the incredible -ulk (part i)

The Hulk has been smashing the box office in Avengers: Age of Ultron. The U.S. House of Representatives voted to end the N.S.A.’s controversial (and, according to an appeals court, illegal) bulk data collection of phone records. Indeed, -ulk, while a meaningless sound in and of itself*, has been making a lot of noise in the news. Let’s have a look at the origin of two of its appearances, hulk and bulk.

Bulky hulk or bulking hulk?
Bulky hulk or hulking bulk? “Hulk.” Doodle by @andrescalo.


The superhero the Incredible Hulk is strong enough to lift his own etymology.

He debuted in 1962, but his namesake has been around in the English language since at least 1000. Today, we typically understand hulk for something bulky yet unwieldy. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) documents this sense of the word since 1600. Earlier, however, a hulk named a ship. In Old English, a hulc was (a very un-hulking) “light and fast sailing vessel,” while in Middle English, a hulke was “a large ship of burden,” such as a merchant ship (OED). In the 17th century, hulk specified a “dismantled ship,” “unfit for sea service” but used for storage, quarantine, housing crews, or even holding prisoners (OED). We are left with the hulk of a rundown car or building today, too.

With cognates in Germanic languages, hulk is “a word of early diffusion among the maritime peoples of Western Europe,” and this makes its ultimate origin difficult (OED). Ernest Weekley and Eric Partridge suggest a connection to hull. Others, such as Walter Skeat, propose it comes from something the Incredible Hulk could have smashed to pieces: the Greek ὁλκάς, a “ship that is towed.” The Incredible Hulk smashes, but the Greek ὁλκάς “pulls,” such is the meaning of its root verb, which, transliterated, is helkein.  The American Heritage Dictionary (AHD) takes the Greek helkein back to the Proto-Indo-European *selk-, “pull” or “draw,” source of ὁλκός, a “machine for pulling ships.” The AHD suggests this *selk– may have also produced seal, from a Germanic root literally meaning “that which drags its body along with difficulty.”


A hulk has bulk in more ways than one.

The OED first attests bulk around 1440, naming a “heap” or the “cargo” a hulk might haul. This original meaning of the word points us to a Scandinavian source, such as Old Norse’s bulki, “heap” or “cargo,” literally “a rolled-up load” (AHD). But in the 15th century, the written record also shows bulk to signify a “belly.” Scholars chalk this up to confusion with another word, bouk, the “belly” or “trunk” of a body. This confusion might then explain how bulk bulked up to refer to all sorts of masses. However, both bulki and bouk may come from the same Proto-Indo-European root, *bhel-, “to swell” or “to blow,” which has given English derivatives in bulk, as we’ve seen in bowl and fool. A ship’s bulkhead is unrelated; the first part could be cognate to English’s balk.

Next post, we’ll look at two other -ulk‘sskulk and sulk.

*Unless you consider ulk, one Middle English form of the word week.

m ∫ r ∫


4 thoughts on “the incredible -ulk (part i)

  1. Ancient Greek had “epholkion” (ἐφόλκιον) for a ‘small boat towed after a ship’ derived from “ephélkō” (ἐφέλκω – “I drag towards, I draw towards”) which can be broken down to “epi” (ἐπί – “upon”) + “hélkō” (ἕλκω – “I draw, I drag, I pull, I atrract”).
    This could be the source of the name of the traditional Mediterranean and Egyptian wooden sailing boats called “felucca” which came into English via Italian “feluca” from Arabic فلوكة (falūka).

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      1. Turkish has “kelek” for “A kind of raft used on rivers” and in Arabic there’s “kalak” (كَلَك) (plural كَلَكَات “kalakāt”) “a raft of inflated skins” which is supposed to be a loanword from Sumerian “kalakku” – “a storage container”. Don’t know if these tie-in with the etymology of “carrack” or if there is also a connection with English “caïque” a small sailing vessel used in the eastern Mediterranean.
        (Wiktionary says…) “caïque: a borrowing from French caïque, from Italian caicco, from Ottoman Turkish قایق (kayık), from Old Turkic kayguk, from Proto-Turkic *K(i)aj-guk (“boat, oar”). Cognate with modern Turkish kayık.”

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