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Etymology gleanings for March 2022

Etymology gleanings for March 2022

Native speakers and word history

The question came up in connection with the possible ties between English good (which has related forms elsewhere in Germanic) and Greek agathós. In all probability, those words are not cognate. Two points have been made: 1) foreign scholars cannot draw fully convincing conclusions about words of old languages because they are guided by context, rather than by native intuition, and 2) the modern meaning of agathós fits English good very well. (On the second point see also below: good and God.)

Obviously, the meaning of an old word can be deduced only from the context. Therefore, words that occur in Old English or even in Latin once or very few times are hard or impossible to gloss with precision. Agathós is an epithet often applied to the noun meaning “hero, warrior.” Obviously, neither “nice” nor “pleasant” will fit such a context. To a certain extent, native speakers are even at a disadvantage when reading old texts in their language because they do not realize that in the past the words familiar to them might not mean what they think. (For comparison: while teaching Middle High German texts in the English-speaking world—Minnesang, Parzival, etc.—it is more profitable to translate them into English than into German, to avoid false associations.)

I’ll cite a few adjectives belonging more or less to the same semantic sphere as good and indicate their recorded development in English through the centuries.

  • Pretty: crafty, wily; clever, ingenious; attractive; considerable (we can still say not only pretty late but if we choose to be facetious, even pretty ugly).
  • Clever: adroit, dexterous (in dialects), nimble, active, smart. The way from “adroit” to “smart” is perhaps shorter than from “crafty” to “attractive,” but it cannot be taken for granted.
  • Cunning: learned (“knowing”), skillful, artful (the latter as in Dickens’s Artful Dodger).
  • Nice (perhaps the most dramatic case): stupid; wanton; difficult to manage or decide; minute and subtle; dainty; agreeable, delightful.

Shakespeare’s favorite epithet is sweet “dear,” as preserved in sweetheart, and it means many different things. A foreigner would not have produced the Iliad or Hamlet, but the same person can sometimes explain every word in them better than forty thousand native speakers. So much for Greek agathós.

Artful Dodger.
(“Hullo, My covey! What’s the row?”, illustration by F. Barnard in The Adventures of Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens, via Wikimedia Commons. CC BY 2.0)


I think we are chasing a rainbow. If the meaning of a word is unknown, we cannot discover its origin. What substance was called soul? Our remote ancestors did not associate death with a complete disappearance of the deceased. Either their shadows languished in Hades, or they moved to another realm and continued to live there forever. Yet some substance of life was probably believed to have left the dead person. Perhaps this substance is what we today call soul. Breath fits such an idea, but this is not what is called “soul” in the Bible, and only the Bible interests us at the moment, because we want to know how Bishop Wulfila found an equivalent for the Greek word in the New Testament.

The Hebrew word ne-phesh (I used the hyphen to indicate the correct pronunciation), as it is used in the Old Testament means approximately “living substance,” and it is characteristic that translators into English had some trouble with it. My source is the King James Bible. In Genesis I:20, the word occurs for the first time: “Let the waters bring forth abundantly the moving creature that hath life…” And in II:7, we read: “And the Lord god formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.” The word I italicized above (life, ne-phesh) is also “soul” in the original. Wulfila’s saiwala is opaque. It does not resemble any Germanic noun for “life” or “breath.” And the most ingenious attempts to “decipher” it have yielded no durable result. Most of the proposed etymologies are clever, but none of them carries conviction.


A man with a monkey. What is their origin?
(“The Savoyard and the Monkey” by Alexandre Gabriel Decamps. Public domain.)

On 23 January 2013, I posted an essay on the origin of the word monkey (Wrenching an Etymology out of a Monkey) and said, among other things, that all kinds of improbable ideas on the origin of this word exist. In a later set of gleanings, I also wrote a few sentences about monkey “mortgage.” Incidentally, the phrase to have a monkey on the house is very late British slang (no known occurrences before the eighteen-sixties), but this is an aside. In my 2013 story, I noted that many more nonsensical attempts to account for the origin of the animal name monkey existed, and our correspondent asked me to list them. The list is not inspiring. Old etymologists (and in England there is nothing to read on the subject before 1617—as far as English etymology is concerned) always tried to trace the words of their languages to Hebrew, Greek, or Latin. Hence references to Greek mîmeo “to imitate” and Latin homunculus. But other etymons have also turned up, for instance, Spanish (??) mouna, with reference to monk, and French manqué “a creature falling short of a human being.” Those who proposed such sources seldom realized that a convincing etymology presupposes more than discovering a putative source. If a word is a borrowing, it is necessary to find out why it has been taken over by the speakers of another language, who brought it home, and why this loan suddenly became popular and even universally known.

 Odds and ends

Danish bavenhøj seems to have always had this form and this sense. Balefire turned up in Beowulf (see the word in the OED), then disappeared from use, and reemerged later. Perhaps it has been coined twice, which is not improbable, because balefire is a typical tautological compound (both components mean approximately the same, as in pathway, courtyard, and German lauwarm “tepid, lukewarm,” actually, “warm-warm.” See the post on tautological compounds for 21 January 2006. Such words are much more common than it appears at first sight, especially among place names.

The Greek word echo is indeed an onomatopoeia. All sources agree on this point.

Good and god may be connected in some languages, but no analogy will bridge the difference between the vowels in the two English words. They cannot be derived from the same root. I am the first to admit that sound correspondences often fail us, and in such cases all kinds of explanations are called forth. For instance, the English preposition to corresponds to German zu, and the match is perfect. But their Gothic cognate is du, and this d- is inexplicable: though the words must be related, the consonants violate the rule (Gothic should have had t-, as in English). In such cases, historical linguists bend over backwards to account for the irregular form. But why break a lance for a lost cause? Only because we want the Supreme being to be good? God will survive without false etymologizing. By the way, old etymologists believed that Devil and evil are related. But they are not.

Featured image: “The fight for the body of Patroclus” via Wikimedia Commons. Public domain.

Recent Comments

  1. Irene De Bruyn

    Is it possible that “monkey” is derived from the Dutch “mannetjie” ( pronounced munakey) meaning ‘little man ‘?

  2. Constantinos Ragazas

    “A foreigner would not have produced the Iliad or Hamlet, but the same person can sometimes explain every word in them better than forty thousand native speakers. So much for Greek agathós.”

    Anatoly, you are being too dismissive of the depth and nuanced knowledge native speakers have of their own language!

    The trouble with non-native speakers extracting meaning of a word solely from the context of its use is the real possibility of projections of the non-speaker’s cultural values and attitudes.

    The meaning of the Greek word “αγαθος” as “fit, efficient” reflects modern Western cultural values. Not what in fact Homer intended for its use in the Iliad.

    The sense native Greek speakers have for that word as “good, pure, innocent” comes much closer to its use in the Iliad. These are also some characteristics of “gods and semigods”.

    These attributes also can apply to “heroes, warriors”. Contrary to what you think and say. If these warriors fought “the good fight” for a noble cause, for example.

    To put it bluntly, you are plain wrong here!

  3. Gavin Wraith

    Nobody can own a language unless she has invented it herself.

  4. Constantinos Ragazas

    “Nobody can own a language unless she has invented it herself.”

    What a strange comment, Gavin! So strange I will be polite and not comment further!

  5. Olivier van Renswoude

    Seeing as *saiwalō might as well continue older *saigwalō and since the meaning ‘soul’ is often developed from ‘breath’, I have proposed that this word is derived from the verb *sīhwaną ‘to pour’, either directly or through a verb *saigwōną, as continued by West Flemish zeeuwen ‘to dig up earth and pour it out evenly over the seeds’.

    (For such a secondary, weak verb with ablaut and Verner alternation, cf. Old High German zeigōn ‘to point, name’ beside zīhan ‘to blame, accuse’, or Old Saxon warōn ‘to last’ beside wesan ‘to be’.)

    Interesting in this regard is the existence of Old English sáwlian ‘to die’, of which the original sense is better understood as ‘to expire, breathe out’ than ‘to soul’.

    Anyway, the iterative/intensive formation *sikkōną/*sigōną served as the basis for the stative *sīkēną/*sīgēną, whence Old English sícan ‘to sigh’, English to sigh and Middle Dutch versīken ‘to sigh; breathe deeply’, as well as Dutch Low German ziegen ‘to be draughty’ and zieken ‘the breath’.

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