Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

A jumping frog and other creatures of etymological interest

Our readers probably expect this post to deal with Mark Twain’s first famous story. Alas, no. My frog tale is, though mildly entertaining, more somber and will certainly not be reprinted from coast to coast or propel me to fame. In the past, I have written several essays about animal names. One of them examined toad. Here too, the toad will make its appearance, but before it does so, we should keep in mind that animal names—be it horse or sparrow, shark or rabbit—are often among the most obscure words from an etymological point of view. Frog is no exception. Consider Greek batrakhos (origin unknown; borrowed from some other language?).

Frogs are famous for their long hind legs and jumping. Consequently, we may expect them to be called jumpers. And this sometimes happens. For example, in Russian, lyagushka “frog” (stress on the second syllable) is derived from the word for “hip” (liazhka), obviously with reference to the creature’s ability to hop and leap. One does not have to be a historical linguist to recognize the connection. But strangely, this transparency is rare. To increase our confusion, we find that even across related languages, the word for the frog is sometimes applied to the toad.

Numerous animal names go back to the sound those animals make. Supposedly, Latin rana “frog” is soundimitative. I am not quite sure what frogs “say.” English speakers hear croak-croak. Does one also hear ran-ran from them? In Russian, frogs go kva-kva, and in German, kvak-kvak. People’s attempts to imitate animals sounds are often puzzling: compare oink-oink (English) and khriukhriu (Russian). It almost appears that English and Russian pigs have inherited different languages. German pigs, with their grunzgrunz, should feel more comfortable in the east that in the English-speaking world. The internet informs us that frogs whistle, croak, “ribbit” (an American verb, seemingly coined for this purpose only), peak, cluck, bark, and grunt—quite a symphony (as regards grunt, compare grunz-grunz; German z has the value of ts). As we will soon see, the origin of English frog is “not yet settled” (quoted from my favorite English dictionary by Henry Cecil Wyld). What if frog is a sound-imitating word? Perhaps those who coined frog heard frogfrog, along with croak-croak, kva-kva, and ran-ran? Correct etymologies are usually simple, but it does not follow that every simple etymology is correct. The Old English for “frog” was frogga, a hypocoristic formation, similar to docga “dog” (dog is a word of “contested etymology”: see my posts on May 4, May 11, May 18, and June 8, 2016). In the adjective hypocoristic, cor– means “child” (from Greek kóros “child”). Both dog and frog may be ancient baby words.

If you are a frog, don’t try to become an ox. Fables in Thyme for Little Folks by John Rae, Project Gutenberg, via Wikimedia Commons. CC1.0.

The “adult” root of dog (if it existed) is unknown. Besides, dog is almost isolated in English, and to increase our bafflement, the Old English form of dog occurred most rarely in the recorded texts. Frog is less obscure than dog, because Old English words for “frog” did turn up in early medieval prose. They are forsc, frosc, and frox. Obviously, they are different forms of the same noun, whose pronunciation fluctuated. In Middle English, we find the variants frūde (with ū, a long vowel) and froude, borrowed from Scandinavian: the Old Norse (that is, Old Icelandic) for “frog” was froskr, frauki, and frauðr (ð = th in Modern English this), in addition to frauki. One can see that the name for “frog” had several variants not only in English. Some fluctuation was due to phonetic reasons. For instance, in forsc and frosc, the vowel and consonant played leapfrog (I am genuinely sorry for the pun, but the temptation was too strong). This game is called metathesis. When r is entailed, metathesis is especially common: compare English burn and German brennen. Both bird and horse once sounded as brid and hros.

Frogs’ voices did not appeal to Ancient Greeks. Frogs of the Aristophanes Playbill by Trinity College Dramatic Society, via Wikimedia Commons.

If frog was not a production of the nursery or sound imitation, what could its origin be? Naturally, etymologists searched for some similar word that might provide a clue to the animal name. One such word is froth. If the match is good, the reference must have been to the frog’s slimy skin. The noun froth probably existed in Old English, but only a related verb has been recorded. The noun we today know is a fourteenth-century borrowing from Old Norse. The connection froth ~ frog is not particularly appealing, and hardly anyone supports it today. Dutch vors, Old English frosk (see it above), and Old Icelandic frauki (assuming that they all go back to a so-called protoform) seem to have developed from some early root like frusk-, which corresponds to non-Germanic prusk-. It will be remembered that the non-Germanic (that is, Greek, Latin, Celtic, Slavic, and so forth) match for f is Germanic p: compare English father, and Latin pater (the words are certainly related). This regularity is part is part of what is known as the Germanic Consonant Shift, or Grimm’s Law.

In prusk-, -sk might be a suffix, which leaves us with the root pru-. This root was found in the Russian verb pry-gat’ “to jump.” No correspondence could be better (frogs emerged as jumpers), but the entire procedure looks like an attempt to justify a forgone conclusion: since frogs are jumpers, let us try to find some word meaning “jump, spring, leap” and connect the two. Many good dictionaries accept the frog ~ prygat’ solution, but I share Elmar Seebold’s skepsis on this score (Seebold is the editor of the main etymological dictionary of German).

We’ll leave our frog in midair until next week and remember that English has another name for this anurous amphibian, namely, pad or paddock (-ock is a suffix). Perhaps some light on the origin of frog will fall from the history of pad? Pad first meant “toad”; pad “a small cushion, etc.” corresponds to northern German pad “the sole of the foot.” To paddle is almost a synonym for toddle (of unknown origin!). After years of hesitation, etymologists seem to have reached a state of unenthusiastic agreement that despite all difficulties connected with the origin of path, the word reflects the tread of the walker going pad ~ pad ~ pad. All over the world, people and animals are said to go pad-pad, pat-pat, and top-top. Frogs jump, while toads move slowly, that is, go pad-pad. I believe that pad “toad” is onomatopoeic (sound-imitating), and so are, most probably, pad– in paddle and tod– in toddle. There is also English dialectal tod “fox.” Since among other things, tod means “a weight used for wool; a bushy mass,” couldn’t tod “fox” get its name from the animal’s bushy tail? Be that as it may, pad and tod have nothing to do with frog, and after this long digression, we are none the wiser.

Some creatures are born tailless, others have wonderful tails, but all are perfect.
Images: (1) Public domain via Pexels, (2) Internet Archive Book Images via Flickr, (3) Plains Spadefoot, Alberta by Andy Teucher via Flickr. CC2.0. (4) Creeping fox by Eric Kilby via Flickr. CC2.0.

The main conclusion of this part of our investigation is that in dealing with the names of the frog and the toad, one should be on the lookout for expressive formations. Toads and frogs have occupied the attention of our ancestors much more than, in our opinion, they deserve. Anticipating the discussion next week, it should be mentioned that there also is northern German pogge “frog,” which, despite its similarity with pad, cannot be dismissed without further discussion (pogge resembles frog!), and we’ll soon see a promising way of dealing with this word. Wait for the continuation next week!

Editor’s note: thanks to our commenters and our apologies for any typos and errors! Hopefully all should be fixed.

Feature image by Biodiversity Heritage Library via Flickr (Public Domain).

Recent Comments

  1. Maggie Catambay

    This reminds me of Aristophanes’ play “The Frogs”. The frogs croak:
    “Brekekekex koax koax”.

  2. Constantinos Ragazas

    Anatoly you write, “Consider Greek barakahs (origin unknown; borrowed from some other language?).

    The Ancient Greek word for frog is βατραχος (vatrahos)


    And the origins ARE known! As this is a compound Greek word made up of “βατος” (marshes) + “τρεχω” (run). Thus describing a creature that lives and runs in wetlands! Which, of course, frogs are!

    I have commented on this in your blog several years ago! Look it up! As the word “frog” in English and other European languages derives directly from the Ancient Greek word. Clearly Ancient Greek and not “origins unknown” since this is a compound Greek word with “original meaning” (as the word ‘in itself’) in Greek and in no other language!

Comments are closed.