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Agni, god of fire. The Oxford Etymologist on "sib" and peace for the OUP blog.

Sib and peace

The title of this post reminds one of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, but it means “Peace and Peace.” Though the story is long and in some points incomplete, this need not worry us, because few etymologies are complete (here, our object of investigation will be sib), and in reconstructing the history of an old and partly obscure word, one can go only so far.

In Modern English, sib is a dead or almost dead word, but sibling has survived, and many people will also remember that gossip traces back to Old English god-sibb. This compound once meant “sponsor at baptism” (god– of course refers to God), but rather soon it deteriorated into “familiar acquaintance” and “idle talker.” The phrase old gossip “an old talkative woman, tattler” occurred in nineteenth-century literature with some regularity. For many years, dictionaries remained noncommittal with regard to the origin of sib, even though the wordhas close cognates all over the Germanic-speaking world (German Sippe, and so forth).

At present, the verdict in reference works has changed, though we are still warned that the situation remains partly unclear. In any case, the formulation “origin unknown” has all but disappeared from the entry sib. Somewhat unexpectedly, it remained in the 1966 Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology. Unexpectedly, because the original OED listed the cognates and stopped, wisely without adding the fateful phrase. The Century Dictionary and The Universal English Dictionary by Henry Cecil Wyld, two sources to which I refer with great regularity (their treatment of etymology deserves our respect), followed the example of the OED, that is, offered the obvious cognates and refrained from further conclusions.

Three gossips?
Photo by Yaroslav Shuraev, Pexels (public domain)

Let me begin with a story some of whose details are relatively little known outside the professional circles of mythologists. The old (that is, medieval) Scandinavians worshipped Thor, the thunder god. In the extant tales, Thor has nothing to do with thunder (he is a giant-killer and sometimes a foil to Odin), but his name does mean “thunder,” and his past of a sky god can be reconstructed with a high degree of certainty. (Now comes the denouement.) Among other things, he is married to a goddess named Sif.  Almost nothing is said about this divinity, except that her name is an obvious cognate of sib. Consequently, she had something to do with contracts and unions.

The perfidious god Loki is said to have once cut her hair. How Loki dared do such a thing to Thor’s wife remains unclear. Later, he made amends, but cutting a woman’s hair might be a sign of her going to become married. Old English had a special word for the hair of a bride. In a late text (a song from the Poetic Edda), Loki brags of having slept with Sif. The truth of this scandalous assertion cannot be verified, but the author of the song may have drawn this conclusion from the hair-cutting episode.

Yet Sif appears, for whatever reason, to be Thor’s wife, and their union must have had some reason. We will soon see that this reason is hard to find. Long ago, it was observed that the great Vedic fire god Agni had the cognomen Sabhya, which was compared with Sif. The old attempts to connect the idea of lightning and fire with the concept of a family hearth seem strained, but nineteenth-century scholars tried to understand why Thor and Sif belonged together (according to myths, they did not only belong together but even had two sons) and believed that they had found a link. The main question for an etymologist is not Sif’s marital status but whether the ancient protoform of sib– (as in sibling) and Sif meant “family.”

A modern idea of Sif.
Image by Willy Pogony, Wikimedia Commons (public domain)

And this is where we are in for a surprise. In the Old Germanic languages, sib and its cognates meant “peace,” rather than “family.” The evidence at our disposal points unambiguously in this direction. In the fourth-century Gothic Bible, translated from Greek, sibja meant “relationship” (and this is the closest we come to the idea of “family”). The negative adjective un-sibjos glossed the Greek words meaning “unlawful” and “impious,” not “devoid or bereft of family”. In Old High German, Latin pax “peace” was glossed with sibbo, though frid, the ancestor of today’s Frieden, existed too. In Gothic, the noun with this root meant “reconciliation.” (Elsewhere in Germanic, the words with the root frid– referred to things beautiful and cherished.)

“Relationship” is a vague concept, and the main question is whether the Germanic words with the root sib- ~ sif- referred to a family or a broad community. Though opinions on this matter differ, it appears that “community” is a more secure choice. Individual ties often took precedence over those imposed by the family. (Incidentally, Romeo’s friend Mercutio, did not belong to ether clan; hence: “Plague on both your houses.”) If the preceding argument can be sustained, Sif, we conclude, did not protect family relations, regardless of who her husband was (at best, she took care of community ties), and the clever idea of her being a goddess of family ties or the family hearth must be given up. The root of Sif’s name recurs in several reflexive pronouns meaning “one’s own,” such as English self and German sich, with cognates in probably all Indo-European languages, while Agni disappears from out story.

A hearth, perhaps even a family hearth.
Image via PxHere (public domain)

The name for a close-knit community, rather than a group of family members, seems to underlie the English noun sib(ling), so thatthe word sib need not be defined as “related by blood.” Curiously, this word has all but disappeared from Modern English. The same happened to German Sippe and its cognates in the Scandinavian languages. German Sippe was revived in the eighteenth century and later used with a vengeance by the Nazis. English has also lost the native word for “peace.” As early as the twelfth century, a borrowing from French replaced it: peace goes back to Latin pax. In the Germanic-speaking world, the strangest word for “peace” occurred in Gothic: it had the root of the verb glossed as “to happen, to come to pass,” as in German werden (with the implication of “good thing happening”?) and had nothing to do with any of its synonyms elsewhere. “Peace” and “community” are sometimes called the same (so in Russian: mir “peace” and “world”). The root of German Frieden “peace” means “free” or “dear.” Despite the fact that people have always fought and killed one another in endless wars (and the Germanic-speaking people were certainly not an exception to this rule), peace was looked upon as the desired norm. In Old Scandinavian, an independent word for “war” did not even exist: people called hostilities (in translation) “un-peace.”

I should repeat that though the treatment of the Germanic nouns with the root sib– is a hotly disputed area, I gravitate toward understanding it as “community,” rather than “family,” and communities are formed for protecting peace, that is, for defending themselves from aggressors and suppressing internecine strife.

Featured image by Nomu420 via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Recent Comments

  1. Constantinos Ragazas

    Anatoly, you write

    “In the fourth-century Gothic Bible, translated from Greek, sibja meant “relationship” (and this is the closest we come to the idea of “family”)”

    And also,

    “The name for a close-knit community, rather than a group of family members, seems to underlie the English noun sib(ling), so that the word sib need not be defined as “related by blood.” ”

    If I am right, that may be wrong! The word “sibja” from the Gothic Bible, as translated from Greek, is likely the contracted Greek word “syngenea”. With the “ng” replaced in Gothic by “bj”. The Greek word “syngenea” is compound, made up of “syn” (as in synergy, same) and “genea” (family, as in genealogy). Thus rendering “sibling” to be likely derived from “syngenea”, meaning “same family”.

    Worth considering, huh!

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