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Close up photo of a blue peacock with fanned plumage train to illustrate the blog post "No release from etymological entanglement" by the Oxford Etymologist on the OUP blog

No release from an etymological entanglement

Last week (16 August 2023), I wrote that I had received two questions: one about the verb glance and the other about the noun entanglement. The previous post dealt with glance. Now I am ready to tell an incomplete tale of the noun and the verb tangle. The tale is incomplete, because the sought-for etymology remains a matter of speculation.

Tangle surfaced in English in the middle of the fourteenth century. The earliest recorded Middle English form of tangle is tangil, but, strangely, Richard Rolle of Hampole (1290-1342), once a very well-known and widely read mystic, who wrote his works in both Latin and English, also used the form tagil. He did not mean to mystify us, but as far as I can judge, the origin of the word that interests us today depends to a great extent on the relation between tangil and tagil. Those who have read the blog post on glance may remember the term nasalization, that is, the appearance of n in a seemingly n-less root (messenger versus message, stand versus stood, and so forth). Once again, we face a similar question and wonder how tangil and tagil are related. The previous discussion of glance alongside Old French glacier “to slide” cannot be resolved to everybody’s satisfaction. Perhaps those words are indeed related, but what facts can we marshal to clinch the argument? Our case today is better. Middle English tangil and tagil alternated as two forms of the same word; they were certainly related.

Richard Rolle of Hampole
Via Wikimedia Commons, public domain

Our oldest etymologists knew the word tangle well, but, contrary to my usual practice, I’ll begin with some later views on its origin. Walter W. Skeat, our prime nineteenth-century authority on the origin of English words, never changed his opinion from the early eighteen-eighties to 1911 (the year the last edition of his “concise” dictionary was published). He believed that tangle was a loan from Scandinavian and cited Danish tang “seaweed” (along with its Norwegian and Icelandic cognates and northern English tang of the same origin) as its source. Skeat’s opinion was repeated in many contemporary works. Only the usually neglected Century Dictionary, a source of well-thought-out etymological information, despite its great indebtedness to Skeat, noted: “…but the development of such a verb from a noun of limited use like tangle is somewhat remarkable, and needs confirmation.” I was pleased to find this opinion quoted in recent sources, because it sounds correct.

The emergence of a new English word of Scandinavian origin in the fourteenth century causes no surprise, and the name of a seaweed is, almost certainly, related to the verb tangle, but it cannot be its etymon. (Incidentally, several dictionaries prefer to discuss entangle, rather than tangle, which turned up in texts two centuries later than tangle; en– is a Romance prefix, so that entangle is an etymological hybrid, not too rare a case in the history of English words. The suffix –ment in the noun entanglement is Romance too, and so is the prefix dis– in disentanglement. In such words, the name of the Scandinavian seaweed is enwrapped in foreign morphemes.) The distant origin of that name presents no interest in today’s context. Perhaps it shares the root with thick, which once upon a time also had the consonant n after a vowel.

This is an entanglement indeed!
Electricity wires via Pexels, public domain

It will be noticed that Skeat did not discuss Rolle’s n-less form tagil. Neither did the etymologists of the OED. This omission is especially curious in light of the fact that some of their most visible predecessors, when dealing with the origin of tangle, regularly mentioned Gothic tagl “hair,” an indisputable cognate of English tail, from tægel, as its source. Naturally, both Skeat and the editors of the OEDwere aware of the old tangle ~ tagl comparison, and I wonder why they ignored it without minimal discussion. Dictionary makers often say something like: “Such and such an idea is unacceptable” or add a short explanation to this peremptory verdict. Perhaps Skeat and others concluded that an animal tail, a most tidy appendage, rather than a mess, cannot have anything to do with an unkempt tangle of hair (mere guessing).

I do not know whether my guess has justification, but I would like to note that tail is a generic term: it is the name applicable to any tail. People have also coined a few specific terms, such as bush, scut, and dock. Perhaps tail was initially one of such descriptive words. In any case, the origin of words for “tail” is usually far from clear. The fact that outside Germanic, English tail has a related form in Irish or that Latin cauda perhaps has a cognate in Albanian may bring joy to language historians but to no one else (cauda is sometimes supposed to be a “low” word by origin). Equally obscure and perhaps partly sound-symbolic is Proto-Slavic xvost” (Russian khvost and others). The Serbo-Croatian cognate of khvost means “thicket, brushwood, undergrowth” (!), thus, a messy heap. Words constantly narrow their meaning. For instance, meat once meant “food” (as it still does in sweetmeat and in meat and drink), fowl was a general word for “bird” (like German Vogel), and so forth. Perhaps tail did not always refer to the tidy appendage we know. I realize that with this proposal I am stepping on a mine but stay calm. A researcher always faces two dangers: to say nothing new (and be accused of wallowing in trivialities) or to offer a novel solution (and be castigated for the rash proposal). One is damned if one does and damned if one doesn’t. Why worry?

Everybody has a tail.
L: sparrow, via Pxfuel, public domain. R: fox, via Wallpaper Flare, public domain.

Fully aware of the dilemma, I would like to return to the oldest etymology of tangle. Perhaps the initial form (that is, tagl) had no n in the middle and meant “a mass of hair, tidy or otherwise,” with a later narrowing (specialization) to “a bunch of hair at an animal’s rear end.” Tails come in different shapes and forms: compare a sparrow, a peacock, and a fox (all of them have tails). Given my idea, tangle will emerge as a related form of tagl with nasalization. The name of the seaweed will remain in the family but not as the source of the verb tangle. However, if the old etymology is wrong, it would be good to hear some hypotheses about why it was dismissed without discussion. An exchange of opinions is always better than silence. Etymologists frequently resuscitate old hypotheses. Given the fact that tangle lives up to its meaning so well and refuses to reveal its origin, a new discussion may be of some worth. If human beings have not shed their tails (alas, all is lost except for the tailbone and tailcoats), the word would probably have attracted more attention.

Such is my version to the tale of the tail. Tongue has nothing to do with tangle, and tongs should probably stay away too.

Featured image by Steve Harvey on Unsplash, public domain

Recent Comments

  1. Dwight Homer

    The romance prefix, en, appears to offer some insight between two forms mentioned in this article. entangle and entail, with their clearly differing source words (‘seaweed’ and ‘tail’). Semantically there’s a clear indication of connection. One circumstantial, as in entagled; the other perhaps more causative, as in entail.

  2. Gavin Wraith

    The raggle-taggle gypsies in the market haggle and giggle, racking, tacking and hacking as they go?

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