In Part I, we discovered armpits and bosoms in our bodies…of water. In Part II, we discover enemies, mucous, rifles, and sponges in marsh, river, sea, stream, and swamp.
- Marsh comes from Old English mersc/merisc, related to root that gave Latin mare and English mere
- River enters into English around 1300 from French, riviere, from Latin riparia or ripa (riverbank)
- Sea is from Old English sae, and could mean sea or lake
- Stream flows back to Indo-European *sreu– (flow), related to extensive cognates of rheum
- Swamp is first attested to Captain John Smith in 1624, probably British-dialectical for sunk and possibly connected to Germanic source for sponge
Old English has mersc and merisc, which has been reconstructed from the West Germanic *marisko. This root, in turn, probably comes from the Proto-Germanic *mari and the Indo-European *mori. Cognates abound, including English’s own mere, a wonderfully specific noun referring to anything from sea, ocean, lake, pond, pool, or cistern. You might recognize it in French’s mer or Latin’s mare, or, better yet, in marine or maritime.
From what I can tell, Skeat is alone in arguing that mere originally meant dead, as in stagnant water or the waste of the ocean. He points the reader to Sanskrit’s maru (desert) and mri (die). If you’ve studied a Romance language, you’ll think of mortal, muerte, morte, etc., from the Latin morii (die). In spite of such metaphoric and phonological alignment, I think Skeat wandered too far into the marsh with this one, perhaps underestimating our linguistic ancestors’ ability to handle polysemy, ambiguity, homophony, discursive context, inter alia.
Marshal is unrelated but comes from roots meaning, essentially, horse servant.
River comes into English around 1300, from, you guessed it, Old French, riviere. The Oxford Dictionary of Etymology places the origin of riviere in Latin’s riparia, the female form of an adjective describing riverbanks or seashores. Others find it in French’s own rive (the land along the river), from Latin’s ripa, or riverbank. On this matter, Skeat redeems himself, citing the confusion likely caused by Latin’s rivus (stream) and its dimunitive, rivulus (brook).
So, ripa gives us the scientific riparian, which is rather unexciting until we consider that ripa signified rather steep banks and therefore probably derives from the Proto-Indo-European *rei-, (stratch, tear, cut off). Riven? Rift? Rifle? Yup. They are all related.
There is also arrive, ultimately from the Latin ad- (towards) and ripa. It meant come to shore, particularly after a long journey on the sea.
And derive? How apropos. Originally, the verb indicated conducting water from a source to a channel. Thus: Latin’s de– (away from) and rivus (stream).
Then there’s my favorite: rival. Quite simply, Latin’s rivalis meant one who uses the same stream as another. Friend or foe? Although my Latin dictionary does cite a meaning of neighbor, it also heats things up with one who shares the same mistress. Man loves woman. Man loves other man’s woman. There really are no original stories.
What’s amazes me is how the Latinate river replaces Old English’s own ea. I mean, could there be a simpler sound? You’d think this would be a stubborn word. And it probably was. But, let’s face it, one word is just as good as another, within certain cultural parameters, n’est ce pas? And alas, all rivers lead even back to Rome, as even ea is Indo-European (cf. aqua).
English may have lost ea, but we kept sae in the form of sea. It’s Germanic in origin, and there is no Indo-European equivalent. It could mean sea or lake, just as mere could mean sea or lake. The Online Etymology Dictionary offers some interesting observations concerning the interchangeable, and sometimes reversed, meanings of words for sea and lake. They are worth repeating here:
Germanic languages also use the general Indo-European word (represented by English mere (n.)), but have no firm distinction between “sea” and “lake,” either by size or by salt vs. fresh. This may reflect the Baltic geography where the languages are thought to have originated.
The two words are used more or less interchangeably, and exist in opposite senses (e.g. Gothic saiws “lake,” marei “sea;” but Dutch zee “sea,” meer “lake”). Cf. also Old Norse sær “sea,” but Danish sø, usually “lake” but “sea” in phrases. German See is “sea” (fem.) or “lake” (masc.).
Stream has been steady: Old English, stream (the diphthong of which probably pronounced more like quickly gliding form the a in cat to the a in father). It meant “course of water,” and, in spite of itself, has some deep roots. Its Proto-Germanic *straumaz is also responsible for today’s Dutch stroom and German Strom. Follow it further to the Proto-Indo-European *sreu (flow), related to rheum, which once meant tears but now is the ickier watery mucous. Yes, rheumatoid is related.
The cognates are ridiculous:
- Sanskrit sravati (flows), srotah (stream)
- Avestan (ancient Iranian language of Zoroastrian scripture) thraotah- (stream/river)
- Old Persian rauta (river)
- Greek rheos (a flowing, stream), rhythmos (rhythm), rhytos (fluid, liquid)
- Old Irish, sruaim (stream/river), Irish sruth (ibid.)
- Welsh (and I dare you to try to play this in your next round of Scrabble) ffrwd (stream)
- Old Norse straumr
- Old English stream
- Old High German strom (cf. maelstrom)
- Latvian/Lettish strauma
- Lithuanian sraveti (trickle, ooze)
- Old Church Slavonic struja (river), o-strovu (island)
- Polish strumień (brook)
This ancient, pervasive Indo-European array leaves me gobsmacked. No reason to reinvent the…er, word, I guess.
In 1624, John Smith, Captain John Smith, wrote in his The generall historie of Virginia, New-England, and the Summer Isles:
Some small Marshes and Swamps there are, but more profitable than hurtfull.
And here we have, thanks to the OED, the first attestation of swamp, although surely Mr. Smith brought it to Washington (area) from an English dialect. There is argument that it developed from a Germanic source meaning sponge or fungus. There is further argument, which the OED delightfully calls “radical,” that it is related to the Greek σομϕός (spongy, porous). But there is an identical dialectical form meaning sunk. Skeat gets more radical and links it to swim.
Either way, the verb, as in I’m swamped at work, is thusly derived. As must be the colorful and terribly descriptive swamp ass. Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? There are many other wonderful compounds, including my favorite, swamp Yankee, a pejorative regional term for rural New Englanders. And yes, that band name is already taken. And no, I don’t think they play swamp rock.