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A shaky beginning of the end and state of the art by the Oxford Etymologist on the OUP blog

A shaky beginning of the end and the state of the art

The previous two posts were devoted to the verbs begin and start. For consistency’s sake, it is now necessary to say something about the noun and the verb end. Two weeks ago, you saw a picture of Sophus Bugge, a great Norwegian literary historian and linguist. Etymology was not his main area, but he made many astute remarks about word origins. Some of them have been accepted with reservations, others rejected. As mentioned two weeks (a fortnight) ago, Bugge compared the root of begin with the Slavic root chin-,from kin-. Since his days, a spate of articles dealing with begin has been published, and as far as I can judge, the common opinion of Germanic researchers is that Bugge’s idea is wrong (in most sources, it is not even mentioned as worthy of consideration). Slavic chin– means “end,” not “begin,” and this is what makes the situation intriguing. While discussing begin, I mentioned the fact that in the linguistic intuition of many speakers, “beginning” and “end” are often hard to differentiate, because both refer to such concepts as “edge, margin, border.” The post even featured a ball of thread, with one “end” of the thread showing.

Socrates: a memorable forehead
(Louvre Museum, via Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

Curiously, the Slavic verb for “begin” (like Russian (na)chat’) practically never appears without a prefix, and likewise, the Germanic verb be-gin (Gothic had duginnan) is invariably tied to a prefix. We have no way of knowing why the bare root was avoided. Did the prefix denote direction? Or did it make the verb perfective, as up does in English finish up? (Think of the difference between eat and eat up, finish and finish up.) The Germanic verb for “begin” looks like a mirror image of the Slavic verb for “finish.” The phonetic match is also unobjectionable.

For many decades, a group of highly qualified specialists has been working in Moscow on a comparative etymological dictionary of the Slavic languages. The multivolume project has reached perz– (Vol. 41; the volumes are rather slim), so that by the middle of the century, unless the world collapses, the task will perhaps have been accomplished. The entry on the root for “finish” that interests us is short. As elsewhere, the root is compared in it with –cēns in Latin recēns “recent” (!), with Greek kainás “new” (!), and with Germanic –ginnan “to begin,” as though it were the most obvious thing in the world. That is why I mentioned the state of the art in the title of the post. Someone who will consult this excellent Slavic dictionary and then open an equally excellent modern Gothic (German, English, Dutch, Scandinavian) etymological dictionary will come away with incompatible answers. Beware of dogmatic verdicts!

Here are some of the senses of the Slavic words with the root –chen: “finish; thread; aim, target; edge; village street, beginning” (Vol. 11, pp. 5-6). Unfortunately, none of them can throw light on the mysterious origin of the Germanic verb end. Therefore, in a way, ours has been a disappointing journey. Apparently, once upon a time, the sound complex ken ~ gin (in and outside Germanic) meant “fringe, limit, border” and could refer to either end of an object. But why just this complex? We ask this question and realize that unless etymologists deal with sound imitation or sound symbolism, they cannot answer it. Something in the syllable ken must have been symbolic (this is true even if this complex was borrowed), but we cannot guess what.

Kronos, the god of time. It is hard to take him by the forelock
(Rubens, Museo del Prado via Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

English end is surrounded by a group of well-attested cognates: Gothic andeis, Dutch einde, German Ende, and so forth. Latin ante “before” (not “after”!) is also related. Among others, the most ancient IndoEuropean word that interests us must have meant “front” or “in front of,” because the same root regularly appears in the conjunction and (not a surprise!) as well as in Indo-European words for “forehead.” Such is Old Icelandic enni and Old Irish ēhtan (ē designates a long vowel), alongside Old Irish ēt “end, point.” Latin antiae “forelock” (remember the idiom take time by the forelock?), the much better-known ante “before” (up your ante, ladies and gentlemen!), and anterior belong here too. It would be more natural to expect that the story began with the word for “forehead” (a tangible object) and that only later, the concept of “fore-head” acquired the abstract sense known to us from the preposition. (Incidentally, in Slavic, some cognates of the word for “forehead” mean “the back of the head, occiput”!). But this is all like guesswork on coffee dregs or taking omens by the flight of birds. The ultimate origin of the word end, that is, the impulse behind its coining, remains unknown.

It may be of some interest to look at the familiar root hidden in a prefix. The noun answer, from Old English andswaru, contains the prefix and– meaning “against” and the root of “swear,” from swar-. The verb denoted a solemn affirmation in response to a charge. Even the innocent-looking English along in go along, come along derives from Old English and-lang and corresponds to German entlang. The prefix in them means “opposite.” See what is said above about the history of the conjunction and. All this is interesting and instructive, but the sad truth remains: we failed to reconstruct the primordial impulse behind the coining of the words begin and end. In my end is my beginning.

By way of compensation, I may add a few lines on the story of the English word forehead. Like Old Icelandic enni, forehead is also an old word, and its inner form is the same. As time went on, the pronunciation of forehead changed. Do you remember: “There was a little girl, / Who had a little curl/ Right in the middle of her forehead. // When she was good, / She was very, very good. / But when she was bad, / She was horrid.” This poem is often called a nursery rhyme, perhaps suggesting anonymity, but it has become such: its author was Henry W. Longfellow, now cruelly and undeservedly neglected (practically forgotten, like almost everybody else). The rest of the poem is equally good. In the second element of a compound, h was lost in several other words, the best-known of which is shepherd. The true late pronunciation of shepherd can be seen in the family name Shepard. The now common pronunciation fore-head, like the variant often (with t in the middle) is a tribute to those words’ spelling, a pseudo-cultured “accurate” pronunciation. I hope no one yet says list-en or whist-le.

There was a little girl…
(Bruno Miranda Photography, via Pexels, public domain)

                                                                              The End

Featured image by Chaitanya Tvs, Unsplash (public domain)

Recent Comments

  1. Gavin Wraith

    Two words of Hittite that may be relevant ‘hanti’ (in front of) and ‘anda’ (into). Compare the Hittite adjective ‘andariya’ with English ‘interior’. Have I already raised the question of whether the future is in front of us (into which we march) or behind us (about to overtake us)? The spatial metaphors for time, and how they relate to human anatomy, are fascinating.

  2. Vivian Ramalingam

    I have not encountered “seize time by the forelock”, but I have seen “seize opportunity (occasio) by the forelock” many times. A swift Google leads to this Wiki: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caerus

  3. Constantinos Ragazas

    Anatoly, as I already wrote in my previous comment the most likely etymology for “begin” is the Ancient Greek word “γένεσις”/”genesis”. The prefix “be” is very comment and appears in many English words like “become”, “begone”, “beloved”, etc. It generally can be understood as “in a state of”. We can put it aside and consider the root “-gin”. And that can be connected to “genesis”! Which also has the meaning “in the beginning”!

    Note further this Greek word “genesis” also is related to the Greek word “gennisi”, which means “birth”. And nothing “begins” more than “birth”!

    No other etymology for “begin” you and others propose comes closer to this! As for “start”, that likely is a contraction “στ()αρχ()”/”starh” for the Greek “στην αρχη” (“at the start”).

    BTW, “end” comes from the Greek “εντελως/entelos” /(end/complete/total). As usual, some of the syllables of the Greek word are truncated to a monosyllabic English word!

    Academics arguing etymologies of what essentially are Greek roots is like cats chasing their tales!

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