- Bask comes from Old Norse, baðask (bathe oneself), with middle syllable lost
- The Scandinavian word joins baða (bathe) and reflexive verbal suffix –sk (self)
- Suffix –sk traces back to Proto-Indo-European *swe– (self) via Old Norse pronoun sik
- In 1300s, bask meant “to wallow/bathe,” but especially in blood; evolved to refer to “in sunshine” and metaphorical sunshine
I took our kayak out this weekend. In the middle of Lake of the Isles, I stopped paddling to bask in the summer sun—and in Minneapolis’ lovely mix of city and nature. And then it hit me: bask. I knew I forgot to include something in last week’s post on self and other. It was the word bask. And its final two letters, –sk. It turns out that there’s a lot going on in the little word.
Old Norse—the North Germanic language of the Vikings, runes, and sagas, and parent of close siblings Icelandic, Faroese, Norwegian, Danish, and Swedish—had sik, a reflexive pronoun. A reflexive pronoun, you may be familiar, refers to its own antecedent. In English, think myself or yourself or themselves. And, ultimately, self-referential sik can claim its spot in the selfsame bloodline as self: It, too, derives from the prolific Proto-Indo-European *swe- we studied last post.
Over time, the Old Norse sik became contracted to -sk. (Speech loves economy, nah mean?) This functioned as a reflexive suffix tacked onto the end of verbs. In bask, –sk was suffixed onto baða, or bathe, to form baðask. (Bathe and baða, kissing cousins, you can see.) And, in everyday mouths, the middle syllable got swallowed, eventually yielding bask. Busk, parent of bustle, features the same suffix: “to busy oneself.” From extended contact with the Danes, violent and peaceful, English borrowed quite the array of words, including everyday words such as sky and they.
Etymologically, bask means to bathe oneself. The form of the word today disguises its compounds; the root verb and reflexive suffix have become what some call “opaque.” I recommend you treat yourself to some more disguised compounds (such as bridal or blackmail) as described by preeminent English etymologist Anatoly Liberman. Oh, he also has a killer weekly etymology blog, The Oxford Etymologist.
“Bask in the doneness”—or blood
So, somewhere in the 1300s, baðask looses its middle and enters the language as basken. Yes, it loses one sound but picks up another. The –en marks the infinitive form (to bask), and makes it grammatical in Middle English. Almost all of English’s inflections eventually fell off, making the language abnormally uninflected for an Indo-European language. At this point, basken wasn’t always so clean or sunny. It could be straight bloody. Basken frequently meant to wallow or be suffused not just in warm liquid, but in blood.
Check out these gruesome early attestations from the OED. In 1393, John Gower wrote:
The child lay bathed in her blood..And for the blode was hote and warme He basketh him about therinne.
I don’t know what is going on here. But isn’t it pleonastic—using more words than necessary—to use him after a form of bask, the word already reflexive? Maybe it is in Icelandic, but the semantic value of -sk is lost on English ears.
Later, in 1528, poet John Skelton wrote:
Basked and baththed in their wylde burblyng..blode.
Geez, this is like Macbeth walked into the set of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. A vertiable bloodbath. I mean, blood does really get everywhere.
Speaking of Shakespeare, he is credited with the first attestation of bask‘s brighter meanings, i.e., basking in “the genial warmth” (OED) of sunlight or fire. Says the attending lord Jaques merrily in As You Like It (2.7):
A fool, a fool, I met a fool i’th’ forest, / A motley fool—a miserable world!— / As I do live by food, I met a fool, / Who laid him down and basked in the sun, / And railed on Lady Fortune in good terms, / In good set terms, and yet a motley fool.
From here, bask starts living a more figurative life: basking in the metaphorical “‘sunshine’ of love, favour, glory,” (OED). Or, my favorite, “doneness.”
During a discussion of the writing process, a professor once shared a story about helping her son revise and edit an essay he was writing. Even after several rounds with the red pen, she said she kept suggesting changes here, rewordings there. He replied, “Mom, at some point, you have to bask in the doneness.” Yes, at some point, things are just done. And I can’t think of a better way to describe the feeling of finishing an essay or article.
“An undoubted Scandinavian immigrant”
Smitten by Old Norse’s ability to render verbs reflexive, I did some more digging—and fell down quite the delightful rabbit hole in Icelandic language and literature scholar Eiríkr Magnússon’s 1874 “On SK and SH In English Terminations” (Cambridge; Harvard).
In this, he parses the suffix -sk in Icelandic, which has remained remarkably close to Old Norse. Apparently, –sk also functioned as reciprocal suffix (hittask, to hit each other, or meet) and as a passive suffix (kallask, to be called). It could also be suffixed to adjectives, adding “individuality and intensity” (p. 280). He writes that nið means “contumely” or “shame”, while niðskr means “shamefully stingy.”
But, more to our purposes here, he offers his own explanation for why bask came to be associated with the sun. This is why I love the stuff of etymology:
In ancient times it was a common custom throughout Scandinavia for people to have hot-air baths at their houses. The custom the Scandinavians doubtless adopted from the Fins, who bathe in the same manner to this day. The heated bath-house was called baðstofa, bathing stove, a word which in Iceland signifies the warmest room in the house, the sitting-room, although the use of it for bathing purposes has long since been abandoned. The hot air being the element in which it was common and customary to effect bathing by a languid repose, the tendency to repeat on a hot summer’s day the habits of the bath-room brought the phraseology of one element into the other. Hence, the common phrase at baðask í sólinni. The reflexive form, baðask, I take to be the immediate source of bask brought about by the process first of dropping the dental aspirate, ð, which, phonetically speaking, is a weak and evanescent element in the word, and the contracting ba–ask into bask. Here, I think it must be conceded, we have to deal with an undoubted Scandinavian immigrant. (pp. 281-282)
I’m guessing these hot-air baths are akin to saunas, which indeed the Nordic are famed for. But below is an image of an Icelandic baðstofa, or living/sitting/common room. I love the sleeping dog.