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"Going out on an etymological limb" by the Oxford Etymologist

Going out on an etymological limb

I despise coy, punning titles, so familiar from newspapers, but constantly invent such myself. Be that as it may, today’s post is about the murky origin of the word limb. This word had the same form in Old English, except that it lacked b at the end: just lim. The parasitic b must have appeared in declension. For example, in the old plural, limu became limbu, or the excrescent b first emerged in the genitive and the dative: m, a labial sound, produced an illegitimate offspring, closely resembling its parent. Later, just because both m and b are labial, the second consonant was eliminated, as in dumb, comb, and so forth. There is, apparently, no way to please speakers. (Some such trickery must also have happened in the history of thumb; yet in thimble, we still pronounce b. Likewise, mb has stayed in assemble and crumble, but not in crumb.)

Limbs all over.
(Via Pixabay, public domain)

It is always hard to discover the etymology of a word that has no related forms in other languages, but non-matching cognates, even though they are better than nothing, also cause trouble. The Dutch cognate of lim(b) is lid, corresponding to German Glied, and we wonder what to do with the difference between the final consonants (m and d). G- in Glied poses no difficulties: it is a remnant of the prefix ge– (compare English like and German g-leich). This old prefix often occurred and still occurs in collective nouns. Thus, German Berg is “mountain,” while Ge-birge refers to a mountain range. Likewise, the German for “brother” is Bruder, and its plural is Brüder, but “brethren” or “brothers united for some enterprise” are (or at least were in the past) called Ge-brüder. Therefore, it looks probable that Glied initially referred to all the “members” (limbs) of a body.

But we may go farther and risk suggesting that even without the prefix the root -lim/-lid had a collective meaning and that the prefix only reinforced the reference that was there to begin with. The Old English word (which had no prefix!) was neuter, and from that period, we know the phrase dēofles limu “devil’s limbs,” referring to a multitude. Not inconceivably, lim originated as a collective neuter plural. Such words were many. The question remains open, because the fourth century Gothic cognate (liþus; þ has the value of th in English thin) was masculine (not neuter), while Old Icelandic had both lim-r “limb” (masculine) and lim “branch” (neuter). Perhaps the neuter form lim once designated all the limbs of a body and all the branches of a tree, later developed the sense “an individual limb (branch),” and became masculine (limr). In Old Germanic, short i alternated with its long counterpart ī (that is why English has ridden, with short i, and ride, with the vowel going back to ī). In Icelandic, we find lími (í designates a long vowel) “a heap of brushwood; broom.” Once again, the reference is to a collective noun (“many limbs”).

Those interested in the relations between collective plurals and neuter nouns in the singular may consult my old post for 12 October 2011 “Were ancient wives women?” A few comments on my hypothesis appeared much later, and I have only now read them. Also, something is said about Sib there, the goddess discussed last week. Today, I would rather refer to community and family relations, rather than just family relations, but other than that, I have not read any refutation of my etymology of wife, though a long article about it (and not only a post in this blog), multiple references and all, was published long ago.

A perfect image of a collective plural.
(Via Pixahive, public domain)

Those musings must needs remain vague. Another problem is the difference between the final consonants: lim ends in –m, while the final root consonant in Gothic liþ is þ, corresponding to d in Dutch lid and in German Glied.  The traditional approach to this difference is easy to guess. When such words occur, etymologists isolate a root (in this case, it must be li-) and call the final consonants extensions (unlike suffix, extension is a vague term, because extensions have no ascertainable functions: they are mere additions to reconstructed roots). Perhaps li-meant “to bend.” If so, el– in elbow may be related.

To explain why I am suspicious of extensions, though they have been sanctified by our best and most reliable etymological dictionaries, I’ll give an example from Modern English. Let us compare tip, tit, tid, tig, tick, and tiff. Compare the definitions: tip “pointed end; touch lightly; gratuity”; tit “teat; small horse”; tid (as in tidbit; the more common British form is or used to be titbit); tig “to touch lightly”; tick “an insect; to touch lightly”; tiff “a slight quarrel.” Those are late words, some of which of questionable or unknown origin. If they were recorded in our oldest texts, etymologists would unhesitatingly have isolated the root ti– “a small amount” and a series of extensions. Yet such a procedure will of course not occur to anyone looking at the list above. Why not? How is the root le– “to slip, vanish” different from my suggested root ti– “small”? Nothing prevents us from saying that in the phrases tit for tat or in tic-tac-toe we recognize the existence of some common “stems,” but were they instrumental in coining the words? This is the crucial question.

A lituus, an augur’s artificial limb.
(By Mariageorgieva0802, via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0)

I assume that two or three thousand years ago, people formed words, just as they do it today. In the past, two names for “limb” competed: one began with lim– and the other with lith-. Supposedly, both the lith-word and the lim-word have cognates elsewhere. Latin lituus “a crooked staff borne by an augur” (incidentally, an obscure word, perhaps even a borrowing), Tocharian lit- “depart, fall down,” and Lithuanian liemuõ “depart, fall down” have been cited as possibly related to the Germanic forms. The connections are insecure and explain nothing about why just such sound groups were once upon a time chosen for denoting branches and other “limbs.” That is why the etymology of limb is “unknown.” Even forty thousand cognates cannot throw light on the origin of a word unless we are able to answer the main question: in this case, what is so “special” in the group lim- ~ lith– that it came to denote “limb.” No sound symbolism, no sound imitation.

Etymology is often a travel with no end in view. Here, we have lim-. It alternated with lith-. A few suspicious relatives showed up elsewhere. Perhaps in Germanic, the word initially designated all the branches of a tree and by extension, all the limbs of the body. It seems to have referred to something pliant, or bending. The impulse behind the coining remains undiscovered—just going out on a limb.

Editor’s note: the Oxford Etymologist will return on Wednesday 22 March.

Featured image by brewbooks via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Recent Comments

  1. Graham Elliott

    A delightful picture of a bear relaxing in a tree.

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