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A 1899 poster of Zig Zag the magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat to illustrate the blog post "Dangerous neighbors: sore and sorrow" by the Oxford Etymologist on the OUP blog.

Dangerous neighbors: “sore” and “sorrow”

Last week, I discussed the history of the word day and half-heartedly promised to go on with an essay on night. But what little is known about the distant origin of night can be found in any good dictionary, and I gave up my idea. Yet I still wonder why night begins with the consonant n, the first sound of the most common negation (no and its likes) and the adjective naked. As a matter of fact, some etymologists did compare night and naked, but naked is also opaque and can therefore provide no help. For this reason, I have chosen another couple of twins: sorry and sorrow. Here again, I will have nothing original to say, but some details and considerations may be of interest to our readers.

Quite naturally, speakers connect words that sound alike. From a strictly scholarly point of view, sore and sorrow are unrelated, but for centuries, people thought differently, and folk etymology united the two long ago.

The etymology of “sore”

We may begin with sore, which continues Old English sāre “grievous, painful.” English still has the archaic form sore “painfully, grievously,” as in the well-known phrase from the King James Bible: “…and they were sore afraid.” The modernized versions have: “…they were terrified” and “…they feared with a great fear.” This meaning of sore stops being a mystery as soon as we realize that its exact German counterpart is sehr “very.” Once upon a time, it also meant “painfully.” Likewise, the related Gothic word meant “pain.” (The Gothic Bible was recorded in the fourth century.) And we still say in English: “painfully obvious, thin, shy, etc.,” so that this usage makes sense.

A good blow, or beaucoup.
Photo by Austrian National Library (public domain)

I may perhaps digress a little and say something about the words used to reinforce statements. Most often, they are adverbs and even prepositions, whose original meaning has been obliterated. Such is French très “very,” from Latin trans “beyond, through” (compare English thorough, a doublet of through; the idiom through and through, and the adverb thoroughly, as in thoroughly bored); Italian molto, that is, “much”; Latin maximē (which needs no gloss) and its synonym valdē from validē “strongly.” French merci beaucoup “thank you very much” refers to a good blow (at the moment, the English noun coup is “painfully” familiar to all!). In some languages, “tight” and “ready” are also on record as being the sources of “very, exceedingly.” English very, from French, means “truly” (compare verily).

Now back to sore. Old English sāre meant “painful.” If it had developed regularly, today, it would probably have rhymed with story, rather than quarry, though I am not sure whether all English speakers distinguish the vowels in Tory, story, hoary versus sorry and quarry. Anyway, today, sorry and sorrow are pronounced with the same vowel, because, as mentioned above, the two words are and were, for quite some time, thought to belong together. Sorry is related to sore (it is an adjective with the same suffix as in hoary and gory), not to sorrow, while sore is a common Germanic word for “pain” and “wound,” thus, not quite the same as Modern English sore.

“The devotion to something afar / From the sphere of our sorrow.” (Percy Bysshe Shelley)
Photo by nega (public domain)

From an etymological standpoint, few inherited words are more obscure than the names of diseases, a taboo subject in all ancient societies. Such names were deliberately maimed, to hoodwink and ward off evil spirits, allegedly responsible for all the mental and bodily harm. Sometimes, we find inexplicable regularities. For instance, many words designating “pain” begin with the vowel a: English ache is one of them. Is it a coincidence to which we by mistake tend to ascribe sacral significance? Perhaps. But the fact remains that the history of such words as deaf, dumb, halt “lame,” and their likes is often impenetrable. To complicate our search, the oldest meaning of such words might be non-specific, something like “affliction; defect; confused; lost,” with later specialization. Thus, deaf is, most probably, related to Greek typhlós “blind.” Both referred to “darkness.”

The origin of sore, as could be expected, is obscure. It too has been sought in taboo, but the result of this search was far from convincing. Words having the root of sore in the old languages mean “wound.” It is probably natural to begin with a concrete meaning (“wound”) and move to such a general concept as “pain.” All the recorded cognates of sore have a long monophthong (ā), but judging by the form recorded in Gothic, the initial vowel was the diphthong ai. Why should a sound complex like sair– have designated a wound, pain, or something dangerous? Whether Latin saevus “fierce, dire” belongs here is immaterial (dictionaries cite it in connection with sore, but Walter W. Skeat doubted their relatedness), because the unquestionable cognates mean “grievous; suffering; painful,” rather than “fierce.” Thus, we would like to know why the ancient sound group sair– suggested the idea of being wounded and suffering from pain.

I keep returning to this question, because all etymology is about such queries. Where do we go from discovering the most ancient roots of our words? The answer is well-known but sad: nowhere, unless the root is sound-symbolic or sound-imitative (onomatopoeic). But sair– is neither, and we are left wondering why it was chosen to designate something dangerous and painful. The same question arises in a study of modern words. Why, for example, should flub mean “to botch, bungle”? Apparently, it was coined by someone in an unbuttoned moment and alighted itself with flabby, fluff, flop, and a host of other expressive fl-words, including the devilish Flibbertigibbet. But sair?

The etymology of “sorrow”

I am sorry.
Photo by Caleb Woods (public domain)

In anger at our ignorance, we are moving to the noun sorrow. Its root in Germanic must have been surga– or sworga-. Modern German has Sorge, related to Old Norse sorg. This noun has related forms all over the Indo-European world. The prevailing sense of the recorded cognates is “sick(ness).” And there we stop again. As we have seen, English sore and sorrow are not related, that is, those two words cannot be derived from the same root. Yet we have two similar-sounding complexes: sair– (as in today’s sore) and surga ~ sworga- (as in today’s sorrow). From a strictly phonetic point of view, they are different, even incompatible. However, they refer to kindred concepts (pain, grief, anguish). It is probably not for nothing that English speakers associated and confused them.

Was there something in the mentality of our remote ancestors that made them associate the complex sr with pain and fear? Vowels are, after all, mere props. Br-and gr– are much better candidates for onomatopoeia and sound symbolism. Obviously, I won’t pull even the skinniest rabbit out of a hat in the last sentence of this blog post. (I wish I could!) Yet I suspect that the enigmatic sound group sr, for the reasons hidden from modern scholars, did have ominous connotations to the speakers of long ago. Not much of a rabbit. I know. Sorry!

Featured image: “Zan Zig performing with rabbit and roses”, Strobridge Litho Co., via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.0)

Recent Comments

  1. Gavin Wraith

    Hittite ‘ishahru’ (the initial vowel is probably epenthetic) I would guess to be cognate with Greek ‘dakru’. Is it also cognate to Germanic ‘sorge’?

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