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Chewing the cud and ruminating on word origins

The history of cud may be more exciting than it seems at first sight. Initially (long ago!), I was intrigued when I read the statement by Henry Cecil Wyld, an outstanding language historian, that the origin of cud is unknown. I will return to his statement at the end of the post. Wyld’s The Universal Dictionary of the English Language is the only general purpose twentieth-century dictionary whose editor, most probably, wrote all the etymologies himself. Last week, I suggested that in dealing with the origin of any word it may be useful to look at the word’s neighbors on the page. The neighborhood of cud inspires little hope. The witty Dr. Cuthbert Gordon (1730-1810) prepared a dyeing powder (cudbear) and named it after his name, Cuthbert. Cuthbert may (only may) also be the source of cuddy “donkey.” Finally, there is cudgel, going back to Old English, reminiscent of English dialectal nudgel, German Keule (the same meaning), German Kugel “bullet,” English bludgeon, and quite a few other words of nearly the same sound and meaning. Yet cudgel has been dismissed as being of unknown origin.

To repeat, the neighborhood of cud holds out little promise to an etymologist. Yet we know that the earliest forms of cud were cwudu and cwidu, the latter being the oldest form. Secure cognates of cwidu ~ cwudu existed in Old High German (Modern German Kitt “cement” is its continuation) and Old Norse, though the Scandinavian noun had a different look (see below). Responsible sources tell us that Latin bitumen “bitumen” and Sanskrit játu “resin, gum” are related to cud. The Latin name of bitumen, as Roman speaker already knew, was borrowed from Celtic. The territory covered by our word is wide: Germanic, Celtic, and Sanskrit, that is, all the way from Norway to India. The ancient root must have begun with gw– or as special books write, gw-.

This is bitumen: linguistically related to “cud” but not good to chew. Image by Feroze Omardeen, CC2.0 via Flickr.

At one time, cud was believed to be related to the word chew. One can find a statement to this effect even in the reworkings of Webster’s dictionary in the nineteen-eighties, but neither the OED nor The Century Dictionary supported this etymology (the OED was especially reserved in discussing the origin of cud and mentioned only the indubitable cognates). Indeed, from the phonetic point of view, cēowan, the oldest recorded form of chew, and cwidu ~ cwudu, cannot be reduced to the same root. Therefore, the idea of their affinity has been given up, even though nothing can be more natural than a connection between a cud and chewing.

It may be that both cwidu ~ cwudu and cēowan, the ancestors of cud and chew, were sound-symbolic or sound-imitative words and in some obscure way reflected the movement of the jaw or rather, rendered the impression produced by that movement, just as crunch, scrunch, and munch reflect the idea of chewing and squeezing. By the way, jaw is a word “of unknown origin,” whereas jowl goes back to ceafl, and its j is late and expressive. For a similar train of ideas, I may refer to two of my earlier posts. One dealt with cheek and jowl (August 31, 2022), the other with kitsch (April 7, 2010).

Cheeks have something to do with chewing, while Kitsch, including its little-known English regional cognate keech (discussed in that post), is related to the name of a rake for removing mud. The result of chewing is some sort of pulp. Hence my idea that chew (from cēowan) and cud (from cwudu), with their initial k-w- ~ kw, were perhaps coined to imitate, however imperfectly, the process of chewing. That such words are, in principle, expressive follows from their history. Strange things happen to them all the time: in jowl, j was substituted for initial ch, and the Old Icelandic cognate of chew is tyggva. Did its t- replace k- under the influence of the word tönn “tooth”? After all, we chew with teeth. Incidentally, chew is related to choke! Chockfull is a rather obscure word from an etymological point of view, but its connection with cheek raises no doubts.

Chewing gum does not yield the most endearing images. Image: public domain via Pexels.

Verbs related to chew and German kauen (the same meaning) exist in several languages, and they also begin with a guttural consonant (g and its descendants). Similar associations arise when we look at words for mud (kitsch). Russian govno “feces” (stress on the second syllable), with exact cognates elsewhere in Slavic, also has initial g. While dealing with the origin of expressive words, one can rarely “prove” anything. But the processes of word formation have hardly changed since the earliest times. By lumping together chew, cud, govno, and kitsch, I deliberately forfeit the shelter of the wall, to paraphrase Plato’s image, that is, give up the safe algebra of comparative linguistics. Yet when that indispensable algebra keeps producing the answer “origin unknown,” as it always does in dealing with sound symbolism and sound imitation, one is probably justified in looking elsewhere.

By way of curiosity, I may cite one more example. German has a very popular word for empty talk, namely, Quatsch. It surfaced in texts in the middle of the sixteenth century. Quatsch is almost a doublet of Kot “feces.” Kitsch has an English cognate or lookalike, namely, keech “fat of a slaughtered animal rolled into a lump,” referred to above. Kot is not unlike such forms as quāt, quōt, and so forth, recorded in medieval German texts. Is Quatsch one of them? And suchseems to have been the common opinion. (English cud and keech may or may not belong to this group.) But I was amazed to find in the latest edition of the main German etymological dictionary (written by Elmar Seebold, a seasoned Indo-European scholar) only one short line about Quatsch: “Sound-imitative, like Matsch [mush, slush], Klatsch [splash].” Seebold also wrote about cud (in the entry Kitt) that the image might be inspired by the sight of chewing resin but did not explain why he thought so.

We have viewed a motley group: Old English cwidu ~ cwudu “cud,” Old English cēowan “chew,” English dialectal keech, English chew (from cēowan), German Quatsch, German Kot, and finally, German Kitsch, borrowed into English and many other languages. Is this group a family or a crowd of similarly attired vagabonds? I invoked a similar image in my previous post. There, I spoke about a bunch of rootless mushrooms on a stump and of children from an orphanage wearing the same uniform. Perhaps some members of today’s etymological ragtag and bobtail did have the same or closely related parents.

Recalcitrant words are like little children. Image: public domain via Pexels.

But to return to our main subject, namely, cwidu “cud.” What should we write about its etymology, apart from listing its old forms and cognates? Rather cautiously, I might risk saying that English cud has an expressive, perhaps sound-symbolic or sound-imitative, origin and is therefore aligned with (but not related to!) chew. Did Henry Cecil Wyld suspect a similar solution? It this why instead of giving a few bits of safe and trivial information, he wrote (quite unexpectedly): “Origin unknown?” We will never know.

Words are like children. Quite often they behave according to expectation, so that the etymologist may abide by the rules. In other cases, they become uncontrollable. Then it becomes necessary to leave the shelter of the wall. Like Eeyore, I am just ruminating.

Feature image by Clay Junell via Flickr. CC2.0.

Recent Comments

  1. Gavin Wraith

    At the school I attended as a child ties were by default black. Any other sort of tie was a “cud” tie. I was told that this word was derived from “couth”.

  2. Philip Heath

    There’s also ‘quid’ of course, supposedly < cwidu, but that probably doesn't get us any further.

  3. Jack

    My Renfrewshire mother in law used the word keech (with the ‘ch’ sounded as in loch) to mean shit or shitty

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