I received a question about the greatest etymologists’ active mastery of foreign languages. It is true, as our correspondent indicated, that etymologists have to cast their nets wide and refer to many languages, mainly old (the deader, the better). So would the masters of the age gone by have felt comfortable while traveling abroad, that is, not in the tenth but in the nineteenth century?
This is my 500th post for “The Oxford Etymologist,” nine and a half years after this blog started in March 2006, and I decided to celebrate this event by writing something light and entertaining. Enough wrestling with words like bad, good, and god! Anyone can afford a week’s break. So today I’ll discuss an idiom that sounds trivial only because it is so familiar. Familiarity breeds not only contempt but also indifference.
The question then is: “What does the root gu– signify?” The procedure consists in finding some word in Germanic and ideally outside Germanic in which gu– or g-, followed by another vowel and alternating with u means something compatible with the idea of “god.” Here, however, is the rub. Old Germanic guð– certainly existed, but we don’t know what it meant when it was coined centuries before it surfaced in texts.
From what was said last week it follows that pagans did not need a highly charged word for “god,” let alone “God.” They recognized a hierarchy of supernatural beings and the division of labor in that “heavenly” crowd. Some disturbed our dreams, some bereaved us of reason, and still others inflicted diseases and in general worked evil and mischief.
While dealing with the etymology of the adjective bad, I realized that an essay on good would be vapid. The picture in Germanic and Slavic with respect to good is trivial, while the word’s ties outside those two groups are bound to remain unclear. Especially troublesome is Greek agathós “good,” from which we have the given name Agatha.
During the month of July I have received some questions, comments, and queries about things new to me. Thus, I know next to nothing about Latvian (my Indo-European interests more often make me turn to Lithuanian) and feel insecure when it comes to Romance etymology. The questions made me examine the areas that would under normal circumstances have not attracted my attention, and I am pleased.
For a long time the etymology of the word bad has been at the center of my attention (four essays bear ample witness to this fact), and the latest post ended with a cautious reference to the idea that Middle Engl. bad ~ badde, a noun that occurred only once in 1350 and whose meaning seems to have been “cat,” is, from an etymological point of view, identical with the adjective bad.
The authority of the OED is so great that, once it has spoken, few people are eager to contest or even modify its verdict. The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology adds perhaps (not probably!) to Murray’s etymology, cites both bæddel and bædling (it gives length to æ in both words) and adds that there have been other, more dubious conjectures.
Quite often the first solid etymology of an English word comes from Skeat, but this is not the case with the adjective bad. In the first edition of his dictionary (1882), he could offer, with much hesitation, two Celtic cognates of bad, one of them being Irish Gaelic baodh “vain, giddy, foolish, simple.” Much later, Charles Mackay, who believed that Irish Gaelic was the source of most English words, mentioned beud “mischief, hurt” as the etymon of bad.
Several years ago, I wrote a post on the origin of the word frigate. The reason I embarked on that venture was explained in the post: I had run into what seemed to me a promising conjecture by Vittorio Pisani. As far as I could judge, his note had attracted no attention, and I felt it my duty to rectify the injustice.
Our earliest etymologists did not realize how much trouble the adjective bad would give later researchers. The first of them—John Minsheu (1617) and Stephen Skinner (1671)—cited Dutch quaad “bad, evil; ill.” (Before going on, I should note that today quad is spelled kwaad, which shows that a civilized nation using the Roman alphabet can do very well without the letter q.)
In the near future I’ll have more than enough to say about bad, an adjective whose history is dismally obscure, but once again, and for the umpteenth time, we have to ask ourselves why there are words of undiscovered and seemingly undiscoverable origin. Historical linguists try to reconstruct ancient roots.
As a rule, I try not to deal with the words whose origin is supposedly known (that is, agreed upon). One can look them up in any dictionary or on the Internet, and no one needs a blog for disseminating trivialities. The etymology of bed has reached the stage of an uneasy consensus, but recently the accepted explanation has again been called into question.
Most of what I had to say on bug can be found in my book Word Origins and in my introductory etymological dictionary. But such a mass of curious notes, newspaper clippings, and personal letters fester in my folders that it is a pity to leave them there unused until the crack of etymological doom. So I decided to offer the public a small plate of leftovers in the hope of providing a dessert after the stodgy essays on bars, barrels, barracks, and barricades, to say nothing about cry barley.
In the United States everything is planned very long in advance, while in Europe one can sometimes read about a conference that will be held a mere three months later. By that time all the travel money available to an American academic will have been spent a millennium ago. In the United States, we have visions rather than short-range plans.
Last week, I wrote about the idiom to cry barley, used by children in Scotland and in the northern counties of England, but I was interested in the word barley “peace, truce” rather than the phrase. Today I am returning to the north, and it is the saying the bishop has put (or set) his foot in it that will be at the center of our attention.