Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

A neat etymology

A “neat” etymology

For a change, this post will be devoted to a word of known etymology. But though the word is all but forgotten, it throws some light on the history of economy; hence its antiquarian attraction. The English noun neat, the main subject of the present blog post, means “cattle, oxen,” and every dictionary quite correctly calls it dialectal or archaic. Yet in the past, it and its relatives could be found all over the Germanic-speaking world. Outside English, they are still alive and kicking. Why “kicking” will become clear from the following exposition, if you have not guessed the answer from the above.

The noun neat has retained its ancient spelling (Old English nēat; the sign of length over e is mainly for our use), and it was monosyllabic even a thousand years ago. Only the pronunciation has changed in a regular, predictable way: ēa to ē and then to the modern long sound by the Great Vowel Shift. The verb having the same root was nēotan and meant “to make use, enjoy.” Later, it disappeared, supplanted by Romance borrowings, as often happened in Middle English: both use and enjoy are from Old French. But it is very much alive in the neighboring languages: German genießen, Icelandic njóta, and others. Gothic, a fourth-century Germanic language, had niutan “to attain, enjoy, obtain.”

Very little is known about the ancient root of nēotan, because its cognates have not been recorded in Sanskrit, Greek, or Latin. Therefore, we have no solid basis for comparison. Outside Germanic, only in the Baltic languages do we find closely related nouns, such as Lithuanian naudà “use, property” and Latvian naûda “money.” The status of the few Celtic forms, traditionally listed in dictionaries in connection with neat, is uncertain. Old Russian nuta “horned animal” (no modern reflexes in Standard Modern Russian) is, apparently, not related, because by the First Consonant Shift, regularly invoked in this blog, Germanic t cannot correspond to Slavic t (in Russian, as in Baltic, the match for Germanic t should be d). It is therefore commonly believed that the Russian word was borrowed from Germanic. Every time we run into such imports we wonder why people needed a foreign word if they had their own, and when, where, and under what circumstances contacts were so close as to justify the borrowing. We seldom have enough evidence for a convincing answer.

The dawn of civilization and beyond.
(Image via publicdomainpictures.net, public domain)

In any case, “use” and “enjoyment” are connected with “cattle” (hence of course, the earlier reference to kicking, with profuse apologies to those who despise puns as the lowest form of wit). What, we may ask, is the source of the connection? Most of our readers know the answer, but it so happens that my not too rich correspondence consists mainly of questions from students. The letters come to my email address, and I answer them privately (nowadays also by Zoom; some time ago, I had a long interview with an eighth-grader about the origin of swearwords: a perfectly unbuttoned conversation, full of smut and sound, though once I caught sight of the youngster’s grinning mother)—privately, because most of our readership may consider the information too trivial. However, one such recent question inspired today’s blog post, that is, I promised the student (this time, a college student) to devote a special post to her query.

In the history of our civilization, money and enjoyment are inextricably connected with cattle. We find Gothic skatts “(piece of) money,” Old Frisian skett “money” and “cattle,” and Russian skot “cattle.” Modern German Schatz means “treasure.” Once again, Russian skot cannot be a legitimate cognate of skatts for the reason given above: Germanic t does not match Slavic t. Either Germanic borrowed this word from Slavic or Slavic from Germanic (a familiar scenario), or both borrowed it from a third source. And once again, this incident need not detain us here. We only note that the same word may mean “money” and “cattle.” The way from “money” to “use” and “pleasure” is shorter than from “cattle” to “use” and needs no proof.

Longing for a neat dress is human.
(Image by Jill Wellington from Pixabay, public domain)

In early societies, wealth was tantamount to having numerous herds. Not only nomads driving their horses from one pasture to another equated cattle with riches. It was so in antiquity and so in the European Middle Ages. In medieval Iceland, as the sagas tell us, sheep and pasturing (and feuds connected with them!) played an outstanding role. The best-known linguistic example dealing with the history of such words is Latin pecus “cattle,” alongside pecunia “money” and the related adjective pecuniarius, originally “rich in cattle,” that is, simply “rich.” (Money is a Romance word.) English pecuniary “pertaining to money” is a sixteenth-century bookish borrowing from Latin. Since by the First Consonant Shift, Germanic f should correspond to non-Germanic p (as in English father and ford versus Latin pater and port), it does not come as a surprise that English fee, though by devious ways, also corresponds to Latin pecus (this noun traveled from Germanic to Romance and back to English). Close to pecuniary is peculiar. The Latin adjective peculiaris meant “not (!) held in common with others.”

Now briefly back to Gothic niutan “to enjoy, obtain.” The Modern German verb (ge)nießen still means “to enjoy” (ge– is a prefix), and another related word, better known outside the German-speaking world, is Genosse “comrade,” originally either “someone who has as many cattle” or “a person with whom one shares his or her cattle.” And of course, we always love and enjoy the society of Comrade So-and-So and all our comrades, don’t we? The word fellow has a similar history.  Late Old English borrowed it from Old Norse, in which félagi was a compound made up of “property” and lagi “something laid,” primarily, “one who lays down money in a joint undertaking” (today, Icelandic félagi means “society”).

A sidekick has many dimensions.
(Photo by Richard Brutyo on Unsplash, public domain)

This is the main story, but it needs a sidekick. English has the adjective neat “elegant, dainty, tidy.” In the present blog post, its history deserves some attention because homonyms always invite questions about etymology. This neat has nothing to do with cattle. It is a borrowing from Old French, eventually from Latin. Latin nidus meant “shining, clean,” and in the sixteenth century, English neat also meant “clean, clear.” I cannot help quoting a sentence I found on the Internet: “In 1910, there were 495,000 neat cattle.” No, those horses and the rest were not “neat.” The adjective neat is practically the same word as net “free from deduction” (as in net income; no connection with fishing nets). The word in this form is known almost all over the world. But it is kind of neat to find a sentence about 495,000 neat cattle. The person who wrote it had no idea of the inherent pun, but we are now aware of the unintended and unconscious joke, which shows once more that puns are not necessarily the lowest form of wit and that they may become a source of joy and enjoyment.

Featured image by christophoto from PxHere, CC0 public domain

Recent Comments

  1. Roger

    “But though the word is all but forgotten,,,” but cyclists still use neatsfoot oil to maintain their saddles and walkers on their boots.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.