I expected that my series on dogs would inspire a torrent of angry comments. After all, dog is one of the most enigmatic words in English etymology, but the responses were very few. I am, naturally, grateful to those who found it possible to say something about the subject I was discussing for five weeks, especially to those who liked the essays.
My series on the etymology of dog and other nouns with canine roots has come to an end, but, before turning to another subject, I would like to say a few moderately famous last words. For some reason, it is, as already mentioned, just the names of the dog that are particularly obscure in many languages (the same holds for bitch and others).
I double dog dare you to reject my etymology, or the dog’s chances increase (even if ever so slightly)
The origin of Engl. dog will not look like a uniquely formidable problem if we realize that the names of our best quadruped friend are, from an etymological point of view, impenetrable almost all over the world. The literature on dog is huge, and the conjectures are many.
Here is a phrase whose origin seems to be known, but, as this does not mean that everybody knows it, a short discussion may not be out of place. I have such a huge database of idioms that once in six weeks or so I am seized with a desire to share my treasures with the public.
By this time, the thrust of the posts united by the title “Not a dog’s chance” must be clear. While dealing with some animal names, we plod through a swamp (or a bog, or a quagmire) and run into numerous monosyllabic words of varying structure (both vowels and consonants alternate in them), lacking a clear etymology, and designating several creatures, sometimes having nothing to do with one another (for instance, “doe” and “grasshopper,” though this is an extreme case).
Unlike tyke, bitch can boast of respectable ancestors, because its Old English form (bicce) has been recorded. The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology notes that bicce is obscurely related to Old Icelandic bikkja (the same meaning). The OED online never uses the phrase obscurely related, and this is a good thing, for this verbal formula, which so often occurred in the past, is itself obscure.
The word dog is the bête noire of English etymology. Without obvious cognates anywhere (the languages that have dog are said to have borrowed it from English), it had a shadowy life in Old English but managed to hound from its respectable position the ancient name of man’s best friend, the name it has retained in the rest of Germanic.
Responses to my plea for suggestions concerning spelling reform were very few. I think we can expect a flood of letters of support and protest only if at least part of the much-hoped-for change reaches the stage of implementation. I received one letter telling me to stop bothering about nonsense and to begin doing something sensible.
To reconstruct an ancient root with a measure of verisimilitude is not too hard. However, it should be borne in mind that the roots are not the seeds from which words sprout, for we compare such words as are possibly related and deduce, or abstract their common part. Later we call this part “root,” tend to put the etymological cart before the horse, and get the false impression that that common part generates or produces words.
In the recent post on bosom, I wrote that one day I would perhaps also deal with breast. There is nothing new I can say about it, but perhaps not all of our readers know the details of the word’s history and the controversy about its origin.
The proverb in the title of this post rarely, if ever, occurs in modern literature and may even have been forgotten but for the title of Dorothy Sayers’ novel. However, at one time it was well-known, and extensive literature is devoted to it. The publications appeared not only in the indispensable Notes and Queries, American Notes and Queries, and Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine but also in such great newspapers and periodicals as The British Apollo and Churchman’s Shilling Magazine, to say nothing of Transactions of the Royal Society of Literature of the United Kingdom.
Preparation for the Spelling Congress is underway. The more people will send in their proposals, the better. On the other hand (or so it seems to me), the fewer people participate in this event and the less it costs in terms of labor/labour and money, the more successful it will turn out to be. The fate of English spelling has been discussed in passionate terms since at least the 1840s.
Last week, I discussed the role of taboo in naming animals, a phenomenon that often makes a search for origins difficult or even impossible. Still another factor of the same type is the presence of migratory words. The people of one locality may have feared, hunted, or coexisted in peace with a certain animal for centuries. They, naturally, call it something.
The idea of today’s post was inspired by a question from a correspondent. She is the author of a book on foxes and wanted more information on the etymology of fox. I answered her but thought that our readers might also profit by a short exploration of this theme. Some time later I may even risk an essay on the fully opaque dog. But before coming to the point, I will follow my hero’s habits and spend some time beating about the bush and covering my tracks.
Last week I mentioned my “strong suspicion” that bosom has the same root (“to inflate”) as the verb boast. As a matter of fact, it was a conviction, not a suspicion, but I did not want to show my cards too early. Before plunging into matters etymological, perhaps something should be said about the word’s bizarre spelling.
Not too long ago I discussed the origin of the verb brag, and already then knew that the turn of boast would soon come round. The etymology of boast is not transparent, but, in my opinion, it is not beyond recovery. Rather than following the immortal royal advice (“begin at the beginning, go on to the end and then stop”), I’ll reverse my route and begin at the end.