Mote, Empty.

David Marjanović mentioned the archaic verb mote ‘may/might,’ (obsolete) ‘must,’ and when I went to that Wiktionary page I saw “Related to empty,” which surprised me. The etymology at that last link read:

From Middle English emty, amty, from Old English ǣmtiġ, ǣmettiġ (“vacant, empty, free, idle, unmarried”, literally “without must or obligation, leisurely”), from Proto-Germanic *uz- (“out”) + Proto-Germanic *mōtijô, *mōtô (“must, obligation, need”), *mōtiþô (“ability, accommodation”), from Proto-Indo-European *med- (“measure; to acquire, possess, be in command”). Related to Old English ġeǣmtigian (“to empty”), ǣmetta (“leisure”), mōtan (“can, to be allowed”). More at mote, meet.

The odd thing is that that Proto-Indo-European link does not, so far as I can see, provide any way to get to empty. AHD says “Middle English, from Old English ǣmtig, vacant, unoccupied, from ǣmetta, leisure; see med- in the Appendix of Indo-European roots”; the appendix entry, under “7. Possibly lengthened o-grade form *mōd‑,” has:

2. empty, from Old English ǣmetta, rest, leisure, from Germanic compound *ē-mōt-ja‑ (prefix *ē‑, meaning uncertain, from Indo-European *ē, *ō, to). Both a and b from Germanic *mōt‑, ability, leisure.

The OED (entry revised 2014) has:

< Old English ǣmetta (also ǣmta) leisure, freedom (to do something), opportunity (< the Germanic base of e- prefix¹ + the Germanic base of mote v.¹ + a Germanic (dental) suffix causing i-mutation (compare -th suffix¹)) + -y suffix¹.

It all sounds a little handwavy to me, and I wonder how firmly established the etymology is.


  1. [Comment on “so mote it be” moved to other thread — LH.]

  2. Not that I want to discourage commenting here, but that does seem like it would fit better in the other thread.

  3. PlasticPaddy says

    What would be the alternative OE derivation? Would ē+ambiht+(t)ig “without office/occupation” work?

  4. Bruno van Wayenburg says

    but which thread did you move it to? Thanks

  5. David Marjanović says


  6. It is interesting (and possibly suspicious?) that no other languages seem to have come up “empty” in any of their mutations of *med- (at least based on a quick perusal of this list:

  7. David Marjanović says

    Oh, whatever empty is, it’s an English innovation. The German equivalent, for example, is leer

  8. Swedish is tom from old Norse tómr but apparently related to old Saxon tōmi(g). Seems there could be a more plausible route to empty from that direction.

  9. What would be the alternative OE derivation?

    I don’t know, but one doesn’t need a plausible alternative to suggest that the one usually given rests on a shaky basis. Plenty of common words don’t have known etymologies. Semantically, this one is certainly plausible, but I’d like to see a clearer explanation of how you get there from *med-. It looks to me like people said “Hey, this Old English word meaning ’empty, free, idle’ looks like it could be a derivative of that Germanic root meaning ‘must, obligation’ — done and dusted!”

  10. PlasticPaddy says

    Is O.N ømta also a possibility? The AS æmta (n. masc.) means quiet/leisure/rest. I agree the semantics are better for empty hall than empty vessel.

  11. Over on it says “In addition Middle Dutch moete f. ‘leisure time, interval between work'”

    Also see and

    So in Early Middle Dutch you had the same verb moeten (must) as today, as well as the feminine noun moete (leisure time).

    Presumably that lends at least some degree of support to them being the same in (Old) English as well. A seeming distinction could then be explained by i-mutation or umlaut as in the OED, or simply by being written down in different varieties.

  12. JorgeHoracio says

    is it related to moot?

  13. David Eddyshaw says

    The proposed semantic connection “leisure. freedom” ~ “empty” reminds me a bit of Kusaal nɛɛr “empty”, which is rather counterintuitively (counter my intuition, anyway) cognate with Mooré neere “nice, beautiful.” The original sense of the root seems to have been “bright, light”; it’s probably also the root of Kusaal nɛi “be awake.”

    (I don’t think that the Mossi subscribe to the Trump doctrine that the most beautiful kind of woman is “empty.”)

  14. David Marjanović says

    Middle Dutch moete f. ‘leisure time, interval between work’

    Obsolete German Muße “leisure”, Müßiggang “doing nothing”… and müßig still means “moot” as in “a moot point”.

  15. Vacuus has the same polysemy.

  16. Obsolete German Muße “leisure”, Müßiggang “doing nothing”…

    Not even a little bit obsolete, outside Austria at any rate. Its status there I do not know. Anyone can convince themselves with a one-word internet search.

    The word was never out of use, but what it denotes was frowned upon for a while. Now Muße is back in favor, “burnout” having run its course. [Deutschlandfunk 2015]

  17. obsolete German

    I disagree. These are words every German knows.

  18. Maybe scientists cut back their vocabulary, the better to concentrate on what is measurable.

  19. David Marjanović says

    Deutschlandfunk 2015

    That article almost explicitly digs the word up to use (and arguably popularize) it as a technical term for a more or less new concept. Does anyone use it spontaneously, in speaking or writing?

    Google finds only 1,890 results for “ich habe Muße”. The first and a few others are from Plato, so possibly translated in the 19th century or else in an archaizing style, another from the Bible, another from a poetry site. One is from a grammar of Latin and finds it necessary to explain the word (as “time, spare time”). A few others do look spontaneous (in the previews; I haven’t clicked through), and… I’m not sure what they mean. “I have time for it”? “I feel like doing it”? Both? Neither?

  20. > Does anyone use it spontaneously, in speaking or writing?

    I don’t know about the word Muße, but I know plenty of words and expressions that are both actively used and simultaneously barely attested on Google if at all.

    Over on a semi-random search result it says “dazu fehlt mir die Muße”,[1] which according to Google (if we can trust it) occurs about ten times less than “dazu fehlt mir die Zeit”, but even that one is pegged at only a measly thirty thousand results.

    [1] Semi because “ich habe Muße” sounded a bit odd to me, but you needn’t necessarily take that feeling too seriously since it might be spillover from Dutch.

  21. David Marjanović says

    Only ten times less? It’s probably in active use somewhere, then. ~:-|

  22. For me, Muße and its family are words that belong to the literary register, and I use them when I speak or write in that register.

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