Geas.

I just finished Charles Stross’s The Atrocity Archives (thanks, bulbul!), and I enjoyed it greatly, barring some moral concerns about using the Holocaust as a plot mechanism for a light-hearted fantasy/sf/spy thriller with a touch of romantic comedy (because I am a tiresome old fart). Stross has fun mingling terms from modern computer geekery and (pseudo-)ancient Magick, and one of the latter is the noun geas, meaning a magical injunction or prohibition. I had run across it before (not surprising, considering my youth was misspent reading all the fantasy and sf I could get my hands on), but not for decades, which means I had no idea of its origin or pronunciation (as a wee lad I mentally said “JEE-ass,” but was very dubious about it). Now, with the resources of an overgrown reference library and the near-infinite internet, I set out to remedy that. It wasn’t in M-W or AHD, but there it was in the New Oxford American Dictionary (3 ed., 2011): “geas /geSH/ noun (pl. geasa /ˈgeSHə/ ) (in Irish folklore) an obligation or prohibition magically imposed on a person”; the etymology said simply “– origin Irish.”

Now I had a problem. It is impossible to reconcile the spelling “geas” and the pronunciation /geSH/; the iron rule of Irish spelling is that a lenited final consonant (/SH/ is the lenited form of /s/) is preceded by i, and /geSH/ would have to be spelled “geis.” (Similarly, the plural geasa could not be pronounced /ˈgeSHə/ but would have to be /g’asə/.) As it turns out, the Wikipedia entry is under that spelling (which I’m pretty sure I’d never seen before), and it says “The Scottish Gaelic spelling ‘geas’ is also common.” So that explains that: the spelling is from Scottish Gaelic (where it would be pronounced /g’as/, with palatal g, presumably altered by analogy with the plural), and the pronunciation is from Irish geis; it’s parallel to colonel, where the spelling is from French and the pronunciation from Spanish coronel. However, it is physically impossible for me to look at the spelling “geas” and think “/geSH/,” so I am going to adopt the spelling “geis” — assuming /geSH/ is in fact the accepted pronunciation. Is it? (I’m pretty sure I’ve never heard anyone say it.) Are any of you familiar enough with the word to have a confident sense of how it’s pronounced?

Another interesting feature of the novel for me was the UK slang, some of which was unknown to me; a striking example is shower (“What a sorry shower you are!”), which my Cassell Dictionary of Slang tells me is “1. [1930s+] an unimpressive group of people. 2. [1940s+] a term of abuse aimed at a single person” and that it’s an abbreviation of shower of shit. Is this something all you UKanians are familiar with?

Comments

  1. Thanks for this. I enjoyed these books (although some of the later ones feel a bit formulaic) and thought it was “JEE-ass” as well…

  2. I always mentally pronounced it something like /’ge əs/, even though I vaguely thought it was Anglosaxon (probably because I was putting it into the same category as dweomer) and the /g/ wouldn’t go with that assumption.

  3. David Eddyshaw says:

    “Shower” is indeed well-known in the UK in that sense. It strikes me as rather old-fashioned, though. Summons up an image of a grizzled NCO addressing a new intake of conscripts in the days of National Service.

  4. David Eddyshaw says:

    While it may indeed have originated in “shower of shit,” especially if my vague impression that it’s sorta-military in origin has some foundation, but I don’t think that’s immediately apparent to contemporary users. It’s perfectly acceptable usage even for the sadly dying breed who wouldn’t say “shit” in public.

    I always (so far as I thought about it at all) associated it somehow with our dispiriting British weather …

    Plenty of precedents for people losing sight of an originally more-obscener origin, of course. I’m ancient enough myself to flinch mentally when nicely brought up young ladies tell me that something “sucks.”

  5. I imagined the pronunciation the same was Kieth Ivey did, but I never heard the word from anybody who had learned it via speech. Virtually every spoken example I have heard must have come from somebody who learned the word from playing Dungeons & Dragons. Geas is a high-level magic-user spell, forcing the target to complete a task for the caster. (There is a similar spell for clerics with the more ordinary name quest.) The spell name in D & D undoubtedly came from Jack Vance’s The Eyes of the Overworld; Vance’s Dying Earth stories were one of the most important influences on the game, specifically on the magic system. Dragon magazine once published a pronunciation guide for D & D terms, with gave the pronunciation of “geas” as GEE-ass, or GYASS (both with a hard “g”), although the guide contained other obviously erroneous pronunciations for some of the relatively terms from folklore.

  6. David Eddyshaw says:

    The guilty-pleasure-enjoyable Japanese anime “Code Geass” (sic) is “Kōdo Giasu” in the original. Lelouch Lamperouge (the hero, possessor of the ability to impose the geis in question) must be, I now realise, Scottish, which would account for his devious awesomeness. One of the Kirkaldy Lamperouges, I imagine. Kirukoji Ranperūji. Whatever.

  7. I’ve heard the word a few times, always the ‘/geSH/’ way. But there’s only one group of people I talk to regularly who have any occasion to use the word, and they’re all fairly widely read in Irish folklore and mythology.

  8. Incidentally, the people I know always said it more or less /geɪʃ/, though I notice that Wikipedia says it should be /gɛʃ/. Take that as you will.

  9. David Eddyshaw says:

    Googling, there seem to be two Old Irish plurals, gessa and geissi, which presumably match the variant singulars with non-palatal and palatal final -s, as an original -a stem or -ia (or -i) stem respectively.

    It’s from the root of guid(h)- “pray” and hence cognate with English “bid” according to:

    http://www.ceantar.org/Dicts/MB2/mb20.html

  10. David Eddyshaw says:

    … which can’t be right, surely? Germanic b- and Celtic g-?

  11. Here’s the current OED entry in full; it’s in a transitional state, first published in 1933 but evidently updated.

    geis, n.

    Pronunciation: /ɡɛʃ/ /ɡeɪʃ/ /ɡiːʃ/
    Forms: Also gaysh, geas. Pl. geasa, geise.
    Etymology: Irish.

    In Irish folklore: a solemn injunction, prohibition, or taboo; a moral obligation.

    1880 S. Ferguson Poems 63 This journey at this season was ill-timed, As made in violation of the gaysh.

    1899 D. Hyde Lit. Hist. Irel. 344 He thought he saw Gradh son of Lir upon the plain, and it was a geis (tabu) to him to see that.

    1899 D. Hyde Lit. Hist. Irel. 373 Every man who entered the Fenian ranks had four geasa (gassa, i.e., tabus) laid upon him.

    1928 Observer 22 Jan. 5/4 Apparently a man could be either:—(1) Born under a ‘geis’ prohibiting certain actions on his part, or (2) Laid under ‘geis’ either at birth or any time during his life, either by divine or human agency.

    1965 New Statesman 23 July 129/2 In a sense which most Irish people will know, this put Fallon under a geas, a moral compulsion, to say his bit.

    I have always seen geas(a) and said /gjɑs(ə)/ myself.

    The PIE root in question *gʷʰedʰ. In addition to the English bid/bead complex, other formal cognates include Latin infestus ‘hostile’ and manifestus ‘caught in the act’, though the exact sense of -festus is obscure. Apparently *gʷʰ- > *b- in Proto-Germanic and > f- in Latin are regular: cf. *gʷʰon ‘strike’ > bane and fence, -fense; *gʷʰer- ‘warm’ > brand(y) and forceps ‘fire tongs’; *gʷʰī ‘thread’ > file, filament (no native cognate); gʷʰrē ‘breathe’ > breath(e). In Greek it became ph > /f/, as in gʷʰren ‘think, point out’ > frenzy, frantic, frenetic; also phrase.

  12. In the novel Sourcery from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, there is a running joke in which one character is under a geas* and another character persists in thinking that a geas is a kind of bird, presumably through confusion with “geese”. This implies, I suppose, that Terry Pratchett imagined the first character pronouncing “geas” as /gis/ or /giəs/ or something similar.

    * Can a person be said to “have” a geas? To “be under” a geas? What is the correct accompanying verb here?

  13. English bid goes back to two distinct OE verbs, biddan “pray” (from which root also bead) and beodan “command”. The latter is PIE *bʰeudʰ- (Greek πυνθάνομαι “learn by inquiry”, Sanskrit budh- “perceive; wake”, whence buddha; the semantic shift being apparently “perceive” – “cause to perceive, inform” [also in Sanskrit] – “command”). As for the former, Skeat, apparently following Osthoff, derives it from *bʰeidʰ- (Greek πείθω “persuade”, Latin fido “trust, believe”), which as far as I can see is impossible, since this would give Germanic long i, and in fact does, in bide; the OED posits “a pre-Germanic *bhedh- ‘to press’ (compare Sanskrit bâdhate to press)”. Why neither of them mentions *gʷʰedʰ- (Greek ποθέω “long for”, θέσσασθαι “pray for”, and the Irish words), which must be right, I don’t know.

  14. (The “cause to perceive” sense of the *bʰeudʰ- verb actually survives in bode, as in bode well/ill.)

  15. So the English “shower” is equivalent to the American military slang “sad sack.”

  16. Is this something all you UKanians are familiar with?

    Yes.

  17. Abide Buddha’s bid!

  18. Is this something all you UKanians are familiar with?

    Yes. I agree with David Eddyshaw that it’s an old-fashioned, drill sergeant’s term. Terry-Thomas used to quietly say “What a shower!” I’d never heard of the “shit” connection, either.

  19. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    David Eddyshaw’s remarks about “shower” agree with my impressions: everyone knows the term as applied to a single person; very few would associate it with “shower of shit”.

  20. The term “shower” is very commonly used to refer to poorly performing football teams.
    “Would you just look at this absolute shower?”

  21. I associate it mostly with Terry-Thomas, too, but not necessarily quietly.

  22. Also familiar with the term “shower” – including with Terry-Thomas denouncing people as being “an absolute Shah” thanks to his accent – but I wouldn’t have used it for a single person. It’s a plural insult in my experience.

    Can a person be said to “have” a geas? To “be under” a geas? What is the correct accompanying verb here?

    I think one is under a geas, in the same way that one is under a curse or a spell or an obligation. And you lay or put a geas on someone.

  23. Apparently *gʷʰ- > *b- in Proto-Germanic … (is) regular This is known as Seebold’s law and seems now to become the communis opinio. Wikipedia simply states it as fact, while it wasn’t in the handbooks when I studied IE linguistics a quarter-century ago.

  24. The PIE root in question

    You are hereby awarded the Medal of HTML Valor for formatting that extraordinarily complex paragraph so successfully.

  25. Incidentally, the people I know always said it more or less /geɪʃ/, though I notice that Wikipedia says it should be /gɛʃ/.

    I consider /geɪʃ/ for geis an acceptable anglicization, but /gɛʃ/ for geas is to be rejected out of hand.

  26. Kerim,
    although some of the later ones feel a bit formulaic
    That’s interesting, considering a) there’s only four of them so far (not counting short stories) and b) books 1-3 are each modelled after conventions of a particular sub-genre.

    Asa,
    the Pratchett connection was the first one popped into my head and so I assumed the “gees” pronounciation. In my defense, my old electronic copy of OED doesn’t have an entry for “geas”. Now that I finally know better, I keep recalling hearing the word all over the place without realizing what it was, e.g. I’m pretty sure I heard it on Warehouse 13 a couple of times.
    BTW, the books use “under a geas”.

  27. J. W. Brewer says:

    This is a word I had totally forgotten had ever been in even my passive lexicon, but yeah it does come back with prompting. It seems plausible that I must have heard it said aloud and even perhaps uttered it myself during the D&D-fixated phase of my life (roughly ’78 to ’81) but I cannot come up with even a hazy recollection as to what our local consensus on pronunciation was, if we had one. My Jack-Vance-reading phase lasted longer, but I guess I didn’t feel obligated to sound out odd-seeming words in my head so the question may not have even arisen.

  28. Hat,

    I assume you’ve read Понедельник начинается в субботу. Is it just me or are these books more than superficially similar?

  29. My sense of it is that you have to specify what kind of a shower you’re talking about: “shower” to me is just a mildly pejorative equivalent of “crowd”, unlike, say, “rabble”. So you get a shower of useless gits, a shower of bastards, a shower of losers; at a pinch maybe “a useless shower” or the like. “They’re a shower” would sound not much more meaningful to me than “They’re a crowd”. I don’t know if that’s an Ireland/GB difference.

  30. David Eddyshaw says:

    @Breffni:

    If your usage is typical for Ireland, that would indeed be different from UK usage. My hypothetical NCO might well say “You’re a right shower, you lot” without further specifying the nature of the shower in question.

    If the expression indeed originated in a piece of relatively recent (post Irish independence) British military slang it would make sense if it were not common in Ireland. I wonder if Australians use it?

  31. I first met the word geas in reading de Camp and Pratt’s “The Green Magician” (now collected in the book Wall of Serpents), one of the Harold Shea series. Shea is a mid-20C psychologist who travels to worlds of ancient and modern mythology: Norse mythology, The Faerie Queene, the Orlando Furioso, “Kubla Khan”, the Kalevala, the Ulster (aka Red Branch) cycle, The Tempest, Oz, Journey to the West, Don Quixote, the Aeneid, the Tale of Igor’s Campaign, “Vikram and the Vampire”, Barsoom. “The Green Magician” is set in the Ulster cycle, and features a druid named Cathbadh who explains the local basis of magic to Shea. who concludes that a geas is a psychological compulsion that is magically reinforced . Indeed, Cathbadh tells Shea he himself is under a geas to not be able to leave any of the worlds he finds himself in until he has made a fundamental change in them, thus prefiguring Bujold’s theory that whereas romances are fantasies of love and mysteries are fantasies of justice, science fiction stories (including hard-edged modern fantasy) are fantasies of political action. Which leads in turn to Arendt’s trichotomy of labor, work, and action ….

    Every bit of knowledge is the center of knowledge, for it leads by plain or devious connections to every other bit.

  32. I assume you’ve read Понедельник начинается в субботу. Is it just me or are these books more than superficially similar?

    Yes, in fact I kept thinking of the Strugatskys as I read, and I can’t believe I forgot to mention the similarity in the post! Thanks for reminding me; I wonder if Stross read it, or if it’s sheer coincidence? (Probably the latter.)

  33. … it’s parallel to colonel, where the spelling is from French and the pronunciation from Spanish coronel.

    The are both from French. Spellings like coronel, couronnel, etc., occurred in French beside colonel, coulonnel until the early 17th century. Liquid dissimilation was quite common in early French; cf. merencolie for mélancolie (pilgrim owns its l to the inverse dissimilation of r). The English spelling was originally with r, but writers began to “correct” it during the Elizabethan era, presumably in imitation of Italian (where the word originated). The older pronunciation was so well established, however, that it survived the orthographic change.

  34. the spelling is from Scottish Gaelic (where it would be pronounced /g’as/, with palatal g, presumably altered by analogy with the plural)

    Isn’t it /gʲes/, not /gʲas/ in Scottish Gaelic (cf. Gaelic geas for English guess)?

  35. my take on this (Irish, 60s origin) –

    shower – a right sorry shower; a shower of eejits; a shower of gobshites, and so on – always plural, always lightly pejorative

    geas – pronounced – gee-ass (sorry, no idea of the phonetic signs etc needed) but with both gee and ass short, not lengthened, and familiar from Cuchulain stories, or Finn McCool stories, and the like.

  36. Hat,

    good question, I just asked him on Twitter, let’s see if he answers.

  37. In my (Australian) D&D circles, we pronounced it ['gæɪ̯ əs]: first syllable stressed and using the FACE vowel/diphthong, reduced vowel in the second syllable, and “g” and “s” pronounced as in “gas”.

  38. This is a perfect storm of impenetrable English spelling/pronunciation and impenetrable Irish/Scottish spelling/pronunciation. It reminds me of the pace debacle.

  39. So turns out Stross has read Понедельник начинается в субботу, but his response to my question whether it provided an inspiration was “not really”.

  40. [kʲes] for geas according to http://akerbeltz.org/images/0/08/Guide_detailed_with_examples.pdf (rule E22 has an example for eas). [kʲ] because that’s Michael Bauer’s convention and the phonetic reality (outside sandhi): in ScG, the voiced/voiceless contrast turned into the unaspirated/aspirated contrast (pre-aspirated if syllable-final and preceded by a vowel).

    The rules are to be applied in the order listed. The version without examples is here: http://akerbeltz.org/images/e/e4/Guide_concise.pdf

    Varieties of preaspiration: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scottish_Gaelic_phonology#Preaspiration

  41. So turns out Stross has read Понедельник начинается в субботу

    Aha!

    but his response to my question whether it provided an inspiration was “not really”.

    Hm. Permit me to have my doubts.

    [kʲes] for geas

    Many thanks! As is obvious, I know little about Scots Gaelic.

  42. David Marjanović says:

    Apparently *gʷʰ- > *b- in Proto-Germanic … (is) regular This is known as Seebold’s law and seems now to become the communis opinio. Wikipedia simply states it as fact, while it wasn’t in the handbooks when I studied IE linguistics a quarter-century ago.

    The list of sound changes from PIE to Proto-Germanic in the Wikipedia article on Proto-Germanic is taken wholesale from Ringe (2006), and Ringe happened to accept Seebold’s law. That alone may be enough to make it mainstream. :-)

    Anyway, Seebold’s law offers the intriguing possibility that the bear isn’t merely the brown one, but the Beast – cognates would include “Greek θήρ ‘wild beast, beast of prey’ and Latin ferus ‘wild’”. That would, in turn, mean that deer isn’t cognate with those two, though…

  43. P.S. I.e., fiosachd, above, was right with /gjes/.

  44. Hm. Permit me to have my doubts.
    Naturally. I am inclined to believe him, especially considering the genesis of The Atrocity Archives he describes in the Afternote, i.e. it wouldn’t be the first coincidence. Plus, TAA is very English and very 2000s (I was particularly impressed by how much of the geek / IT stuff Stross got right), so I guess great minds etc. If anything, it goes to show how much ahead of the curve the Strugatskis were.

  45. David Eddyshaw says:

    I don’t think “deer” can be related to θήρ, despite the tempting similarity; the Old English form is “deor”, which must go back to a form in -ew-.

  46. David Eddyshaw says:

    … and my etymological Greek dictionary does indeed attribute θήρ to *gʷʰer-, incidentally citing the Lesbian form φήρ which confirms that the original initial must have been labiovelar.

    I like “bear” as “The Animal” rather than “The Brown One” though. The explanation from a taboo, though easy to parallel, has always seemed suspiciously convenient to me. And are there actually any cognates of “brown” outside Germanic? (The Romance words are presumably borrowed from Germanic.) Or examples of the putative *bher- as “brown”?

  47. David Eddyshaw says:

    … and the Gothic equivalent of “deer/deor” is “dius”, so the Germanic form must have been *dewza(n), and the -r- is just the result of rhotacism in the relevant branches of Germanic.

  48. And are there actually any cognates of “brown” outside Germanic?

    Well, there’s Lithuanian beras and brunas, both ‘brown’, but who knows if they are really borrowings; certainly not I. And there’s the other prototypical brown animal, the beaver: we discussed last year whether this was the brown or the bearer beast. Perhaps similarly, there are Skt babhrús ‘Indian mongoose’ and Greek φρυνος ‘toad’, more brown animals.

  49. Agreed with other UK readers about “shower”; the classic example is probably Terry-Thomas in the 1959 comedy I’m All Right Jack, so it was clearly harmless in its connotations by then.

  50. Russian apparently used to have word “ber” which meant “brown bear”, but then its name was tabooed in favor of “medved” (literally “honey-seeker”)

    But related word “berloga” (bear’s lair) still survives.

  51. That would, in turn, mean that deer isn’t cognate with those two, though…

    It can’t be anyway, since the vowel is the PGmc. diphthong *eu and the r reflects a rhotacised *z (cf. Goth. dius), so deer < OE dēor < PGmc. *deuzaN < pre-Gmc. *dʰeusóm, a close relative of Slavic *duxъ ‘spirit, ghost, breath’ and *duša ‘soul’ (the semantics of deer is like that of animale vs. anima). The PIE root was *dʰwes- ‘blow, expire’.

  52. “. . . then its name was tabooed in favor of “medved” (literally ‘honey-seeker’)”

    So is Dmitry Medvedev’s name related to this? (It seems that he seeks the sweetness of Putin’s approval.)

  53. David Marjanović says:

    Point amply taken on deer! I had even known about the diphthong, but forgotten… BTW, the Latin noun is animal without the -e of adjectives.

    But related word “berloga” (bear’s lair) still survives.

    If the bear is supposed to reside in a swamp (but why?), an early borrowing from some kind of German could be possible, I guess.

  54. David Marjanović says:

    So is Dmitry Medvedev’s name related to this?

    Of course. And so is the Polish surname Niedźwiedzki.

  55. Wiki explanation of troubled bear etymology.

    The English word “bear” comes from Old English bera and belongs to a family of names for the bear in Germanic languages that originate from an adjective meaning “brown”.[3] In Scandinavia, the word for bear is björn (or bjørn), and is a relatively common given name for males. The use of this name is ancient and has been found mentioned in several runestone inscriptions.[4]

    The reconstructed Proto-Indo-European name of the bear is *h₂ŕ̥tḱos, whence Sanskrit r̥kṣa, Avestan arša, Greek ἄρκτος (arktos), Latin ursus, Welsh arth (whence perhaps “Arthur”), Albanian ari, Armenian արջ (arj). Also compared is Hittite ḫartagga-, the name of a monster or predator.[3]

    The Proto-Indo-European (PIE) word for bear, *h₂ŕ̥tḱos seems to have been subject to taboo deformation or replacement in some languages (as was the word for wolf, wlkwos), resulting in the use of numerous unrelated words with meanings like “brown one” (English bruin) and “honey-eater” (Slavic medved).[5] Thus, some Indo-European language groups do not share the same PIE root.

  56. BTW, Sanskrit r̥kṣa via Tibetan was borrowed into Mongolian as a popular name Ragchaa and its derivatives. Hence, first Mongolian cosmonaut’s name Gurragchaa which means something like “imperial bear”

  57. “Virtually every spoken example I have heard must have come from somebody who learned the word from playing Dungeons & Dragons. Geas is a high-level magic-user spell, forcing the target to complete a task for the caster.”

    That’s actually pretty damned close to its original meaning. Druids and ladies (not general women) could put warriors under geas and compel them to do tasks on pain of various horrible outcomes if they didn’t. It was a common plot device. In the Pursuit of Diarmaid and Grainne, Grainne is supposed to marry Fionn Mac Cumhail but prefers one of his men, Diarmaid, who is not going to bed her of his own volition, so she puts him under geas so he has no choice. it was basically a completely socially sanctioned form of date rape.

    Asa, the construction people use is “under geas”. You “put X under geas.”

    SFReader,
    “But related word “berloga” (bear’s lair) still survives.”

    Boy that sure looks like a loan from some Germanic lect.

  58. But related word “berloga” (bear’s lair) still survives.

    Many sources question this etymology, suggesting instead a connection with cognates in Slavic and Baltic languages meaning unkempt / muddy / straw-covered floors or surfaces. Vasmer mentions Old Slavonic бьрлогъ but I can’t find it anywhere outside etymology discussions :)

    In Polish barłóg may be a lair of a bear, or of a boar, or of an untidy man.

  59. Dear Hat,

    A couple of my comments (posted earlier today) have been sucked into a black hole in cyberspace. Any idea what might be happening?

  60. Nope, but the same thing happens to others occasionally; just e-mail me the text of the comment and I’ll post it for you. Needless to say, I apologize for the inconvenience; I have no idea why it happens.

  61. OK, I’ll try again. I just wanted to explain that berloga (Czech brloh, Polish barłóg), with their Proto-Slavic *-ьr- vocalism, are unlikely to have anything to do with Germanic *beran- (whose real Slavic cognate is *zvěrь, if Seebold’s Law is correct). The inherited ‘bear’ word (*h₂ŕ̥tḱos) was lost (tabooed or replaced by a hunting term) in the IE language groups of Northern Europe, but its last lingering trace can perhaps be seen in Lithuanian irštva ‘bear’s den’.

  62. A corollary to Murphy’s Law: no matter how many times you check your post before sending it, you’ll get ONE markup tag wrong.

  63. There must be runaway (tabooistic most likely) euphemisation of “bear” in Russian, where the word медведь couldn’t have been used before the hunt (lest the bear overhears) or after the hunt (so as not to offend bear’s spirit). So they would speak of косолапый, топтыгин, or properly anthropomorphically polite name+patronymic Михаил Потапович (since there was little doubt that a bear is a magic variety of a human being, given all their common skills and habits like bipedal walk, dancing, love of booze and sweets, and many other similarities noted in hunters’ lore. They would even claim that the dogs equate bears and humans because they bark at them in exactly the same way…)

  64. A corollary to Murphy’s Law: no matter how many times you check your post before sending it, you’ll get ONE markup tag wrong.

    Fixed, and I’m glad it didn’t get eaten this time!

  65. Stefan Holm says:

    Some shots in the dark but anyway: On our latitudes to our neolithic ancestors the bear and the wolf must have been some of the most severe threats, killing their livestock and maybe (at least in case of the bear) themselves. If they were keeping bees, the source of the Russian prime minister’s name would have been a real threat.

    So in my vivid imaginataion I’ve wondered about the Swedish interjection usch!’ /ɵʃ:/, earlier surely /uʃ:/, expressed about something undesirable or unpleasant – like ugh! or yuk!. It sounds like a Swedish rendering of Latin ursus (bear), where /rs/ since long have been contracted into /ʃ/ in Swedish. Could it origin from a word for bear – the most undesirable creature of all?

    As for ‘wolf’ Danish and Norwegian have kept the regular Norse ‘ulv’ (/w/ and /j/ dropped in front of /u/ and /o/). But in Swedish it has been replaced by varg even though ‘ulv’ still exists. ‘Varg’ has, referring to Icelandic sagas, been explained as meaning ‘killer’ or ‘evildoer’. But couldn’t it just be an alternative development of PIE *wlkwos (sorry about the simplification)? Sometime, somewhere I saw that the word for ‘wolf’ (borrowed into Mordvinian I think) was vrk. That would regularly have been ‘varg’ in Scandinavian with an epenthetic vowel and a vocalisation of the final ‘k’.

  66. Piotr,

    I didn’t realize that was you at first! Good to see you around!

    “suggesting instead a connection with cognates in Slavic and Baltic languages meaning unkempt / muddy / straw-covered floors or surfaces.”

    Straw-covered? Does the “bar” maybe refer to the same etymon as “barley” or “farro”?

    “I just wanted to explain that berloga (Czech brloh, Polish barłóg), with their Proto-Slavic *-ьr- vocalism, are unlikely to have anything to do with Germanic *beran- (whose real Slavic cognate is *zvěrь, if Seebold’s Law is correct). ”

    That’s a pretty clear explanation. But are people obligated to go in and swap in native forms of an etymon when they borrow an unanalyzable unit like that? We sure don’t do that in English.

    Stefan,
    “On our latitudes to our neolithic ancestors the bear and the wolf must have been some of the most severe threats, killing their livestock and maybe (at least in case of the bear) themselves. ”

    I think it goes a lot deeper than just the threat aspect, although with wolves that certainly factors in. I think it has to do with mythic potency. Foxes are mythically potent enough in Irish that the standard term is “madra rua” (red dog) vice the original “sionnach.”

    It’s interesting how across the same ecological zones the same species keep coming back as mythically potent – wolves, bears, ravens, foxes, salmon, and how the personalities of these animals in the respective mythologies are often quite congruent.

  67. David Marjanović says:

    I once read the claim that ḫartaggas actually meant “destroyer”, so perhaps the oldest reconstructable IE term was already a taboo replacement.

    their Proto-Slavic *-ьr- vocalism

    …Oh. OK, definitely not a Germanic borrowing, then.

    ‘Varg’ has, referring to Icelandic sagas, been explained as meaning ‘killer’ or ‘evildoer’. But couldn’t it just be an alternative development of PIE *wlkwos (sorry about the simplification)?

    Perhaps, but not in Germanic or Slavic. I wonder if Iranian might work, but that’s far-fetched…

  68. wolves, bears, ravens, foxes, salmon

    Wild animals with which people interact. When you add the domestic animals, they make up the list of the animal names used as insults when applied to human beings.

    ‘Varg’ has, referring to Icelandic sagas, been explained as meaning ‘killer’ or ‘evildoer’.

    Well, OE wearg means ‘criminal, felon’ so the question is, which comes first, the wolf who is metaphorically an outlaw (legal Latin caput lupi) or the outlaw who is metaphorically a wolf? In the East, ‘wolf’ is the dominant meaning, giving Proto-Iranian *verk, Avestan vehrka, Old Persian varga-, and if Germanic was originally Eastern Indo-European before its vocabulary got mugged by Italic and Celtic, as Ringe et al. have it, that suggests ‘wolf’ as original. But Russian враг/ворог is ‘enemy’, and there is Lithuanian vergas ‘slave’, presumably < ‘prisoner of war’; the native English cognate of these is probably wretch, originally ‘outlaw’.

    Tolkien’s wargs are wolves, but not natural ones; they are in the service of evil and have intelligence and perhaps some magic, so they are enemies too. The form could be a hybrid English/Norse one, or could be Mercian OE, where there is no vowel breaking.

  69. David Marjanović says:

    if Germanic was originally Eastern Indo-European before its vocabulary got mugged by Italic and Celtic

    Germanic and Italo-Celtic do seem to share phonological innovations as well. One is PIE *|tt| clusters becoming the new phoneme */sː/. Another seems to be the shortening of syllables before the originally stressed one, explained in Russian here (lengthy pdf that I still haven’t tried to read in full). Yet another might be the phonemes */pː/, */tː/ and */kː/, explained from here downwards (unfortunately the comments are nested, so they’re not all in chronological order).

  70. Stefan Holm says:

    This is an issue where affections play a role. I suppose the debate in Norway and Sweden is similar to the one in Canada and the USA: Do we want the wolwes being around or not?

    For at least a thousand years Scandinavians tried to get rid of them. It was stated in the medievial laws, that every grown up man hade to participate twice a year in the ‘extinction of beasts’ (i.e. bears, wolves, lynxes and wolverines). When it comes to the wolf the project turned out successfully – around 1900 not a single wolf was thought to have survived in Sweden.

    But ‘The times they are a’changin’. Nowadays a majority of Swedes (big city dwellers) are prepared to kill for the right of the wolf to patrol the forests of Sweden. He is so ‘natural’, they say (whatever that means). The people in the countryside, who actually have to deal with the gråben (‘grayleg’) or tasse< (‘pawee’) and see their sheep slaughtered indiscriminately are of course of another opinion.

    Until today the Norwegians stick to the ban of wolves. In Sweden a majority (again, city people) is in favour of them. And the legislation has been changed so that practically it’s a worse crime today to shoot a wolf than to shoot a human.

    Shepherders and other countryside dwellers are recommended to invest in electric fences or the like. Another solution has however been a late offspring of the wolf, the Caucasian Ovcharka. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caucasian_Shepherd_Dog It is reported to be very efficient against both wolves and bears but unfortunately though not safe to deal with for humans.

  71. PIE *|tt| clusters becoming the new phoneme */sː/

    Were there PIE *|tt| clusters? I thought the sequence /TT/ was supposed to have been realized as [TsT] already in PIE.

    PIE *h₂ŕ̥tḱos and *wĺ̥kʷos both have the unusual feature of an accented zero-grade: maybe a taboo deformation already in the proto-forms?

  72. Well, underlying */t + t/ was realised phonetically as *[tst]; in “Germano-Italo-Celtic” it became *[ss].

    The accented zero grade could easily arise as a result of “internal derivation” turning originally adjectival formations into nouns. Not unlike English compáct adj. vs. cómpact, except that in PIE the accent shift had no effect on vowel quality. A typical example is PGmc. *gulþa- ‘gold’, derived from a verbal adjective in *-tó-, but with accent retraction before Verner’s Law.

  73. Speaking of brown and grey beasts, Mongolian has word “bor” which is variously translated as “brown” or “grey” (don’t ask how it’s possible!)

    As usual, it has a Turkic cognate “bor/boz” which also means grey. It is speculated by people who shall not be mentioned here that common proto-Altaic word was *boŕV and that it is related to Proto-Indo-European *bhreu* – “brown” (and I assume to English words “brown” )

    There is also a common Turkic word böri/böru which means wolf (no doubt another result of tabooing true wolf name with its color name).

    Mongolian has a completely different word for wolf (chono/chino), but also has berte činua (grey wolf – legendary ancestor of Genghis khan), börtü (grey) and beltereg “baby wolf” (a regular metathesis < *berteleg), so color name for wolf was apparently used.

    Genghis khan's clan name Borjigin is also thought to derive from "boro/buri" "[grey/wolf]"

  74. And of course, the name of Buryat people and language also comes from boro/buri – grey/wolf.

  75. By an odd coincidence, I’m about a third of the way through Michel Pastoureau’s L’ours: Histoire d’un roi déchu. Pastoureau has a theory that the bear was the original king of the beasts for northern Europeans (Germans, Celts, Slavs and Balts), before being ousted by the lion. Some of his speculation is a little too adventurous,

    Pastoureau notes the tabooistic use of bear names in the Baltic languages: modern Lithuanian lokys, Latvian lacis and Old Prussian clokis (all perhaps originally meaning “one who licks”). He also mentions Middle Welsh mel sochyn (“honey pig”).

    According to Pastoureau, pre-Enlightenment Europeans regarded the bear as the animal most like humans, along with the monkey and the pig – and comparisons with the bear were more flattering than with the other two. The bear can stand on its hind legs, it uses its front paws almost as dexterously as hands, it’s omnivorous and – according to erroneous medieval belief – it copulates face-to-face like humans. Bears were even said to mate with women, who gave birth to offspring who looked human but were hairier and stronger than average, William of Auvergne, 13th-century BIshop of Paris, said this was possible because bear and human sperm were practically identical. Thus, the children of a bear and a woman were subject to original sin and should be baptised. Saxo Grammaticus claims that the ancestor of King Svend Estridsen of Denmark was born from such a union. And that’s as far as I’ve got…

  76. What real support is there for an Indo-European root like *bʰreu(H)- ‘brown’ (vel sim.) beside Germanic *brūna (as if from *bʰruH-no-)? If one wants to posit a long-range connection with Turkic and Mongolic, it should be kept in mind that basic colour terms like “brown” tend to appear late in colour inventories (more like “purple” or “orange” than “red” or “white”). Old Indic babhrú- ‘(reddish)brown’ is derived from the name of the beaver rather than the other way round; beaver, by the way, is used as a Crayola Colours term, a shade of brown defined as (r, g, b) = (159, 139, 112) or Hex #9F8170. You can test it here.

  77. Piotr Gąsiorowski says:

    Pastoureau notes the tabooistic use of bear names in the Baltic languages: modern Lithuanian lokys, Latvian lacis and Old Prussian clokis (all perhaps originally meaning “one who licks”). He also mentions Middle Welsh mel sochyn (“honey pig”).

    More likely from Balto-Slavic *tlaHk-aH ‘fur, coat of hair, pelt’, which explains not only lokys and clokis (as ‘the furry one’), but also the strangely varying initials in Slavic (kl- ~ tl- ~ dl- ~ l- ) in this family of words. Compare Slavic *vьlko-(d)lakъ ‘werewolf’ (literally ‘wolf-coat’).

    See Andersen (2006)

  78. According to Pastoureau, pre-Enlightenment Europeans regarded the bear as the animal most like humans

    Though on the other hand, there was also the strange belief that bear cubs are born formless and have to be licked into shape by the mother. But maybe this was more a kind of learnéd urban legend than a piece of authentic folklore.

  79. David Marjanović says:

    Were there PIE *|tt| clusters? I thought the sequence /TT/ was supposed to have been realized as [TsT] already in PIE.

    Exactly: the vertical bars indicate a morphophonemic transcription. On the phonemic level, these clusters (*|tt|, *|dt|, *|dʰt|) were all */tst/.

    which is variously translated as “brown” or “grey” (don’t ask how it’s possible!)

    “Vaguely dust/earth colored”? Latin canis (the adjective, not the dog) covers this range and extends into the yellow…

    said this was possible because bear and human sperm were practically identical.

    I suspect that all amniote sperm is pretty much the same…!

  80. @TR

    Pastoureau mentions that. It seems to be an idea from ancient authors such as Pliny.

    Isidore of Seville’s etymology for “ursus”:

    Ursus fertur dictus quod ore suo formet fetus, quasi orsus.

  81. Proto-Baltic speakers probably didn’t read Aristotle, Pliny the Elder, or Isidore. Besides, no Baltic root meaning ‘lick’ quite fits the bill. The inherited word (related to Lat. lingo, Eng. lick, Russ. лизати, etc.) is laižyti. Alliteration is the only thing that connects it with lokys.

    By the way, may I recommend a professionally compiled and highly reliable etymological dictionary of Old Lithuanian? I’ve just discovered in on the Internet.

    http://www2.hu-berlin.de/indogermanistik/alew.php

    Lokys is discussed here:

    http://www2.hu-berlin.de/indogermanistik/ALEW-L.pdf

  82. Wow, thanks for that! And god bless the internet.

  83. Oops. I wrote my original post about Pastoureau in a hurry. Just noticed I left half a sentence hanging in the air. Unfortunately, I can’t remember how I was going to end it now.

    Also the Middle Welsh for “honey pig” should have been mêl fochyn.

    @Piotr

    Thanks. Pastoureau seems more a medievalist than a historical linguist. He only mentions that “licker” etymology in passing, not in the context of Isidore etc.

    “Lokys” is one of the few words of Lithuanian I know. I first encountered it as the title of Prosper Merimée’s short story “Lokis” (his friend Turgenev suggested he should use the word).

  84. Yes, I know Merimée’s story well; it was my first encounter with lokys too.

  85. Angus-Michel says:

    I’ve always read the alternation between geas and geis (including pronouncing one as the other) as resulting from the change in Early Modern Irish whereby a number of second-declension feminine nouns had their nominative singular forms (see geas) replaced by their dative singular forms (see geis), especially with words, like geas/geis where the word was more often seen in the dative anyway: e.g. faoi gheis ‘under a geas‘. This was part of a larger change where Irish dialects tended to lose their distinct dative forms, especially in the singular. Scottish Gaelic, having retained distinct dative forms where they already existed, would thus continue to use the historical nominative as nominative. References in English are going to tend to be archaic, relying as they do on rather old texts, but while they’re writing this word the old way, they might be getting the pronunciation from modern speakers, who are pronouncing it like what used to be the dative. Thus a spelling that suggests /gʲas/, with an actual pronunciation of /gɛʃ/. And as fiosrachd notes, the Scottish Gaelic pronunciation would most likely be /gʲes/.

  86. Exactly: the vertical bars indicate a morphophonemic transcription. On the phonemic level, these clusters (*|tt|, *|dt|, *|dʰt|) were all */tst/.

    Got it. I mis-saw your vertical bars as square brackets.

  87. Thanks, Angus-Michel, that’s extremely enlightening.

  88. David Marjanović says:

    Hasn’t it been suggested that Beowulf is the bee-wolf = bear?

    (Bienenwolf happens to exist in German, but designates a species of hornet.)

  89. Trond Engen says:

    I stopped talking to myself before I got that far, but when I was so excited over Etienne’s reduplicative suggestion up there, it was also because I dislike that “brown” root. I want to see “brown” as a deverbal formation from the “brew” word parallel to “green” from “grow”. The original meaning would be “tanned”.

  90. Trond Engen says:

    Or maybe rather “crusty”. There’s a strange dual meaning “brown; sharp” in the old languages.

  91. Beowulf is the bee-wolf

    That’s the standard theory since Skeat, but other readings are possible, the most plausible of which is ‘the wolf of Beow’, the English barley-god cognate to Frey’s servant Byggva, cf. bygg ‘grain’. The first appearance of Beowulf in the manuscript, referring to a grandson of Sheaf rather than the hero, is generally taken to be a scribal error for Beow, and usually so translated.

  92. the Swedish interjection usch!’ /ɵʃ:/ [...] something undesirable or unpleasant [...]. Could it origin from a word for bear?

    Surely more closely related to Norwegian isj and English ick, a rendering of gagging or vomiting. (Norwegian-influenced varieties of AmE have ish as well as ick.)

  93. David Marjanović says:

    A special god just for barley? Maybe the Czechs aren’t so godless after all.

    a rendering of gagging or vomiting

    The best I’ve ever seen was in a Spanish comic: GOR GOL GLOUUC ¡GROJFF!

  94. The name of the town of Geashill (Irish Géisill) is of uncertain origin but the tourist office might plausibly market it as “bewitched hill”. I’m uncertain of its English pronunciation; the Irish suggests it should be ['ge:ʃɪl] but one internaut says ['gi:ʃəl].

  95. But why should we trust Hagarack (Female from Ireland)? That’s the trouble with Forvo; I usually don’t even bother to check it.

  96. Well, up in the frozen Northlands where summer wheat has problems growing, barley used to be the staple grain, and grain-god(desse)s are commonplace the world over. Note that bar(ley) and Latin far ‘coarse grain, spelt’ are cognates; the -ley is the adjective ending -ly.

  97. Stefan Holm says:

    Barley was always the staple grain in Sweden and the barley god (‘kornguden’) was a common (heathen) wooden figurine in Swedish villages until the 19th Century. But thanks to new varieties, fertilizers and straw shorterners wheat today is number one. It’s however of poorer quality than wheat from warmer climates. This means that as private consumers we buy Swedish wheat flour in the supermarket. The wheat bread (or pasta etc.) we buy is though mostly baked with imported flour, mainly American and Italian (at least this was the case a decade ago).

  98. Dmitry Pruss says:

    Barley-filled figurines (zernushki зернушки, lit. “the little ones of grain”) were traditional amulets against starvation in Russia’s North. We keep one at our hearth, too. A pinch of grain from the doll’s cloth sack body would be planted first in spring, symbolically opening the way for the rest of the seed grain. But the better-known zernushki come from Russia’s more populous rural South, where they are typically filled with buckwheat rather than the Northerners’ barley, and linked to the buckwheat-sowing day of St. Aquilina (known in Russia’s south as Buckwheat Akulina).

  99. Trond Engen says:

    Hey, I just stumbled upon *wewer- “squirrel” on the same reduplicative pattern. There are several roots *wer-, and a couple of them could fit. One is *wer- “twist, turn”, another *wer- “sniff, smell; be vigilant”.

  100. David Marjanović says:

    *wewer- “squirrel”

    More like *(w)oiwr-.

  101. Trond Engen says:

    Oh, different views, it seems. I found *wewer- in Wiktionary’s list of Proto-Indo-European nouns. The whole list is without references, so I don’t know whose PIE it follows.

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