Wormwood and vermouth are the same word

Many people are aware of the link between wormwood and absinthe. As names for the plant Artemisia absinthium, they are synonyms. A. absinthium has been used for many centuries to add a bitter flavor to various concoctions, especially wines and liqueurs. It has even taken the place of hops in some beer recipes.
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When as a naive 8th-grader I first trudged my long and arduous way through J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, I understood “eleventy-one” (111) to be a charming neologism on the part of the author—meant to be a quirk either of Bilbo Baggins’ speech or of Hobbit-language as a whole.

In fact, this usage is a borrowing from Old English, where the -ty suffix (formerly -tig, as it still appears in Dutch) can be appended to any number all the way up to 12:

  • tīen – 10
  • twēntig – 20
  • þrītig – 30
  • fēowertig – 40
  • fīftig – 50
  • sixtig – 60
  • (hund)seofontig – 70
  • (hund)eahtatig – 80
  • (hund)nigontig – 90
  • (hund)tēontig (lit. ‘tenty’) – 100
  • (hund)endlefontig (lit. ‘eleventy’) – 110
  • (hund)twelftig (lit. ‘twelvety’) – 120

For multiples of 10 between 70 and 120, the prefix hund- lit. ‘hundred’ could be added for emphasis; but keep in mind that this prefix does not in this case mean ‘hundred.’ It only signifies a large number:

Se sumor hafaþ hundnygontig daga … Se winter hæfaþ tū and hundnigontig daga.

The summer has 90 days … The winter has 2-and-90 days. (Shrine 83.33; 146.7)

The old Germanic counting system was essentially a syncretism of base-10 and base-12 features, and had several “big” numbers that could be counted to:

  • 10 × 10 = 100 (one [short] hundred)
  • 10 × 12 = 120 (long hundred; short gross)
  • 12 × 12 = 144 (one gross)

The significance of 12 as a counting base in Germanic parallel to base-10 is also manifested in the fact that the words for 11, 12 are formed differently from 13–19:

  • eleven < *ain-lib- lit. ‘one left (after a full count of 10)’
  • twelve < *twai-lib- lit. ‘two left (after a full count of 10)’
  • thirteen, etc. < *þrī-tehun- lit. ‘three (and) 10’

A base-20 system also had currency around ancient Europe, which was primarily associated with the Celtic peoples. It accounts for many of the idiosyncrasies of the modern Gaelic (Irish and Scottish), Welsh, and French (via Gaulish) counting systems. But that will be the subject of a future post!

(Featured image by Joe Gilronan)

Bagmē Blōma “Flower of the Trees”: Tolkien’s Gothic poem

J.R.R. Tolkien‘s adventures in language creation are well known and do not need elaboration here. But, in addition to his conlanging projects, he also composed an original 18-line poem in the Gothic language, the best-attested member of the extinct East Germanic language family. The bulk of the Gothic corpus is the Codex Argenteus, which contains portions of the Gospels translated by the bishop Wulfila (c. 311–383).

Bagmē Blōma, “Flower of the Trees,” is an ode in three stanzas to the birch tree, and features both rhyme and alliteration (the latter being a crucial feature of old Germanic poetry). The poem reflects Tolkien’s own sense of aesthetics—fans of his work may detect prosodic similarities to his Elvish poetry—and is not intended to reflect how the Gothic poetry of Wulfila’s time would have been structured.

Since the historical Gothic corpus is so limited, Tolkien took it upon himself to reconstruct more Gothic words that likely existed, using a knowledge of historical linguistics and lexical items from Proto-Germanic that had been reconstructed based on Old English, Old High German, and Old Norse. An example from below is brūnáim, the dative plural of non-existent *brūns; this is a nod towards Proto-Germanic *brūnaz ‘brown,’ which itself is securely reconstructed from English brown, German brown, Dutch bruin, etc. In my commentary, I indicate whether each word is a form of an attested Gothic word or a reconstruction on the part of the poet.

Here it is, with commentary and translation that is as literal as possible:

Bagmē Blōma

Brūnáim baíriþ baírka bōgum
láubans liubans liudandei,
gilwagrōni, glitmunjandei,
bagmē blōma, blauandei,
fagrafahsa, liþulinþi, 5
fráujinōndei faírguni.

Wōpjand windōs, wagjand lindōs,
lūtiþ limam láikandei;
slaíhta, raíhta, ƕeitarinda,
razda rōdeiþ reirandei, 10
bandwa baírhta, rūna gōda,
þiuda meina þiuþjandei.

Andanahti milhmam neipiþ,
liuhteiþ liuhmam laúhmuni;
láubos liubái fliugand láusái, 15
tulgus, triggwa, standandei.
Baírka baza beidiþ bláika
fráujinōndei faírguni.

1   brūnáim *brūnaz dat pl ‘brown’—baíriþ V baíran; the object is l. 2 láubans liubansbaírka *berkō ‘birch’—bōgum *bōguz ‘bough’

2   liubans adj liufs masc acc pl ‘dear, lovely’ (German lieb, archaic modern English lief)—liudandei II liudan fem nom pres part ‘growing, springing up’; agrees with l. 1 baírka

3   gilwa|grōni fem jō nom sg; a composition of *gelwaz ‘yellow’ and *grōnijaz ‘green’; the sense is adverbial—glitmunjandei fem nom pres part 1 glitmunjan ‘gleaming’; the abundance of Germanic gl– words in the semantic domain ‘shine’ is not a coincidence; they (along with gold, yellow, etc.) all come from the zero-grade of PIE *ģʰ(e)lh3– (cf. also Greek χλωρός ‘pale green’; Polish złoty ‘golden’)

4   bagmē gen pl bagms ‘trees’; cf. German Baum, English beamblōma ō ‘flower, bloom’; cf. German Blume, Dutch bloem; here evidently used with bagmē as a kenning for the birch itself (for the extension of ‘flower of’ to ‘best of, exemplar of,’ cf. anthology, lit. ‘a selection (λέγω) of flowers (ἄνθος)’)—blauandei VII *blēaną fem nom pres part ‘blowing’

5   fagrafahsa fem ō nom sg; a bahuvrihi composition of fagrs ‘fair’ and *fahsą ‘hair’; the referent is l. 4 blōmaliþu|linþi liþus ‘limb (cf. Dutch lid, German Glied)’ + *linþijaz (cf. lithe, German lind)

6   fráujinōndei fem nom pres part 2 fráujinōn ‘ruling; (substantivized) ruler, lady’—faírguni neut ja faírguni acc sg; take as the object of fráujinōndei

7   wōpjand VII wōpjan 3 pl ‘call, cry out’—wagjand 1 wagjan 3 pl ‘(cause to) move, shake’—lindōs fem ō *lindō acc pl ‘lime trees, linden trees’; cf. German Linde

8   lūtiþ II *lūtaną 3 sg ‘stoops, bends low’; cf. lout, OE lūtanlimam *limuz dat pl ‘limbs, branches’; historically a u-stem noun, but here with an a-stem ending—láikandei fem nom pres part VII láikan ‘jumping, dancing, playing’; cf. Old English lācan ‘swing, wave’

9   slaíhta ō ‘smooth’—raíhta ‘straight’ (cf. [up]right)—ƕeita|rinda fem ō nom sg; a bahuvrihi composition of ƕeits ‘white’ and *rindō ‘bark, crust’

10   razda fem ō acc sg ‘language, speech’; OE reord, OHG rartarōdeiþ 1 rōdjan 3 sg ‘speaks’—reirandei fem nom sg pres part 3 reiran ‘trembling’

11   bandwa fem ō ‘sign, token’—baírhta ‘bright’—rūna fem ō ‘secret, mystery’; cf. rune

12   þiuda fem ō acc sg ‘people, folk’ < cf. archaic modern English thede, German Deut[sch], Old Irish túath < PIE *tewtéh2; with meina, the object of þiuþjandeiþiuþjandei fem nom sg pres part 1 þiuþjan ‘doing good to, blessing’

13   anda|nahti neut ja ‘evening’ = ‘before (PIE *h2entí, cf. Greek ἀντί) night (*nahwt-)—milhmam masc n milhma dat pl ‘clouds’—neipiþ 1 *nīpaną; cf. OE nīpan (eg. genāp under nihthelm “it darkened under night’s helm,” The Wanderer l. 96a)

14   liuhteiþ 1 *leuhtijaną 3 sg ‘illuminates, lights up’; cf. German leuchtenliuhmam masc n *leuhman- dat pl ‘lights’; is this an adverbial usage of the dative plural (cf. OE wundrum ‘wonderfully’) = ‘brightly’?—laúhmuni neut ja ‘lightning’

15   fliugand II *fleuganą 3 pl ‘fly, glide’

16   tulgus u ‘steadfast’—triggwa fem ō ‘covenant’; the word is a noun built on triggws ‘trustworthy’ (cf. true, trust); but the word is a deliberate pun here, as the Old English cognate trēow can mean both ‘truth, faith’ and ‘tree’

17   baza ō *bazaz ‘bare’—bláika ō *blaikaz ‘bright, shining’

The Flower of the Trees

On brown boughs bears the birch
lovely leaves, growing them,
yellow-green, gleaming,
the flower of the trees, blowing,
fair-faxed, limb-lithe, 5
mistress of the mountain.

The winds wail, they stir the limes;
playing, she bends down with her limbs;
smooth, straight, white-barked,
she speaks a language, trembling, 10
a bright sign, a good mystery,
she blesses my people.

The evening darkens with clouds,
lightning illuminates brightly;
Lovely leaves fly loose, 15
steadfast, a covenant, standing.
The bare shining birch waits,
mistress of the mountain.

Some Old High German vocabulary for ‘intoxication’

There is an 8th-century Latin-German glossary (named Abrogans after its initial entry) that presents a large number of Latin words along with their Old High German meanings. The vocabulary is largely religious and/or biblical, but there are such occasional flights of whimsy as the following:

cit · Inprinnit · Crapula ·
ummazzi · Ebrietaſ · upar
trunkhani · Nauſia ·
uuillidho · poſt potum ·
aft̃ drankhe · Crapu
latuſ · uparhlatan ·
Subituſ · kahun · (Cod. Sang. 911; p. 67)

Here are the correspondences, in Latin and a standardized form of Old High German:

crapula ‘drunkenness’—un-māzī, lit. ‘immoderation’ (fem. īn-stem); cf. messen ‘measure,’ das Maß ‘measurement’

ebrietas ‘inebriation’—ubar-trunkanī lit. ‘over-drunkenness’ (fem. īn-stem)

post potum ‘after drinking’—aftar dranke

crapulatus ‘drunk’—ubar-hlatan, lit. ‘overladen’ = ‘overloaded’ (VI (h)ladan past ppl); cf. laden ‘load’

Hemp and cannabis are the same word

Our word cannabis—as in the scientific names for Cannabis sativa or Cannabis indica—comes ultimately from Greek ἡ κάνναβις (or, depending on whom you read, ἡ κανναβίς with different accentuation). Herodotus mentions the plant—

ἔστι δέ σφι κάνναβις φυομένη ἐν τῇ χώρῃ πλὴν παχύτητος καὶ μεγάθεος τῷ λίνῳ ἐμφερεστάτη.

[The Scythians] have kánnabis growing in the country, very much like flax except for its thickness and height. (Histories 4.74)

—although the word itself is not of Greek origin, but from some Indo-Iranian language (perhaps even Scythian; cf. Ossetian гӕн and Kurdish kinif). A yet more ancient origin may have been Akkadian qunnabu ‘hemp’ (which takes the determinative ŠIM, for plants and seeds).

The Indo-Iranian language of origin also loaned the word into that dialect-group of Indo-European that was to become Germanic. As a result, the word cannabis—or *kánabis, as it must have sounded when it was borrowed into pre-Germanic—is an outstanding illustration of Grimm’s law:

*kánabis (pre-Germanic)
*χánabis (voiceless stops become fricatives)
*χánapis (voiced stops become voiceless stops)
*hanapiz (Proto-Germanic after Verner’s law)

We can surmise from attested forms that Germanic *hanapiz must have had a competing form *hanipiz. From the former we get Old Icelandic hampr, Old High German hanaf (and German Hanf), Old Saxon hanap, Middle Dutch hannep, Old English hænep.

Ðeos wyrt þe man cannaue silfatica and oþrum naman hænep nemneþ.

This root, which is called cannabis sylvatica and, by another name, ‘hemp.’ (Lch. i.228)

From *hanipiz, we have Middle Dutch hennep (whence Dutch hennep), and Old English henep, whose descendant is modern English hemp.

An ancient word for ‘earthling’?

Many Indo-European languages exhibit a word for ‘human being’ that is built off of PIE *dʰéɡ́ʰom- ‘earth, ground.’

  • Celtic *gdonyo- (Irish duine ‘person,’ Welsh dyn ‘man’) < *dʰɡ́ʰom-yo-
  • Germanic *guman- ‘man’ (Old English guma ‘man,’ English [bride]groom; Old High German gomo ‘man,’ German [Bräuti]gam) < *dʰɡ́ʰm̥-mon-
  • Latin homō, –minis ‘person’ < *dʰɡ́ʰm-on- (whence also hūmānus)
  • Phrygian ζεμελως ‘man (dat. pl.)’ < *dʰɡ́ʰem-el-o-

This underlying root is also well-attested with its original meaning.

  • Albanian dhe ‘earth’ < *dʰɡ́ʰom-
  • Celtic *gdon- (Old Irish , don ‘place’) < *dʰɡ́ʰom-
  • Greek χθών, -νός ‘earth’ (an English derivative of which is chthonic) < *dʰɡ́ʰom-; χαμαί ‘on the ground,’ χαμᾶζε ‘earthwards,’ χθαμαλός ‘near the ground’ < *dʰɡ́ʰem-el-o-
  • Latin humus ‘ground’ < *dʰɡ́ʰom-o-, humilis ‘near the ground’ < *dʰɡ́ʰem-el-i-
  • Sanskrit क्ष kṣa ‘field’ < *dʰɡ́ʰm̥-
  • Slavic *zemja (Polish ziemia; Bulgarian земя, Russian земля) < *dʰɡ́ʰem-yh̥2

Although Greek derives no explicit word for ‘person’ from this, ἐπιχθόνιος ‘on (ἐπί) the earth (χθών)’ is an occasional epithet of humans in Homeric verse:

“οὔ τινα γὰρ τίεσκον ἐπιχθονίων ἀνθρώπων,
οὐ κακὸν οὐδὲ μὲν ἐσθλόν, ὅτις σφέας εἰσαφίκοιτο” 415
“Not one of the people on earth did they respect—
not wicked and not noble—whoever came to them.” (Od. 22.414–415)

Sometimes it even occurs on its own, without ἄνθρωποι ‘people’ or βροτοί ‘mortals,’ and we are expected to fill that meaning in ourselves:

“εἰ μὲν γάρ τίς μ᾽ ἄλλος ἐπιχθονίων ἐκέλευεν, 220
ἢ οἳ μάντιές εἰσι θυοσκόοι ἢ ἱερῆες,
ψεῦδός κεν φαῖμεν καὶ νοσφιζοίμεθα μᾶλλον.”
“For if some other one of those on the earth had told me,
either those who are diviners or priests who make sacrifices,
we would rather call it a falsehood and distance ourselves from it.” (Il. 24.220–222)

The derived meaning of ‘person’ from ‘earth’ is not exclusive to these Indo-European examples. Hebrew, too, seems to derive אָדָם ɔādām ‘man, Adam‘ from אֲדָמָה ɔădāmâ
‘ground.’ (The underlying root ɔdm means ‘red.’)

Why these languages would have derived words for ‘human being’ from a word meaning ‘earth’ is an interesting question. I see several possibilities:

  1. the sense of earth-denizen is in opposition to sky-denizens, or the gods;
  2. there is a common myth in the Indo-European and Semitic mythologies (and elsewhere?) that humans were created out of clay or dirt;
  3. humans called themselves earthling to differentiate themselves from otherworldly visitors.

Seriously considering #1 and #2, I am inclined to think that #1 is the likeliest. To be sure, the notion that humankind was created from clay is a common belief across many world mythologies. On the Semitic side of things, in Genesis (2:7), Adam is created from the “dust of the ground”—just like in the Enûma Eliš—while the Qurɔān (55.14–15) mentions that God also created the jinn from smokeless fire. Thus the connection between ɔādām ‘man, Adam’ and ɔădāmâ ‘ground’ fits this theory very nicely.

Elohim Creating Adam 1795-c. 1805 by William Blake 1757-1827
And Elohim Created Adam by William Blake

But in these many Indo-European derivations from *dʰéɡ́ʰom- ‘earth,’ a parallel creation story wherein humans are wrought out of clay seems too good to be true; it would certainly be asking a lot of comparative mythology. For this reason I prefer #1. The Greek ἐπιχθόνιος ‘[living] on the earth’—as opposed to something like *ἐκχθόνιος ‘[sprung] from the earth’—in particular suggests that the noteworthy aspect of humankind’s relationship with *dʰéɡ́ʰom- is that it is our home. Whether or not it is also the ur-material of our bodily composition is not the central issue.

There are plenty of ancient Indo-European sources that drive home the opposition between earth-dwelling mortals and sky-dwelling immortals. Here is one of my favorite examples:

A monument (2nd cent. BC) with a dual-language inscription sums up in more concise Gaulish a dedication that has already been written in Latin:



Akisios Argantomaterecus gave the area (?) for gods-and-humans.

This TEUOX/TONION—for which David Stifter reconstructs the pronunciation dēwoγdoniyon—is the Gaulish equivalent of deis et hominibus ‘for gods and humans’ in the Latin text. The word is apparently a dvandva compound (which are not common in Celtic) that breaks down into dēwo– ‘god’ and γdoniyo– ‘human,’ with a plural inflectional ending. The first half is from Indo-European *deywó- ‘god’ (cf. the Germanic god *Tīwaz), which is probably an ablaut-variant of *dyew- ‘sky, day,’ and therefore related to *dyēw- ‘sky god’ (frequently with the epithet “Father”; cf. Ζεὺς Πάτηρ, Iuppiter, Dyauṣ Pitā, etc.). The second half of the compound, γdoniyo-, is our old friend *dʰɡ́ʰom-yo- ‘earthian, earthling,’ and therefore exactly cognate with Irish duine ‘person.’

Therefore this single word TEUOXTONION dēwoγdoniyon ‘for gods and humans’ perfectly encapsulates the opposition between sky-dwelling immortals and earthbound mortals. For these reasons it makes the most sense to me that, at least for the Indo-European terms, the original sense must have been ‘earth-dwelling’ (and not, say, ‘made from earth/dirt’). But perhaps the answer does not have to be one or the other.

And option #3 is always available.

Etymology: Irish fuinneog ‘window’

The Irish word fuinneog /ˈfɪnʲːoːg/ ‘window (fem.)’—uinneig in Scottish Gaelic; fuinneoig in the Irish of Cois Fharraige where the dative singular has been assumed as the dictionary form for ā-stem nouns—may appear obscure in origin. However, it has a neat etymology as an old loanword from Germanic.

The word is from Old Norse vindauga ‘window (neut.),’ a composition of vindr ‘wind’ and auga ‘eye’—that is, figuratively, a sort of eye through which the wind enters through. This word was also loaned into English as window; *wind-augō may have been a formation specific to North Germanic, since both Old English ēag-duru and Gothic áuga-daúrō reflect the composition ‘eye-door.’

The ending –eog (the equivalent of –óg when following a palatalized consonant) and the feminine gender that accompanies it is on analogy to other nouns in -óg—cf. féasóg ‘beard.’ It is a frequent additive to loanwords—cf. spúnóg ‘spoon,’ from English spoon.

We can surmise from orthographic tendencies in manuscripts that nasal+stop clusters (*mb, *nd, etc.) were becoming geminate nasals (*mm, *nn, etc.) broadly over the course of the Old Irish period. The central consonant in modern fuinneog would suggest that vindauga was loaned before or during this transitional period. Old Norse v would have had the pronunciation /w/ (hence the English pronunciation), allowing the first consonant of the ensuing Irish word to fit neatly into the extant mutational paradigms of inherited f < *w (although the initial f– was later lost in Scottish Gaelic on analogy to words beginning with Ø-; the opposite happened in fosgail ‘open,’ with f– springing into existence ex nihilo; cf. Irish oscail).