Thursday, June 7, 2012

Language of Confusion: Quag-mired

Honestly, I just find the word quagmire fascinating for some reason I can’t even articulate. Quagmire, as in a literal place to get stuck, showed up in the 1570s, while the figurative meaning sprung up in 1775. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that the word is closely related to “mire”, which has pretty much the same meaning. Mire showed up earlier, in the fourteenth century, from the Old Norse myrr, a bog. Again first the literal meaning showed up, then about a century later the figurative. Basically, mire’s two meanings were established before quagmire even came onto the scene.

The question then becomes where did that “quag” come from. Believe it or not, quag is a real word. Or at least it was. It’s kind of fallen out of use over the years. Quag is another word for a marsh
coming from the Middle English quabbe, again, a marsh, and the Old English cwabba, which means…tremble. Yes, really. Like how a cup of Jello trembles when you shake it. I suppose because marshes were soft and shaky?

So a quagmire is a marshy bog. Although that may seem redundant, they are quite different, something else I didn’t know before I researched this post. A marsh is formed by things like the ocean and lakes and is usually full of plant lifewhile a bog is formed by precipitationand therefore has much less vegetation, usually just peat mosses. I guess a quagmire would be somewhere between the two, although these days it’s mostly used in references to war or the economy and pretty much anything else someone wants to claim is out to get them.

The EPA’s pages on wetlands
There’d probably be more if my dumb internet was working right…


  1. I found this truly difficult to read. The red font and white against the gray--migrainers have trouble with such.

  2. Even the strangest words have their roots!


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