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Cheek by jowl

Cheek by jowl

I have known the phrase cheek by jowl all my life but never heard it said by anyone, and yet the history and especially the pronunciation of jowl could serve as the foundation of a dramatic plot. The word goes back to Old English, where it had the form cēafle. After a series of changes, it emerged in two forms: one rhymed with Modern English bowl and the other with fowl. The British norm adopted the second variant, but in America, both pronunciations exist. At least, such is the evidence of all dictionaries. The word has no or almost no existence outside the idiom, which appeared in texts in Shakespeare’s lifetime, but we don’t know how he pronounced it. The American pronunciation is often archaic and therefore closer to Shakespeare’s. Cheek by jowl means “cheek by cheek” (hence “in close proximity, side by side”). When such synonyms occur “side by side,” as happens, for instance, in safe and sound, alliteration reinforces the message and disguises the near-tautology.

Cheek by jowl should also have alliterated and become approximately cheek by chowl (see Old English cēafle, above; the form chawl has been recorded), and no one knows why jowl acquired a voiced initial consonant. As a general rule, English words with initial j are either of Romance origin (like joy, joust, jejune, and so forth) or upstarts with a questionable pedigree (like job, jig, jump, and the rest). The irascible Walter W. Skeat, our greatest English etymologist of the past, wrote at jowl / jole that all the forms are corruptions of Middle English chol, chaul. Nineteenth-century historical linguists constantly used the word corruption. We say alteration not because we try to sound politically correct, like the rest of the modern civilized world, but because every change “corrupts” the older form and the older state. Middle English is a corruption of Old English, Old English is a corruption of Common West Germanic, and so it goes.

A most functional ancient jaw.
(Comparison of Modern Human and Neanderthal skulls from the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 2.0)

Jowl, despite its j-, is Germanic and even West Germanic: it has a close counterpart (cognate) in Dutch. Several good dictionaries also cite cognates in Baltic, Slavic, and beyond, but those are questionable, and it is better to stay away from them. Yet some words with a different root vowel seem indeed to be related. Such is, for example, German Kiefer “jaw,” part of a rather extended family. Perhaps the ancient root was gop. Allegedly, it imitated the snapping sound made at biting and at any quick movement. I regularly and willingly trace the words discussed in this blog to sound-imitative complexes, but here, this reconstruction would be rather insecure. If, however, it is allowed to stand, then English chafer, Dutch kever, and German Käfer (explained as “gnawers”), with their pre-Germanic root gop, belong here too. After all, beetle is, from the etymological point of view, a biter, and biting is at least sometimes accompanied by the noise of moving jaws.

Cheek by jowl.
(Photo by Anna Hecker on Unsplash, public domain)

Next to jowl, we find the similar-sounding English jaw. But jaw appeared only in Middle English, in the form iow, in which i stood for j. By the way, Old English ceaflel meant both “cheek” and “jaw”! For two reasons, it is usually believed that jaw is a borrowing from French. First, the word is late (no corresponding form occurred in Old English; it would certainly have emerged if it had existed). Second, we note the treacherous initial j, which has given us some trouble in dealing with jowl. Only Friedrich Kluge, the main German etymologist of the past, believed that jaw is a regular continuation of an Old English noun. His opinion has little to recommend it, but isn’t it amazing to find imported words for naming body parts?! Not too long ago, we wondered at leg in a similar context.

The merger of the senses “jaw” and “cheek” is of course natural, and the confusion of several similar-sounding words could be expected. In later English, we once find chaw-bone for jaw-bone! Jaws chew, and the verb chew has respectable relatives outside Germanic (for example, Russian zhevat’, stress on the second syllable). But at the moment, we are interested only in cheek and jowl.

In looking at the names of body parts, we run into all kinds of unexpected associations and often fail to find such as we expect. Not too long ago, I discussed the etymology of eye, ear, among others, and we observed how unpredictable the results turned out to be. A case in point is also English gill, the organ of respiration in fishes. It bears some resemblance to the words mentioned above. Gill turned up only in the fourteenth century, when it was borrowed from Old Norse (compare Swedish gäl and so forth). But the related Icelandic noun gjölnar means “lips,” not “gills”! The Latin for “cheek” is gena (the word very rarely occurred in the singular). If it is indeed related to Greek gōnia “angle,” then the motivation for coining this noun was that the cheeks form the sides of the face. By contrast, in English, cheek is related to choke. Such association are sometimes easy to explain but impossible to predict.

We are not always interested in chewing.
(L: Photo by Mohan Nannapaneni via Pexels. R: Photo by Hana Lopez on Unsplash. Public domain)

By way of postscript, I may add that the ancient root of knee can be found in Latin genu (known to English speakers from genuflection). The common opinion is that very long ago, two different roots existed: genu-, as in Latin gena “cheek,” and genu-, as in Latin genu “knee.” Perhaps so, but knees bend, and reference to “angle” seems to underlie both “lip” as “side” and “knee” for forming an angle at bending. A look at the list of reconstructed Indo-European roots shows how many homonyms have been set up. Some of them can certainly be merged, and in the past, numerous homonyms have indeed been merged by later editors.

None of your cheek!
(Photo by Sebastian Herrmann on Unsplash, public domain)

The slangy phrases none of your cheek! and none of your lip! (that is, “don’t you dare to talk back to me”), are rather baffling. The explanations one finds on the Internet do not sound too convincing, especially with regard to the first phrase. I even wonder whether cheek “insolence” and cheeky have anything to do with the side of the face. Perhaps our readers know something about this subject. Now that the summer break in the publication of “Oxford Etymologist” is over, everybody should be ready to attack the most enigmatic English words with renewed vigor.

Featured image by CC0 Community, public domain

Recent Comments

  1. Vivian Ramalingam

    Your explanation of gop left me gob-smacked. Cēafle reminded me of “snaffle”, a type of horse bit that goes up to the cheeks, and restrains the jaws and tongue, but that is related to “jaws” or “beak.” I have heard “snaffle” used like American “snag”, or “filch” (British), to denote something snatched up so that no-one else can have it. Both of these are late.

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