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Back to work: body and etymology

While the blog was dormant, two questions came my way, and I decided to answer them at once, rather than putting them on a back burner. Today, I’ll deal with the first question and leave the second for next week.

Since the publication of my recent book Take My Word for It (it deals with the origin of idioms), nearly all the queries I receive turn around buzzwords, cliches, and the like. Journalists are especially often interested in the source of “trending” catchphrases. The first question of 2024 (indeed, not from a journalist) was of the same type: “Can you discuss the etymology of the most popular English idioms dealing with the human body?” Before I can say what I know on the subject, I would like to return to the etymology of the word body, discussed in some detail in my post for October 14, 2015.

The result of that discussion was meager: the origin of body remains unknown, though the ideas on the subject are many. The root of body is of course bod-. Words like bod-, bed, bud, dad, dude, along with bib, bob, dig, dog, bug, bag, bum, bomb, and so forth, are usually expressive or sound-imitative. A few may have emerged as baby words, later repeated and accepted by adults. Once they leave “the nursery,” their origin is forgotten and they become stylistically neutral. However, appeal to expression, sound symbolism, and onomatopoeia is often hard to justify, because numerous nouns and verbs similar to bob, dude, and their likes have a non-expressive origin. That is why the hypotheses are so many and the results meager.

A kid, a dog, and a pup. PickPik. CC0.

Dog is a classic example of this uncertainty (see my posts for May 4 and May 11, 2016). Responsible dictionaries list the main hypotheses and refuse to commit themselves to any solution. One feature unites the story of dog and body. Neither is a continuations (reflex is the technical term in this context) of an ascertainable Indo-European root: think of the vastly different Latin canis “dog” and corpus “body”! An English cognate of canis is hound (German has Hund). Where then is dog from? I think it was a dialectal baby word (most sources state that English dog is isolated, which is not true). No one was in a hurry to agree with me, but then no one found my reasoning wrong. Dialogs between etymologists often resemble those between people speaking different languages. Body resembles dog in that in Germanic, it is a word of very narrow provenance (only a few insignificant cognates in German). Therefore, a search for its very ancient source seems to be an unpromising occupation. Related forms have been sought for all over the world, in most cases, with moderate success (to put it mildly).

The common Old English word for “body” was līc (with a long vowel, as in Modern English leek), still recognizable in lychgate. The conjunction ge-līce (it corresponds to Modern German g-leich) “having the same form” lost its prefix and finally became the conjunction like (as in like father, like son) and as in the ubiquitous filler like (“Like, when I went in and saw, like, a hundred people, I was stunned”). The distant origin of like, a common Germanic word, is obscure. Perhaps it once meant “corpse” (as in German Leiche and in the already cited lychgate), but even if so, no light is thrown on the origin of the word. Russian lik “image” is hardly related. I am aware of several ingenious derivations of līc, and they confirm my belief that the more convoluted an etymology, the smaller the chance of its being correct.

Jealousy, a green-eyed monster. Othello and Desdemona by Heinrich Hoffmann. Public Domain.

Now back to idioms. Phrases featuring some part of our anatomy are countless. The origin of some of them only seems transparent. Think of keep a stiff upper lip and put your best foot forward. What is the exact reference? The reference (once we discover it) comes as a surprise. By contrast, to keep someone at an arm’s length is picturesque enough to need an etymology. As usual, numerous idioms of this type have foreign sources (often Biblical or Classical). Compare an eye for an eye, which is from the Old Testament, and one hand washes the other, presumably, from Latin (Manus manum lavat), though the idea of one hand helping the other is universal. It often happens that the same expression occurs in two European languages, and we cannot ascertain which is the borrower and which the lender. Thus, according to the OED, the earliest reference to the phrase to cut off one’s nose to spite one’s face surfaced in an English text in 1788, and an exact French analog exists. A few phrases were probably individual coinages by clever authors. For instance, in the heart of hearts is usually ascribed to Shakespeare, but then all words and all phrases were at one time coined by someone. Word creation is not committee work! Green-eyed monster “jealousy” certainly goes back to Shakespeare (in the Middle Ages, green was the special symbol of fickleness and inconstancy). We live in the world of familiar quotations.

Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome. CC0.

It is easy to cite further examples of the phrases whose reference seems obvious, even though no one knows where to look for the source. A particularly picturesque simile is as cold as a maid’s knee (with the variant a maid’s knee and a dog’s nose are the two coldest things in creation). Some people in England knew it in the 1870s, but who coined it and where? Alas, the Internet provides excellent information only on housemaid’s knee, but this is not my subject. Incidentally, I learned the medical term housemaid’s knee from Chapter One of Jerome K. Jerome’s delightful book Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog). No one in my surroundings has read it. May I recommend it to all those who enjoy brilliant humor? As early as 1732, the phrase butter out of a dog’s mouth occurred in two senses: “you can’t retrieve what you have lost” and “you can’t make a silken purse out of a sow’s ear,” though the reference to the second sense is dubious. (Has any of our readers ever heard this phrase? Many regional sayings, like hundreds of once dialectal words, are now dead.)

Predictably, dozens old phrases refer to eye. By far not the most inspiring but the most often discussed one among them has been All my eye and Betty Martin. I wrote about it in my post for November 23, 2016, and it may be worth consulting because the comments following the post offer several important cases of antedating by Stephen Goranson, which I forgot to include in the aforementioned book Take My Word for It. Language Log, filed for June 12, 2008 (“Who is Betty Martin?”) provides curious reading, but as could be expected, no one knows the origin of the once popular phrase and, most probably, never will. Such is of course the fate of many words and idioms: “everybody” has heard them, but the source is lost. Are we dealing here with an amusing case of folk etymology? Or is the simile about Betty from a forgotten song? The phrase my eye and Tommy (the same meaning, that is, “nonsense”) also existed. Another curious phrase the bishop’s has had his foot in it was the subject of my post for May 20, 2015 (“Putting one’ foot into it”). On October 13, 2010, I wrote about the idiom pay through the nose. A reference to this post on the Internet ascribes an explanation to me I never gave!

Quite a few body (bawdy) idioms focus on the parts we usually keep covered, and I’d rather pass them by, though we have come a long way from the much-exaggerated modesty of the Victorian age.

Feature image by Henry Winkles and J. Gustav Heck. CC4.

Recent Comments

  1. Nigel Middlemiss M.A. Oxon

    Correction: “manus manam lavat” (Latin) should read “Manus manum lavat” – 4th declension, feminine, accusative

  2. OUPblog Editor

    Thanks for catching that! We’ve corrected it.

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