Figuratively speaking, as a professional, I came to the great etymological fair (fair as in Vanity Fair) in the evening, long after the most attractive goods, that is, words of obvious Indo-European and Common Germanic origin had been appropriated and explained (correctly or incorrectly) by the titans of historical linguistics and am doomed to deal with the dregs of English etymology. Such dregs are often of great interest (boy and girl, pimp and snob, dog and heifer, for example). They are nouns and verbs (very rarely, adjectives), which unless they are isolated, occasionally go to the other extreme and have too many lookalikes, so that no one knows whether the crowd in their vicinity consists of true relatives or sly impostors. Most slang, including the word slang, belongs here too. I am like a doctor doomed to deal with the patients having little chance of recovery but crying for attention and deserving it. From time to time, I am pleased to think that I have either found a solution or a promising clue. Those who follow this blog with some regularity will look at the title of today’s post and say with irritation or dismay: “Again s-mobile and sound symbolism and sound imitation(onomatopoeia)?” Well, yes, sorry.
Below, I’ll cite a list of selected English words beginning with squ-. Those about which dictionaries say that they are of unknown (uncertain) or sound-symbolic/sound-imitative origin will appear in caps. In parentheses, the century indicating the date of their emergence in English texts will be given: SQUAB “a young bird; squat person; couch, cushion” (17), SQUABBLE (17), squad (17; Romance, which almost always means that the ultimate source of the English word was French), squadron (16; Romance), SQUAILS “ninepins, skittles,” also known as kayles), squalid (16; Romance), SQUALL (17; a blend of squeal and bawl?), SQUANDER (16), square (16; Romance), squash (verb, 16; more about it will be said below), squash “vegetable” (17; borrowed from an Indigenous North American language), squat (14; Romance), SQUEAK (16), SQUEAL (13); SQUEAMISH (15; an Anglo-Norman source exists, but its origin is unknown), SQUEEZE (16), SQUELCH ”to crush down something soft” (17), SQUIB “a small firework” (17), SQUID, SQUIFFY “tipsy” (19), SQUIGGLE (19; a blend of squirm and wiggle?), squint (14; shortened from asquint, which may be of Dutch origin), squire (13; Romance), SQUIRM (17), squirrel (14; Romance), SQUIRT (17); SQUISH “to squeeze, squash” (17), and SQUIT “nonentity; nonsense” (19).
It will be seen that most words cited above are rather late: the fashion for squ-nouns, adjectives, and verbs was at the strongest in the seventeenth century. Specialists in the area note that English squ-words often have Low German (that is, northern German) and Scandinavian look-alikes and tend to refer to borrowing. Dutch words did indeed flood English in the early modern period, but why should English speakers have taken over so many Swedish and Danish words around the seventeenth and the eighteenth century? To be sure, interminable wars were the doom of those who were born in those centuries. Huge crowds of people, including mercenaries, wandered from land to land, killing one another, looking for refuge, and spreading words, fashions, folklore, and diseases. One may perhaps even speak of some limited Common West European lingo of the time. The meaning of such picturesque words as squabble and squelch could be understood almost without translation. But from an etymological point of view, there is one complication: the groups squa-, squi-, and so forth often had variants without initial s-, and that is where the ghost of the infamous s-mobile begins to haunt us.
The volatile s– is invoked in etymology when the relationship between the words is all but obvious. For example, English slack seems to be related to Latin laxus (English lax), but this conclusion will stand only if a prefix indeed exists (existed?) that resembles a barnacle obeying no laws. It may affect words in the same language or across language borders. Quite often, s-mobile seems to be a remnant of the prefix ex-. The speakers of the ancient (reconstructed) Indo-European language lived long ago and cannot object to our conclusions, but when it comes to recent words, etymologists begin to experience some unease. Compare melt ~ smelt, narrow ~ snare, lash ~ slash, plash ~ splash, mash ~ smash, pike ~ spike, nip ~ snip, tumble ~ stumble, cuff ~ scuffle, and so forth. They do seem to be related pairwise! With great regularity, the s-forms appeared in English texts about two hundred years later than those without it. P. J. Frankis, from whose 1960 paper I borrowed my examples, noted that though the relationship of several English and Swedish forms is unclear, “it may be pointed out that the similarity in meaning of cuff and scuffle implies that at some time (probably in the sixteenth century) these words were associated in the minds of English speakers of English.” This conclusion is valid for many pairs. Apparently, s- tends to be “mobile” at any period, and the prefix ex– seems to be only one actor in the drama.
Let us now look at squash, which in English sources is usually said to have come from Old French esquasser, ultimately, from some old form like exquassare. (Old French had quasser; Modern French casser “to break”). Yet it is worthwhile to look first at the closest Germanic “cousins” of quash: German quetschen “to squeeze” and Dutch kwetsen “to hurt, injure, offend.” Frisian also had a word like those. All the similar Scandinavian forms are, allegedly, loans from Low German. Yet even here, haste may make waste (see below). In my opinion, quash and squash are probably expressive native verbs, later perhaps influenced by their French look-alikes. The model was provided by such pairs as tumble ~ stumble. In their entirety, the doublets of this type have been investigated too little, and I have not seen any discussion of Frakis’s paper. See my old post on the origin of the word kitsch (7 April 2010: “Between dodge and kitsch”). German dialectal kitschen means “to rake together street mud.” With this verb, hardly of Romance origin, we are not too far from quash.
As a matter of curiosity, I may mention the fact that the latest editions of the main German etymological dictionary call the origin of quetschen debatable and quite unexpectedly suggest that the verb’s source is Latin quatere “to shake.” This is an arrow shot into the air. The most authoritative etymological dictionary of Dutch mentions only the influence of French on kwetsen, but following its main authority, cites two Greek and Lithuanian lookalikes (another shower of arrows that falls to earth we “know not where”). Expressive words resemble one another all over the world and need not be related.
And now back to Scandinavia. One of the northern gods was called Kvasir. Such contradictory tales have come down to us about him that a coherent tale of Kvasir cannot be told. But he was the god whose blood two dwarfs used to produce the mead of poetry. The origin of the name is a matter of dispute. Is Kvasir related to Russian kvas (the English spelling is kvass) “alcoholic beverage” (see header image) or to Modern Icelandic kvasa “to grow weary, to lose strength” and Danish kavs(s)e “to squeeze”? If the second derivation is correct, it will follow that the Scandinavian forms are much older than etymologists usually believe.
Every essay needs a conclusion, doesn’t it? Well, it may be that English squeeze and especially squash are expressive homegrown (Germanic) verbs and that the painfully familiar verdict “origin unknown” does not give them justice. Once squash, a cognate of quetschen and the rest appeared in English, it found a good companion among the Romance riffraff, and later generations took it for a noble foreigner. Such things are common. Words often behave like human beings.
Featured image via publicdomainpictures.net (public domain)