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Gr- words as mushrooms - exploring the etymologies of words beginning with gr-. By the Oxford Etymologist for the OUPblog

Gr-words as mushrooms

This is a continuation of the previous post, and the reference in the title is to my idea that some words propagate like mushrooms: no roots but a sizable crowd of upstarts calling themselves relatives. In that post, words of the map-mop type were discussed. Gr-words are the pet subject of all works on sound imitation and sound symbolism. Grim grumblers growl and grit their teeth much to the gratification of those who attack this piece of etymological granite. Today, I am returning to the question about words of suspicious and unknown origin.

It is rather clear why speakers associate gr- with grinding and growling, and the etymology of grist and grit has been accounted for quite successfully. But there are numerous gr-verbs that have nothing to do with grinding and growling, and dictionaries have little to tell us about their descent. Grip means approximately the same as grasp. It has existed since the days of Old English, and its German cognate greifen (the same meaning) shows that we are indeed dealing with an old word. Elmar Seebold, the editor of the main etymological dictionary of German, naturally, cites the ancient Germanic root and adds that Slavic and Baltic have similar verbs (for instance, Russian grabit’ “to rob”; add to it Russian grebú “I rake together”), but that the relations between the Germanic and Balto-Slavic lookalikes remain unclear. In this context, unclear means that the ancient root gr-b cannot be reconstructed for all such verbs (because the vowels do not match).

"Russian grebu - I rake together. This is what raking realling means!" The Oxford Etymologist explores the origin of words beginning with gr for the OUPblog.
This is what raking really means!
By Haddon E P, USFWS on Pixnio (public domain)

Walter W. Skeat mentioned Low German grapsen and a stray occurrence of the Middle English form grapsen and suggested that grasp goes back to grabsen. The OED finds this idea feasible. Ernest Weekley also shared Skeat’s opinion. Perhaps so, but as likely, grapsen was a folk etymological variant of graspen (a natural attempt to ally grasp to grab) or a form with ps from sp by metathesis (transposition of sounds). To cite a parallel case, wasp occurred in Old English in the forms wæsp and wæps (æ had the value of a in Modern English aspen)

This is where a broader view of all those words may perhaps be of some value. Grope, grip, and gripe, which are related to one another and to German greifen, also have reputable West Germanic ancestry, as evidenced by German greifen “to grab.” Is grab another member of the same family? Perhaps so, if we accept the evasive idea that the root of this verb, borrowed from Low German or Dutch, is a “modification” of the root we find in grip. Obviously, modification is a face-saving term, unlike ablaut, which refers to regular alternations. But in principle, this term reflects the true state of affairs. We have a loose cohesion of “bases,” and that is why so many partly synonymous verbs exist. On this boggy soil, every step is unsafe. The English verb to grave (related to German graben) means “to dig; bury.” And once again, Elmar Seebold (at graben) cites Russian grebú as a cognate. Does it follow that grip and grave are related? There is no reason why they should not be, but the nature of the alliance is not quite clear.

 Two types of etymological dictionaries exist. Some cite individual words and discuss their origin in individual entries, in which we find references to several related words. A few other dictionaries (mainly those of old and reconstructed languages) feature in their headings nests of cognates, so that we can see the broad picture at a glance. In Modern English, Eric Partridge, a great expert in slang and Shakespeare’s “bawdy” language, had little knowledge of historical linguistics but boldly produced an etymological dictionary of English and chose the second approach. In criticizing his predecessors, he wrote that: “…they treat words so briefly and ignore ramifications so wholeheartedly that it was easy to plan a work entirely different.”

True, under individual headings, his dictionary treats groups of words, but his book is derivative of other dictionaries and has no independent value, except, as just noted, for featuring “nests,” rather than separate vocables. The entry that interests us has the heading grip, gripe, grippe, grope, grasp. Partridge does not say why he combined those words and does not refer to any old roots, so that all our questions remain unanswered. He also missed the verb grave and the noun grub, allied to grave.

"Eliza Doolittle's aunt died of influenza, but we are safe from the grippe!". The Oxford Etymologist explores the origin of words beginning with gr for the OUPblog.
Eliza Doolittle’s aunt died of influenza, but we are safe!
By Whoisjohngalt via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Grippe is (as Partridge also says) believed to be a borrowing from French, to which it, allegedly, came from Germanic. The idea is that the grippe grips one hard. This is an unconvincing approach to a disease that in the past was not supposed to be particularly dangerous (the word conquered Europe in the eighteenth century). Grippe was earlier the name of several infectious diseases and sometimes meant “a bad mood.” That is why the Slavic source of this word (Russian khrip “hoarse voice”) is unlikely. The grippe does grip one hard, but in the present context, the word can be ignored.

The broader topic deals with native words multiplying like mushrooms, rather than with borrowings. Sure enough, grope, grasp, grip, gripe, grab, and grave look like a family, but the question is whether it is a family of siblings descended from the same root (ancestor) or a family of mushrooms multiplying by spores. At its inception, historical linguistics drew its inspiration from botanical metaphors: words have trees, roots, and stems, while languages form branches. No harm will be done if we sometimes choose to refer to spores. A certain sound complex like grb/grp can produce an indefinite number of similar-sounding words, loosely connected with regard to form and meaning. Another complex, for instance, m-p, spawns map, mop, mope, and so forth. (Spawn has nothing to do with mushrooms, but the metaphor seems to be appropriate.)

Once again, I would like to repeat that the reconstructed ancient roots are only the common part of the recorded words. They never had an independent existence and are only useful as formulas that help researchers to organize the vocabulary of the most ancient languages. Write is indeed the basis of writer; it does exist as an independent word, and so do writ, writes, wrote, writing, and written. Such is not the case of gripe, grope, grasp, and perhaps grub.

"A grub eager to join the gr- family" The Oxford Etymologist explores the origin of words beginning with gr for the OUPblog.
A grub eager to join the gr-family.
By Bernard Ladenthin via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 4.0)

My previous blog post (18 January 2023) was devoted to this idea. As of 20 January 2023, when I am writing this post, there has been no discussion of it. What concerns the remarks pertaining to Hebrew (private) and Greek (posted), rather than to my main question, I hope to address them in my next “gleanings,” once I have enough material for them. But I would be glad to hear objections to or approval of the mushroom idea. If no comments follow this appeal, I will turn to other topics. Etymology is a broad field, and every word is a worthy subject for meditation and scrutiny. Amazingly, the Russian word for “mushroom” is grib, and anyone can see that it begins with gr. I look upon this fact as a nod of approval from some higher authority.

Featured image by George Chernilevsky via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Recent Comments

  1. Jim Holloway

    We see a similar state of affairs with Semitic roots, where it seems evident that certain roots are somehow related to each other; the matter is clouded by the fact that Srmitic roots are already quite wide in meaning, each being the root of a whole family of words.

    There is an idea that some of the trilateral roots may in fact be extensions of older biliterals, but I’ve seen no clear evidence for it.

  2. Jake Guttormsson

    I would love to hear more about this mushroom idea, words being created like spores spreading.

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