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More English words for size: the size increases…

First of all, many thanks to our two readers who sent me letters on sw-words and the linguistic environment of the adjective tiny. For some reason, the combination t-n suggests smallness or perhaps insignificance to speakers of many languages. Likewise, the initial group sw– occurs in numerous words in which it may have a symbolic value. I hope to return to them in the near future, but today I will go on with English words denoting size and will deal with some antonyms of small. In the two previous weeks, it was small, little (with its illegitimate variant leetle), wee, and tiny that kept us busy.

Roman emperor Magnus Maximus depicted on a gold ancient Roman coin also known as a Solidus
This is Emperor Magnus Maximus. No one can be bigger!
Image by Classical Numismatic Group, LLC via Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 2.5.

Many a mickle makes a muckle, right? See the header! It is in mickle, a Scottish adjective, that we find the Common Germanic word denoting something big. Big, as we will soon see, is rather enigmatic. Gothic, our constant point of departure, because it was recorded so early (in the fourth century, to be exact), had mikils: for all intents and purposes, the same word as mickle. Mikils has many respectable relatives (that is, cognates). The closest one is Greek mégas. We recognize its root in English megapolis and megalith (among other similar compounds) and even in megalomania. The Old English for mickle was micel. Latin magnus is also related. Though the root vowel of magnus has baffled word historians for generations, it need not bother us. Perhaps in the opinion of some people living long ago, the Latin adjective denoting bigness needed a wide-open sound. This conjecture is not a joke: short i (as in it) tends to suggest smallness, while a (as in up) has the opposite effect.

Let me repeat what I say with perhaps irritating regularity. Discovering cognates is a necessary prerequisite for deciphering a word’s etymology, but even if we are fortunate enough to put together a long list of related forms, we want to reconstruct the link between sound and meaning. Presumably, some association between meg-words for “big” and the idea of bigness existed in the past. Outside sound-imitative, sound-symbolic, and baby words, we can seldom discover such associations. Small, as we have seen, goes back to the name of small cattle (perhaps sheep). What was called meg thousands of years ago? Huge beasts or enormous boulders? Once upon a time, adjectives did not differ from nouns, and only their place in a sentence distinguished them. English, which has lost most of its endings, has partly reached that stage again. One can say rose garden and garden rose and guess the meaning only from the word order. To repeat, what associations did meg– evoke, regardless of the syntax?

It is not surprising that such ancient words have an “unknown origin.” While reading the news, I often stop to look up the etymology of “funny words” (slang; our reports are full of slang). Today, I have looked up flub “to botch, bungle,” cagey “shrewd, smart” (an adjective I don’t like, because it reminds me of the Soviet KGB), and glom “to steal.” Only glom was recorded in the nineteenth century and is supposed to go back to a verb in Scots (though I don’t quite understand how the borrowing occurred). Anyway, all three words are late “Americanisms,” and none has any etymology worth mentioning. If even such recent words remain obscure, what can we expect from an ancient adjective that seems to have existed for millennia? To add insult to injury, I may add that huge, a borrowing of Old French ahuge into Middle English, is also of unknown origin, and the same holds for large, another loan from French.

Still, it arouses surprise that one word for “big size” after another falls into the same black hole. The German etymologist Jost Trier (1894-1970) advanced a theory, according to which dozens of words arose in the process of dealing with specific labor activities. This is a reasonable approach (where else should people coin words?), but his results seldom carry conviction, even though he had ardent supporters, among them the distinguished Dutch etymologist Jan de Vries. For instance, the origin of broad and and wide has never been explained to everybody’s satisfaction. The Old English for wide was vīd. Its Old Icelandic cognate had ð (that is, th, as in English the) in the middle. Trier isolated the root wei- ~ wī– in it, connected wide with numerous other words, and spun most interesting, but unverifiable hypotheses. For instance, he allied wide to withy, because withy could be used for building fences. In a similar way, he tried to explain broad, but in this case, his ideas are even less attractive. Since Trier was a serious scholar, he suggested several promising etymologies, but in principle, his conjectures should be treated with utmost caution.

Portrait of Norwegian runologist Sophus Bugge
Sophus Bugge, a man who lived up to his name.
Image by Jara Lisa via Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 4.0.

Our main opposite of small is big. Big is also a tough word, but it is not hopeless. It surfaced only in Middle English, around the year 1300. That is why the idea that big goes back to a word like Gothic gabigs (or gabeigs) “rich” holds little promise (such an idea was advanced twenty-five years ago). Ga– in gabeigs was part of the root and could not be reinterpreted as a prefix. Moreover, gabigs had a regular Old English cognate, namely gifig “rich.” An Old Icelandic cognate also existed. That was, to my mind, a stillborn etymology.

Two facts suggest a northern origin of big: the word’s late appearance in English texts (mainly northern!) and the consonant g at the end. A native Old English word would have ended in –dge, like bridge and wedge. Such was Walter W. Skeat’s opinion, and this is what one finds in most dictionaries. Skeat also cited Norwegian bugge “a strong man” (Bugge is a well-known Norwegian last name), along with English regional bug “big” and bog “boastful.” In the thirteenth century, big meant “strong, stout.” Later, the sense “advanced in pregnancy” was recorded (the phrase big with child, that is, “heavy with child, ready to give birth,” is still understood). The current sense of big does not antedate the sixteenth century.

Brown billy goat with curved horns standing in a farmyard
Was this an inspiration for the adjective big?
Image by nidan via Pixabay.

As we have seen, the sense of small goes back to the name for small cattle. Norwegian bugge sounds like Old Icelandic bukkr “he-goat, billy goat” (bokkr and bokki have also been recorded), English buck, German Bock, and several other animal names of horned animals. Skeat referred them to the root of the verb bow “to bend.” Later, several eminent researchers held the same opinion. Though a unified approach to small and big looks appealing, I have some doubts about the connection of big with cattle. It so happens that numerous b-g and p-g words all over Eurasia refer to bulky, fat, and inflated creatures and objects. Bag, bug, bog, pig, pug, and many other nouns belong here. Therefore, I am not sure that big is related to the verb referring to bent horns or antlers. Also, I cannot find any Old Scandinavian word sounding like big and see that Skeat wrote in parentheses: “Scandinavian?”. His question mark is well-appreciated. Big was, most probably, coined in the north of England, and it may be native, one of the numerous b-g words referred to above. Its origin is not “unknown” but somewhat uncertain. Anyway, with it, we, cagey people, are in better shape than with huge and large.

Next week, I’ll discuss the adjective great and bring this series to an end.

Featured image by Calyponte via Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 3.0.

Recent Comments

  1. Gavin Wraith

    With “the wide world” goes “the broad earth” (“broad” cognate to Sanskrit “prithu” and Greek “platy”, maybe?). Then “mighty” is a big word – Hittite “mekki nahhantes asandu” = “let them be mighty afraid”.

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