Behind the etymological mask of “clown”

The creepy crown craze – involving people dressed up as evil clowns frightening, threatening, and sometimes even attacking others – has spread from South Carolina all across the globe. But what about this word clown: Where did it spread from?


The word clown hasn’t been terrorizing the English language for as long as we might think but, creepily, we aren’t quite sure where it comes from. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) first attests the word in 1563, when a clown – or cloyne, as it’s first recorded – was a “rustic” or “peasant.” The lowly status of such a countryman, alas, was soon associated with ignorance and boorishness in the eyes of city folk.

On Shakespeare’s stage, clowns were “fools” and “jesters.” We see them as comical country bumpkins in such plays as The Merchant of Venice (Launcelot Gobbo), As You Like It (Touchstone), Twelfth Night (Feste), and even in Antony and Cleopatra, where it’s a clown who smuggles in the asp in a basket of figs for the titular queen’s suicide.

It’s not until the 1720s we see clowns as the circus performers that entertain – and horrify us – today.

While the origin of clown is obscure, two theories have prevailed. The first, usually attributed to Elizabethan playwright Ben Jonson, is that clown comes from Latin’s colōnus, a “farmer” or “settler.” You might see colony in this noun – and you’d be right. The base verb, colere, “to till,” was a productive crop, yielding words like culture and cultivate. Most etymologists have dismissed this theory.

The other, favored theory looks to Scandinavian sources like the Icelandic klunni, a “clumsy, boorish fellow,” and North Frisian klönne, for roughly the same. At base for these, and their other Germanic cognates, are words for “clots,” “clods,” and “lumps,” whose thick, rough, clumpy masses stuck as an epithet for foolish, bungling fellows.

But Anatoly Lieberman, in a recent post on his Oxford Etymologist blog, finds this prevailing Scandinavian theory to be, well, a bit clownish. Lieberman seriously doubts a word like clown would have been borrowed from a Scandinavian language in Early Modern English. Instead, he reconsiders the long-snubbed Latin explanation, citing, by way of a 1940s Dublin philologist, a Professor T. F. O’Rahilly, who notes Fingal husbandmen were nicknamed collounes. As Liberman concludes:

Colloun must have been the Anglo-French reflex of Latin colōnus ‘farmer.’ It is not unlikely that this word was imported to England from Ireland…If O’Rahilly was right, clown does go back to colōnus, but via Irish…But what about the Germanic words cited in connection with clown? Perhaps they need not be dismissed as irrelevant, but no evidence points to their currency in Elizabethan England, while the Irish route looks real.

Great. There may be no snakes in Ireland, but, etymologically speaking, there are clowns. Well, those creepy clowns have been sighted here, too.

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The controversial origin of “gawker”

Gawker, the news and media gossip site, has shut down after 13 years. Gawker has had an influential, if controversial, voice in the online journalism and blogging landscape. And Gawker has had a distinctive name, suggesting a can’t-look-away amazement it experienced (or wanted its readers to) over the many stories it covered.


A gawker is “one who gawks,” or stares at something, often openly, stupidly, or stunned. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) first records it in 1951. It cites its base, to gawk, in 1785.  (Gawk also referred to “an awkward person” in the early 1800s. The history of this word is likely enmeshed with our word at hand.) The ultimate origin of gawker is obscure, but there are many theories.

1. Gaw

One explanation is that gawk comes from an obsolete verb, gaw, “to stare.” This derives from the Middle English gaw. Etymologists point us to a Scandinavian source, like the Old Norse , “to heed.” But what about the k? Perhaps it has a frequentative force, behaving like the k in talk, which is rooted in tale.

2. Gawk hand

A gawk hand is a “left hand.” The OED finds this adjective in 1703. This gawk is contracted from an older form, gallock. Variants include gaulick and gaulish. Some have supposed this gallock to come from gauche, the French for “left.” Others, that the gaulish form points back to an old insult against French, left-handedness long carrying negative, even evil, associations. Gawk-handed has connoted a clumsiness, which, if this theory is correct, was apparently likened to the stupid gape of a gawk.

3. Gowk

A third origin could be gowk, an old term for a “cuckoo.” The word has Scandinavian, and perhaps even Latin, cognates. Old English had géac, Old Norse had gaukr, for this onomatopoeic bird name, which has mocked many a “fool” or “simpleton” in its history. Gowk ribbed the “half-wit” in English by the 1600s, which would explain its possible connection to the slack-jawed gape of gawking.

Scholar Anatoly Liberman favors this explanation, thinking it’s rooted in the structure gk, whose sound supposedly conveys a sense of stupefaction. This structure might also be behind the work geek. And gaw and gallock may well have had their influence on gawk as we know it.

Some may think the etymology of gawk fitting for the late website. They were “clumsy,” no “cuckoo,” to post the privacy-violating content they did. Others will deem think it sad and stupid, given the positive effects Gawker has had on media, journalism, and online writing, that they site shut down. Etymology, alas, doesn’t always create agreement.

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Threading the origins of “floss”

The results of a recent Associated Press (AP) investigation met with a lot of teeth. Dental professionals snarled. The rest of us smiled. For the AP found little evidence to back up the long-touted benefits of flossing.

Let’s run some floss through the etymology of floss and see what we can dislodge from its pearly whites.

Can I get that in the mint flavor? “Silkworm cocoons,” by Wayne Dodge, courtesy of


The Oxford English Dictionary first cites floss-silk in a 1759 report by Samuel Pullein to the Royal Society of London, “A new improved Silk-Reel.” In it, Pullein describes “floss-silk,” or filaments of silk. The following year, Pullein uses floss as such in reference to the cocoon of the silkworm. (Mr. Pullein was quite taken by silk; he even translated a 15th-century field manual on the silkworm written in Latin verse.)

Now, Pullein’s “floss-silk” would appear to translate the French soie floche, again “floss-silk.” Earlier forms of floche point to “tuft of wool,” suggest a root in Latin’s floccus, meaning “tuft of wool” or “lock of hair.” An English word flock, unrelated to groups of birds or sheep, is also so derived. 

Walter Skeat, however, argues floss came directly from the Italian floscia seta, “sleave silk,” ultimately from the Latin flux, “flowing.” He considers soie floche the French borrowing of the same Italian phrase.

Floss may also have come from a native English dialect or Scandinavian word for floss spun from the same root as fleece. Fleece, the “wool coat of a sheep,” also denoted “fur” and “sealskin” in its earlier Old English forms. Its origin is Germanic, possibly cousin to Indo-European roots for “pluck” and “feather” and seen in words like plume.

Over a century after Pullein, floss names “fine, silk filaments” in general – and was applied to that most inelegant of threads, dental floss, often called dental silk early on. As a term, dental floss was threading English teeth in the final quarter of the 19th century, maybe as early 1872. Floss was common shorthand for this toothy cord by the 1930s.

James Joyce again elevated silky fibers to literary heights in his 1922 Ulysses, when Professor MacHugh attends to some oral hygiene in “Aeolus”:

He took a reel of dental floss from his waistcoat pocket and, breaking off a piece, twanged it smartly between two and two of his resonant unwashed teeth.

–– Bingbang, bingbang.

As far as the AP is concerned, we should tell the professor to skip the flossing and get right to those resonant, unwashed teeth.

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What is the “buke” in “rebuke”?

In his latest controversy, Donald Trump has been criticizing Khazr and Gazala Khan, whose son died fighting in Iraq. Khazr rebuked Trump in a powerful speech at the Democratic National Convention last week, but Trump’s unseemly response has drawn, yet again, his own sharp rebukes from the likes of John McCain and President Obama.

In these rebukative times (and yes, that’s a word, though rare), it’s hard not to wonder: What does the –buke in rebuke mean, anyways? If some etymologists are right, its origin is quite literally very sharp.

Enough rebukes to build a log cabin? “Axed,” by Asheley Grifin, courtesy of


Rebuke has been stinging English since the early 14th century. Back then, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), to rebuke was “to reprimand” and “chide.” Over the centuries, the severity of this reprimanding  and chiding intensified, today denoting “condemn” and often paired with sharp.

Rebuke is French in origin. English borrowed it from the Anglo-French rebuker, derived from the Old French rebuchier. The original meaning of rebuker and rebuchier was “to beat back,” as one might an advancing fighter. Many etymological dictionaries maintain that the French rebuchier joins re-, “back,” with buchier, “to strike” or “chop wood.” And so rebuke jumped from a physical counterblow to a verbal one. 

In the woods

Now, according to this “wood” theory, the root of all this French “chopping” is busche or bûche:  “woods” or “wood,” especially “firewood.” English’s own bush is related. Bush itself is a thicket of Scandinavian (Old Norse buskr), Germanic (Old High German busc), and Romanic (Medieval Latin busca) influences and cognates. All these bush’s appear to be borrowed, ultimately, from West Germanic or Frankish.

The French busche (now bois) also appears in ambush. In Old French, the word was embuscher, “in the woods,” where one might lay an ambush.  But not all bush cognates are so violent. Via French-Canadian, Boise, Idaho is named for its “wooded” lands. Bouquet means “little wood.” And an oboe is an English rendition of the French hautbois, the sound of “high wood.” (For haut, think haughty.)

Not out of the woods yet

As noted, there are other theories for the origins of rebuke. Earnest Weekley and Walter Skeat connect rebuke not with the blow of an ax on wood but with a blowing of the cheeks. They cite the French bouche, “mouth.” Skeat goes on to explain rebuke as “to puff back,” hence “to reject,” making rebuke much the same as rebuff, from the Italian word ribuffo, “a blow back.” 

On rebuke, the OED concludes that the French buchier (“to beat”) is uncertain in origin. Trump, as many politicians are admonishing, could learn a thing or two from the OED: Staying quiet is definitely one way to avoid rebuke.

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Gushing like a “geyser”: modern loan, old faithful

“An intermittent hot spring, throwing up water, etc. in a fountain-like column.” No, this isn’t a description of how a lot of Brits are feeling, still queasy from Brexit, after their team’s knockout loss to Iceland in the Euro football tournament last night. It’s the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of the word geyser, one of the few modern words English borrowed from Icelandic.

Gushing with tears or cheers? Depends on who you were rooting for. “The erupting Great Geysir.” (c) 2000 by Dieter Schweizer.  


“Modern” is key to the history of geyser. From the late 700s to the early 1000s, the Vikings, whose Old Norse tongue was ultimately parent to the Icelandic language, invaded the British Isles – and their native tongues, leaving its mark in everyday words like sky, egg, knife, and they. But geyser is a much more recent loanword.

In 1763, Britain’s long-running Annual Register included this account: “Geyser, a wonderful spring in the valley of Haukedal, is but a few miles from Skaalholt.” The entry goes on to describe the “terrible noise, like the discharge of small arms” of the “surprising phenomenon” which “happens once a day.” It credits its description to a Mr. Olav, who encountered it in 1746.

This geyser is Geysir, the proper name of a particular geyser, the country’s own Old Faithful, in the Haukadalur valley in southwest Iceland. English generalized the term for this geological feature by 1780. Come the 1850s, English was using geyser for figurative gushes.

And “gush” is key to the etymology of Geysir. The name literally means “The Gusher,” related to the Icelandic geysa and Old Norse gøysa, “to gush.” (Old Icelandic had gjós-æðr, a “gush vein,” or “artery.”) English’s gush is cognate, as is gust, gut, font, funnel, various iterations of the Latin root in infuse, and, incredibly, futile. The Indo-European root is *gheu-, “to pour.” The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots notes that some scholars think this “pour” was in reference to libations, which could make it the long-troubling source of the word god.

In today’s Icelandic, a geyser is a goshver, which looks like gusher. But as far as I can tell, this word actually joins gos (“eruption”; an eldgos is a “volcanic eruption,” or “fire eruption”) and hver, a term for a “hot spring” that originally meant “kettle” or “cauldron.”

In a land of so much geothermal activity, there are subtle but important distinctions between different types of geysers based on temperature. According to Richard S. William’s Icelandic-English Glossary of Selected Geoscience Terms, hverir are hot springs over 70ºC, laugar are warm springs between 30-70ºC, and volgrur are lukewarm springs under 30ºC.

Today though, Iceland should forget such distinctions and celebrate their historic performance in the UEFA Euro 2016 with the full force of their country’s own Great Geysir.

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“They”: Singular present, Scandinavian past

On January 8, the American Dialect Society (ADS) voted for they used as a gender-neutral singular pronoun for its Word of the Year for 2015.” As its official announcement continues:

They was recognized by the society for its emerging use as a pronoun to refer to a known person, often as a conscious choice by a person rejecting the traditional gender binary of he and she.

To address the problem of this binary, creations such as zie just haven’t caught on. Indeed, they is already in the language.

Singular they (and its inflected forms) has also been a point of more general contention, often decried by purists as ungrammatical. Take Every student passed their examEvery is singular but their is plural. This disagreement drives some grammar scolds crazy, but we do it naturally all the time. Even Chaucer and Shakespeare did it. The alternative, traditionally just his, is gender-exclusive while his or her is cumbersome – and, for many, also gender-exclusive, hence the ADS’s vote.

Professor Dennis Baron and linguist Gretchen McCulloch both have excellent pieces in support of this singular they, whose history – and controversy – is much older than you may think. I really recommend you check out their pieces.

But as this is an etymology blog, I wanted to take a quick moment to marvel at the etymology of they. Caution: a little more linguistic nitty-gritty lies ahead.

A partial declension of English third-person singular pronouns. We could add himself, herself, itself, and…themself? “They.” Doodle by me.


They is English’s third-person personal pronoun, along with their and them. If I see Jack and Jill falling down the hill, I can refer to them as theyThey is what many linguists refer to as a function word. Its role is grammatical. I don’t want to get too wonky here, but contrast they to a lexical item like iPhone, a coined noun, or victor, taken from Latin. (Indeed, so many of the words I study here are nouns, verbs, and adjectives borrowed from Latin, which is why they is so incredible to me, as we’ll see.) Grammatically speaking, they is just operating on a deeper level in the language, suffice it to say.

But they, amazingly, is not native to English. Starting in the late 700s and ending in the early 1000s, Vikings invaded England in three major waves. The two peoples – and their two languages – got really close. So close, in fact, that the Scandinavian form (think Old Norse) for they, þei, displaced Old English’s hīe. (For its possessive and object forms, Old English used hiera and him.) The adoption was complete by the end of the Middle English period, Albert Baugh and Thomas Cable note in their History of the English Language.

Now, Old English’s he was , she waso, and it was hit, so the Scandinavian-based they might have been a welcome source of distinction from hīe. Also, Scandinavian languages, like English, are Germanic languages, so their shared history also helps the uptake. But nevertheless, as Baugh and Cable put it: “Such parts of speech are not often transferred from one language to another.” Because such function words as they are operating so deep in the structure of the language, they are more resistant to change.

But we’re not done! English’s present plural of to beare, may also have been influenced by Scandinavian forms. Again, Baugh and Cable:

When we remember that in the expression they are both the pronoun and the verb are Scandinavian we realize once more how intimately the language of the invaders has entered into English.

For those with non-binary gender identities, he or she can feel like an invasion, which, at least to the long, etymological view from this one writer, makes singular they all the more powerful.

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What is the “quag” in “quagmire”?

Not too many people would say they love politicians. Late-night talk show hosts and word nerds, however, are notable exceptions, ever drawing from the endless well of political speech. Recently, quagmire has taken the political – and lexical – limelight, thanks especially to Bernie Sanders’ use of it at the first Democratic debate this past week in Las Vegas, as Ben Zimmer has analyzed over at

Let’s step – cautiously – into the origin of quagmire: Its roots just may be hard to extricate.

Chattering Teeth_Ink_Ballpoint_Sharpie_On_Paper_doodle
There’s been a lot of ‘chatter’ on “quagmire,” and not just from the chattering classes. “Chattering Teeth.” Ink, ballpoint, and sharpie on paper. Doodle by @andrescalo.


Quagmire has been stuck in English since 1566, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). Back then, it referred to an “area of wet, boggy land that gives way under foot.” Thanks to how hard it can be to extricate oneself from a quagmire, its metaphorical extension is documented not long after in 1577.

Growing up, my dad loved characterizing my puerile indiscretions, if I’m to be generous, as having “mush for brains.” Perhaps he was just channeling his inner bard. Shakespeare used quagmire for something “soft, flabby, or yielding” (OED) when Talbot threatens in Henry IV of Frenchmen to “make a Quagmire of [their] mingled brains.”

Another term – and etymological clue – for quagmire is a “quaking bog,” for a bog’s ground quakes, or shakes, underfoot. Philologists like Walter Skeat, Ernest Weekly, Eric Partridge, and Ernest Klein see quagmire as nothing more than quakemire, a form of quagmire attested in the late 1500s. This makes quagmire a compound of quake and mire.

Quag is indeed a regional variant of quake, from the Old English cwacian and cweccan, which variously signified quaking, shaking, and trembling, sometimes of the teeth in fear, other times of weapons in fighting. Its ultimate origin is unknown. Many suggest that it is imitative. Can you hear quivering or shaking in quake?

Swamp things

As the OED offers, however, quag might be a variant of a different word: quab, a “marsh” or “bog.” Appearing in the early 1400s, this quab is reconstructed in the Old English *cwabba, which itself might just mean “to quake.” Like quake, the origin of *cwabba is unknown, but it also might be echoic. Here, the lends a bubbling and gurgling sound effect, fitting for a swamp. English has had other quabs: the word has named, if on an obscure and rare basis, certain kinds of fish as well as sea cucumbers. Historical linguistics note connections to slimy critters (e.g., toads) in other Indo-European languages, suggesting, as the OED does, a root in “something slimy, flabby, or quivering,” certainly not out of place in swamplands.

Speaking of swamplands, mire, meanwhile, is Scandinavian in origin, emerging in Middle English and related to the Old Norse mýrr, a “bog” or “swamp.” The word is cognate to English’s own moss. Both mire and moss are taken back to an Indo-European root for swampy ground and wet vegetation found there, the American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots explains.  The metaphorical mire is evidenced by the end of the 1300s.

Etymologically, we may not find terra firmwith quagmire, but, when it comes to the ‘muck’ of politics, this word works on so many levels.

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In the wake of the Charleston church shooting, the United States has been examining the place the Confederate flag should have in American culture. Any arguments in favor of it on public grounds are flagging, shall we say. The etymology of the word certainly doesn’t aid the rebel cause.

Put out that flag!
Put out that flag? “Butt.” Felt tip and Sharpie on lined paper. Doodle by @andrescalo.


According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), English has been flying flag since the late 15th century. The OED explains that the word is “found in all modern Germanic languages, but apparently first recorded in English.” Its ultimate origin, however, is obscure.

Scholars have unfurled several ideas for the etymology of flag: 

  • Some irises are called “flags” and have sword-shaped leaves. The resemblance between the blade-like shape of these leaves and the form of a flag may have thus given flag its name.
  • Another flag, as in flagstones, is the flat slab used in paving. Again, the shape of these rocks may have inspired our name for cloth flags. The stony flag has Scandinavian roots and is related to English’s flakeflaw, and flay.
  • The noun might also derive from the verb, as to flag is “to hang down” or “flap about loosely,” as the OED defines this word that we’ve extended to mean “to lag” or “to languish.” This verbal flag might come from an earlier adjective, flag, “hanging down.” This flag might flap atop a Latin staff: flaccidus (“drooping”), from flaccus (“flabby”). Or it might be hoisted from the Old Norse flaka, “to flutter” or “to hang loosely,” which Skeat has connected to flaunt.

The answer, my friend, may be blown’ in the wind: Flag might just imitate the sound of a flag flapping in the wind. Flap, whose flappy gives us flabby, also expresses this sound. In fact, English has a great number of fl– phonesthemes that suggest flying, flowing, and sudden motion: flutterflit, fleeflick, flap, and the archaic flack and flacker. And flag? Perhaps the final constant portrays the limpness and looseness of a windless ensign.

Speaking of flick, smokers might do this to a fag they’ve finished smoking. This fag is from the fag-end, or butt, of a cigarette, as a fag is the end part of a piece of cloth, which often hangs down, making it a possible corruption of flag.

Whatever the origin of the word, some flags are simply red flags in need of a color change–white, in this case for surrender.


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A horse is a horse, of course, of course. Unless you’re American Pharoah, who coursed the Belmont Stakes last Saturday for the first Triple Crown in 37 years. This three-year-old colt clearly isn’t just any old horse. But etymologically, a horse is a course. Well, not of course, but maybe.

“Horse.” Ballpoint on paper. Doodle by @andrescalo.


Horses may race young, but the word horse runs old: The Oxford English Dictionary records horse (as hors) all the way back to around 825. Etymologists take the word back to the Proto-Germanic root for the animal, *horso-, hitching it there. But some ride off into a further sunset: the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) *kers-, “to run.” This root equipped Latin with currere (“to run”), which, in turn, saddled English with all sorts of words: carchargecorridorcurrentcursordiscourseintercourse, and, of course, course, among others. A horse is a course, of course of course.

Yet Ernest Klein suggests that a different feature defined horse. He suggests that horse may come from the Proto-Germanic *hrossa-, from the pre-Germanic *qru-ta-s, formed on a “lost verb,” “to jump,” from a PIE root meaning the same. If this is the case, horse, then, is “the jumping animal.”

Wild Horses

Old English also had a horse of a different etymological color: eoha word cognate to equus, the Classical Latin for “horse” and source of equine and equestrian. At root is the PIE *ekwo-, “horse,” which also stables the Greek ἵππος (hippos, producing hippopotamus, “river horse” and Philip, “fond of horses.”) Like horse “the jumper” or horse “the runner,”  *ekwo may itself be named for something characteristically equine, as it perhaps derives from the PIE adjective *oku-, “swift.”

The hippopotamus is the “river horse.” Likenesses also give us the sea-horse. And the whale-horse, or walrus, if folk etymology has its way. Walrus comes from the Dutch walrus. The wal- component is indeed related to whale, but the rus– part (cf. German words for horse, like German’s own Ross, hence the name) is probably not etymologically (not to mention zoologically) sound. Etymologists cite confusion between some Scandinavian words naming certain types of whales and the walrus.

While the Greeks may have likened the hippopotamus to a river horse, the ancient Egyptians thought of it as a water-ox, or the p-ehe-mau, which Hebrew probably shaped into behemoth. Fittingly enough, for hippos do have a pretty mean reputation in the wild.

Ancient Egyptian also had pr-ʿo, “great house,” a title given to those kings also of great reputation, pharaohs, partial namesake of American Pharoah. American Pharoah has little in common with walrus–other than being mammals and have a name shaped in error. It all runs full circle. You know, like a racecourse.

Speaking of horses, look out soon for another review of a new title from Skyhorse Publishing, Holy Cow! by Boze Hadleigh, a book about expressions of animal origin, which includes a whole section on horses.

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the incredible -ulk (part ii)

Last week, the etymologies of hulk and bulk led us to “ships” and “heaps.” How about those two other –ulk words, skulk and sulk?

What does the fox say? Nothing. It's skulking. Doodle by @andrescalo
An incredible “Fox.” Doodle by @andrescalo.


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, sulkinesssulky 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.

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