Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

An etymological plague of frogs

Last week, I discussed a few suggestions about the origin of the English word frog. Unfortunately, I made two mistakes in the Greek name of this animal. My negligence is puzzling, because the play by Aristophanes lay open near my computer. I am grateful to our correspondent for pointing out the error, but is the etymology he offered his own? He referred to an online explanation of the Greek noun. Yet no hint of his hypothesis can be found in it. The Greek word is either sound-imitative, like the Latin one (rāna), or of unknown origin. What he suggested is an example of folk etymology. Even less trustworthy is his idea that the Germanic name of the frog goes back to Greek. Why should it?

In the previous part of this essay, I mentioned two attempts to account for the origin of frog and its cognates elsewhere in Germanic and argued that the word cannot be traced to the idea of the frog’s skin being slimy or to the frog’s ability to jump. Yet I did not mention a third hypothesis, which derived the name of the frog and the toad from the Indo-European root “to swell.” This reconstruction allowed some etymologist to trace Greek br– and Germanic fr– to the same ancient root. Only the images in the post referred to that idea. At the end of the essay, English pad “frog” or “toad” (!) came up for discussion, and I suggested that pad is a sound-imitative word, with reference to the animal’s going pat-pat or pad-pad.

It will be remembered that the Old Germanic languages had several names of the frog. Even in Old Icelandic, three words competed: froskr, frauki, and frauðr (read ð as th in English the). They look like different names, rather than phonetic variants of the same word. Apparently, as long as the group fr– remained in place, the speakers felt that the frog had received its due. The call of the frogs’ chorus in Aristophanes is brekekeks-koax-koax. Incidentally, when an ugly toad abducts Thumbelina, Hans C. Andersen makes “her” say: “Koaks, koaks, brekkekekeks,” straight from the Greek comedy. There is some reason to believe that frog and its lookalikes elsewhere are sound-imitative words, with cr- ~ kr, br-, and fr– serving the same purpose. By the way, the German for “toad” is Kröte! The oldest recorded forms of Kröte were krete ~ krede, krota, and krade. An onomatopoeic origin of Kröte is worthy of consideration.

The general impression is that the name of the frog was a popular, playful word without “respectable” Indo-European ancestry. A curious case is dialectal (Low German) Pogge, resembling both Middle Dutch padde and English pad. (Old Icelandic had padda; German Padde could designate both a frog and a toad.) In 1990, the German philologist Norbert Wagner suggested that Pogge is a pet name of frogga. He noted that in pet names, fricatives (that is, consonants like f and þ/th) are regularly replaced by the stops p and t. Theodore becomes Ted, Philip becomes Pip (as in Dickens’s Great Expectations), while Frisian Franz and Italian Francisco emerge as Panne and Paco.

Here is Dickens’s Philip, known to the world as Pip.
I entreated her to rise by F. A. Fraser, The Victorian Web. Public domain via GetArchive.

Wagner’s idea looks appealing in light of the fact that in many parts of Eurasia, the names of the toad and the frog tend to be expressive. English pad is not a variant of Pogge, but if Pogge goes back to frog, the reference to the expressive nature of pad receives some reinforcement, and the attempts to trace frog to some ancient root meaning “slimy, frothy” or “jump,” or “swell” lose the small appeal they may still have to some etymologists. To reinforce the idea of playfulness in naming toads, I’ll cite the words designating this animal in several modern German dialects: Ütsch, Pädde, and Quadux. The first, almost certainly, and the third not improbably, are expressive.

Incidentally, Ütsch resembles English ouch (an exclamation perhaps of German descent). Indeed, you see a toad and exclaim in a totally uncalled for outburst of disgust: “ütsch!”—don’t you? (What is so wrong with the poor toad?) If my guess about the connection between Ütsch and ouch is correct, I may be the first to have suggested such an exotic solution and swell with pride, because discovering a new etymology is hard, and ouch is such an important word. As Albert Einstein once said, ideas occur so seldom. By way of conclusion, I should express my strong disagreement with William Sayer’s paper: “The Etymology of English toad: Effects of the Celtic Substrate.” Nothing in the history of toad testifies to a foreign influence. The article is available online.

Ouch!
Image by Jesse Milan, CC2.0 via Flickr.

As is well-known, the word frog has numerous senses, unconnected with the animal. Frog refers to objects that hold things in place: a certain fastening, a loop, and a device on a rail. In the body of a horse, frog denotes a pyramidal substance in the sole of the hoof. One can also cite a few German analogs. The motivation for calling each of such things a frog is usually said to be unknown. Yet of crucial importance is the fact that the Finnish Sampo “the pillar of the world” shares its root (sampa) with sammako “frog.”

The picture all over Eurasia yields the same result: the world was believed to stand on the back of a primordial animal: a frog, a fish, or a whale. The literature on this subject is huge. Finnish scholars have been especially active in studying the connection between frog “animal” and frog “a supporting device,” while English and German etymologists have hardly referred to Eurasian myths in trying to explain the many senses of frog ~ Frosch. (Note that a frog is found in the foot of the horse.) Yet my knowledge of the relevant literature is superficial. It would be tempting to show that frog “device”–-from “the support of the pillar of the world” to “part of the horse’s anatomy”—goes back to ancient folklore. Is such a hypothesis feasible? The late attestation of frog “device” in English and German poses an almost insurmountable problem in this reconstruction.

Don’t despise frogs. They are princes and princesses in disguise.
Image by MCAD Library, CC2.0 via Flickr.

Frog “a hoarseness in the throat” may refer to croaking, but a tie between frogs (and especially toads) and diseases, such as angina, may again go back to ancient myths. An evil toad on the breast is a familiar image in folklore. Yet frog folklore is varied. Every year, the Nile was expected to overflow its banks. When it did, countless frogs appeared in the fields. The Egyptian goddess Hequet (or Heket) was worshipped, because she was believed to guarantee fertility (frogs lay between 20,000 and 25,000 eggs). This fact may go a long way toward accounting for the appearance of an animal spouse in folklore (in our case, a frog prince in German and a frog princess in Russian) if we assume that the Egyptian beliefs became known in Ancient Greece and later in Rome, from where they spread and mutated in the rest of Europe. In any case, frogs played a role in the initiation of Dionysus, a god of fertility.

Such is my tale. Comments are welcome.

Featured Image: Biblical illustration of Book of Exodus Chapter 9 by Jim Padgett, Distant Shores Media/Sweet Publishing. CC3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. Constantinos Ragazas

    Anatoly you write,

    ” I am grateful to our correspondent for pointing out the error, but is the etymology he offered his own?”

    I appreciate your admission of error! That reference is to me. So to answer you, asking the all too academic question “is the etymology he offered his own?” is like asking if the etymology for the compound word “typewriter” is mine, if I claim this word derives from “type”+”writer”! And just as irrelevant!

    Yes, the etymology I offered is mine! And no, since the etymology for the ancient compound Greek word “βατραχι” derives from the Greek words “βαλτος” (bog, wetlands)+”τρεχι” (run).

    The etymology I offered is the ‘original meaning’ of the word ‘in itself’! It is the meaning the folk (and not the linguists) that coined the word had intended! If you want to call that “folk etymology” thats fine! I call it sensible reasoning!

  2. Peter Warne

    All this talk of frogs and toads … where will that road lead to? A cockney might ask themselves that question.

    In Portuguese (Bra), engolir o sapo is to swallow a frog (or a toad), and it means to have to do something you have no choice in. It is said to originate from the use of frogs and toads in witchcraft.

    A pity the local witches had obviously not studied Macbeth; toe of frog is generally understood to refer to the bulbous buttercup (Ranunculus bulbosus). Healers had to protect the recipes for their potions by disguising the ingredients. The same goes for the other non-human ingredients in the witches’ potion. And the baboon’a blood.

  3. Constantinos Ragazas

    “Much Ado About Nothing” by Peter Warne

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *