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Skin-deep: wrinkle, pimple, and mole

 Skin-deep: wrinkle, pimple, and mole

I have a hearty dislike for “cute” newspaper titles and yet constantly invent them for my posts. The temptation to produce a cheap but presumably memorable pun is stronger than my aversion to flashy journalism. Anyway, on 17 February 2021, I wrote a short blog post, titled “The skin of etymological teeth.” The post, which dealt with skin, hide, and leather, was inspired by a question from a reader. This time, though no one asked me about what happens on the skin, I decided to volunteer my services.

The story of wrinkle

The origin of wrinkle is full of unexpected turns and twists, but, as I have known for a long time, words tend to live up to their meaning. How could the history of wrinkle be straightforward? The word is old, that is, its history goes back to Old English. Dictionaries are reticent about its etymology. The problem is that the Old English past participle gewrinclod “winding” has numerous look-alikes but no obvious cognates. A short digression is required here. Etymology became a more or less dependable area of knowledge (as opposed to intelligent and unintelligent guessing) after the discovery of sound correspondences between and among languages, but language is a capricious mechanism, and every time dependable correspondences fail us, we are lost.

Long ago, a few excellent scholars introduced the concept of rime-words (rime stands for rhyme). I’ll mention only three names: Heinrich Schröder (a German), Francis A. Wood, and Leonard Bloomfield (Americans). It so happens that some words rhyme and also denote more or less the same thing, though their initial sounds do not match. The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology offers no origin of wrinkle. In contrast, Skeat mentions Danish rynke and Swedish rynka (the same meaning), both of which once began with hr (not wr-!). The German for wrinkle (noun) is Runzel. It, too, probably once began with hr-. And we may remember English crinkle “to make small wrinkles.” Old English crympan “to curl” is its next-door neighbor. As always, the mysterious “movable s” (s-mobile) is round the corner. The adjective scrimp “scanty,” a doublet of shrimp also refers to something small. (See the post A scrumptious shrimp with a riddle” for 18 April 2012.)

A pumpkin by any other name would not smell as sweet.
(Photo by Olivia Kulbida on Unsplash, public domain)

Are German Runzel and English wrinkle related? Friedrich Kluge believed that they are. Those who edited his German etymological dictionary were not so sure. Neither are the authors of English dictionaries. Our answer depends on the readiness (or the lack thereof!) to admit that close synonyms influence one another or that they even generate one another by varying or swapping their initial consonant groups: wr– ~ hr– ~ kr– ~ skr-. Such variants fit words of various emotional spheres. In Middle English, wrinkle meant not only “a fold” but also “winding” (in general). The past participle (ge)wrinclod has been glossed as “winding.” The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology, to which I referred above, a manual derivative of the great OED, has a rather unexpected entry, namely wr-. It says that this consonant combination occurred initially in many words implying twisting or disruption, the earlier of which often have cognates in other Germanic languages.

Such cases have been explored in depth by linguists studying iconicity, that is, ties between sound and meaning. In this blog series, sound-imitative and sound symbolic words are mentioned in almost every post. Obviously, if you can wriggle, you can also “(h)riggle,” “kriggle,” “piggle-wiggle,” “skriggle,” and of course “niggle” and “squiggle” (the latter, allegedly, a blend of squirm and wriggle). Some students of iconicity isolate such initial groups and compare them to ancient prefixes. (I have little enthusiasm for this procedure.) Not improbably, language was once “iconic” in all its elements, but we are so far removed from that remote epoch that no definite conclusions are possible. Apparently, some languages (for instance, Semitic) lend themselves to this type of reconstruction better than others. On this note, we may say that wrinkle does have relatives but only by marriage, rather than by birth. Having satisfied ourselves with this dubious solution, we may go on to pimples. 

The iconic pimple

An iconic pimple.
(Photo by Anna Nekrashevich via Pexels, public domain)

Pimples are not only unpleasant: they are also iconic. The substance of what I am going to say was discussed very long ago in my two posts: “On pimps and faggots” and “On faggots and pimps” (6 June and 13 June 2007), so that I’ll be brief. (I have to repeat my plea to those who happen to read the posts years after their publication: don’t leave your comments there, for how can I know that they exist? Add your notes to the most recent post or at least call my attention to the relevant blog post!). The root of pimp refers to something small and insignificant. Pimp denoted (and perhaps still denotes) a youngster in a logging camp or in a mine. The closed vowel i refers to a diminutive size. A pimple is not insignificant but tiny (teeny-weeny). Perhaps you want to feed your child, so that the youngster may become big and fat. Then pamper the beloved offspring and demonstrate the fruit of your endeavors with due pomp. If the verb pimper had existed, it might have meant “to spoon-feed” or “to starve to death.” Pomp and pump also command respect: their root vowels evoke a picture of something big and significant (think of pumpkin). Pumpernickel, we are told, is a word of unknown etymology. I believe that the etymology is known but will bring no one any joy: you eat this food, distend your stomach, and produce a big pump(f).

A pimpernel. An extra letter has done it no harm.
(Jan Buchholtz, via Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

This, by the way, is not my fanciful idea. I hasten to protect myself, because researchers are afraid of only two things: of saying something novel (and thus becoming a target of the opponents’ abuse) and repeating something that is already known (and thus being ridiculed for offering a trivial idea). This etymology of pumpernickel is not mine, but it is not fully trivial, so that I hope to escape the vituperation from both sides. If you have no more important things to deal with, consider the plant name pimpernel. The Romance etymon was presumably piperīnella, whose root is Latin piper “pepper.” Whose caprice was responsible for inserting m into this root?

Mole: a victim of taboo?

Before we wind up, let us not forget moles on the skin. Mole has a cognate not only in older German but also in fourth-century Gothic, where it glossed Greek rutís. Thus, “wrinkle” (and, incidentally, “any physical defect!). The German verb with this root meant “to stain” and later “to soil.” Perhaps the original meaning of the Germanic noun was “blemish.” Numerous words beginning with m have been proposed as presumably shedding light on mole, but none is close enough to clinch the argument. The names of diseases often fall victim to taboo: people were afraid to call something dangerous by its name and invented innocent-sounding substitutes. Moles are usually brown or black. Did the dark color frighten the superstitious? Were the original moles only black? Quite often, such stains on the skin brought forth associations with the Devil’s mark, and before the conversion to Christianity perhaps with the mark of evil forces. Let us draw a curtain of charity (as Mark Twain put it) of this horror.

A mole, black and innocuous.
(Pixabay, public domain)

Yes, and what about German Mal “stain” and English mole, an animal name? Both are partly obscure, but neither is related to mole “spot on the skin.” I wish I could refer to something “symbolic” to save the innocent animal from its dark habitat and to remove a stain from a list of German unsolved cases, but I cannot.

The Oxford Etymologist wishes you happy holidays and a less tempestuous year than the one we are leaving behind. See the next post on Wednesday 11 January 2023.

Featured image by Moe Magners via Pexels, public domain

Recent Comments

  1. Israel A. Cohen

    The published etymology for pumpernickel (in etymonline, for instance) does seem ridiculous. I suspect it has a Yiddish origin.

    It was a bread first eaten by the “common people”, not the elite. The borrowed-into-Hebrew word for the public is PuMBi. This bread was and often still is made with fermented dough, usually called sourdough. The word FeRMent was borrowed into both Hebrew and Yiddish. And NicKeL looks like a reversal of LeKheM (bread), a Hebrew word that every Yiddish speaker would know. But (RN)iKeL may be a reversal of Yiddish meL Ka(RN) = rye flour. And PuMBi may also be a reversal since the MB has become an MP.

    In other words, it looks like a bread made with fermented rye flour and that is exactly what it is.

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