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Oxford Etymologist post-summer gleanings

Post-summer gleanings

Every mickle makes a muckle. Though (alas!) I cannot say that after every post I receive dozens of letters (as happened, for example, to William Safire, who for a long time was responsible for the NYT word column), I know that the blog is read by many people and in many countries. It was launched on 1 March 2006, and this is the 867th time it offers some information on word origins to the public. My latest “gleanings” appeared in August. To quite a few letters I answered personally, but some responses will end up in this column.

The origin of the word race

See my post for 22 April 2009: …Race, Class, and Sex…. And don’t miss the comment on Shakespeare. The question (asked long ago but never answered in my later gleanings) was about the other rejected etymologies of this word. In addition to what I mentioned in 2009, I may refer to the following improbable sources of race: Venetian narrazza (from Latin generatio) “procreation”; Latin raptio “a brood of young birds” or the corresponding verb raptiare, and Arabic ra’s “head; origin.”  No one doubts that English borrowed race from French. It is therefore the French word whose origin we should explore. Incidentally, discovering a possible foreign etymon does not suffice, it is necessary to trace the route of the word from its conjectural home to another language.

A few forgotten proposals are fanciful and don’t even deserve a mention, but one is curious. Hensleigh Wedgwood, Walter W. Skeat’s main nineteenth-century predecessor in the area of English etymology, tried to derive race “competition” and “a group of humans” from the same source meaning “rapid movement.” The most complete list of references can be found in Ernst GamiIlscheg’s second edition of his etymological dictionary of French, but he offered almost no discussion. Instead, he mentioned the suggestions he did not accept and focused on his own. (He remained true to the Langobardian-Old High German origin of the Italian word described in my old post.)   

I have not seen any new works on the etymology of race published since 2009, the year I wrote that post, but it does not follow that such works do not exist. Finding a publication in this area is harder than discovering a needle in the proverbial haystack. But I have consulted several recent dictionaries and with a single exception, predictably from Italy (this dictionary was also noticed by the OED’s team), did not find references to the paper that seems to have solved the problem once and for all. As explained in the 2009 post, Gianfranco Contini showed that the concept of race had originated in the business of horse breeding. His paper appeared in Studi di filologia italiana 17, 1959, 319-327; it is in Italian. Incidentally, the racist interpretation of the word race goes back to Arthur de Gobineau’s terrifyingly influential four-volume Essay on the Inequality of Human Races (1853-1855; in French but translated into many languages). It therefore need not surprise us that the concept of race originated outside the sphere most familiar to us today.

Frau Holle is good to diligent girls and punishes the lazy ones.
(Image by Otto Kubel via Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

Even the extremely well-informed Gamillscheg paid no attention to this article. Equally well-read is Elmar Seebold, the latest editor of the main etymological dictionary of German. He refers to numerous recent publications, but Contini’s article is not mentioned. I very much doubt that he follows this blog, and anyway, the latest edition of Kluge-Seebold appeared in 2011, so that he would not have had enough time to incorporate the information going back to 2009. However, the title of Contini’s article contains the key word razza! The post-1959 English dictionaries usually say that the origin of the word is unknown. Only the online edition of the OED mentions the correct derivation (without discussing it).

The situation with race is typical. An ingenious etymologist makes a discovery, and no one notices it. Non-specialists consult the most easily available dictionaries or read “Etymoline.” There, in the entry race, they will find reference to Ernest Klein’s 1966 English etymological dictionary, an unoriginal and unreliable source. (Unrelated to race: even in serious articles, I sometimes see references to Eric Partridge’s etymological  dictionary, the last work one should use, except for some superficial information.) Conclusion: the origin of race is “known”!


Frau Trude large as life but half as natural.
(Image via Fairytale Wiki, CC BY-SA 3.0)

My most recent post was titled “In one’s stockinged feet.” The comment from a reader was to the effect that he had never heard this phrase with the form stockinged (only in one’s stocking feet). I think stockinged, the version mainly familiar to me, is British, while the form without -ed is American. The comment did not surprise me: people grow up with some grammatical form or pronunciation, may never hear competing variants, and can barely believe that those variants exist. When in doubt, “look it up in a dictionary.”


A correspondent remembered her great-grandmother mentioning LADY HOONDERLARLY living in the attic and disliking rowdy children. Do I know anything about that creature? No. The questioner’s ancestors, as she wrote, are Irish and Scottish, but the reference made me think of Germany. In the Grimms’ tales, we find two “mothers” or “ladies”: Mutter Holle and Frau Trude. Both are imports from so-called lower mythology: they are demonic creatures punishing (or rewarding) children. Frau Trude is an especially cruel creature. It is beyond my comprehension why some people in Germany called their hotel “Frau Trude.” Hoonder sounds like German Hund “dog,” but –larly evokes no associations. It looks like a garbled version of some other word. As usual, I hope that some of our readers have similar memories and may provide more information. At first blush, an association with alairy (to which a very old post was devoted: One, Two, Three, Alairy) looks improbable.

Old bones burn well.
(Photo by Mikhail Nilov, via Pexels, public domain)


A very modern beacon in a medieval style.
(Photo © Jaggery (cc-by-sa/2.0)

See Osteological folklore: bonfire: 30 March 2022. I am grateful to our readers for the remarks adding interesting details to my description of bonfires and burning bones. One fact is clear: bones were indeed burned, and bonfire is a compound made up of the words for “bone” and “fire.” The word balefire hardly contains reference to bale “bundle, package,” because balefires were used mainly as beacons. Danish baun, really bavn, is related to English beacon (Old Icelandic bákn) and not to bone (Old Icelandic bein). Finally, I am grateful to Peter Gilliver for his note on Robert Griffith. Etymology is depressingly anonymous. Even specialists may not know who explained the origin of a difficult word. And I was sure that Peter would have enough information on someone so knowledgeable as Griffith. High time somebody produced a book titled “Who Is Who in Etymology.”

And finally, my usual request. If you have read an old blog post and want to add a question or comment, don’t post it there, because I have no chance to discover it. Add it after the most recent blog post.

Featured image by TNS Sofres, via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Recent Comments

  1. Jean Cottel

    My mother’s family was from the Isle of Mull. She used to say “Many a mickle maks a muckle.” Got to be more than one wee mickle. :>))

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