Liberman on Kibosh.

We’ll probably never know where the wonderful slang word kibosh comes from, but Anatoly Liberman has a fine roundup of some interesting recent theories that is worth your attention; J. Peter Maher traces it to French caboche ‘head (informal),’ Stephen Goranson to kurbash ‘a long whip made of hippopotamus or rhinoceros hide used as an instrument of punishment in parts of the Muslim world,’ and David L. Gold to the clogmakers’ term kibosh ‘iron bar about a foot long that, when hot, is used to soften and smooth leather’ (thanks for the link, Bruce!).

Also, Sashura sends me this query on an obscure dialectal form:

It’s blackberry season and I posted a picture of my pick on facebook. In the comments thread a Ukrainian friend of mind said that in Transcarpathia (Закарпатье) they call it by a strange word эуфаны [eufany]. I tried several languages on Wikipedia and none seems to correspond to euphany. What could it be?

Any ideas?


  1. probably not a reference to blackberries but euphany was proposed to mean “the ability for deliberate and adequate statement of fact.”

  2. I never heard the form эуфаны (nor have I ever been to Transcarpathia), but I know the Western Ukrainian word яфины (or similar), and I looked up the berries on Wikipedia and came up immediately with Hungarian áfonya and Romanian afin, which two languages would be the usual suspects for me in this case anyway.

  3. Thanks, alexey, I think you must be right (and you’re certainly right about the likely suspects). Wiktionary says áfonya is from Romanian and Romanian afin is “Either a substratum word or from Latin daphne, from Ancient Greek δάφνη (dáphnē, ‘laurel’),” but that and however much a MetroCard costs these days will get you on the subway.

  4. Thanks, Alexei, that’s where the mystery is!
    But that’s (European) blueberry or bilberry (Vaccinium myrtillus) that looks like deep blue cranberry, not blackberry that looks like dark blue, black raspberry. I’ll ask again if she mixed up the two.

  5. Substratum?

    From Dacian?

  6. SFreader: “Dacian” would be nothing more than a guess, as we know next to nothing about that language. Even calling it a “substratum” word is a stretch: for all we know the word might have entered Romanian from some (now extinct) neighboring language, rather than from the languages(s) spoken by those groups who shifted to the variety of Romance which became Romanian. The daphne/δάφνη derivation I find utterly implausible for phonological reasons: the loss of initial /d/ especially does not match what (little!) I know of the phonological history of Romanian.

    Speaking of sound changes, the Western Ukrainian form яфины is VERY interesting in this respect: East Slavic often turns initial /a/ to /ja/, but on the other hand lacked an /f/ phoneme for quite some time. IF this word is a straightforward loan into (Western) Ukrainian from Romanian it thus cannot be all that ancient (because of this presence of the /f/ phoneme). There exists a stratum of loanwords from Romanian in various Carpathian languages/dialects, chiefly related to sheep, whose presence is due to Romanian-speaking nomads in the Carpathians in the Middle Ages (at least one scholar claims there is some detectable Romanian influence on the grammar of these Carpathian languages), and my guess is that they transmitted the word яфины to Western Ukrainians.

  7. Dacian is supposed to be related to Albanian, right?

    Well, there is an Albanian word “dafina” which means laurels.

  8. I must apologise, it was I who got muddled, the comment about euphany did refer to blueberries not blackberries. But what a fascinating crossover word.

  9. ạfin

    (Aromanian afin) (n., masc) – blueberry bush (Vaccinium myrtillus).

    Hungarian afonya (Cihac, 2, 475), but this cannot be right, since the form is found in Aromanian as well, which is spoken in Greece, Albanian and southern Bulgaria. From Latin daphne ‘laurel’ (Herzog, RF, 1, 94-104). In this case, the derivation is not possible, although the two forms are cognates. Romanian afin should be associated with Calabrian afina ‘laurel’ which seems to be inherited from Oscan. Latin daphne is a loanword from Greek δάφνη. Chantraine (255) considers that the Greek form is of Mediterranean origin: Micenian dapu. From Romanian it was borrowed into other neighboring languages: Ukrainian jafina ‘id.’, Polish iafira ‘id.’, Transylvanian Saxon afunie ‘id.’. There is no doubt that Hungarian afonya is a loanword from Romanian as well. Thraco-Dacian origin.

    Derivatives: afină, afiniş, afinată.

    AUTHOR: Mihai Vinereanu

  10. The source: Etymological Dictionary of the Romanian Language by Mihai Vinereanu

  11. Thanks very much; that seems to clear that up!

  12. At the sight of blackberries
    Hanging in a green light,
    Even the bawds of eufany
    Would cry out sharply.

  13. Very nice! (For those not familiar with one of the Great American Poems, it’s a takeoff on section X of “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.”)

  14. kibosh

    It is a pity that Anatoly Liberman is not able to do his own research on French words, such as consulting the TLFI or the Littré (thanks JC for introducing me to the latter). I have read the current article and his previous ones, so my comments here may be understood in the context of one or all of them.

    French caboche does seem to be the most promising word, but not quite as Liberman or his source Maher understands it.

    La caboche has been a word for ‘head’ for centuries, but not just for a human head (I have never heard or read it in the context of animals). For a human, it is rather derogatory in contemporary French (and refers to brain activity rather than appearance), but in another context it has or had a specific technical meaning: the head of a nail, especially a large or ornamental head. Short nails with large heads were formerly used to reinforce the soles of wooden shoes such as clogs (otherwise the wood would wear out very fast), and of sturdy shoes with thick soles for heavy use (by marching soldiers, for instance). Similarly short nails but with a prominent ornamental head were and still are used in upholstery where these nails are both functional and decorative, as on some traditional sofas and easy chairs. The word caboche with the meaning of ‘nail head’ gave rise to a derivative le cabochon which refers to a gem or a decorated metal piece of rounded (not cut) shape used in jewelry, often for a ring.

    Adding the nails to a pair of clogs or a piece of uphosltered furniture would most likely be the last operation performed during the making of these objects, so “put the caboche on” could have been interpreted by English speakers otherwise unfamiliar with the term as “put the finishing touch on”. In the context of outdoor sculpture, the finishing touch as described by Liberman etc apparently means adding the substance known as “Portland cement”.

    So here we have some of the various concepts allegedly associated with kibosh: head, clog making, Portland cement.

    No mention of “whips” or “leather softening tool” (leather on some clogs is only used for a strap, for which thick leather may need to be specially shaped). As for the deer’s head, it is possible that the term now preserved in English heraldry became specialized in Anglo-Norman rather than “mainstream” French, since even Littré does not mention it.

  15. Note that V. myrtillus is not quite V. cyanococcus, the American blueberry. For one thing, the flesh of myrtillus actually is blue, whereas cyanococcus has white flesh and does not stain things blue.

    Thirteen Ways of Eradicating Blackbirds, by Mark DeFoe.

  16. “kibosh” – The standard expression is “To put the kibosh on sthg.” Brendan O’Hehir thought it came from an expression in Irish that involved the kissing of a corpse at a wake, “(some word I can’t remember that sounded like “ciadh”) báis a cur ar X.” The form of the expression in English sure looks Irish and although there are now plenty of other clearly non-Irish expressions in English – “Put the squash on X.” – I wonder if they can be dated to later than that pre-Elizabethan period of the Pale when so much Irish leaked into English.

  17. Related species of blue-berried Vaccinium, esp. Vaccinium uliginosum (but also American Vaccinium corymbosum, are called голубика (~~ light-blue berry) in Russian, but “European” blueberry (aka bilberry in North America) is indeed known as черника ( ~~ black berry). Likely not so much for its color of berries but because they stain things.

    Quite a few fruit / vegetable / berry names in Hungarian sound familiar to Slavic speakers; I heard an explanation that the original gardeners in Hungary were refugees from Bulgaria. However Wikipedia explains that the Bulgarian gardeners came only in XVIII, more often XIX century, and there were relatively few of them, perhaps just over 2,000. Blueberry isn’t called anything like afonya in Bulgarian anyway. Perhaps the “Bulgarian connection” is just a way to play down a stronger but less culturally pleasing Romanian link?

  18. Frank Gibbons says

    Always enjoy this blog, so seldom have much to add, so let me throw this in for what it’s worth…. Growing up in Ireland I heard, though can’t remember where exactly, that ‘kibosh’ (pronounced KIGH-bosh) originated as this Irish Gaelic phrase ( In contrast to the meaning given here, I remember being told that ‘caidhp’ refered to a strip of fabric that was tied under the chin and over the top of the head. The purpose was to keep the mouth closed after death. It’s clearly one of the last things one would do to a body, whence to figurative meaning that we have in English. Never seen one myself, since that’s not how we do it anymore, but I can imagine it in the days when people were waked in the kitchen, lying on a door that had been taken off its hinges for the purpose….

    Folk etymology? You tell me.

  19. Frank, that link says the term refers to a very poisonous mushroom amanita phalloides, and the Irish name translates to “death cap.” It makes sense to me.

  20. marie-lucie says

    Jim and Frank, Your Irish quotes are very interesting, and make sense (Liberman’s article does mention ‘Gaelic Irish’ as a possibility that has been put forward, but does not discuss the details). The initial diphthong is the main problem against a French origin, but in English the word has apparently been spelled (and therefore pronounced) in different ways. As often happens with a foreign word of doubtful meaning in the borrowing language, it is possible that more than one influence has been at work.

    About “death cap” versus “strip of cloth”: For centuries the peasant attire for both men and women in Europe included a close-fitting cap held with strips tied under the chin (you can see instances of it in Breughel’s works, for instance). Even after this went out of fashion for daytime clothing, the same pattern was used for a “night cap” worn at night. This type of cap is still used for babies in some places. It is likely that the night cap was used also as a “death cap” when preparing bodies for burial, with the strips tied in such a way as to keep the mouth closed, but was later replaced by just strips of cloth after night caps had gone out of fashion.

    The poisonous mushroom does not look like the garment, but the top of a mushroom is its “cap”, and this particular one is deadly.

  21. I am originally from the Warsaw area (central Poland), but I have lived in or near Poznań (in western Poland) since the mid-1980s. The name of V. myrtillus is a well-established regional shibboleth. I call it jagoda or czarna jagoda, literally = ‘(black) berry’ (not to be confused with blackberries), while the Poznań aboriginals use the word borówka, which in my native lexicon means ‘cowberry/lingonberry’ (V. vitis-idaea). Kraków (in the south) sides with Poznań in this respect. Both plants and their berries are notorious for having a constellation of traditional local variants (as in English, of course). I don’t think Vinereanu’s “Polish iafira” for ‘blueberry’ is quite genuine (though jafira, with several variants, is attested in Slovak), but jafirnik ~ jafyrnyk ~jafernik is known from the highland dialects close to the Slovak and Ukrainian borders, and there is a small Polish-speaking highlander community in Romanian Bukovina who call the blueberry afyna (obviously a loan from mainstream Romanian).

    The dialects of the Polish mountains borrowed lots of words from Romanian-speaking Vlach migrants. Some of those words have an ultimate Albanian source or come from the enigmatic “Dacian” substrate (which seems to be near-identical with Proto-Albanian). Well-known examples include bryndza, the pan-Carpathian sheep-milk cheese, and watra ‘campfire, bonfire’.

  22. Regional shibboleth, interesting! There isn’t much regional variation in Russian about V. myrtillus AFAIK, but peat bog-dwelling V. uliginosum has a lot of unflattering regional names, most of then hinting at its stupefying / dizzying qualities. ~~ drink-berry, fool-berry, these kinds of words. It was common lore among the villagers that being in the peat-bogs in warm weather for many hours will make you dizzy from inhaling the smells of peat-bog rhododendrons, rich in terpenes. In my granny’s family, V. uliginosum was known as гонобобель gonobobel’, which they also explain as a plant which will make you dizzy and achy-headed, although I can’t make an obvious connection between the meaning and the preposterous sound of the name (which is apparently a common regional name throughout Upper Volga). And it isn’t like the berry itself was to blame, rather, it was sort of being blamed for the plants growing around it.

  23. (Of course we already mentioned Vaccinium names, and gonobobel’ specifically, in an older LH thread)

  24. Stefan Holm says


    Funny enough the Swedish name of Vaccinium uliginosum, odon is believed to come from OSw oþer, ‘furious’, ‘wild’ because of it’s toxic effect (today though considered a myth). The second part ‘-on’ is a very common suffix in names of berries and fruits.

    Otherwise as much as 17% of Swedens surface is estimated to be covered by Vaccinium myrtillus, blåbär, ‘bilberry’. A dialectal name is slinner (plural), believed to origin in a word for ‘slime’ (the berry is covered by a thin coating of wax to protect it from dehydration). It’s flesh is actually dark, ‘wine’, red in spite of the name and opposite to it’s surface.

  25. Frank: I’ve also heard it said that the caip báis is the hood they put over your head when they hang you.

    Another term for the binding around the jaw of a corpse is marbhfháisc, roughly the dead-binding. Hence a common curse “marbhfháisc ort!”, may the marbhfháisc be on you.

  26. My grade-school plant ecology circle teacher had a story from her Thesis fieldwork times, how she became so sleepy from wandering in the peat bogs that she was desperate to doze off. But she was so afraid of the snakes, she made a last-effort slog to a berm with a grassy roadtrack, convinced that the snakes won’t cross the tracks. A few hours later, she was awakened by a tractor driver. It was dusk. “Being sleepy was the least of your problems, young lady. You totally lost your wits!” – he explained. Not only has the berm, still warm in twilight, has become the favorite place of the snakes by then. The guy was, like, so what’s the big deal about snakes anyway – now imagine being run over by a tractor!

  27. The bog bilberry, V. uliginosum, is officially called łochynia in Polish (formerly also włochynia) — an interesting name, completely opaque today, with East Slavic connections, and certainly concealing some etymological secrets — but it also has folk names like pijanica, durnica, szalonka, similar to the Russian ones and alluding to its allegedly intoxicating effect. I’ve often eaten it and never experienced any headaches, let alone altered states of mind. Perhaps there were no Rhododendron tomentosum shrubs within smelling range.

  28. peat-bog rhododendrons

    It can be nasty. Known in my native Arkhangelsk region as “канабреник“. Our family used to do fishing and berry picking on an outskirts of a large bog (“мох“) at/near lake Шумбальское (probably from a fennic name that would correspond to modern Finnish suon pää, “head/end of a bog”, I guess). There’s quite a bit of rhododendrons there. On one occasion I was stupid enough (kids never heed grown-ups advice) to stop for rest in an area with enough of them to make me dizzy and disoriented.

  29. Known in my native Arkhangelsk region as “канабреник“

    Vasmer has this under канабра; he says it’s from Olonets (Finnic) kаnаbrа-, Finnish kanerva, kanarva.

  30. Kanerva is the Finnish name for common heather, or more widely all plants of heather family which of course include rhododendrons and blueberries and a host more.

  31. Stefan Holm says

    Finnish kanerva is definitely ‘heather’. I once had a friend from our eastern neighbour country with this surname. Sw. ‘ljung’ (cf. ling), Ger. ‘Heidekraut’, lit ‘heather cabbage’ (sic). Well, their choice of name may be excused by the such more Beautiful one given by Goethe to Another plant in the habitat: Heidenröslein, ‘little rose of the heather’.

  32. Quoth Urban Dictionary:

    “Heather” Rose is a type of stupid. The type “Heather” is derived from the ancient Greek art of moronism. Usually used to refer to a female, but can sometimes be used for transsexuals.

  33. While “caidhp bháis” would mean “cap of death”, is there any evidence that the expression was actually used in Irish (other than the fungus, which is looks like a recent calque from the English). And it’s “caidhp bháis”, not “caidhp báis”, so the /b/ is a /v/ unless it’s a very old borrowing. Putative derivations of kibosh from “caidhp bháis” define the etymon in various ways: besides maidhc’s and Frank Gibbons’ there are the pitch cap or the judge’s black cap. The variety of interpretations makes them all seem like mere guesswork.

  34. JorgeHoracio says

    ‘ When Henry Higgins sings,”I think she’s got it,” he means “I think she’s gotten it,” not “I think she has it.” ‘
    Having (preferably American-) English as a second language, I wonder: How does an Englishman distinguish between ”I think she’s got it” meaning “I think she’s gotten it,” and ”I think she’s got it” meaning “I think she has it” ?

  35. David Marjanović says

    Ger. ‘Heidekraut’, lit ‘heather cabbage’ (sic).

    Oh no – Kraut has another meaning: “herb”. It’s also the term for the green parts of a potato plant, for example.

    “Weed” (not in the sense of “marijuana”) is Unkraut, the evil twin of Kraut.

  36. MM,

    “And it’s “caidhp bháis”, not “caidhp báis”, so the /b/ is a /v/ unless it’s a very old borrowing. ”

    Yes. Perhaps the “b” in “kibosh” reflects the “p” of “caidhp” rather than the “b” of “bas”.

    David, Stefan,
    “Oh no – Kraut has another meaning: “herb”. It’s also the term for the green parts of a potato plant, for example.”

    I have always assumed that “kraut” was cognate to “krydda” and wondered if it was cognate to “chard”.

  37. Grimm’s law pretty much rules that out: chard < Normand carde < Latin carduus ‘thistle, artichoke’. The Germanic cognate is harsh, originally ‘hairy’ < Danish, Norwegian harsk ‘rancid, rank’. As for Swedish krydda, it’s yet another German borrowing; there seem to be no surviving cognates of Kraut except Dutch kruid, now also only in the sense ‘herb, spice’.

  38. “Weed” (not in the sense of “marijuana”) is Unkraut, the evil twin of Kraut.

    Can’t help providing you with a Swedish proverb: Ont krut förgås inte. Literally: “Evil gunpowder will not disappear”. This complete nonsense is a folk etymology translation of German ‘Unkraut’ (weed) as ‘ont krut’.

    While I’m at it: a handsaw in Swedish is a fogsvans, literally “joint saw” or “seam saw”. The origin is German Fuchs Schwanz, i.e. a foxtail saw.

    A third one is järnnätter “iron nights” depicting the nights, usually in June, when the temperature can fall beneath zero and cause damage to young plants. The origin is German “Eis” (ice) confused with “Eisen” (iron).

    Jim: “Krut, Kraut, krydda” (and English “crowd”) are all according to the Swedish Academy’s Wordbook related with origin in the PGmc verb *krūða-/i>, “penetrate”, “force one’s way”. The Swedish name for gunpowder (“krut”) comes from the visual similarity between gunpowder and grinded spices.

  39. Mmm, I doubt it. Kraut < *kruþan, whereas crowd < krudan. This distinction wouldn’t be apparent to a bunch of Continentals.

  40. Well, the PGmc reconstructed form was actually *krūða-, with “ð”, not “þ”. Attested is OSw krudh (gunpowder) as well as OE crúðan (force one’s way, penetrate). A proposed connection is to Greek brýō (swell, ferment, bud).

    But who am I to know? One thing I do know however is, that we are not a bunch of Continentals but Peninsulars. 🙂

  41. JC: chard < Normand carde < Latin carduus ‘thistle, artichoke’.

    I had never thought about the origin of chard, but it is interesting that it is related to “thistle, artichoke” since the French word meaning ‘thistle’ is le chardon (with suffix -on).

    However, English chard must be from an Old French word *charde, not the Norman carde, since OF had changed Latin ca to cha ((with ch pronounced as in English)., a change which did not totally reach Normandy (then or now, since some rural dialects in Northern Normandy still keep the k sound).

  42. m-l, I was wrong to point to Normand, but the French form is indeed carde, defined in the TLFI as “côte médiane comestible des feuilles de certaines plantes comme la poirée ou l’artichaut-cardon”. This poiree, also known as blette and simply bette, is what is called chard in English, that is, the leaves of the beet, Beta vulgaris. The TLFI’s etymology is “Empr. au prov. cardo « id. » (qui ne paraît pas attesté av. MISTRAL), lui-même issu du lat. cardu(u)s au sens de « cardon »”. So the story of the word does lead back to carduus, but by a devious path.

  43. I forgot to mention that both card and chard are attested in English, and the latter is attributed by the OED to contamination from Fr. chardon, which must be the direct descendant of carduus (with a suffix, as you say). So it’s only a kind of accident that we don’t call the green stuff card.

  44. David Marjanović says

    Can’t help providing you with a Swedish proverb: Ont krut förgås inte. Literally: “Evil gunpowder will not disappear”. This complete nonsense is a folk etymology translation of German ‘Unkraut’ (weed) as ‘ont krut’.

    Yep, Unkraut vergeht nicht.

    Kraut < *kruþan

    Can’t be – that would result in d, not t.

    Well, the PGmc reconstructed form was actually *krūða-, with “ð”, not “þ”. Attested is OSw krudh (gunpowder) as well as OE crúðan (force one’s way, penetrate).

    West Germanic turned every [ð] into [d], even between vowels; there would be a d in the OE word if it came from that PGmc root.

    North Germanic not only kept original [ð], but added to it by voicing original [θ] between vowels (like OE!) and at the ends of words (unlike OE, which had word-final devoicing).

    A proposed connection is to Greek brýō (swell, ferment, bud).

    That’s one consonant too few, right?

  45. JC: carde, defined in the TLFI as “côte médiane comestible des feuilles de certaines plantes comme la poirée ou l’artichaut-cardon”. This poiree, also known as blette and simply bette, is what is called chard in English,

    I don’t know la poirée or l’artichaut-cardon, but I am very familiar with both la blette and la bette for “Swiss chard”. It is possible that carde is indeed a borrowing from an Occitan form, since most of the Oc varieties did not undergo the initial change ca to cha. Le cardon could also be a regional form for a local type of artichoke which was later replaced by the one now usually grown. (French artichokes are usually of the large ‘globe’ variety, the smaller Californian artichokes might be from an Italian variety). As for chard, in France the part eaten is usually the fleshy stem, rather than the leaves.

  46. the fleshy stem, rather than the leaves.

    I mean, rather than the green part of the leaves.

  47. Suzanne Valkemirer says

    In connection with the English word kibosh, David L. Gold has recently written me that

    “I no longer suggest that the clogmakers’ term may be the etymon of kibosh as in put the kibosh on (rather, the latter kibosh is probably the etymon of the former kibosh) or that the word kibosh may have a slight Jewish connection.

    “Now, I find evidence for a different suggestion, not original with me and not involving any Jewish language or Jews, which I will present in an expanded version of the article published in 2011.

    “You ask about the full version of the article. It is now available on the website of RUA – Repositorio de la Universidad de Alicante, where it may be downloaded free of charge. Searching for “David Gold kibosh Revista Alicantina. No. 24, November 2011, pp. 73-129” will take you to it.

    “That article is still of value because it clears away a heap of misinformation that has accumulated in connection with the supposed Yidish or Hebrew origin of the word. All suggestions having a Jewish connection of one kind or another are baseless.

    “The Maher and Goranson suggestions are indefensible, as I will explain in the expanded version, now in the works.”

  48. Thanks very much for that update!

  49. Published this month:
    Origin of Kibosh: Routledge Studies in Etymology
    by Gerald Cohen, Stephen Goranson, and Matthew Little.

  50. And thanks to you for another update!

  51. Graham Asher says

    “How does an Englishman distinguish between ”I think she’s got it” meaning “I think she’s gotten it,” and ”I think she’s got it” meaning “I think she has it” ?”

    By context – just as an American does when he or she needs to distinguish between the many thousands of homophone pairs created by American lenition of intervocalic ‘t’, such as ‘writer’ and ‘rider’.

  52. [ posting here, and on the other thread with “kibosh” ]

    I already linked to Gerald Cohen’s online book about the word ‘dude’, but many (all?) of his other monographs, including those on the word ‘kibosh’, are also available.

    EDIT: Looks like you must be a student to get the original book “The origin of kibosh”

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