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Crabbed age and youth cannot live together, but crabs and scorpions can

The part of the title about crabbed age and youth is from Shakespeare’s poem The Passionate Pilgrim. His authorship of this poem has been questioned more than once, but we’ll let it be because at the moment we are interested only in the travels of crabs and scorpions across the language map, rather than literature, and your passionate pilgrim is the Oxford Etymologist.

Obviously, creak, croak, screech, scrape, and their likes are sound-imitative and occasionally soundsymbolic. Crabs crawl while other kr-creatures creep, and word roots beginning with kr– often have the variant skr– (the so-called s-mobile has often been mentioned in this blog). Such observations are trivial. The riddle is not the origin of such words but their similarity in at least half of the world. The crab, we are told, may have been named from its claws (see below). True enough. Crustaceans are usually clawy. Insects also know how to make us scratch. Scarabs provide another good example.

Serket, a theriomorphic goddess.
(Image by Jeff Dahl, public domain)

How did the word crab and its likes spread so far? Where was the first such word coined? Classical Greek kárabos meant “crab.” In Ancient Egypt, there was a goddess called Serket. She controlled breath, and suffocating people stung by venomous insects invoked her when they lay in death throes. Later, she was associated and identified with scorpions. The root of Serket is (s)rk-. Did nouns with (s)rk~ (s)kr– in themoriginate in Egypt? I owe my knowledge of Serket and scorpions to a dissertation defended rather long ago in France. Many words and plots did spread from Egypt to Ancient Europe. For example, Egypt worshipped frogs. Millions of them appeared in bogs left at the flooding of the Nile and were venerated as symbols of abundance and fertility. The water goddess Heket was half-frog and half-woman (in this half-anthropomorphic [“having a human form”], half-theriomorphic [“having an animal form”] capacity she resembled Serket and several other deities and monsters, including Sphinx).

The knowledge of Heket reached Greece and Rome and survived in Europe in the form of a fairytale. In Russian folklore, the tale is known as “The Frog Princess” (with no traces of the ancient plot, except that a prince is destined to marry a frog). Similar versions have been recorded all over Europe. One of them reached Germany but in a hopelessly garbled form (perhaps via a mediaeval Latin text: in it, a princess marries a male frog (who, to be sure, when smashed against the wall, turns into a beautiful prince). The frog as a totem in Native American folklore may have had similar roots but the motif arose independently of its Old-World analog. If the frog could find a new home in Europe, why couldn’t the name of the (s)kr ~ (s)rk creature?

In Germanic, the familiar word for “crab” is ubiquitous. Such is German Krabbe “shrimp” (originally, a Low German form), Krebs “crab; crayfish ~ crawfish” (but more often used with the sense “cancer”). By the way, crayfish is an almost direct relative of German Krebs (that is, Middle High German krebiz). The German word was borrowed by French and later returned to its Germanic home, namely, Middle English. There, crevisse, by folk etymology, became cravish and (by the same trick) crafish; hence the American form crawfish. Each component of this story is trivial: Germanic words were often taken over by French and later borrowed by Middle English. Likewise, folk etymology produces the most outlandish creatures in all languages. A crab turns into a fish, and a squirrel becomes a horned creature on an oak (such is, for example, German Eich-hörnchen, literally, “oak-hornlet”). Dutch kreeft and Old Icelandic krabbi add nothing to what we already know.

The Frog Princess. Many trials and tribulations, but they hero and the heroine lived happily ever after.
(By Ivan Bilibin, public domain)

Even if Ancient Egyptian Serket contains a variant of the same root as crab, its way from Egypt to Europe could not be straight. In 1926, the French linguist Marcel Cohen cited a long list of Semitic words that were strikingly similar to those cited above: Arabic caqrab “scorpion,” qaranbā “a kind of beetle’’ (almost the same form with n in the middle), qambri “shrimp” (the latter sounds almost like Greek kammoras ~ kammaras), and Latin cammaras. Cammaras also reached the Germanic-speaking lands. There, as usual, k became h, and we recognize the ancient word in French homard “lobster.”

Thus, scarab, scorpion, crab, and crayfish ~ crawfish emerge as cousins in a loose family of words. One can look at them from several points of view. For instance, Greek gráphein meant “to write,” but its original meaning was “to scratch” (many words for writing go back to some such notion). The Greek verb reminds one of scratching and scraping, though the relation between them and the crab group is not direct. A few Old Germanic verbs that sounded like gráphein and crab existed, and it has been suggested that the crab got its name from its claws. Though one can find this idea in several authoritative etymological dictionaries of Germanic languages, it is not quite persuasive, because it ignores the non-Indo-European words cited above.

It may be that skr- ~ kr– combinations evoked the same reaction in all places at all times. Perhaps we are dealing with the universal sound-symbolic group (s)kr that makes people think of scratching, and this is how the names of several insects and crustaceans came into being. Wilhelm Oehl, the Swiss etymologist to whose research I often refer in this blog, might have said so. But here too some dissatisfaction remains, because we are dealing with a bunch of animal names rather than with elementary verbs.  

A crab and a scorpion: an unexpected alliance.
(L: photo by Jonathan Wilkins, CC BY-SA 3.0. R: photo by Peter Prokosch, GRID Arendal, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Finally, it is equally probable that we have before us a migratory word (the German term is Wanderwort), once borrowed from a discoverable (Proto-Semitic?) source, and never staying in one place. This would be a satisfactory solution if we had to explain the origin ofa single word, for instance, crab. But scarabs and scorpions are not crabs! Nor did the Egyptian goddess have anything to do with crabs. Therefore, it would probably be reasonable to abstain from a binding solution. The facts are known, but the etymology of the words listed above still remains to a great extent unclear.

Now a few lines may probably be devoted to the odd adjective crabbed. As often before, I’ll quote from The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology: “CRAB + ED, with original reference to the gait and habits of the crab, which suggest cross-grained or fractious disposition; cf. for meaning Low German krabbe ‘cantankerous man’; krabbig ‘contentious, cross-grained’, and for formation dogged.” And here is our perennial authority Walter W. Skeat (I slightly edited the entry for style): “Crabbed, peevish, cramped…. From crab; that is, crab-like, snappish or awkward. Cf. Dutch krabben ‘to scratch’, kribben ‘to be peevish’.”

Dictionaries and the Internet give carefully worded explanations of the origin of crab apple, and I have nothing to add to the information found there (but see our image in the header!). However, if you are interested in the origin of the idiom to catch a crab, see the post for 21 September 2016 (“Sticking my oar in….”). I hope you will like that blog post even if your disposition is constitutionally cross-grained or fractious.

Featured image by Wehha via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0

Recent Comments

  1. Gavin Wraith

    In today’s (2022-11-15) Laudator Temporis Acti I read the line “nie kein kristenman gesach so jaemmerliche schar” by Walther von der Vogelweide. Could the German “schar” be in any way cognate with the derogatory use of the English “shower”?

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