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In praise of sloth

Exotic words like bamboozle and wayzgoose are the bread of popular books on etymology, but as regards origins, the toughest words are usually not so conspicuous and not so funny, and those who follow this blog may remember that my recent posts have been devoted to seemingly insignificant nouns and verbs. The same is true of today’s blog post, whose “hero” is the adjective slow. No words look less inspiring, but few are more opaque. This adjective is not an orphan: it existed in Old English and had relatives all over Germanic, except Gothic, but in Old English, it occurred rarely and, when it did, meant “torpid; dull,” rather than “lacking speed” or “lasting a long time.” Even in the Revised Version of the Bible, the word usually has metaphorical senses, as in “slow of heart,” though slow had acquired all its familiar modern senses long before the seventeenth century.

When speakers of Old English wanted to say “lasting long,” they used the adjective longsome(e) (now dead or regional; almost the same form occurs in Beowulf), an exact cognate of Modern German langsam “slow.” Surprisingly, today, English slow “not fast” has no stylistically neutral synonyms. If someone speaks, walks, or drives slowly, there is no way of describing the action differently, except for substituting not quickly or not fast for slowly. The most resourceful thesauruses/thesauri suggest only “gradual, protracted, lingering, lengthened, spun-out,” and the like as synonyms. It is remarkable how a word with a limited sphere of application managed to rise to such prominence.

This is a slowworm. It is not slow: slow- in its name is the product of folk etymology.
Image via pxhere, public domain

The absence of cognates in Gothic may be due to the fact that slow has always been limited to the north: Low German, Dutch, Frisian, and Scandinavian. All the recorded forms sound alike: Old English slā, Old High German slēu (unlike English slāw, German slēu has survived only in dialects), and so forth. In Old Icelandic, three forms turned up: slær, sljár, and sljór (all vowels in them were long). I would like to refer to The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology (ODEE; 1966), which, though I am aware of its deficiencies, I use every day and have loved to death (tattered and torn, it occupies a place of honor on my shelf). It says: “Common Germanic (except Gothic) *slæwaz; Indo-European *slēwos, of unknown origin.”

The OED online has come a long way from this formulation, but I still find it useful to mention my rather pedantic objections to the old and trusty ODEE. The absence of a Gothic cognate of slow may of course be due to chance, because the fourth-century Gothic Bible has come down to us only in part. Yet not improbably, the Goths did not know such a word.  As mentioned above, the cognates of slow were current in northern dialects. It is therefore better not to refer to the Common Germanic form. The cognates cited above seem to have proliferated by “budding” (one form from another: see the picture in the heading), so that there is no certainty that the sought-after “proto” root existed. But the most curious part of the statement about the root is: “of unknown origin.” Since my main area of research in the history of words is precisely such outcasts of English and Germanic etymology, I wonder what that formulation means. Most probably, the editor wanted to refer to one of the ancient reconstructed roots, as they have been codified in the standard books on Indo-European. 

A slowcoach is not the same as a slow coach.
Left: by Ketut Subiyanto. Centre: by Magda Ehlers. Right: via getarchive.net – all public domain.

Those who have access to some of the editions of The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language will find, appended to the main text, a long list of such reconstructed roots. Walter W. Skeat also listed them, though he referred to a much older manual, and his forms differed somewhat from those cited in The Heritage Dictionary. His verdict was the same: “Root unknown.” But let us suppose that *slēwoz, the evasive remote ancestor, really existed. What “known” origin can we be looking for?  The clue is probably supposed to come from some cognates that would have clarified the initial meaning of our adjective. However, that cognate would, most likely, have meant “slow, sluggish, inactive”!  Skeat suggested “blunt, weak, slow.” Our readers may have read an old tale in which two “protopeople” (a man and his wife) were thinking of a good name for the yet unnamed animal, now known as cat. They tried all possible words and came to the conclusion that the best name for the cat would be cat. We may agree that that couple was slow in coming to the point but wise.

Our oldest and even later etymologists walked around a well-delimited bit of ground and compared slow with Gothic slawan “to be silent,” English slack, slap, sloven, sloe, slough, slumber, and so forth. Outside Germanic, Russian slabyi “weak” and Latin laevus ~ Greek laiós ~ Russian levyi, all meaning “left (= weak) hand,” have been tried as related to the Germanic adjective. The latter series presupposes that the initial s in slow is the so-called s-mobile, a volatile prefix, whose appearance is not governed by any rules. And of course, a host of Germanic look-alikes turns up in this merry-go-round. They too are usually of unknown or dubious etymology and can therefore provide little help. More than a hundred years ago, Charles Scott, the editor of The Century Dictionary wrote: “There is a vague resemblance and common suggestion in the series slip, slide, slouch, slug, etc., to which slow may be added.” In the 1986 update of the great Gothic etymological dictionary, we read under slawan “to be silent” (see it above): “Etymology unclear….  Probably expanded on onomatopoetic basis.”

Here is a sloth. Do you rhyme sloth with both or cloth?
By Thowra_uk, via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

This seems to be a promising approach, but an approach, rather than a solution, because what is so onomatopoeic (sound-imitative) about the sl-group? Sound-symbolic perhaps? In one of my earlier posts, I mentioned the fact that sl– is a most “emotional” group: sleezy, slack, slovenly, slattern, slut, slobber, slime, slum, and slippery tend to evoke negative feelings. And those are only some of the most typical examples. However, they provide no immediate clue to the etymology of slang, sleeve, slave, and slay, to mention a few. We may perhaps suggest that slow, when it was coined by Germanic speakers in the north, meant “stupid” and had “off-putting” connotations (mere guesswork), but it would be good to discover what is “wrong” with the combination sl-. This is a task for psycholinguists, and I doubt that they are equal to it.

By contrast, sound-imitative groups are usually transparent (as in thrash, tread, crash, grumble, trample, and their likes). The initial group fl– (as in flutter, flicker, flow, and so forth) seems to suggest a certain type of unsteady movement, but slow remains a riddle, even if its initial sense was “silly, foolish, obtuse.” It should be added that sound-symbolic words tend to influence one another, and that is what I meant by budding. Once a language has a sizable number of words beginning with, for instance, fl– or sl-, and referring to the same semantic field, a certain association between sound and sense emerges, and even if the word initially had a different meaning, it gets “infected” by its neighbors and acquires a new sense. Slow will remain a word of “unclear origin,” but it seems more profitable not to search for its root in the protolanguage and accept its symbolic coloring. The rest is bound to remain a riddle.

Featured image by Kevin Harber, via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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