Further down the rabbit hole

Back in the antediluvian days when I was an undergraduate, I took a course in Comparative Philology, nowadays called Comparative Linguistics. I was hooked. Our lecturer was a learned Welsh professor able to describe with a perfectly straight face but twinkling eyes such arcane ideas on the origins of language as the “ta-ta theory”, “pooh-pooh theory” or “bow-wow theory”. If you want to know about these, click here. He also introduced us to the Proto-Indo-European language. It’s a subject that has continued to enthral me, and offers not just one rabbit hole but an entire warren. Hence my interest in etymologies.

For some time I have been wondering about words like uncouth and unkempt that look like negatives but don’t seem to have a positive counterpart – at least, not in modern English, except where there are back-formations. Of course, at some point in the evolution of our vernacular people must have been described as couth and kempt, but when did the messies get the upper hand?

Back to my latest favourite site, Etymon.

Unkempt is straightforward enough. I know that kempt must have some relationship to the German kämmen / Kamm (comb) so this was no surprise:

1570s, from un- (1) “not” + kempt “well-combed, neat,” from variant past participle of Middle English kemben “to comb,” from Old English cemban “to comb,” from Proto-Germanic *kambijan, from *kamb- “comb” (from PIE root *gembh- “tooth, nail.” ). Form unkembed is recorded from late 14c. The verb kemb is rare after 1400s, but its negative past participle form endures.

I tried to resist the temptation to find out at what point in ancient history our unkempt ancestors decided to make teeth and nails into combs, and tidy themselves up a bit (5,000 years ago, it seems). But I have other parts of the warren to explore at the moment. So on to uncouth. There are some remarkable divagations connected with this, and I was surprised to find that it derives from the intransitive verb can (sorry about the repetition here, but I’m quoting verbatim):


Old English uncuð “unknown, strange, unusual; uncertain, unfamiliar; unfriendly, unkind, rough,” from un- (1) “not” + cuð “known, well-known,” past participle of cunnan “to know” (see can (v.1)), from PIE root *gno- “to know.” Meaning “strange, crude, clumsy” is first recorded 1510s. The compound (and the thing it describes) widespread in IE languages, such as Latin ignorantem, Old Norse ukuðr, Gothic unkunþs, Sanskrit ajnatah, Armenian ancanaut’, Greek agnotos, Old Irish ingnad “unknown.”

Can is the Old English 1st & 3rd person singular present indicative of cunnan “to know,” less commonly as an auxiliary, “to have power to, to be able,” (also “to have carnal knowledge”), from Proto-Germanic *kunnjanan “to be mentally able, to have learned” (source also of Old Norse kenna “to become acquainted, try,” Old Frisian kanna “to recognize, admit, know,” German kennen “to know,” Middle Dutch kennen “to know,” Gothic kannjan “to make known”), from PIE root *gno- “to know.”

It holds now only the third sense of “to know,” that of “to know how to do something” (as opposed to “to know as a fact” and “to be acquainted with” something or someone). Also used in the sense of may, denoting mere permission. An Old English preterite-present verb, its original past participle, couth, survived only in negation (see uncouth), but compare could. The present participle has spun off with a deflected sense as cunning.

Middle English couth “known, well-known; usual, customary,” from Old English cuðe “known,” past participle of cunnan “to know,” less commonly “to have power to, to be able” (see can (v.1)).

As a past participle it died out 16c. with the emergence of could, but the old word was reborn 1896, with a new sense of “cultured, refined,” as a back-formation from uncouth (q.v.). The Old English word forms the first element in the masc. proper name Cuthbert, which literally means “famous-bright.”

That’s maybe some consolation for the poor lads saddled with that particular saint’s name.

The link between can and know was new to me. I was aware that English used to differentiate between the different senses of to know, in ken and wit (cognate with modern German kennen and wissen), and we have remnants of these old verbs in “D’ye ken John Peel?” and “to wit” or “unwittingly”. And so I moved on to wit and wise, which brought me to wizard and witch (look these four up yourself – fascinating!), and so full circle back to PIE *weg– and the other related words listed in my previous post.

I’ve spent a few hours down this particular hole, so time to crawl out and get on with something useful! Has this inspired anyone else to investigate any interesting etymologies?

5 thoughts on “Further down the rabbit hole

  1. My goodness, this is impressively learned. I studied English Literature at University and I do remember some of those lecturers who were learned, academically and logically exacting and yet somehow removed from everyday life. Wonderful people. I too am removed from everyday life, but without the academic integrity to back it up!

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