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On mattocks and maggots, their behaviour and origins

On mattocks and maggots, their behavior and origin

The first half of the title looks like Somerset Maugham’s Beer and Skittles but has nothing to do with recreation: its subject is hard work. Those who have read my older blog posts on axe and adz(e) (see the post for 25 March 2020, with reference to an earlier publication on this subject) won’t be surprised to learn that the mattock, a simple tool, has a name troublesome to etymologists, even though, like adz(e), mattock has been known since the Old English period. In the extant texts, the forms are mattuc, meattoc, and meottoc. The variation of this type is common, because Old English preserved the pronunciation of several dialects. Also, scribes were often uncertain about the spelling of the words they knew. There is nothing particularly astounding in those forms. I am saying this because it has been suggested (wrongly, as I think) that the recorded forms look unusual, even exotic, and that therefore the word must have been borrowed from some unknown indigenous language.

References to “an unknown language” mean “substrate,” the language of the aboriginal population. Before the Germanic invasion, Britain was a Celtic-speaking country. Similar Welsh and Scottish Gaelic forms exist, but they may have been borrowed from English, rather than serving as the source of mattock. This uncertainty in dealing with Celtic and English words is typical, and opinions on the origin of mattock differ. (Also, in Celtic, such an obscure word may have been taken over from an even deeper substrate! The Celts were not the first inhabitants of the island, and nothing is known about the language of the Picts.) In any case, mattock, in its Germanic form, rather obviously consists of the root mat(t)- and the diminutive suffix –ock, as in bullock “young bull,” ballock “testicle” (regional?), hillock, and a few more nouns. One can easily understand why people form words like “little bull,” why a testicle looks like a tiny ball, and why a hill can be small, but the reference to a small mattock makes less sense than, for instance, to a small ax or a small hammer.

A still more puzzling circumstance is the isolation of mattock in Germanic. There is no word like it in Frisian, Dutch, German, or Scandinavian, and, if it is true that the Celtic lookalikes are loans from English, the origin of mattock begins to look like an insoluble puzzle. To exacerbate the problem, we discover that mattock has excellent relatives (cognates, congeners) “abroad,” namely, in Slavic: motyka, motyga, and the likes (stress on the second syllable). The meaning of the Slavic noun is the same.

Stonemasons probably do not belong to our story.
(Photo from Amman Citadel Hill, via Pxhere, public domain)

Slavic etymologists cannot agree about the word’s origin. Quite common is the derivation of the oldest form motyka from the ancient root mat– “to dig.” Sanskrit matyá “harrow” (noun),Latin mateola “rod, club, mallet,” and perhaps a few verbs meaning “to toss, mix up, etc.” may be related. A different but similar etymology of the English word connects mattock with Vulgar Latin matteūca (rather than mateola) “club, stick.” The only reference book that traces English words to reconstructed Indo-European roots is The American Dictionary of the English Language. The information there is not original. It goes back to the great dictionary by the late German scholar Julius Pokorny, who traced mattock to the root mat-, as in Latin mateola. In 1929, he even wrote a short article about this word.  A few other words that may be related to mattock also exist. German Steinmetz means “stonemason.” Stein– is “stone,” but what is –metz? Is its root the same as in English mete (out) and mattock? This connection has often been suggested and denied.

Perhaps the most unexpected turn in our plot has been caused by a suggestion in the Norwegian etymological dictionary by Hjalmar Falk and Alf Torp, two distinguished Scandinavian language historians. There was a Middle English word maddock “larva,” borrowed from Old Norse and slightly reshaped. The syllable –ock is the suffix we have seen in bullock, and the root occurs in almost all the Germanic languages. Even Gothic, a fourth-century language, preserved in a masterful translation of the New Testament, had the suffix-less noun maþa “worm” (þ has the value of English th in thin). This maddock, apparently, “a little worm,” later became English maggot. The great but irascible Walter W. Skeat called that change “perversion.” Could the “perversion” be due to taboo, to the fear of calling the creature by its real name? (Mere guessing, to quote Skeat’s favorite phrase.) The origin of maþa “worm” is (of course!) unknown, but the word sounds amazingly like English moth. There must have been something in the math ~ moth syllable that the speakers of the oldest Germanic languages associated with such creatures. Obviously, mattock sounds very much like the afore-mentioned maddock.

Moth and maggot.
(L: via Pxhere, public domain; R: by Amada44, via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 3.0)

According to Falk-Torp, the root of maddock and mattock was approximately “to crush” (Slavic etymologists suggested dig: see above!): the mattock, maggot-wise, allegedly worms its way through the ground. Compare English hoe, a close synonym of mattock. It surfaced in English texts in the fourteenth century and has the same root as the verb hew. Scandinavian linguists (for instance, Jarl Charpentier and Ásgeir Blöndal Magnússon, the author of an etymological dictionary of Modern Icelandic) endorsed Falk and Torp’s idea, even though they gave no reference to it and offered discussion (they confined themselves to short, dogmatic statements), while English and Slavic sources do not seem to have noticed their idea.

We can easily understand why the OED and the sources depending on it state that the origin of mattock is unknown. I would prefer to say that the word’s origin is uncertain rather than unknown (as the OED online also does). No less interesting than the reconstruction of the word’s ancient root (always a dubious enterprise) is the question about why English mattock is so similar to its Slavic lookalikes and, if somewhere along the way one language borrowed from another, why, in the Germanic group, only English has mattock. As far as I understand Falk and Torp, they looked on maddock ~ mattock as native Germanic words.

Falk and Torp come to the rescue.
(L: Hjalmar Falk, via Wikimedia Commons, public domain; R: Alf Torp, via Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

The names of tools are often borrowed from other languages. Medieval artisans traveled from land to land, and the names of their implements became part of what is known as lingua franca (I mentioned this fact in the post on adze). Curious blends sometimes appeared, and garbled forms came up. If Falk and Torp guessed well, that is, if the mattock got its name because it behaved (figuratively speaking) like a maggot, inching its way trough hard ground, we will still wonder at the geography of this word. Why English and Slavic? Why, almost ubiquitous in Slavic, while in the Germanic-speaking world only English? Etymology would be a dull discipline if it could answer all the questions and left nothing for us to ponder.

Featured image: “Small pickaxes in comparison with a pickax’s head” by Juan R. Lascorz, via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Recent Comments

  1. Gavin Wraith

    Is it so obvious that -ock is a diminutive suffix? Could it not be from the ( hack – hug – hook – hew ) archipelago?

  2. Crackers online


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