Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

"A new beginning: the verb start" by the Oxford Etymologist on the OUPblog

A new beginning: the verb “start”

Last week (8 February 2023), I discussed the murky etymology of the verb begin. As pointed out there, begin is a rather abstract concept. There must have been some concrete idea, inspired by people’s everyday activities, that underlay begin in the remote past. To make this suggestion more convincing, we may examine the history of the verb start, because in trying to discover the origin of a problematic word, it is always useful to look at the history of its synonyms. What ifat least one of them throws a dim light on begin? Alas and alack, in our case, this hope wanes only too soon. For instance, initiate (from French, from Latin) goes back to in (a preposition) and īre “to walk”; commence has the same root. And start is even more obscure than begin. It has an interesting history, but the paths of the two verbs never cross. Therefore, we will have to examine start for its own sake, with only sometimes throwing a side-glance at begin.  

Riddles appear at once. We know the verb startle. The suffix –le is said to be frequentative, that is, to refer to a repeated action. A similar explanation will satisfy us in dealing with twinkle, giggle, and fiddlefaddle (among many others). Surely, startle does not mean “to start many times.” However, the Old English for start meant “to jump, leap.” “To jump more than once” (in fear, when frightened?) makes good sense. This then is at least one way the concept “begin” can develop (from jumping, from initiating movement).

A new beginning.
Photo by Andrea Piacquadio (public domain)

While looking for cognates of start, we notice Dutch storten and German stürzen “to fall precipitously; rush, etc.” Such senses also accord reasonably well with “begin,” but nothing in the root –gin suggests the idea of a rapid movement. The group gin is not sound-imitative, and no one will sense the smallest trace of sound symbolism in it. The complex st-r is another matter: it “produces vibrations” and makes one think of vigorous efforts. Here is a short list of native and borrowed str-words in English (without an intervening vowel): straight, strain, strangle, strap, stream, strict, stride, strident, strife, strike, strip, strive, stroke, strong, and strut.

Symbolism in the emergence of start and its family was noticed long ago. In 1908, Heinrich Schröder, an astute and bold historical linguist, wrote an article about Germanic words having the roots stel– (which won’t interest us) and ster-. The article appeared in a leading German periodical. Schröder cited dozens of such words and argued that they were sound-symbolic and sometimes sound-imitative. Consequently, he made the same point I made above, but I jumbled together native and borrowed words, to emphasize the panhuman role of the group in question. In his view, the combinations str– suggested the idea of strength, precipitation, and the like. Forty years later, J. H. van Lessen, another astute scholar, this time a Dutch one, searched dictionaries for similar words and came to the same conclusions. Apparently, Van Lessen missed Schröder’s work. This is not said to belittle my distant predecessor’s achievement. Researchers have a hard time finding the relevant literature on word origins Outside Greek/Latin, Finnish, and now English, etymological bibliographies do not exist, and some of those that exist are woefully outdated.

Startling news.
Photo by Andrea Piacquadio (public domain)

What then is the closest kin of start? First and foremost, we notice Dutch storten and German stürzen “to rush, plunge; fall.” All the rest is less clear. These are the Modern English words Schröder mentioned in his paper: stark, start “tail” (outside dialects, extant only in the name of the bird name redstart) and stork. The meaning of some of them goes back to the idea of immobility (a precipitous movement results in a fall!). He also listed stroke, strut, strumpet (!), and starve. The problem is that in dealing with sound symbolism, one seldom knows where to stop. However, only one word in the list given above merits our attention, namely, redstart or, rather, its second component, start “tail.” Here, you can see this bird in a picture. Its tail is nothing out of the ordinary, but straight it certainly is.

Skeat wrote at start “to move suddenly” that some even (!) connect it with Old Engl. steort “tail.” This even was not said in disapproval: he simply could not decide whether the connection is valid. The Century Dictionary, a major American contribution to lexicography in the early nineteen-hundreds, stated: “The explanation given by Skeat that the verb [start] meant originally ‘turn tail’ or ’show the tail’, hence turn over suddenly… is untenable.”

Here is a redstart, tail and all.
Photo by Charles J. Sharp via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)

This is a strong statement, considering the dependence of that dictionary on Skeat. Charles P. G. Scott was an excellent etymologist, and such a curt verdict (“untenable”) without any arguments was not typical of him. Also, start “tail” and start “turn” can be allied in more ways than one. Henry Cecil Wyld, an outstanding philologist, to whose dictionary I refer with great regularity, noted cautiously that perhaps (!) start and the Old English word for “tail” share the same root. Likewise, Elmar Seebold, the modern editor of Kluge’s German etymological dictionary, wrote at stürzen that the meaning “fall” may have developed from Sterz “tail,” but that this is not very probable (!). One should be cautious when it comes to etymology: the land underfoot is in most cases boggy.

Thus, the ultimate origin of start is not quite clear, but perhaps it meant something like “to fall or rise precipitously, jerk,” hence “to set in motion” and “begin.” More definite is the etymology of starknaked, which I am adding to my today’s story for good measure and for the sake of entertainment. English stark, like German stark, once meant “strong,” then “rigid, stiff; sheer, absolute,” and finally, “naked” in “stark-naked.” But stark-naked is a curious alteration of start-naked, as if “naked to the tail.” A stark-naked redstart might serve as an emblem created for this blog post. Despite all the uncertainty about the main question, our ramblings have not been quite fruitless. We can say with confidence that the impulses behind coining words for “begin” are various and hard to discover. Start is sound-symbolic and perhaps partly sound-imitative. Begin will continue languishing in its partial obscurity.

Stark-naked indeed.
Image by Karen Arnold (public domain)

I have more than once expressed my doubts about the existence of some ancient roots to which it is customary to trace the words recorded in Old Germanic and Indo-European. As an example, I may cite the case of the putative root ster-. There were allegedly five such homonymous roots. From one of them, meaning “stiff,” we are told to have stark, stork, strut, start, startle, and starve. The other four yielded strew, star; steal, and stirk “a yearling heifer or bullock.” If, motivated by a sound-symbolic complex like str, people created the words mentioned in this post, one cannot help doubting the existence of an ancient unifying root, and my perennial metaphor of mushrooms on a stump (similar but rootless units) may look like a more viable metaphor of word creation in the remotest past and also in the present, especially when slang is at play.

To conclude: begin remains without a convincing etymology, while start, if we accept its symbolic past, seems to be less problematic. Some of their synonyms, including enter, are transparent metaphors.

Featured image by Andrew Thomas via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Recent Comments

  1. Constantinos Ragazas


    May I suggest “start” likely derives from the Greek “στην αρχη” (“at the start”). Here we have in contracted form “στ()αρχ()”/”starh”. Which clearly matches what we have in “start”.

    Its the closest we come in meaning and sound to start! Nothing else comes closer!

  2. Constantinos Ragazas

    Further, Anatoly, the word “begin” may come from or be related to the Ancient Greek word “γένεσις”/”genesis”! Which, among other meanings, also means “beginning”.

Comments are closed.