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From “frog” to “toad”

I did not intend to write an essay about toad, because a detailed entry on this word can be found in An Analytical Dictionary of English Etymology (2008), but a letter came from our correspondent wondering whether the etymology of toad is comparable with that of frog (the subject of the previous two posts), and the most recent comment also deals with both creatures. Therefore, I decided to address this question. In the 2008 book, almost nothing is said about frog.

“‘Big and ugly, fat and loathsome she is,’ said the young green frogs. ‘And her brats are getting to be just like her!’ ‘May be so,’ said Mamma Toad, ‘but one of them has a jewel in its head, if I don’t have it myself.’” This exchange occurs in Hans Christian Andersen’s tale “The Toad,” a late tragic version of “The Ugly Duckling,” with an ending echoing that of “The Little Mermaid.” However, “life is so beautiful,” as H. C. Andersen’s Toad said, and etymology is so impersonal that we are justified in making our simple story fully unemotional.

A knot of toads
Image by Plum Leaves via Flickr, CC2.0

Like frog, the word toad was recorded in Old English, and the form was nearly stable, except that the root vowel could be short or long. In Middle English, both tadde and tāde (ā, as in Modern English spa) occurred too. However, two of their lookalikes, both meaning “frog,” also existed, namely, Old English tosca and tocsa (it is really the same word with sc ~ cs alternating by metathesis, a phonetic process, discussed earlier in connection with frog). A few Scandinavian and Low German forms, such as tudse, tossa, and Tutze, resemble both tosca and to some extent, pad ~ padda, the English names of the frog (pad and paddock), also familiar from the previous post. This overlap is not surprising, because, as we already know, frogs and toads often share the same name.

Toads play an outstanding role in folklore and superstitions (much more so than frogs), and no one is in a hurry to notice a jewel in the toad’s head (the aging H. C. Andersen was the rarest exception). Toads are held to be both ugly and poisonous. They are associated with witchcraft and various diseases, from warts to angina pectoralis. Therefore, taboo is prominent in the names of the toad, a circumstance that may be partly responsible for the opacity of Latin būfō and others.

In their search for origins, etymologists always try to find similar words in the language under investigation and in other languages. Greek toxikós “poisonous” has been sometimes cited in connections with toad, but this guess leads nowhere. The same holds for the by now familiar attempts to compare toad with several verbs meaning “to swell.” Equally unpromising is the comparison between tudse and Old High German zuscen “to burn.” (What do toads and burning have in common? Our Germanic ancestors were not familiar with the dangerous cane toad! Or is the reference again to warts?) By contrast, Old Icelandic tað “dung” (ð has the value of th in English the) may have some potential as a cognate of toad.  Surprisingly, dung will soon reemerge in our discussion.

The greatest difficulty in reconstructing the early history of Old English tāde (see this form above) is the long vowel in the root. In Old English, the source of ā is invariably the diphthong ai (compare Gothic stains and Old English stān “stone”). A form like tudse is incompatible with taide (if taide ever exited!), because u and ai never alternated in the same root. For this reason, toad ended up in the by now familiar swamp of words of unknown origin.

Yet it would be a rare coincidence if tāde and tudse, both meaning “toad,” were unrelated. Therefore, in the 2008 dictionary, I suggested (and my suggestion still seems reasonable to me) that under the influence of taboo or emphasis (considering the treatment of toads in old societies) the originally short vowel in tadde was lengthened. The only two common Old English words with spontaneous lengthening (that is, not caused by any phonetic regularity) have an expressive meaning: wēl “well” and fraam “bold.” Dung, to which I promised to return, smells bad. Is this why Old English goor “dung” had an unexplained long vowel? Another expressive word? Such hypotheses cannot be proved. Very few proposals in etymology can be “proved” the way it is done in mathematics, as I keep repeating from essay to essay. At best, one can call them reasonable, credible, probable.

If the root of toad was tad– (with an original short vowel), we find ourselves on familiar ground. English t-d words are numerous. Two weeks ago, I mentioned only tod and toddle, but similar words crop up everywhere, even though most of them are either regional or if “standard,” little-known. Consider tad “child,” tid– in tidbit (or tit-, if you prefer titbit); another tod ~ toddle “a small cake,” tid “a very small person,” tit ~ tid “teat,” and quite a few others. The interjection tut-tut looks like part of that series. In English, some such words are native, while others were borrowed from German or Scandinavian. Most of them are of northern origin. For whatever reason, in Germanic, tattlingand toddling of all kinds suggests pettiness.

Toads have nothing to do with toadstools.
Image via PickPik, CC0.

Toad with a historically short vowel joins the club, along with Danish tudse and Swedish tossa (apparently, from todsa). Perhaps the toad was thought of as a small round creature. Or its warts gave it its name. Equally probable is that the toad’s manner of moving in short steps (toddling or tottering) provided the sought-for connection. Regardless of whether my reconstruction is credible, one should avoid searching for some ancient (Proto-Germanic or Indo-European) root, from which all such words have allegedly developed over the centuries. It seems that the complex tid/ted/tod/ tad varying with tit/tet/tot/tat is always available for engendering more and more words. Someone teds (“lifts and separates”) hay, while someone else needs a tad more salt in the soup for hungry toddlers (tiny tots, also known as tuds, are so choosy!). Life is governed by the tit for tat principle. Some toads have jewels in the head, while others don’t, but the reproduction of short expressive t-d/t-t words seems to be constant.

Nor do tadpoles interest toads: unlike human beings, they don’t care for their future.
Image: Pacific Tree Frog Tadpoles (Pseudacris regilla) by Greg Schechter, via Flickr, CC2.0.

The word toadstool reflects people’s uncalled-for abhorrence of toads. The structure of the word is obvious, even though toads never touch this poisonous mushroom. Tadpole, from tāda + pole, is the opposite: the creature is known to all (I’ll leave it to our readers to search online for the many slangy senses of tadpole!), but the word’s structure is less clear. Pole is here another spelling of poll “head,” probably a borrowing from thirteenth-century German (and again, I’ll leave it to the curious to find out why we “take a poll”), but tad– is toad with a short vowel, not the one I reconstructed in the prehistory of toad, but from a shortened one (this shortening occurred in old trisyllabic words: compare holy and holiday). Toadies are abhorrent, but you could not expect a derivative of toad to be given a fair hearing. I am now saying goodbye to my amphibians from Greece to England and beyond, unless new questions provoke new essays. Questions and comments are always welcome.

Featured image: Hans Christian Andersen by Franz Hanfstaengl, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Recent Comments

  1. Huijun Suo

    It’s curious that Mandarin 蟾蜍 chanchu presupposes ancient pronunciation tantu, very close to OE tad, except to the middle nasal. Both 蟾 and 蜍 are non-existent in the first Chinese etymological dictionary compiled by Xu Shen 2000 years ago, in Eastern Han Dynasty, but surely appeared before Tang Dynasty (AD 600-900). Are they loanwords from Germanic, via Tocharian or Sanskrit?

  2. Huijun Suo

    Amazing! 蟾蜍 appeared before Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC), in form of 蟾诸chanzu in a glossary named Er Ya, compiled around the age of Confucius (500 BC). What’s more amazing, the Chu State’s great poet Qu Yuan referred to 顾菟gutu as being nurtured in the belly of the moon, which used to be interpreted as the folkloric hare, but proved by modern scholar Wen Yiduo to be the toad, because the toad was first mentioned in ancient Chinese folklores as inhabiting the moon, then both the toad and the hare, and finally the hare most typically. If Wen is right, where did gutu come from? Kroete?

  3. Don Cox

    The painting of a toads’ party is by Beatrix Potter (author of “The Tale of Peter Rabbit” etc.).

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