Etymology: nähren and νόστος

German (er)nähren ‘nourish, foster’ (Old High German nerien) has a pretty interesting history. Its resemblance to English nourish is mere coincidence (the English word being a loan from French, related to nurse and nutrition); rather, it goes back to Proto-Germanic *nazjaną ‘heal, save, cause to recover.’ This frequently takes on a religious tone in the old West Germanic languages: Old English Neriend means ‘Savior,’ basically equivalent to Hælend, lit. ‘Healer,’ as an epithet for Christ (cf. OHG neriendo and heilant; Old Saxon neriand and heliand).

*nazjaną itself is a weak class 1 causative of the strong class V verb *nesaną, which means ‘recover; escape, survive [a battle].’ Old English (ge)nesan is usually used of human beings escaping some harrowing situation—

Þæt ealde wundor þæra þreora cnihta þe aworpene wæron in þone byrnende ofen, and swa þeah ungederede genæson.
The ancient miracle of the three young men who were cast into the burning furnace, and nevertheless escaped unharmed. (Gr. D. 219)

—though its use is not strictly limited to humans:

Hrof ana genæs ealles ansund
The roof alone survived totally sound. (Beowulf 999b–1000a)

In modern Dutch, genezen (*ga-nesaną) has taken over the causative semantics of *nazjaną and thus means both ‘recover’ and ‘cure, heal’; derived nouns are de geneeskunde ‘(study of) medicine’ and het geneesmiddel ‘medication, drug.’

But the semantics of Germanic *nesaną ‘recover, survive, escape’ and of its causative counterpart *nazjaną ’cause to recover, save’ represent a substantial—though not inexplicable—divergence from a yet earlier meaning. Ancient Greek offers an array of cognates of *nesaną, all having to do with going home. For obvious reasons, these vocabulary items occur frequently in The Odyssey. The verb νέομαι (*nés-o-) is a prominent example.

κτήματα κείροντες καὶ ἀτιμάζοντες ἄκοιτιν
ἀνδρὸς ἀριστῆος· τὸν δ᾽ οὐκέτι φάντο νέεσθαι.
as they consumed the possessions and disrespected the wife
of an excellent man; they did not expect him to return home again. (Od. 24.459–460)

An important related noun is ὁ νόστος ‘a homecoming, returning home’ (*nós-tos). This word and its derived adjective νόστιμος are also frequent in the Odyssey.

“εἰ δ᾽ ὁ μὲν ὣς ἀπόλωλε καὶ οὐκέτι νόστιμός ἐστιν,
ἀλλ᾽ ἤδη παῖς τοῖος Ἀπόλλωνός γε ἕκητι”
“If he has thus perished and is no longer homeward bound,
his son, by the favor of Apollo, is of the same quality.” (Od. 19.85–86)

Still, tinges of the Germanic sense can be found in Homer, such as in Agamemnon’s rejection of Chryses and his gifts in Iliad 1—

“ἀλλ᾽ ἴθι μή μ᾽ ἐρέθιζε σαώτερος ὥς κε νέηαι.”
“But go, do not bother me, so that you might return the safer.” (Il. 1.32)

—in which “return the safer” is euphemism for “escape with your life.”


2 thoughts on “Etymology: nähren and νόστος

  1. Congrats on the new blog! You lost me at nazjana but still thoroughly enjoyed your first blog post. Keep them coming!


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