I’ve always been fond of the word muck. What a pleasure to discover that muck has an intriguing etymology.
The noun muck came to English in the mid-1300s, followed within a half century by its verb form. Initially, the noun meant cow dung & vegetable matter spread as fertilizer, which helps explain why the verb initially meant to dig in the ground or to move manure. Apparently all this mucking about made its way through Scandinavia after starting off as a Proto-Germanic word meaning soft.
And most sources suggest that same Proto-Germanic word meaning soft also gave us the word meek, which came to English even earlier (in the 1200s), meaning gentle, courteous, benevolent.
Interesting that a word meaning soft grew to mean both cow dung mixed with vegetable matter & those who will inherit the earth.
Pondering this unlikely association led me to have a look at the etymology of manure, which first arrived in English as a verb meaning to cultivate land or hold property (possibly a synonym for inheriting the earth?). It came through Anglo-French & Old French from the Latin word manuoperare, literally to work with the hands. It’s easy to see how one of the most humble forms of working with one’s hands is/was to spread fertilizer, or work the earth. It wasn’t until 1540 the noun manure was born, meaning exactly what it means today.
And what other words did the root of manure become? How about maneuver? Its humble roots of working with the hands morphed in time through Old French to land in English in 1758 meaning planned movement of troops or warships. All this suggests there is at least etymological truth in those epithets thrown by military grunts on the ground regarding the instructions given them from above.
Which brings us to humus, a word meaning earth or soil. Humus showed up in English in the late 1700s after a trip through Latin from a Proto-Indo-European word meaning earth. Another branch of that same word meaning earth made its humble way into Latin to become the word humility, which seems to bring us back to meekness.
Good readers, I hope you’ll have a comment on these humble, meek, manure-ish words & their histories.
Big thanks to friend Aaron Keating, for suggesting this week’s topic, & thanks to this week’s sources: Merriam-Webster, Wordnik, Etymonline, Collins Dictionary, & the OED.
I find it fascinating that the Latin word humus, meaning of the earth, is the root of human. Though I suppose it’s reasonable to expect Mother Earth would be pretty darned good at giving birth, not only the humans, but to words.
In the early 1400s the Latin word humare (a verb form of humus meaning to bury), linked with the prefix ex- made its way into English as exhume, meaning to unearth. I’ll leave it to the sociologists to explain why modern usage continues to embrace the grisly word exhume, but has - for the most part - forgotten the kinder, gentler term, inhume, to put into the ground (which entered English two centuries later).
Though Genesis I couldn’t possibly lead to this, it’s no surprise – given the Genesis II telling of creation – that the Hebrew equivalent of humus, adamu, became the name Adam. Humus & adamu admittedly aren’t cognates, but they both mean of the earth, & both have many offspring.
Camomile has its roots in humus & means apple of the earth. Camomile entered English in the late 1300s through French & Latin, originating in Greek chamaimelon.
Also from humus, chameleon came to English in the mid-1300s, through French & Latin, originating in the Greek term khamaileon, meaning lion of the earth, which most likely comes from a species of chameleon whose crest resembled a lion’s mane.
Another Latin offspring of humus was the word humilis, meaning lowly or humble, giving us images of the lowly folk prostrating themselves before the mighty, literally on the ground. In the 1300s, humilis gave us the English words humble & humility. By the 1530s, these words gave birth to the noun humiliation, which in turn, gave us the verb, humiliate.
Good readers, please comment on all of this humus-ness, or possibly on Oscar Levant’s commentary on humility:
“What the world needs is more geniuses with humility, there are so few of us left.”
My thanks go out to this week’s sources: the OED, The Quotation’s Page, Wordnik, Merriam-Webster, & Etymonline.
I write for teens, narrate audio books, bake bread, play music, and ponder the wonder of words in a foggy little town on California's central coast.
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