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On being lazy, loose, empty, and idle

Some of the most common words appeared in English late. Yet their origin is obscure. Of course, while dealing with old words, we also encounter unexpected solutions. Consider the adjective empty. Those who have studied Latin will remember that the supine of emo “to sell” (or “to bribe,” that is, “to buy”!) is emptum. Someone may say: “Oh, empty meant ‘sold out’ or ‘no longer in existence’”! Alas, no, though it is a good guess. It is good because in both English and Latin, the sound p is a “parasite,” an excrescent product of assimilation. Something, occasionally pronounced as sompthing, provides a clue to the nature of this insertion. Likewise, Simpson and Thompson are illegitimate children of Simson and Tomson. Those interested in other words with inserted consonants may also consider gambler (from game!), kindred (from kin!), and sumptuous, whose Latin source underwent a similar change. Thus, no: empty is not a borrowing from Latin.

Empty goes back to Old English ǣmetta “leisure,” that is, to the hours of idleness. (Hours of Idleness was the title of Byron’s first book of poetry, published in 1807.) In the ancient (reconstructed) noun ā-mōt-iþa, ā must have been a negative prefix, mōt a noun meaning “meeting,” and the rest was a suffix. Moot in a moot point is related to that mōt, though “arguable, fit for a debate at a meeting,” rather than “empty.”

Emptiness and freedom loom large in the etymology of loose. The form of the adjective was destined to become leese, but the Old English word lēas gave way to its Scandinavian doublet lauss, which, among other things, also meant “empty.” This kind of substitution happened not too seldom. After the Vikings conquered two thirds of England, language mixture and, to use the phrase of the famous historian Thomas Babington Macaulay, an amalgamation of races became common. A cognate of this root is known to all of us as the suffix –less (German –los). But the German adjective leer “empty,” deceptively similar to the words being discussed here, goes back to another source. It is probably related to the Germanic verb meaning “to collect, pick out,” often in connection with harvesting. Hence also the German verb lesen “to read” and the punning title of books like Lesefrüchte “The fruits of reading and of the harvest.” A similar pun is used in Dutch titles. (Reading presupposes literacy, but the verbs read, lesen, and their synonyms elsewhere were coined long before people began to use letters. “To read” meant approximately “to advise,” while lesen referred to some sort of collecting.)

An empty threat.
(Photo by Scochran4 via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 3.0 US)

German ledig “free” (today also and mainly “unmarried”) also seems to have developed from “empty.” Whenever we encounter words of this group, we notice that “empty” and “free; unbound” go together. Ledig, it has been suggested, is related to German Glied “limb; member.” G- in Glied is a remnant of an old prefix. The whole may have meant “easily movable,” because this is exactly what Old Icelandic liðugr “unrestricted” means (ð has the value of th in English the). This idea will come in useful at the end of our today’s investigation.

English lazy is one of many late words of unclear origin. It turned up only in the sixteenth century and has counterparts all over northern German dialects (that is, in Low German). The meanings are the same everywhere (“idle, languid,” and so forth). Walter W. Skeat referred lazy to loose, mentioned above in connection with Scandinavian lauss. The vowels match badly. The corresponding Dutch verb had eu in the root. But this word may have been slang, a term of (mild) abuse, and as such perhaps existed in several forms, a common case in unbuttoned speech. This is, unfortunately, guesswork, but the proximity of lazy to some of the words mentioned above is rather obvious.

Vikings in England, new words and all.
(“The Barbarians Invade England”, Life of St Edmund, via Store Norske Leksikon, public domain.)

I may now add that the great German philologist Friedrich Kluge believed that lazy is a borrowing of Latin lassus “tired, weary, exhausted.” Kluge was an outstanding expert in the area of German etymology and all things Germanic. Quite naturally, while discussing German words, he often encountered their English cognates. In 1899, a slim book titled English Etymology appeared under the names of Friedrich Kluge and Frederick Lutz. As far as I can judge, the book was written by Kluge and only translated into English by Lutz, about whom I could not find any information. Though the book is now in open access, I never see references to it. Kluge is too important a figure to be ignored. I doubt that his hypothesis has value (a solid etymology of lazy should account for the origin of its Low German lookalikes), and yet referring to it will harm no one. Anyway, lazy does not look like a bookish word.

Another obscure adjective is idle. A thirteenth-century word, it emerged with the sense “empty” among a few others. This adjective has related forms all over West Germanic (that is, in Frisian, Dutch, German, and Old Saxon). Their senses are: “lazy; thin; bare.” In Modern German, eitel means “mere; worthless; vain;” and Dutch ijdel is rather “vain; useless; frivolous.” Most probably, the non-figurative meaning “empty” underlies the figurative ones. Modern dictionaries have nothing to say about the word’s origin. A rather uninspiring game consists in attempts to find some ancient root to which an opaque word can be traced. In the not too remote past, idh– “to burn,” was chosen as such a putative root, with the development from “burning” to “appearing.” A less convincing hypothesis would be hard to imagine.

Indo-European ei “to go” perhaps holds out greater promise. Since idleness and emptiness seem to refer to the idea of being unrestricted, moving freely, the connection looks rather reasonable, except that the process of selecting ancient roots as candidates for the etymons of modern words is always a precarious venture. Greek itamós “bold, impetuous” and Lithuanian eiklùs “quick, precipitous” are supposed to go back to this root. Idle may perhaps be related to them. There was also an uninspiring attempt to connect idle and Greek itharós “pure, clear.” A curious look-alike is Hittite idalu-s “bad, angry,” but when a certain word has been recorded only in part of Germanic and a remote Indo-European language, one cannot help wondering why it did not turn up anywhere in the intervening regions.

An idling motor is not idle.
(Photo by J Torres on Unsplash, public domain.)

We should probably leave the etymological motor idling and step aside to examine the results of our wanderings. Words like loose and idle may go back to the adjectives referring to unrestricted movements or freedom from restraint. Viewed in this light, our attempts have not been quite futile. English lazy and idle will remain adjectives of unknown or uncertain origin because it is unclear what should be done to discover their sources. Yet the suggested etymology of empty looks promising. The scholars who offered their musings on the origin of idle are the American historical linguist Francis A. Wood, a prominent member of the once illustrious Chicago philological school, and the Dutch linguist Nicolaas van Wijk, an outstanding specialist in Slavic, Baltic, and Indo-European linguistics. Outside the profession, their names mean nothing, which is a pity, considering how many unnecessary names everybody remembers and how beneficial it is to know the origin of the words we use.

Editor’s note: The Oxford Etymologist will resume on 11 May.

Featured image by Konstantin Evdokimov on Unsplash (public domain)

Recent Comments

  1. Rudolph

    Frederick Lutz, whom you refer to as mere translator of Friedrich Kluge, was Professor at Albion College, Michigan, from 1885 to 1920. He had been born in Germany (26/02/1850), came to the U.S. in 1870 and died in Albion 28/06/1935.

  2. Stephen Goranson

    1) Frederick Lutz (1885-1920) was “Professor of Modern Languages in [not “at] Albion College, Michigan,” according to his An Elementary German Reader (1902). He is not to be confused with Henry Frederick Lutz (1886-1973), Prof. of Egyptology and Assyriology, UC Berkeley.

    2) For recent discussion of Madeleine/Magdalene, both the New Testament name and the cookie name:


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