very grateful for them, even when I resist their magic.

Featured image by Zeledi via Wikimedia Commons

Recent Comments

  1. Israel "Izzy" Cohen

    Why should a combination of … auf “on/to” and hören “hear/listen” yield “stop”?
    Perhaps this is simply a case of generalization. The most obvious thing one must do in order to hear or listen to what someone else wants to say is … to stop talking. This might be generalized to stop any activity that produces sound. And finally generalized to stop any activity, period.

  2. Constantinos Ragazas

    “Echo is probably a sound-imitating word”

    No Anatoly! “Echo” derives from the Greek “ηχος”! From which the English “hear” likely derives.

    As for “hearsay” (saying what is heard/learned), that is all academic.

  3. Jan Bayer

    No, horchen and aufhorchen are not quite the same: “horchen” refers to a sustained effort to listen intently – a soldier on guard on a “Horchposten” spends hours doing just that.
    Whereas “aufhorchen” is a quick, sudden action, a reaction in fact – to an unexpected, suspicious sound: what the biologists call the “freezing response” in animals – avoiding any motion that would give away your presence to a predator – while pricking of one’s ears, UPwards (German “auf” corresponds to english “up” rather than “on” or “to”).

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