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Etymology as guesswork, being also a study in the history of the word guess

It might be a good idea to produce a series of blog posts, demonstrating some non-trivial situations in etymology. There are words whose origin is almost obvious, but we’ll never be sure whether we have discovered it. Take doozy, for example. It is the vowel that provides the fun (an expected result of ooglification). Yet the idea that doozy is a facetious variant of daisy remains a nice fantasy. Also, one can think of words of a known (now known!) but well-hidden origin (a classic example is pedigree). In my opinion, threshold belongs here too (see the post for 11 February 2015, on it), along with slang and conundrum. Conundrum was deciphered long ago, but few sources are aware of this fact. Slang has been treated less harshly by authoritative works. Isn’t that drama?

Enter henchman.
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Enter henchman, a word of “disputed origin.” Frank Chance, one of the most active etymologists of the nineteenth century, kept writing about it for years. He tried to make his hypothesis accepted and failed, though perhaps he was close to the truth. His battle with a host of mighty opponents is a thriller, much more absorbing than the books that stay for weeks on bestseller lists. Next to henchmen, we find a crowd of dwarfs (or dwarves, if you prefer). The greatest giants of Germanic linguistics failed to decipher the etymology of the word dwarf. Friedrich Kluge almost guessed the truth but later changed his mind. While looking through the consecutive editions of his etymological dictionary, I stumbled upon his early hypothesis and rejoiced: this is the answer! I exhumed it from a huge common grave by chance. Though I am not aware of universal jubilation following upon my discovery, I believe such stories are true thrillers.

Or take Harlequin. Two scholars discovered its etymology at the same time. One of them worked for years investigating the problem, and when he brought out his book, he discovered that he had been anticipated. What a drama! A less spectacular example is the adverb yet. Dictionaries say next to nothing about its etymology, and the public could not care less about its origin. And yet!The literature on it is huge. Moreover, the riddle was solved long ago. Once again, the answer is hidden in an obscure source. A book titled Tantalizing Etymologies may become a great commercial success, especially because people tend to misuse the word tantalizing (as in: “Visit our restaurant with its tantalizing menu,” which suggests that if you come there, you will be starved to death).

The history of the word guess

Try our tantalizing menu.
Photo by Antoni Shkraba via Pexels, public domain

A good deal of our scholarship is guesswork, and today’s story deals with the word guess. It is amazing how much the oldest scholars, not having the benefit of our historical grammars and dictionaries, guessed correctly in this case, because we too remain partly stalled at the end of the search. Guess was first recorded in the fourteenth century, which suggests that it is a Middle English verb without Old English antecedents, or that (unless it was a native neologism) we are dealing with a borrowing. No similar word exists in any Romance language, but Germanic provides a series of obvious cognates. Dutch, for example, has gissen, and Danish has gisse, from gitse. The Old Icelandic verb sounded geta and meant, among many other things, “to guess.” The choices are few: English guess is almost certainly a loan from Dutch or Scandinavian, and its final –ss goes back to –ts. Scandinavian appears to be the ultimate source. Walter W. Skeat reconstructed the initial meaning of guess as “to try to get” or “to be ready to get.”

Seventeenth-century etymologists and even those who worked much later tended to derive English words from Hebrew, Greek, or Latin. It is much to their credit that as regards guess, almost none of them wandered in those quarters even four hundred years ago. The only devious way sometimes took them to German gießen “to pour” (its earlier form had t in the middle, as in Gothic giutan). This verb occupies a place of honor in Germanic etymology, because the word god has often been derived from it (the origin of god remains a puzzle: numerous clever suggestions, but no solution). John Minsheu, the author of the first etymological dictionary of English (1617), must also have thought that guess carries religious connotations, because he cited Hebrew kessem “a divination” (however, one never knows whether he meant an etymon or a synonym). Two more researchers had similar thoughts and cited Irish geas “a charm.” Noah Webster connected guess with an English cognate of giutan (see it above) and believed that guess could be deciphered as “to cast (throw) together circumstances.”

A tragedy: twice deciphered, and both times correctly.
Image by Gerd Altmann via Pixabay, public domain

All those stillborn etymologies are mildly interesting only to a historian of English linguistics. Fortunately, a convincing solution has been found—indeed, not a complete solution but its major and most important part. The light comes from Scandinavia, and this fact was clear to James A. H. Murray, the chief editor of the OED. Old Danish gitse and Icelandic gizka (old spelling: z = ts), both of which mean “to guess,” make it clear that the English verb has the root get and some addition (suffix), of which the second s is the only modern remnant. Originally, “to guess” must have meant “to get what you are looking for.” The oldest form, quite appropriately, remains a matter of speculation (something like getisson or getsjan?). Icelandic gizka ~ giska looks like a cognate of get, followed by the reflexive suffix –sk (that is, guess emerges as meaning “to get something for oneself,” but this a later transformation). In our gallery of tantalizing etymologies, guess will be known as a word of an almost obvious but partly hidden origin.

In the past, the verb to guess meant simply “to suppose; to believe,” “to get it.” This sense is extremely common in American English: “Do you know their new address?” “I guess so.” This is the way they still spoke in the days of Sheridan. By contrast, to guess a riddle seems to be dead: it has been supplanted by solve a riddle. As far as the spelling is concerned, English words beginning with gi– and ge– are a nightmare: compare get and gesture, gift and gibbet. Hence the spelling guess, going back to the sixteenth century.

Guess, as we have seen, has nothing to do with divination, but, surprisingly, the verb returns us to the history of religion. The great Scandinavian god Óðinn (pronounced as Othin, with th as in the) had countless names. Why he needed so many of them is anybody’s guess, but one of them was Gizzur, that is, Gitsur. He did like to ask insoluble riddles, but whether such is the origin of this name remains a mystery. In any case, it does not supply additional proof to the old idea that the word guess has something to do with divination. And indeed, it has none.

Is all etymology guesswork? No! But intelligent guessing plays an important role in it, because etymology is a study in reconstruction, and reconstruction is all about hypotheses and conjectures.  

Featured image: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Walt Disney Productions 1937, via Wikimedia Commons, public domain

Recent Comments

  1. Crosswords Today

    Well, I think etymology has a lot of use in solving crosswords, for one. I have come across many puzzle hints where etymology is used by the author to hint at a word or maybe even fool the solver. So, intelligent guessing has a place in puzzles too.

  2. Digiwings Agency

    Unveiling the hidden stories and battles behind words we often take for granted is like embarking on a thrilling linguistic treasure hunt. This post is a delightful delve into the mysteries and dramatic tales of etymology, that holds its readers captive through the enigmatic journeys of words like “doozy”, “henchman”, and “guess”. It amusingly portrays etymology as a realm filled with historical dramas and unsolved mysteries, akin to a detective story where scholars are the detectives decoding linguistic puzzles. The narrative on “guess” is particularly fascinating, tracing its roots back to Old Danish and Icelandic, yet leaving a part of its origin veiled in mystery. The exploration of how a word’s original meaning evolves over time, and how it intertwines with cultural or religious facets, paints a rich tapestry of linguistic evolution that is both educational and engaging. The post leaves one with an enriched appreciation for the words we use daily and the linguistic sleuths who unravel their origins.

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