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Melting glacier ice, Rødefjord, Northeast Greenland National Park to illustrate the blog post "A few things at a glance" by the Oxford Etymologist on the OUP blog

A few things at a glance

The comments on the most recent post (9 August 2023) have been many and interesting. I’ll return to them later, but in the meantime, I have received two queries. One dealt with the puzzling meaning of the verb to glance, and the other with the origin of the word tangle. I will answer them without delay, one at a time.

Glance “a quick look; to take a quick look” is familiar, but (this is what the question was about) how do we account for the senses that have nothing to do with looking? I am quoting examples from Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary of Current Englishby A. S. Hornby and others. This dictionary cannot be used as “a first English book for boys and girls whose mother-tongue (sic) is not English” (such was the title of Walter Ripman’s 1920 excellent book), but as a source of absolutely natural idiomatic usage and as an unobtrusive source of information warning foreigners of possible errors it probably has no equals. Quoting Hornby (but in American spelling): “The arrow glanced off his armor,” that is, “slipped or slid” (said of a weapon or a blow); a glance of spears in the sunlight “a sudden movement producing a flash of light.” The question I received from Japan was just about those seemingly secondary senses of glance in today’s English.

A glance at a cake glacé (a cake with an icing).
By Brent Keane via Pexels, public domain

The OED allows us to trace the history of glance. No citations precede the fifteenth century. The basic meaning was (and is) “to move rapidly,” and of course, that is what a glance is: a quick look! Yet some doubt remains: aren’t glance “flash” and “a quick look” different words? The situation calls for an explanation of the etymology of the verb. The earliest recorded forms of glance are glench, glence, and glanch, which resemble the once current glent and even launch. Their origin is far from transparent. They may be loanwords from French. Old French glacier “to slide” (from glace “ice”) does look like a member of this family.

Questions come up at every step. Glacier and glance ~ glence ~ glanch can be looked upon as related if we succeed in accounting for n in the middle of the word. This we can do, for the so-called intrusive n is not an uncommon phenomenon in language history. Some anthologized examples are English message versus messenger, English nightingale versus German Nachitgal, and English farthingale “hooped petticoat” versus the Romance forms without n. Scottish ballant “ballad” belongs here too. Conversely, the family names Hutchinson and Robinson have variants without n in the second syllable. It is hard to account for the emergence of such nasals, but they are not exceptions, because regional variants like sumple “supple” occur all over the English-speaking world. Similar cases are also known from the history of Old Germanic: sometimes n is lost, and sometimes it is added. For example, the case of stand ~ stood has been discussed in all historical grammars (this type of variation is also common elsewhere in Indo-European). Returning to semantics, we observe that though ice is described as sparkling, glance refers to a flash. A tie between them does not look improbable.

A furtive glance.
By Monstera via Pexels, public domain

As mentioned above, in the etymology of glance, launch has also been pressed into service. Launch is related to lance, and the names of weapons, we will remember, figure prominently in the definition of glance. But here, we run into initial g, which we don’t need. Sometimes this g- is a remnant of the old prefix ga- ~ gi- ~ ge-, as in German glauben “to believe” (compare the roots of g-lauben and be-lieve, along with g-leich “similar” and like, G-lück “good fortune” and luck, and so forth). But if glance is a relatively late word of Romance origin, the scenario that depends on the presence of an old Germanic prefix looks uninviting, unless we assume that in the past, the Old French verb glinser was a borrowing from German. Indeed, Old French ganchier was seemingly taken over from Germanic, and therefore, glance may indeed have emerged as a product of several forms in contact.

Regrettably, all such hypotheses leave us where we were at the beginning: no one doubts that Germanic, including Middle English, did have several forms resembling those of Old French. To complicate matters, in the Germanic group itself, a few English and Scandinavian verbs sounded alike. Consequently, the source of glance will remain uncertain even if we ignore Old French. For comparison, the verb glint “to give out a small flash of light” is believed to be of Swedish origin. The great German etymologist Friedrich Kluge called (rashly, as it seems) glance a loanword from Scandinavian. Walter W. Skeat looked on glint as a nasalized form of glitter. In similar fashion, he called glance a nasalized form of Old French glacer ~ glacier “to glide, slip, glance,” though in this case, he admitted the influence of Middle English glenten.

The picture resembles an image of worms in a heap or a knot of snakes: a few English, German, and Scandinavian verbs resemble one another and similar-sounding verbs in (Old) French. If someone wants a more dignified metaphor, interdigitation springs to mind. The words that interest us here may begin with g- or with gl-, have a, e, or i or conversely, in, en, or an in the middle. It is hard to decide where to begin and where to stop. For instance, glance is traditionally compared with glint but not with glimpse or glimmer. Also, Russian gliadet’ “to look” (stress on the second syllable) and its numerous Slavic cognates turn up in most works that deal with glance. No wonder that dictionaries end up saying that the origin of glance is unknown or uncertain.

Unfortunately, arrows don’t always glance off the target.
St. Sebastian by Andrea Mantegna via Wikimedia Commons, public domain

A few respectable sources reconstruct the ancient (that is, Indo-European) root gel– or ghel-. Given the picture presented above, attempts to discover such a root hold out minimal promise, while an opinion that glance is a product of several words influencing one another (hence the multitude of senses!) may be correct. In a recent post on flout and flaunt (2 August 2023), I discussed the role of initial fl- in sound-symbolic English words. Gl– is a similar element. Next to glance, we have gleam, glitter, glint, glow (with its offspring glower), glaze (a derivative of glass), and Old Icelandic glámr “moon,” obviously a shining object (its English cognate is gloaming “twilight”). Gl– suggests light and unsteady movement, but not all is gold that glitters, and as usual in such cases, there is no law. At best, we are dealing with a pan-human tendency. A century ago, Wilhelm Oehl, a scholar to whom I often refer in this blog, studied this tendency in great detail, though sometimes with excessive zeal.

Since no such “symbolic” group is tied to its meaning, a good deal of etymology of the words mentioned above remains guesswork. Did Latin gladius “sword” make people think of gleaming steel? Perhaps it did. Is this the etymology of gladius? English glad once meant “bright, shining.” But next to glad and gleam, we have glean, gloom, and glum. Etymologists like strict linguistic algebra. Unfortunately, words are capricious creatures and obey many rules. I was pleased to discover that Elmar Sebold, the editor of Kluge’s German etymological dictionary, a serious student of Indo-European, gave up the idea of reducing words like German Glanz “sheen” to an ancient root and explained them as sound-symbolic formations. In this respect, glance resembles Glanz, a nearly rootless word living up to its sound form. If someone attacks me for this amateurish conclusion, all spears will glance off my armored body.

Featured image: “Rødefjord, Northeast Greenland National Park” by GRID-Arendal, via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

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