I was reading Nicholas Penny’s LRB review (archived) of the Carlo Crivelli exhibit at Birmingham’s Ikon Gallery when I hit a word unfamiliar to me (my bolding):

Gesso relief of this kind was probably first devised and certainly most often used for the representation of haloes, but in the Vatican altarpiece Crivelli superimposed a crown on a halo – relief on relief. He sometimes attempted high relief, giving some of his saints accessories carved in wood (a morse in one case and a pair of keys in another).

I had absolutely no idea what a morse might be, but the OED came to the rescue: it’s “The clasp or fastening of a cope, frequently made of gold or silver, and set with precious stones.” It turns out that there are two nouns morse (ignoring the capitalized code); both entries were updated in December 2002, and both have interesting etymologies. This one says:

Etymology: < Middle French mors (c1160 in Old French in this sense; also in Old French in sense ‘piece, bit’ (1176), and in Anglo-Norman and Old French in sense ‘bite, mouthful’ (c1120 in Old French); compare morsel n.)) < classical Latin morsus bite, catch (of a buckle) < mordēre to bite (see mordant adj.) + -sus, variant of -tus, suffix forming verbal nouns.

It makes sense that a word for ‘clasp, fastening’ would come from a verb ‘to bite,’ but it was still unexpected. The other morse means either ‘walrus’ (“Now rare”) or ‘hippopotamus’ (“Obsolete”):

Etymology: Origin uncertain. Compare Old Russian morž″ (Russian morž), Saami moršâ, Finnish mursu, although these are all attested only later. Compare French morse (1618, rare before the late 18th cent.; attested earlier in Middle French as mors (1540), and morce (c1570 in morce marin: see note below)).
Middle French morce marin is probably borrowed from Caxton’s mors marine (see quot. 1482 at sense 1 [“This yere were take iiij grete fisshes bytwene Eerethe and london, that one was callyd mors marine”]).

Quot. 1482 at sense 1 provides the earliest evidence for the word in any language. The following provides the earliest evidence for the word outside English:
1526 G. von Herberstein Rerum Moscoviticanum Commentarii 58 Merces vero quae Litvuaniam et Thurciam, corium, pelles, et albi longi dentes animalium, quae ipsi mors [1549 morsh] appellant.

And to keep up the headgear-related aspect of this blog: “A Holy Day for Hat People” (Simbarashe Cha in the NY Times; archived). I did not realize hats were still a thing at the Easter Parade, but I am glad to learn it; the article is full of splendid photos (my favorite being, I think, the one captioned “His outfit was giving Jay Gatsby, and hers, avant-garde”). The subhead uses the word fascinator, which refers to “a type of formal headwear worn as an alternative to the hat; it is usually a large decorative design attached to a band or clip.” Bring ’em all back!


  1. Kate Bunting says

    Yes, fascinators have been ‘a thing’ for some years now. I hadn’t come across the coinage ‘hatinator’ mentioned by Wikipedia – I suppose the one I bought for a wedding around 10 years ago would fall into that category.

  2. The other morse means either ‘walrus’ (“Now rare”) or ‘hippopotamus’ (“Obsolete”)

    Just something I thought was interesting…

    The standard Finnish word norsu ‘elephant’ apparently originated as a dialectal variant of the word mursu ‘walrus’—see the etymology in the Wiktionary here, for example. The entry in an online Finnish etymological dictionary here suggests that the initial n- of norsu is due to the influence of the Sámi word for ‘seal’ (the form of which in the various Sámi languages can be seen here).

  3. cuchuflete says

    Morsa is a common Spanish word for (1) walrus and (2) clamp. Here’s the Royal Academy dictionary entry:

    Del fr. morse, y este del finés mursu o del lapón morssa.

    1. f. Mamífero carnívoro marino de gran tamaño, que habita especialmente en zonas polares, caracterizado principalmente por dos largos colmillos que se prolongan por fuera de la mandíbula superior.

    1. f. Arg. Instrumento que sirve para sujetar piezas que se trabajan en carpintería, herrería, etc., compuesto de dos brazos paralelos unidos por un tornillo sin fin que, al girar, los acerca.

  4. PlasticPaddy says

    From the 1549 edition of von Herberstein’s Rerum Moscoviticanum Commentarii

    Circa ostia Petzore fluvii, quae sunt dextrorsum ab ostiis Duvine, varia magna’csz in Oceano dicuntur esse animalia. Inter alia autem, animal quoddam magnitudine bovis, quod accolae Mors appellant. Breves huic, instar castorum sunt pedes: pectore pro reliqui corporis sui proportione aliquanto altiore, latiore’csz, dentibus superioribus duobus in longū prominentibus….Ea animalia venatores solos propter dentes insectantur: ex quibus Mosci, Tartari et in primus Turci, gladiorum et pugionum manubria affabre faciunt…

    This makes it clear that the animal is a walrus.

  5. What is Caxton’s Eerethe?

  6. Jen in Edinburgh says

    Erith, then in Kent, now swallowed up by London.
    (I have no evidence for that, but I’m fairly confident!)

  7. Last week’s Foxtrot addressed dressing up with unusual headwear for Easter.

  8. Eerethe?

    Frank Harris proposes that his friend Oscar Wilde jump bail and depart for France (and the Code civil):

    Oscar was not himself; contrary to his custom he sat silent and downcast. From time to time he sighed heavily, and his leaden dejection gradually infected all of us. I was not sorry, for I wanted to get him away early; by ten o’clock we had left the house and were in the Cromwell Road. He preferred to walk: without his noticing it I turned up Queen’s Gate towards the park. After walking for ten minutes I said to him:

    “I want to speak to you seriously. Do you happen to know where Erith is?”

    “No, Frank.”

    The full account in Frank Harris (1916) Oscar Wilde, His Life and Confessions, chapter 16, here.

  9. A sad story, but of course it must be taken with a great deal of salt. (“Had he not been a thundering liar, Frank Harris would have been a great autobiographer … he had the crippling disqualification that he told the truth, as Max Beerbohm remarked, only ‘when his invention flagged’.”)

  10. Trond Engen says

    Fun etymology. Romance-except-French morsa is a nativization of Fr. morse. That was borrowed from Ru. morš, which in turn is From a Sami source akin to NSa. morša.

    But morša doesn’t look very Sami on the face of it. Aikio 2012 agrees and lists it as a substrate word in Sami. It’s surprising that Romance circumvented Germanic to borrow from Sami, but I guess the supply of walrus ivory from Germanic-speaking sources was forgotten when business with Muscovy was established in the 16th century.

    The Germanic words look problematic on their own. Walrus seems to be a WGmc folk-etymology based on ON rosmhvalr. This rosmhvalr has a by-form rosmall, and I’ll stick my head out and say that -hvalr could well be an eggcorn. There’s also rostungr (which later appears as a medieval noble family name). That’s how far I get. The element rosm (or ros?) is just close enough to Sami morša to be interesting but different enough that nothing can be made of it. The m- wouldn’t just do long distance metathesis.

  11. David Marjanović says

    Walrus seems to be a WGmc folk-etymology based on ON rosmhvalr.

    Even more so in German: Walross = Wal “whale” & Ross “horse” (poetic or Bavarian).

  12. My Kurdish housemate asked me about English walrus just last week… As a way to show solidarity with the opposition to Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the had cut his beard into a more or less walrusy moustache, or as he called it in Diyarbakir Kurmanji, simêlê şorreşgera ‘revolutionaries’ moustache’. (The Turkish elections were today, and we are waiting impatiently for the results.) In Turkey, it is more or less easy to read a man’s political affiliations from his moustache. A fairly closely-trimmed half-moon shaped moustache like a Lemmy is an ülkücü bıyığı ‘national moustache’ indicating affiliation with Turkish nationalist ideology, walrus moustache—think Emiliano Zapata—is a leftist moustache. A short trimmed badem bıyığı ‘almond moustache’ not extending beyond the corners of the lips, as seen on Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, indicates a supporter of the ruling Islamist party, the AKP. (Handy reference chart here.) My housemate made a meme with a caption revolutionary moustache in English, and I had to tell him that would probably not be immediately understood outside Turkey, and what he had would be a walrus moustache.

    Is the etymology for walrus in the OED online still all Tolkien’s? (Boldface mine.)

    probably < Dutch walrus (walros). Compare (i) Low German walross, German walross (earlier also walruss, walrusch), Swedish hvalross, valross (valruss), Danish hvalros (earlier also hvalrusk ), walrus; (ii) Old English horschwæl, early modern German rosswal, russwal, Norwegian russhval, walrus, ? Old French rohal, rohart, rochal (whence medieval Latin rohanlum, -allum) walrus-ivory; see RUEL n.

    The forms under (i) appear to be later than those under (ii) from which they perhaps arose (? in Dutch) by metathesis on some analogy such as that of Dutch walvisch whale.

    The interpretation of formation (ii) as ‘horse-whale’ (zoologically improbable) appears to be only one of the various popular etymologies that have influenced the forms of the word. Ultimately a confusion, either within or outside the Scandinavian languages, has perhaps taken place between Old Norse hrosshvalr a kind of whale, and rosmhvalr walrus. The latter is related obscurely to Old Norse rosmall, Norwegian rosmaal, rosmaar, Danish rosmær, -er , -ar walrus, whence the scientific specific name rosmarus. See ROSMARINE n.2. Some scholars have connected rosm- with Old Norse, Icelandic rostungr walrus, and assumed relationship of both with Old Norse rauðr RED adj. and n. (Compare RORQUAL n. and Old High German ros(a)mo redness.) This is zoologically possible, but it seems more likely that rosm- is a corruption of some non-Germanic word: compare MORSE n.2.

    A more recent treatment here.

    About the zoological possibility of a relationship, genetic or folk-etymological, of rosmvalr with the family of OHG rosamo… Healthy full-grown walrus are, in fact, rather bright pink when they are warm and need to dissipate heat. See for example the male walrus vocalizing in this video here, or the photo here. (Wikipedia: “Old males, in particular, become nearly pink.”)

    (An exact parallel that used to be offered for the phonology of Old High German ros(a)mo from a virtual Proto-Indo-European *rudh-s-men- was German Besen, OHG besamo, English besom, etc.; see Pokorny, “wohl zu einer Wz. bheidh- `binden, flechten’ “. However, I see that support for this *bhidh- is weak and I wonder if anyone believes this etymology anymore—see the discussion by M. Philippa et al. here. In any case, for the development of a virtual Proto-Indo-European cluster *-dʰsN- in general, compare Gothic usbeisns ‘patience’ beside beidan ‘wait, bide’ or anabusns (f.) ‘commandment’ beside anabiudan ‘ordain, dispose, arrange’.)

  13. Stu Clayton says

    In any case, for the development of a virtual Proto-Indo-European cluster *-dʰsN- in general …

    Does “virtual” here carry the same meaning as the “*” ? Or does it add to or subtract from whatever is meant by the “*”?

  14. Trond Engen says

    All that reasoning in my previous comment, and Tolkien and the OED was there almost a century ago.

    I do like the “redness” suggestion — or I will if there’s evidence that the abstract was used descriptively for blushing (Mod. Da./Norw. rødme), a skin condition like rosacea, or some such.

  15. “…walrus moustache—think Emiliano Zapata—is a leftist moustache.”

    Xerîb, you reminded me a discussion of my beard by my Tunisian freinds. I learned that beards (and hijabs, accordingly) are discouraged and asked if it also applies to my beard and then I learned about communist and other sorts of beards. Anyway, they told that only Muslim beards are dicouraged.

  16. David Marjanović says

    I think “virtual” means “we can’t reconstruct it directly, but that’s how it would have been composed” – in some way it’s a reconstruction on the morphological level instead of the phonological one.

    Any *dʰs would have come out as *ts, and *-ts- > *-ss- is regular in Germanic and Italo-Celtic.

  17. Stu Clayton says

    I think “virtual” means “we can’t reconstruct it directly, but that’s how it would have been composed” – in some way it’s a reconstruction on the morphological level instead of the phonological one.

    But all “phonological reconstruction” back beyond the invention of gramophones relies on visible marks made on stones and paper or equivalents, right ? Phonology is based on morphological fossils.

    Would it be fair to advance a paleobiological metaphor here – morphology is the study of the crania of dinosaurs, while phonology is the science of imagining the cries uttered by dinosaurs (of which there is no fossil record), and correlating these with the crania ? By “imagining” I mean projecting back in time the clucking of chickens as we hear it today.

  18. John Cowan says

    My politics would have to vary with the day of the month (or twamonth), then, since I have my mustache trimmed just when my hair is cut.

  19. My politics are complicated: my hair is cut by a barber, my wife trims my beard, and I trim my mustache myself.

  20. But morša doesn’t look very Sami on the face of it.

    is in fact a largely non-native cluster. On the other hand, in a talk from 2015 Aikio has argued that Proto-Samic *s-stems underwent syncope in inflected stems, by now with levelling to either stem variant. From *vënës : *vënësë- ‘boat’ we get thus in Northern Sami in different dialects both the consonant stem fanas (literary standard; f- is unclear but happens also in other cases) and the syncopated vowel stem vanca < *vëntsë < *vënsë. A consonant stem *morëš : *mor(ë)šë-, plausibly already from pre-Proto-Samic *murəš, might then be similarly a source of morša.

    This only helps slightly insofar as *š in general has no native Uralic origin except as the first member of some consonant clusters. Would be an exact match in form with Finnish murhe < Proto-Finnic *murëh < *murəš ‘worry, sorrow’, but a semantic miss by a country mile. If there is anything native Uralic in there, I might put some low amount of stock instead on Hungarian dialectal mart, Samoyedic *mərå ‘edge, shore’; i.e. ‘animal found hanging out on shores’??

    A “rose *morëš” might be a tempting etymology also for rosmhvalr and its kin, but alas probably anachronistic at any time where *-š could have been still substituted as Germanic *-z or its reflex (and I’m unsure if there would be any other non-ad hoc ways to get rid of it).

  21. What is the etymology of Erzya?

  22. Still unknown I think, but seems to be presumed to be originally toponymic (as with Moksha which is primarily from the Moksha River).

    I’m also vaguely tempted to speculate something related to the etymologies of Mordva, Mari, Merya, Udmurt all having been traced to various formations (mostly via Indo-Iranian) from IE √mer- ‘to die’, vs. the Mordvinic verb for ‘to live’ being eŕa-, but that’s smelling a bit too pareidolic already to really count as a lead. “Bogeidolic”, shall we say?

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