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Gilgamesh: The Oxford Etymologist gleanings

Some premature gleanings

It is a bit too early for November gleanings, but on the other hand, before you can say Jack Robinson, everybody will be too busy to ask questions, and the questions will become stale. Therefore, I decided not to wait another week, let alone another four weeks, and discuss the notes and queries from my mail. As usual, I won’t comment on the remarks that contained no questions and will only express my gratitude to those who have read the posts, added their observations, or corrected my mistakes. Today, I am a bit out of my depth, with Sanskrit and Sumerian among the topics. But I regularly use Sanskrit for my etymology and tell the students who take my folklore and mythology courses about Gilgamesh, which I like very much and know well. Therefore, I risked answering even those questions but will be pleased to receive comment by real specialists in both areas.

English home and its Sanskrit lookalike ōm

Sanskrit OM
(Via Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

In the past, I have discussed the origin of both house and home (see “Our habitat: House” and “Our habitat: one more etymology brought ‘home’”). The question I received concerned the hypothesis that home might be a borrowing of Sanskrit om. In the old blog post, I tried to stay away from discussing the putative reconstructed forms: this is dry stuff, and few of our readers are interested in it. But to address the Sanskrit form, I must touch on Germanic and Indo-European prehistory. When it comes to Old Germanic, the most important recorded form is usually the one preserved in fourth-century Gothic. The Goths called home haims. Germanic h corresponds to non-Germanic k (compare English what, from hwæt [æ has the value of a in Modern English at] and Latin quod, that is, kwod). Thus, the Germanic so-called protoform began with k-. In the Slavic languages, Germanic h corresponded to s, rather than k: compare English hundred, Latin centum (pronounced as kentum), and Russian sto.The indubitable cognate of Gothic haims “home” is Russian sem’ia (stress on the last syllable) “family.”

The difference in meaning between “home” and “family” is of decisive importance for answering the question that inspired this discussion. However unclear the most ancient meaning of house might be, the word certainly designated some structure, but “home” refers not only to the building in which we live but also to its inhabitants. Home, sweet home does not mean “house, sweet house.” In Gothic, haims was declined differently in the singular and in the plural, and there is a rather telling parallel to this anomaly in Sanskrit. This anomaly has been explained in many ways. Most probably, a distinction was made between the place (“house”) and those who lived in it (“family”). The Modern English idiom out of house and home (especially in to eat someone out of house and home) may convey the same idea that was once expressed by grammatical means.

As regards Sanskrit, I can have no independent opinion and will only repeat what has been said by others, though some details about ōm (with long o, as in British English aw) are well-known even outside the narrow circle of sanskritologists. Ōm is the contraction of aum, with au being a true diphthong, as in English out. The sense of aum ~ ōm is very broad, one of the meanings being “universe.” “Universe” and “home” are not incompatible, but we would like to know which form Germanic speakers are supposed to have borrowed, in what environment, when, and where. In any case, the Indo-European form began with a consonant. Even Germanic h developed from kh, while the Sanskrit word never began with a guttural consonant. Therefore, with the information at my disposal, I fail to see the posited connection.

A minor universe?
(Photo by cottonbro studio, public domain)

In ancient Sumerian texts, the word “king” has been translated as “god.” Is this correct?

I am not sure which translation and which context are meant. In the translations of Gilgamesh I have consulted, “king” is not translated as “god.” To answer this question, I need a more definite context.


Our correspondent writes: “Conventional explanations of the work kidney associated the second element with Middle English ey “egg” or Middle English nere “kidney” but do not endeavor to combine the two ideas. It long ago occurred to me that a plural kidn(e)ren might have been misconstrued as kidneyren and a new singular kidney formulated therefrom.”

Kidney, a word of contested etymology
(Created by vectorportal.com, public domain)

See my old post“Are You of My Kidney?” for 11 April 2018. In it, I discuss the many problems connected with the etymology of this word. The trouble with “misinterpretation” is that it looks probable but cannot be “proved.” On the other hand, nothing in the history of this word can be demonstrated with certainty. Hard proof is in general a rare commodity in etymology. I can detect no fatal flaw in our reader’s hypothesis.

A question about two deceptively similar German words

German Landsmann is a person from the same land, while Landmann means “farmer, peasant.” The difference is rather old, but what is its origin? Everyone who has studied German knows how capricious compounds are: the connecting s is either present or absent for the reasons that cannot always be accounted for. Land– does very well without the connecting element (Landvolk “country people,” Landrat “an administrative body,” and so forth), and yet a meeting of all the citizens of a canton in Switzerland is called Landsgemeinde. Also compare Landwehr “territorial army” (without s) and Bundeswehr “army.” In any case, nouns with Land that refer to local institutions (like Landesbank “regional bank” and Landeshauptstadt “capital of a province”) more often have s, while when land means “soil” no s is present (Landhaus “country house” and the like). This vague rule may account for the difference between Landsmann and Landmann. The most detailed German grammars cite more or less intuitively justified lists of compounds with and without the connecting s and then add lists of exceptions.

German Schar “crowd, throng, horde,” used contemptuously by a great Middle High German poet, and British English slang shower “a group of worthless individuals.”

The question was whether the two words could be related. It is indeed amusing that shower fits that context so very well, but this is a coincidence. As usual with slang, its origin is hard to discover. The guesswork, like Eric Partridge’s suggestion that the source of this shower is shower of shit, is one of his nice fantasies, though the origin of shower (slang) in some phrase like shower of… is not improbable. I would look for some sexual hint here, but this is pure guesswork. In any case, English shower (slang) has nothing to do with German. The English word is not particularly old and must have native roots.

Spring showers bring questionable etymologies
(© Copyright Kenneth Mallard, via Geograph, CC BY-SA 2.0)

Usage: couple versus couple of

This is an old chestnut. No doubt, a couple of things is correct, while a couple things looks bare and even odd. Apparently, those who leave out the preposition treat a couple like any other numeral (two things, five things, etc.), though couple is a noun (compare a lot of things, a multitude of things, and so forth). But let me repeat what I always say on such occasions: any usage is correct that has become prevalent, let alone universal. If in the future, most people decide to leave out the preposition, this new norm will become correct, and editors will stop adding of. This is how language changes. To be part of this change is always heart-breaking.

Featured image: “Gilgamesh and Enkidu slaying Humbaba at the Cedar Forest by Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin FRCP(Glasg) via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)

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