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Going on an endless etymological spree

I have more than once remarked that though I despise punning titles, the temptation to use them is too strong. Sure enough, this post is about spree, a word that has existed in English since roughly 1800. Noah Webster (1758-1843) knew spree and included it in the first edition of his dictionary. He defined spree as “low frolic” and branded it as vulgar. By the eighteen-eighties at the latest, the word’s status was upgraded to “colloquial.” Some modern dictionaries call spree slang. Webster had nothing to say about the word’s origin, but The Century Dictionary referred hesitatingly to Irish spre “spark, flash, animation, spirit.” Spree alternated with the earlier recorded forms spray and sprey.

Before writing this essay, I, as always, consulted the Internet. The most detailed information on spree appeared on Etymonline, an online etymological dictionary. Nothing in the relevant entry is wrong, but I would like to comment on one aspect of the information given there. We read that according to Barnhart (that is, The Barnhart Dictionary of Etymology, 1988), spree goes back to French esprit. I am not sure who was the first to derive spree from esprit, but it was certainly not Barnhart. Then Old Norse sparkr, Ernst Klein’s etymon, is cited. This is another very old suggestion, and Henry Cecil Wyld (whose dictionary appeared in 1932) already mentioned it as possible. Finally, we read that Calvert Watkins supported the Gaelic etymon of spree. The reference is probably to the first edition of The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, where English words are traced to their Indo-European sources. As mentioned above, this too is a well-known hypothesis. For instance, the same information appears in Eric Partridge’s 1958 etymological dictionary called Origins.

a drinking bout
A drinking bout of old. Fatigues of the Campaign in Flanders by James Gillray. CC0.

Here is my point. None of the three sources—Barnhart, Klein, and Watkins—offered original hypotheses on the etymology of spree. All the explanations in those sources were derived from earlier works. Each compiler chose what he considered to be the most plausible hypothesis. References to them as authorities are fine, as long as we realize their place in the history of the research, but no one should be misled into thinking that those lexicographers said something new about the etymology of spree or any other English word for that matter. Walter W. Skeat, James A. H. Murray, and many others did, but not they. I believe that references should make this clear.

And now to business. As noted, spree was traced to Irish long ago, and the Celtic origin of this word has never been given up. In 1931, Thomas F. O’Rahilly, a recognized authority in the area, “had no doubt” that the word was a borrowing of Scottish Gaelic spraigh. In addition, he cited the word spreadhadh “bursting, activity, life, noise” and noted that English burst also occurs with the sense “a bout of drunkenness, spree.” Of special interest is his following statement: “From the 16th cent[ury]… spréidh or spréadh is also found as a verb, in the sense of ‘scatter, disperse, sprinkle’; for the meaning compare Engl[ish] sparkle (‘to emit sparks’), which formerly also meant ‘to scatter, disperse’, and also the connection between Engl[lish] spark and Lat[in] spargo [‘to scatter, strew, sprinkle’].” I may add that English sparse, from sparsus, the past participle of spargo, an eighteenth-century word in English, originally referring to widely spaced writing, was also a Scottish loanword. My only objection to O’Rahilly concerns the phrase no doubt. Whenever a scholar uses it, we understand that doubt is possible.

Image of wine glasses
Sparkling wine, sparkling wit. Felices fiestas by Demi, CC2.0. Via Flickr.

Spree may indeed be a Scottish borrowing in English, but this fact says nothing about the word’s etymology. However, we cannot help noticing that English spree, spark, and sprinkle, along with Latin spargo, have a similar “skeleton,” namely, the group spr. Also, as pointed out at the beginning of this essay, in spree, spr– seems to be all that matters, because the form spree alternated with spray ~ sprey (the vowel was added for good measure, because a monosyllable needs a vowel). Now, forgetting about spree, we observe that in English, spray can mean (1) “a slender shoot; twig” and (2) “a jet of vapor” (spray2 was originally spelled spry!), while spry is a Modern English word in its own right (“active, brisk”).

It again begins to look as though the entire structure hangs by a single nail, and that the group spr suggests bursting forth, stretching, extending, unrolling, and so forth. Yet we could not expect that spr– arouses similar associations and evokes similar images everywhere. Yet it does play the same role in Celtic (if spree is a borrowing) and Latin (sparsus). The shortest list of spr– words in English confirms the initial impression: consider sprag (alternating with sprack) “a lively young fellow,” sprawl, spread, spring (noun or verb), sprinkle, sprout, and spry. Nealy all of them were recorded relatively late and are usually dismissed as words of unknown (uncertain) origin.

A curious case is the verb speak, related to German sprechen. As could be expected, the origin of the verb is obscure, and so is the cause of the old sp- ~ spr- variation. Dictionaries cite possible cognates in Welsh and Albanian, along with Old Icelandic spraka “to crackle; to sprawl” and sprika “a pretentious man.” The underlying meaning of Old English sprecan may have been “holding forth” or “loud statement; eloquent utterance.” Old English spræk “a shoot, twig” (see it above; æ has the value of a in Modern English rack) again comes to mind. Long ago, the now half-forgotten English etymologist Hensleigh Wedgwood offered no hypothesis on the origin of spree but listed a few spr- words in various languages, including Polish (!). Wedgwood often neglected regular sound correspondences at his own risk, and his habit of stringing together multiple forms from all over the world has little to recommend it, except when we deal with sound-imitative and sound-symbolic words, along with those used “for the nonce,” that is, for a particular situation, because such words may not obey sound laws.

image of garden hose
A perfect image of what spr- means. Rawpixel. CC0

Spree has been classified with words of unknown etymology. We may ask: what exactly do we want to know? What new conclusions can we expect from further research? Or does the verdict “origin unknown” stick to spree like a death sentence? I think the situation is less ominous and somewhat reminiscent of the one I discussed last week, in connections with the word shark, but the case of spree is perhaps more transparent. In many languages, the sound group spr seems to have suggested to speakers the idea of spontaneous, unregulated growth. One could say spray, spry, sprawl, spræk, spring, and, among others, spree. Of course, in the beginning, some of those unbuttoned coinages were what we today call slang. (Or are all recent unborrowed words slang? Last week, I mentioned flub and wonk.) Once the newcomers find acceptance, some of them become colloquial or regular colorless words. Weren’t all or most of the ancient roots, reconstructed by comparativists, such? In this context, it is especially instructive to note that spontaneous word creation is not the privilege of distant epochs and that language creativity is a process equally characteristic of all ages. Some inspiring ideas on this subject can be found in the works by Wilhelm Oehl, to whose little-known and sadly underappreciated heritage I often refer in this blog.

Feature image via Pexels.

Recent Comments

  1. Dkn

    Have you ever thought of the word “Sprite,” as being etymologically related to “spree?”
    Since Sprite means fairy, it appears virtually similar to the french word “Esprit.”

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