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Monosyllabically moping - the origin of mop and other monosyllabic words by the Oxford Etymologist

Monosyllabic moping

About nine years ago or, to be exact, on 17 December 2014, I posted an essay with the title “Moping on a Broomstick.” It was devoted to the idioms to cry mapsticks and like death on a mapstick. Those are exotic phrases, but the verb mope is common, and few people realize how opaque (or rather unpromising) from an etymological point of view many, if not most, monosyllabic verbs are. Look up rip, rap, nip, nap, flip, flap, flop, and others like them, and at best, your unflappable dictionary will cite a few words sounding similarly in other languages or shrug off your curiosity with the all too familiar verdict: “Origin unknown” / “Possibly sound-imitative.” Respectable words (that is, respectable from an etymological point of view) need more than one syllable.

Mop (a kind of broomstick), we learn, has been known since the fifteenth century (that is, already in Middle English), and it surfaced first in nautical use in the form mapp(e). Apparently, those people coined or borrowed this word who mopped the deck. It is curious that mop is cited in a serious dictionary as a variant of mapp(e) without any further comment. Indeed, mop or map, sop or sap, lop or lap—who cares? Incidentally, Latin mappa “cloth; map; (!) napkin” is also a word of unknown origin, perhaps a borrowing. English napkin should have become mapkin. The change of initial m to n has parallels, but an explanation for this change is lacking (-kin is a diminutive suffix, as in lambkin “little lamb”).

There also is a tautological phrase mops and mows (it is tautological, because both components mean the same, that is, “grimace”). Dutch has moppen “to pout” and mop(s) “pugdog” (mops “pug” also occurs in German, and it made its way into Russian). It is natural to assume that mope is a sound-symbolic word: when one sulks and pouts, the lips are in a position to produce mp. Hence also the verb mump and the name of the disease mumps. Both turned up in English texts in the sixteenth century. Mumble made its way into English texts two centuries earlier in the form momele, derived from mum (as in keep mum), but the intrusive b in the middle made it look like mump and the rest.

A  classic mops, mopsy and lovable.
(Via PxHere, public domain)

Nothing would be more natural than to say that we are dealing with a bunch of sound-imitative or sound-symbolic words and that the mpm~ mbm complex (a certain “sound gesture”) serves for conveying pouting, puffing, and the like. Characteristically, this complex is not limited to any one language. In Icelandic, the verb mumpa means “to take into the mouth”; it corresponds to Norwegian dialectal mumpa “to chew with one’s mouth full.” In Dutch, we find mompen and mompelen “to mumble,” while German has mumpflen (there is a typo in this form in The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology) and mumpfen “to mumble in eating.”

When an old word like father or come has numerous related forms, historical linguists reconstruct an ancient root from which the recorded forms have sprung up. But it would be unrealistic to expect that, for example, Icelandic mumpa and English mumps are two offspring of some ancient protoroot, even though some such words are rather old (medieval). Can we imagine that words like mope are borrowed from language to language? Dictionaries prefer not to commit themselves to any solution. Sometimes they tell us to “compare” the recorded forms or say nothing.

For the idea of borrowing to make sense, the etymologist should explain where and under what circumstances the word was carried from one speaking community to another. That is the reason dictionaries are so evasive. Indeed, Icelandic mumpa and English mumps sound very much alike, and their meanings are compatible, but the two communities had no contacts in the recent past. German and Dutch, Dutch and English are a different matter. The words mentioned above are not bookish. Parallel development is unlikely. This is the trickiest part of an etymology being discussed here.

Muffs are no longer so popular, or are they?
(Via Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

English muff “an awkward person, fool,” etc., which first surfaced in Dickens, resembles Danish mof “clown.” English muff (verb) “to mumble” looks like a borrowing of German muffeln “to sulk” (especially well-known is the German adjective aufmümpfig “aggressively defiant”). Besides, we find German Muff “stench” and of course German and English muff “a cover for the hands,” all of which are “of unknown origin.” Finally, let us not forget how often we are miffed or even driven into a miff. English speakers have been in this state since the seventeenth century. German Mief means “fug, stale atmosphere, stench.” Presumably, English miff and German Mief are “of one blood,” as Mowgli might have put it.

It looks as though in the late medieval and especially in the early postmedieval period, the speakers of Dutch and German began to produce multiple words from the roots mump ~ mump(f) ~ muff  ~ miff and that the interminable wars and migrations of that period, with masses of mercenaries and itinerant workers moving from country to country, resulted in the coining of short sound complexes, which, in principle, might mean almost anything, from a puffed-up face (and the emotions associated with it) to a warm glove. Gradually they became known all over the countries in which a Germanic language was spoken. Sometimes such words spilled over into the Romance—and more rarely into Celtic-speaking countries. Italian muffa “mildew” has cognates in several Romance languages. Muff “glove” resembles French moufle and Italian mufti, allegedly from Medieval Latin muff(u)la, a word of unknown (!) origin. It would not be too risky to suggest that muffula came to Medieval Latin from Germanic. The great German philologist Theodor Wilhelm Braune (1850-1926) derived numerous Romance words from Germanic, but his etymologies have been treated with undue caution or ignored.

Words sometimes propagate like mushrooms.
(Via PxHere, public domain)

I began my story with map and mop. Mope is not far behind. Rather than discussing each word in more detail, I would like to draw some conclusions from the picture offered above. We have a panoply of short m-p and m-f words, seemingly or even obviously belonging together and all of them of unknown origin and spreading like mushrooms. This may be an analog of the most ancient process of word creation: no roots. (I have little trust in the ancient meu ~ mu root.) Rather, sound-symbolic and sound-imitative monosyllables multiplied in a process resembling spore germination. It may be that the “unknown” etymology of such humble words as map, mop, mope, miff, and muff gives us a fairly transparent picture of how things started many thousand years ago. This “model” did not have to be the only one, but its importance need not be ignored. In its sources, language must have been “descriptive.” Abstract meanings, derived forms, and grammaticalized alternations like ablaut (get ~ got, give ~ gave) came later.

All this being said, one should not forget the puzzling fact that the more ancient a language at our disposal is, the longer its words are. “Primitive languages” have words of inordinate length. Language history cannot be reduced to a set of easy rules, and the facts at our disposal contradict one another. Knowing all this, I still think that the map ~ mop ~ mope model is worthy of consideration.

Featured image by Ben Lelis via Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Recent Comments

  1. Constantinos Ragazas


    For years here I have been arguing ‘primitive’ monosyllabic English words likely derive from equivalent polysyllabic ancient Greek words! And have given many examples of this! When a polysyllabic Greek word evolves into English (over possibly thousands of years, since the Aegean Neolithic settlers of the UK), some syllables are contracted or dropped.

    Here is another one that comes from the content of your post. The word “mold” (mildew) likely derives from the Greek word “μουχλα”/mouhla (mold). This etymological connection is made more convincing when we consider the Old Norse cognate, “mygla”.

    Mold: “late Middle English: probably from obsolete *mould*, past participle of *moul *‘grow moldy’, of Scandinavian origin; compare with Old Norse *mygla* ‘grow moldy’.”

    This connection to the Greek “μουχλα” is made more apparant since “μουχλα” derives from “ομιχλη” (mist, vapor, fog). This establishes an “original meaning” for “μουχλα”, whereas none exist for English “mold”!

  2. Israel A. Cohen

    Hebrew מַפָּה MaPah also means both “map” and “napkin” … and even “covering”. Klein says the Hebrew term is post-biblical but nonetheless claims the Latin word is borrowed from Western Semitic.

    Kkein derives MaPah from NoF (to move to and fro). I would derive it from biblical NoF (height, elevation, landscape, panorama, in Psalms 48:3). I think the first anthropomorphic map was made in NePaL, the Sanskrit nabhila = navel on a female body part map of Central Asia. Because Lebanon is a reversal of nabhila, I suspect the Phoenicians learned this concept when they met Central Asians on the Silk Road.

    Anthropomorphic maps were made by configuring the gigantic virtual body of a god or goddess over the area to be mapped. That body covered the mapped area. The name of each part of that body became the name of the area under that part. This produced a mental image whose toponyms indicated the approximate location, size and borders of each named area.

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