One of the things which many people who read this column are interested in
is the origins of words – etymology. More often than we would like, however, dictionaries tell us that a word’s etymology is “unknown”, or at best “uncertain”.
Interestingly, though, there are also a number of words which, rather than
having no secure etymology, have two or more. One of these is dumb. Dumb
“silent, unable to speak” is of Old English origin and first appeared in Anglo-Saxon texts over a thousand years ago. The first clear instances in print of the same word having the meaning of “stupid” do not appear until the 1820s, and all the early examples of this usage come from writers from the United States.
We know that, although the USA is a predominantly English-speaking country, there are more Americans today who are descended from German speakers than those who have English-speaking ancestry. The USA today is a mainly Anglophone nation simply because English speakers arrived first and German speakers arrived later, in several different waves in several different places over a long period of time. There was never a time when German speakers were in a majority across North America, though there were geographical pockets where they did predominate – for example, in areas of Texas which were heavily settled by Germans in the 19th century, such as the
Fredericksburg region, where the German language survived into the 21st century.
The German word dumm means “stupid”, and so it is rather clear that what happened was that the English word dumb acquired the additional meaning of “unintelligent” as a result of contact with German – that is, from English being spoken in the United States by large numbers of native German speakers. We can say, then, that dumb has two etymologies, one going back to Old English dumb and one to German dumm.
Another very similar example is provided by the word fresh. This has been an English word ever since the birth of the English language, and has always had meanings such as “new, not deteriorated, not stale”. But it acquired the additional meaning of “cheeky, impudent, disrespectful”, especially as in the phrase to get fresh with someone, in the middle of the 19th century – the first examples in print date from the 1840s. Again, it is significant that the first instances of this usage come from American English, and that the German word for “cheeky” is frech. We can safely assume that the meaning of the
English word has been influenced by German, as well as by its sister language Yiddish.
A more complex example is the word brothel. This comes from Old
English brothen “broken”, a word which is historically related to brittle. It literally meant “a broken person”, “someone worthless”, and then later on “prostitute”, so the word originally signified a person, not a place. It did
not acquire the modern meaning of “a place of prostitution” – rather than a
person practicing prostitution – until about 1600. This came about under the
influence of the completely unrelated French word bordel “brothel”, which
was from Old French bordel “cabin”, which originated in borde “wooden
hut”, a form which was related to English board “wooden plank”. So brothel too has two etymological sources, one Old English and the other Old French.
American gardeners often say dirt where we would say earth, soil. The etymology of dirt lies in Old Norse drit “excrement”, but the American usage is possibly partly due to African influence: in Akan, dotte means “earth, soil”. Akan is spoken across southern Ghana, an area heavily involved in the Atlantic slave trade.