Etymology gleanings for March 2022


Native speakers and word history

The question arose about the possible links between English good (which has cognate forms elsewhere in Germanic) and Greek agathos. In all likelihood, these words are not related. Two points were raised: 1) foreign scholars cannot draw entirely convincing conclusions about words from ancient languages ​​because they are guided by context rather than native intuition, and 2) the modern meaning of agathos corresponds to English good very well. (On the second point, see also below: good and God.)

Of course, the meaning of an old word can be deduced only of the context. Therefore, words that appear in Old English or even Latin once or very few times are difficult or impossible to interpret accurately. Agathos is an epithet often applied to the name meaning “hero, warrior”. Obviously, neither “nice” nor “pleasant” will fit in such a context. To some extent, native speakers are even at a disadvantage when reading ancient texts in their language because they don’t realize that in the past, words familiar to them might not mean what they mean. . (For comparison: while teaching Middle High German texts in the English-speaking world—Minnesang, parzivaletc – it is more advantageous to translate them into English than into German, to avoid false associations.)

I will cite a few adjectives belonging more or less to the same semantic sphere as good and indicate their recorded development in English through the centuries.

  • Pretty: crafty, crafty; smart, resourceful; attractive; considerable (we can still say not only quite late but if we choose to be facetious, even pretty ugly).
  • Clever: adroit, adroit (in dialects), agile, active, clever. The path from ‘skillful’ to ‘smart’ may be shorter than from ‘cunning’ to ‘attractive’, but it cannot be taken for granted.
  • Cunning: learned (“knowing”), skilful, clever (the latter as in Dickens Cunning Dodger).
  • Pleasant (perhaps the most dramatic case): stupid; capricious; difficult to manage or decide; thorough and subtle; delicate; pleasant, delicious.

Shakespeare’s favorite epithet is sweet “dear”, as preserved in lover, and that means a lot of different things. A stranger would not have produced the Iliad Where Hamlet, but the same person can sometimes explain every word better than forty thousand native speakers. So much for the Greek agathos.

Clever rogue.
(“Hullo, My covey! What’s the row?”, illustration by F. Barnard in The Adventures of Olivier Twist by Charles Dickens, via Wikimedia Commons. CC BY 2.0)


I think we’re chasing a rainbow. If the meaning of a word is unknown, we cannot discover its origin. What substance was called soul? Our distant ancestors did not associate death with the complete disappearance of the deceased. Either their shadows languished in underworld, or they moved to another realm and continued to live there forever. Still, it was probably believed that some life substance had left the deceased. Perhaps this substance is what we call today soul. The breath corresponds to such an idea, but it is not what is called “the soul” in the Bible, and only the Bible interests us for the moment, because we want to know how Bishop Wulfila found an equivalent for the Greek word in the New Testament.

The Hebrew word no-phesh (I have used the hyphen to indicate the correct pronunciation), as used in the Old Testament it means approximately “living substance”, and it is characteristic that translators into English had some issues with that. My source is the King James Bible. In Genesis I:20, the word appears for the first time: “Let the waters bring forth in abundance the moving creature which has the life…” And in II:7 we read: “And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living soul.” The word I italicized above (life, no-phesh) is also “soul” in the original. At Wulfila’s saiwala is cloudy. It is unlike any Germanic name for “life” or “breath”. And the most ingenious attempts to “decipher” it have yielded no lasting results. Most of the proposed etymologies are clever, but none convince.


A man with a monkey. What is their origin ?
(“The Savoyard and the Monkey” by Alexandre Gabriel Decamps. Public domain.)

On January 23, 2013, I posted an essay on the origin of the word monkey (Extract an etymology from a monkey) and says, among other things, that all kinds of improbable ideas about the origin of this word exist. In a series of subsequent gleanings, I also wrote a few sentences about monkey “mortgage.” Moreover, the sentence have a monkey at home is a very late British slang (no known occurrence before the 1860s), but that’s an aside. In my 2013 story, I noted that many other nonsensical attempts to explain the origin of the animal’s name monkey existed, and our correspondent asked me to list them. The list is not inspiring. The ancient etymologists (and in England there is nothing to read on the subject before 1617 – as far as English etymology is concerned) always tried to trace the words of their languages ​​back to Hebrew, Greek or Latin. Hence the references to the Greek mimeo “imitate” and Latin ohmunculus. But other etymons also appeared, for example Spanish (??) Mounawith reference to monkand French missed “a creature below a human being.” Those who have proposed such sources have seldom realized that a convincing etymology presupposes more than the discovery of a putative source. If a word is a loanword, you need to know why it was picked up by speakers of another language, who brought it home, and why this loanword suddenly became popular and even universally known.


Danish bavenhoj seems to have always had this shape and meaning. Balefeu showed up in Beowulf (see word in OOF), then disappeared from use, and reappeared later. Maybe he was hit twice, which is not unlikely, because campfire is typical tautological compound (both components mean approximately the same thing, as in path, courtand german lukewarm “lukewarm”, in fact, “hot-hot”. See the post on tautological compounds of January 21, 2006. Such words are much more common than it seems at first glance, especially among place names.

The Greek word echo is indeed an onomatopoeia. All sources agree on this point.

Good and God may be connected in some languages, but no analogy will bridge the difference between the vowels of the two English words. They cannot be derived from the same root. I am the first to admit that we often miss sound correspondences, and that in such cases all sorts of explanations are necessary. For example, the English preposition for corresponds to German you, and the match is perfect. But their Gothic related is fromand that D- is inexplicable: although the words must be linked, the consonants break the rule (Gothic should have had you-, as in English). In such cases, historical linguists bend over backwards to account for the irregular shape. But why break a spear for a lost cause? Only because we want the Supreme Being to be good? God will survive without false etymology. By the way, ancient etymologists believed that Devil and wrong are linked. But they are not.

Featured Image: “The Fight for Patroclus’ Body” via Wikimedia Commons. Public domain.

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