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The murky beginning of the verb "begin" by the Oxford Etymologist on the OUPblog

The murky beginning of the verb begin

This is an unfinished story of the word begin. A look at the numerous papers devoted to the etymology of begin and at what dictionaries say about this subject creates the impression that as time goes on, we know less and less about our verb. The first volume of The Oxford English Dictionary was published in 1884. Though James A. H. Murray, the OED’s editor, realized that begin is an opaque word, he risked writing a detailed entry and suggested a solution. Most of the later reference works stress the verb’s opaqueness. Such is perhaps the true path of all dependable scholarship: don’t say anything unless you are sure, don’t be sure of anything unless all the facts are known, and remember that all the facts will never be discovered. This is a safe but sad approach.

As far as begin is concerned,two circumstances immediately alert the historical linguist to the trouble ahead. First, we notice that though the verb sounds almost the same and means the same in most of the Germanic languages, it never occurs without a prefix, and the prefixes vary. For example, the Old English for “begin” was on-ginnan (the most common form) and ā-ginnan (ā designates “long a,” as in Modern Engl. spa). Beginnan occurred in Old English very rarely. The verb’s cognate in fourth-century Gothic was du-ginnan. In Old High German, biginnan and inginnan turned up. The second problem concerns two n’s in the root –ginn. Double consonants (they are called geminates) were extremely rare in the oldest form of Germanic. When they occurred, they were either expressive or the result of assimilation. (An example of assimilation: Latin illegalis from inlegalis “illegal.”) It seems that “in the beginning,” the root ginn– was gin- with some other consonant after it. What was that consonant? Another n? What was its function?

The great pochin, with Lenin bringing up the rear.
(By Alexey Savelyev, via Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

All attempts to understand the origin of begin turn around the mysterious meaning of –gin. About a dozen interpretations exist, and this multitude of opinions does not augur well for the sought-for answer. Let me “begin” at the end. According to a conjecture by the famous Norwegian philologist Sophus Bugge (1833-1907), begin has a good Slavic cognate. Allegedly, Russian po-chin “beginning” (stress on the second syllable; chin from kin; po– is a prefix) contains the root that provides the desired semantic fit. But non-Germanic (here, Slavic) k does not normally correspond to Germanic g. Bugge’s suggestion has been neither forgotten nor endorsed in modern scholarship, and at the end of this post, we will see that the idea behind it is quite clever, even though it hardly provides a solution to our etymology. One wonders: Is it possible that Germanic –gin developed from –hin? If it did, the matter will be perfect.

Slavic linguists are not in a hurry to endorse the –kin ~ -gin idea, but it occasionally appears in our reference books. (At one time, all Soviet citizens knew the word pochin, because Saturday, 1 May 1920, witnessed the first display of voluntary (?) enthusiasm: people decided to spend a free day doing community service: removing trash, and so on. Lenin participated in the activity. Pictures of him carrying a log were ubiquitous, and so was his phrase velikii pochin “a great initiative.”  Later, pochin became a buzzword, and subbotniks [the Russian for Saturday is subbóta, that is, Sabbath] became obligatorily voluntary.)

Sophus Bugge, Norwegian philologist.
(Via Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

To return to Germanic g from h. Latin prae-hen-d-ere “to seize” (compare English reprehensible) looks like a fairly good phonetic match, and the senses (“begin” versus “seize”) are not incompatible. A Sanskrit verb meaning “to drive on” perhaps belongs here too. A year ago, on 19 and 26 January 2022, I discussed the origin of the verbs hear and see and attempted to show how hard it is to reconstruct the earliest form and sense of such basic words. The same holds for begin.

According to the usual assumption, the sought-for initial sense of such words was absolutely tangible, concrete (“to seize,” “to touch,” “to follow,” and the like). But begin is a rather abstract concept. Only in Albanian, a verb meaning “to begin” and sounding like –gin– has been found. This precious find leads nowhere. Should we assume that both Albanian and Germanic borrowed their verb from some unknown, pre-Indo-European substrate language? Naturally, this idea occurred to some etymologists, but it is another version of the painfully familiar verdict “origin unknown.” What is that mysterious pre-Indo-European language? Where was it spoken? What did the word that interests us mean in it?

An old hypothesis, favored by JamesA. H. Murray, connects –gin– with the root of the verb that has become Modern English yawn (that is, to “open widely”). The root of that verb had two variants: one with a short vowel (gin) and one with a long one (gīn). The name of the ginnungagap of Scandinavian mythology, the void in which the world was created (thus, a vague analog of our black hole), reminds us of that verb. Murray wrote that the transition of sense from “open up” to “begin” is a common one and cited to open speech, to open fire, and to open up negotiations. Indeed, opening remarks are “beginning remarks.” In 1932, that is, half-a century after Murray, Henry Cecil Wyld, in his excellent The Universal Dictionary of the English Language, half-heartedly endorsed Murray’s reconstruction but followed Friedrich Kluge, the main authority on German etymology, and referred to Bugge’s Slavic cognate.

Elmar Seebold, the latest editor of Kluge’s dictionary, in the entry on German beginnen, cited German anpacken and an-fassen “to begin,” in which the root means “to seize.” Also, Latin in-cipere “to begin” (which left its trace in English incipient) is related to a verb of seizing (capio). Seebold compared beginnen with Latin pre-hend-ere “to seize, grasp” (English speakers recognize it from prehensile, and comprehend). This is an acceptable analogy. As a parallel, I may refer to Icelandic byrja “to begin,” which seems to have developed from the sense “to raise.” Seizing, raising, lifting an object from the ground looks like a feasible starting point in the development of the more abstract sense “to begin.”

The beginning or the end?
(By A R on Unsplash, public domain)

A certain mystery surrounds the idea of beginning. In quite a few cases, “beginning” is indistinguishable from “end.” Indeed, if messengers are sent to the four ends of the town, those are ends only if one looks at them from the center, but, from the point of view of the person entering the town, the “ends” are the beginnings. I am returning to Bugge. The root gin– bears a strong similarity to the root kon– in Russian kon-ets, related to the aforementioned po-chin, but this fact sheds no light on the origin of the root.

Slavic kon– is phonetically incompatible with Germanic –gin, unless there was some migratory word that traveled from language to language and meant something like “an outer point.” Such fantasies are not productive, but one thing is clear. The word that has come down to us as begin must have referred to some movement. Hence the multitude of prefixes: the movement could be toward or around, or away from an object. “Open” versus “close”? “Seize” versus “let go”? The words related to Icelandic byrja display an amazing multitude of meanings. Begin is much less colorful. It does not seem to go back to Indo-European, but the impulse behind its creation may have been the same as witnessed in the history of byrja.

Featured image via Hippo PX (CC0 – public domain)

Recent Comments

  1. Israel "Izzy" Cohen

    For me, the “gin” in begin does seem to be derived from the PIE root *gene- (give birth, beget). The beginning of anything is its birth.

  2. Richard Hollick

    No doubt just coincidence — in Scots “gin” (hard G) can mean “in time for”, “by”, “if and when”. See Burns’ “Gin a body meet a body coming thro’ the rye”.

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