Last week, the etymologies of hulk and bulk led us to “ships” and “heaps.” How about those two other –ulk words, skulk and sulk?
The ultimate origin of skulk lies in hiding, fittingly enough. The OED first records this verb, signifying “to move in a stealthy manner” or “hide oneself in cowardly manner,” back in around 1225. Etymologists see connections to Scandinavian languages, such as the Norwegian skolka, “to lurk” or “lie watching,” and the Swedish skolke “shirk” or “play truant.” The latter may be echoed in a largely British usage of skulk, “to malinger,” which the OED attests in the late 1700s. A skulk may also refer to “one who skulks” or a group so given to such a furtive behavior, which gives us a skulk of foxes.
Ernest Weekley and Walter Skeat try to ferret out a deeper root in the Low German schulen, “to lurk,” “hide oneself,” and even “look askance,” which might thus link skulk to scowl, also from an unclear Scandinavian source. For scowl, Skeat maintains a root in the Proto-Indo-European *skeu-, “to cover,” which, apparently, is what the “lowering brow” of a scowl does to the eyes, while the Online Etymology Dictionary posits *(s)kel-, “crooked,” depicting a scowling expression, I gather.
Somebody skulking might be sulking, perhaps, which the OED (rather poetically, I submit) defines as “to keep aloof from others in a moody silence.” The OED dates this verb to 1781, while it antedates the adjective sulky to 1744, thus suggesting that sulk is a back-formation of sulky. A substantive usage, the sulky, a two-wheeled, single-seat carriage used for transport, ploughing, or racing, is dated not long after in 1756. Indeed, the ultimate root of sulk is certainly keeping aloof.
The OED offers sulke, a rare and obsolete term for “hard to sell” or “slow in going off” and whose own origin is obscure. Skeat argues that, due to a misdivision of its noun form, sulkiness, sulky really should be sulken, from the Old English āsolcen, “slothful,” “remiss,” or “lazy,” past participle of the verb āseolcan, “to become languid.” Weekley suggests this sulk is from another, obsolete meaning of sulk, a “hollow or trough (of the sea),” on the basis that a sulking individual is like a “lonely furrow.” This sulk originates in the Latin sulcus, a “furrow,” from the same Proto-Indo-European root *selk-, which has given us that very hulk we saw last week.
The Incredible Hulk may not be much of a sulky skulk. But, to riff on the veritably sulking and skulking Rust Cohle from HBO’s True Detective, etymology can sure be like a flat circle.