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Chronos and his child. "The company we keep" by the Oxford Etymologist on the OUP blog

The company we keep

Observing how various words for “friend” originate and develop is a rather curious enterprise. Some etymologies are trivial, that is, they have been known for a long time and are undisputed. Such is, among others, the case of friend. Any good dictionary will tell the same story. The last two letters of friend (-nd) are a trace of an old present participle. In English, present participles end in –ing (a barking dog, flowering wilderness, and so forth), but at one time, the ending of this part of speech was –and. The other Germanic languages still have some easily recognizable traces of –and (cf. German kommend “coming” and so forth). The root of friend is also transparent to the language historian: it once meant “to love” (so already in Gothic, a fourth-century Germanic language, which has come down to us in a rather full form). In Old English, the word did mean “lover.”

Do we love our relatives? It depends. In a society in which kinship determines people’s behavior, love (the sense of belonging, loyalty, devotion, and many other feelings) has numerous “pre-modern” shades. In any case, Icelandic frændi means neither “friend” nor “lover” but “kinsman, relative.” Those who believe that English spelling will gain greatly if reformed may note that friend and fiend are spelled alike and yet do not rhyme. Fiend is also an old present participle. It once meant “hating; hater.” So much for the origin of friends and friendship.

A friend in need.
Via Pexels (public domain)

Another trivial case is fellow. Fellow certainly belongs with the subject announced in the title: compare fellow traveler and good fellow “an affable person.” The word came to English from Scandinavian. Icelandic félagi is a compound: means “property, money” (English fee is its distant cousin), while –lagi is related to English lay (as in to lay something). Consequently, a fellow is a person who lays down money with someone in a joint undertaking. The word bears some similarity to companion, except that companion is a borrowing from French, rather than Scandinavian. The Romance roots of this word are obvious: com– “together” and panis “bread” (a companion is therefore “one who breaks bread with another”). My students have never heard the phrase boon companion “good companion.” In older books, this phrase usually means “someone with whom one drinks and makes merry” (for example, we can remember Tony Lumpkin and his boon companions in She Stoops to Conquer), and there is no reason why it should be forgotten.

Sharing food will now take us to the noun mate. We have received and welcomed linguistic guests from Scandinavian and French. It would therefore be wrong to ignore Low German. Enter mate. The word (ge)mate, from gamato-, had the prefix ga- ~ ge-, denoting association, and the root discernible in English meat. Meat once meant “food,” as it still does in sweetmeats and green meat (two other items of the English vocabulary my students fail to recognize), from the root “to cut,” as in German messen and (!) English mete out. Thus, we again end up in a friendly company of food sharers.

A few more notes about this mess. The word mess, of French origin, first meant “a serving of food; dish.” In the eighteenth century, it could refer to “mixed food for an animal.” The familiar sense “medley; jumble; a state of utter disarray” appeared later. The root of mess can be seen in Latin mittere “to send out” (as in e-mit and mess-age). In a way, the noun messmate is a tautological compound like pathway. Both parts mean approximately the same: here “food-food,” rather than “someone with whom ones shares food.”

In the company we keep, three words are more serious etymological puzzles: crony, chum, and buddy.

Crony turned up in books in the 1660s. Samuel Pepys knew the word, and so did Stephen Skinner, the author of the 1671 etymological dictionary of English (the second ever). Both Pepys and Skinner were Cambridge men, and crony, long before it acquired the modem negative connotations, meant “roommate” (at Cambridge). In the entry for 30 May 1665, Pepys speaks of the death of Jack Cole, “who was a great chrony (sic) of mine.” The only reasonable derivation of crony seems to be from Greek Chronios “contemporary,” from Chronos “time.” The use of Greek and Latin words at British universities and public schools was commonplace. Pepys’s spelling of the word with ch probably shows that this is how he too understood the word, even though at that time and later, “elegant” (Greek or Latin) spelling variants were customary. To be sure, by Pepys’s time, the word may have been used for decades and been garbled more than once. Therefore, the current etymology looks acceptable but not certain. The once suggested derivation of crony from some cognate of the verb croon is nonsense.

A fellow traveler makes a long journey short.
Via PxFuel (public domain)

Chum, the Oxford counterpart of crony, became known from printed texts at almost the same time as crony. (Does it follow that both were, after all, recent seventeenth-century coinages? If so, why did they suddenly come into being?). Both were slang, and those who discussed them two hundred years later sometimes apologized for dealing with such low terms: at that time, slang was a synonym for filth.  “I confess I rather like the word, though not a few of those born in the [eighteen]-forties, at least, seem disposed to call it slang” (from an 1895 letter). E. B. Brewer, the author of a once tremendously popular 1870 book on the origin of words and idioms, defined chum as “bedfellow.” It is unclear where he found this gloss, but every two students at old Cambridge and Oxford did indeed share a bed.

Cicero and Tacitus used the Latin word con-taberna-lis (literally, “someone sharing a taberna,” roughly “tavern”) with the sense “comrade” (incidentally, a comrade is also a person sharing a camera “chamber” with someone). But contabernalis could hardly have been “Englished” into chum. Even less probable is the derivation of chum from Latin cum “with.” Those old suggestions deserve little consideration.

In 1896, the great Walter W. Skeat offered his etymology of chum. He cast doubt on the derivation of chum from chamber-(fellow), suggested cautiously in the OED, and indeed the path from chamber to chum “does not run smooth.” Skeat found the following entry in the 1767 very well-known Bremen Dictionary: “[In my translation]: “Kumpan, abbreviated as Kump, associate, companion, comrade; College socius, consors. Engl. chum.” He believed that chum was not only a gloss on but also a borrowing of German Kump and explained how the change may have happened. He reconstructed a devious way from Kump to chum. Yet if people could alter chamber into chum, they could do the same, and much more easily, with Kump. But why should British students have borrowed a German slang term? Though that is again not improbable, the reconstruction remains guesswork. With time, Skeat probably lost enthusiasm for his hypothesis, because he did not even include chum in the latest edition of his Concise Dictionary. Thus, today, we can remain chummy, without knowing why we use the word everybody knows (not a rare case in etymology in its relation to life).

The story of buddy is long, and I’ll leave it for the next blog post, but I hasten to thank our readers for their corrections, conjectures, and comments on cowardly custard. (Sorry for the alliteration!). I also have to inform them that I am off to a conference of the Dictionary Society of North America in Boulder, Colorado. This is my first trip “abroad” since the beginning of the pandemic. Therefore, the buddy thriller will appear a week later than scheduled. The long wait will, I hope, whet everybody’s appetite for more tales in the series of One Thousand and One Etymologies.

Featured image: “Chronos and his child” by Giovanni Francesco Romanelli, via Wikimedia Commons (public domain)

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