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“Smother,” “smooth,” and the Slavic name of sour cream, with an obscure idiom for dessert

The word smother “dense or stifling smoke” (often with smoke!) has existed in English for about a thousand years. It first competed with smorther (the spelling of the Middle English form has been simplified here) and conveyed an even more murderous idea than today. At present, smother is all about suffocating rather than killing. Dictionaries know a good deal about the history of the verb but little about its origin. Some even call the origin unknown.

It is instructive to have a quick look at the word’s neighbors on the page (this is in general a useful procedure: similar-sounding words may belong together even from a historical point of view) and find out how many of them are equally obscure. Here is a short list: smack “taste” (a Lithuanian lookalike exists, but who cares?); smack “to strike” (of imitative origin; are those really two different words? Isn’t taste something that “touches” or “strikes” our tongue?); smash (perhaps [!] related to smack); smatter, which we mainly remember from smattering and smatterings (most likely, sound-imitative); smear (many cognates, but they are hardly related to a similar Greek word); smell (isolated: no cognates); smelt ~ smolt (a fish name of unknown origin), and a few others. Even the origin of smith is obscure. In any case, something in the initial group sm– seems to suggest the idea of smacking, smashing, smelling, smoldering, and smothering. This is a promising first step, but as always in such cases, no one knows where to go from there.

This fish is called smelt or smolt. Who could give it its name? NOAA Great Lakes Environment Research Laboratory‘s photostream. CC2.0 via Flickr.

Some sources state that smother is obscurely related to smolder (smoulder). Few formulas in etymology are more frustrating than “obscurely related.” We are told that though a good deal of resemblance between the words cannot be denied, their kinship is hard to demonstrate. To add insult to injury, a respectable dictionary informs us that smolder is obscurely (!) related to Dutch smeulen (the same meaning). Indeed, in most cases, we easily find English, Dutch, and northern German lookalikes. I am sorry to conjure up the same images in one post after another, but I cannot think of better ones. We are dealing, I believe, with an analog of many mushrooms growing on a stump: they look similar but are rootless, so that the question of kinship is moot. My other ever-recurring image is of a group of children from an orphanage: almost the same age, the same uniform, but not brothers and sisters.

We remember that smother appeared in English as smorther. It resembles smirk, and smirk, we are told, is a fully respectable verb, with a cognate in German, closely related to a Sanskrit word and more remotely to some verbs in Slavic, Greek, and Sanskrit. Perhaps etymology will become less obscure if it gets rid of such vague references to the kinship metaphor. About a hundred years ago, historical linguists reconstructed numerous ancient Indo-European roots. Actually, they only abstracted the common parts of many seemingly related words.

Allegedly, once the root smei– existed, and today we can see it in smile and smirk. The root smē– (with a long vowel) has been recognized in smite, as opposed to smei– in smirk, but no consensus has been reached in the business of ascribing all those words to ancient roots. Curiously, smother lacks any ancient ancestor! It appears that if, in some mysterious sound-symbolic way, the initial group sm– suggested the opening and closing of the mouth in a variety of languages from Classical Greek to Old Norse, we end up with a bunch of obscurely related (!) words from smile to smother, and the idea of a primordial root loses its attraction, especially because a semantic bridge can be built between almost any two words and any two concepts.

Smother also sounds like smooth. Let me repeat: we don’t know whether the words in this motley group referring to smashing, smacking, smelling, and the rest belong together. Even Old English smūgan “to creep” may (or may not) belong here. I think it was William Craigie (a serious and dependable philologist) who suggested that English smooth is not clearly represented in any of the cognate languages. We find this statement in the 1912 fascicle of the OED. In 1966, The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology wrote the same: “…without certain cognates.” A good deal depends on what kind of cognates one is looking for. Students of Dutch and Frisian found numerous words with the root smeu-. In some way, smother may be related to them, but in the works I have read, the sound-symbolic or south-imitating factor underlying smooth and smother is not mentioned.

We can now again look at the verb smite, whose original meaning is to “strike” (we are still “smitten with remorse”). The verb has been mentioned above in connection with the reconstructed root smē– and is discernible in German (now regional) Schmant “cream” and Russian smetana “sour cream” (stress on the second syllable), with cognates elsewhere in Slavic. It is also recognizable from the name of the Czech composer Smetana (stress on the first syllable). The root of all of them may be the same as the one we observe in smooth. I’ll refrain from discussing the technology of making (sour) cream.


These are an ape and a dandy. The two are obscurely related. Free chimpanzee in forest and Mr. Lambkin dressing up in front of a mirror. Public domain via rawpixel.

As in the previous two posts, I’ll finish this one with a glance at an obscure phrase. In Take My Word For It: A Dictionary of English Idioms, I devoted some space to the idiom to pay in monkey’s coin. I should have said more about it. In 1896, a correspondent to Notes and Queries wondered what the derivation and meaning of the proverbial saying is and whether to give one monkey’s allowance is its equivalent. I know nothing about monkey’s allowance, but the next letter referred to a long explanation of the main phrase in E. Cobham Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. Brewer understood the idiom as meaning “to pay in goods, in personal work, in mumbling and grimace.”

Merry Andrew in full glory. Bearded man with back to viewer in a jester’s cap. Minneapolis Institute of Art. Public domain via rawpixel.

A correspondent to NQ, 8th Series, IX, 1896, p. 494, quoted in translation the account given in G-F. P. Saint Foix’s Historical Essays. According to that account, the story originated with Louis IX. We read: “Whoever fetches a monkey into the City for sale, shall pay four deniers, but if the monkey belongs to a Merry-Andrew [a professional clown] be exempted from paying the duty…, by causing his monkey to play and dance before the Collector.” King Saint Louis lived from 1226 to 1270. The Old French text is not quoted in the Essays, and I failed to find the original referred to in this ordinance. The tale may be true, though it has all the features of folk etymology. Monkey’s coin, naturally, suggests deceit. Is the French saying payer en monnaie de singe (singe “monkey”) so old? Such figurative expressions were not typical of the Middle Ages. In any case, the English idiom is certainly a translation from French. The same must be true of the Dutch version iemand met apenmunt betalen. As regards the reaction of native speakers, the Dutch phrase seems to be better known than its English equivalent. The OED does not feature it. I’ll be grateful for any information on the French original and its European kin.

Wexford Friary Window Saint Louis IX King of France by Lucien-Léopold Lobin. CC3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Feature image by U.S. National Archives via Picryl (Public Domain).

Recent Comments

  1. nikita

    Notably, Vasmer rejects Schmant-smetana connection. Most dictionaries relate “smetana” to “*mesti”.

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