Thursday, October 1, 2020

Language of Confusion: Darkness

EDIT: I think I fixed whatever was causing that weird overlapping, but as I have no idea what caused it in the first place, I don’t know how to keep it from coming back. And this is why I hate New Blogger.

Darkness is kind of spooky, right?

Dark comes from the Middle English derk, from the Old English deorc, which is pretty much just dark, in both the same literal and figurative sense we use it. It was also pronounced as it was spelled, and frankly I’m disappointed that we don’t still pronounce it like “dee-ork” because that seems hilarious. Anyway, deorc is from the Proto Germanic derkaz, but no one knows where that one came from. Anyone else disappointed in having to say plain old dark when we could be saying derkaz?
Shadow comes from the Old English sceadwe/sceaduwe, which meant shadow and in spite of the ridiculous spelling was pronounced the same, too. Shade is obviously from the same place, though it came about on a different journey. It comes from the Middle English schade and Old English sceadu, which was pronounced “shadu”. Basically, shade used to have the u sound shadow does, but they dropped it for some reason. I guess that does make things less confusing. Anyway, sceadu (and thus sceadwe) are from the Proto Germanic skadwaz, from the Proto Indo European skot-wo- or skoto-, dark or shade. I guess that means that shade used to be pronounced with a k sound!
Next, gloom showed up in the late sixteenth century, and it’s actually Scottish in origin—I think they mean Scottish English rather than Gaelic here. It’s not actually known where it comes from. It might be an unknown Old English word, or Scandinavian, or from the Middle Low German glum, which meant turbid. You might be thinking “Oh, that sounds like glum, are they related?” And I’d be asking why you expect some kind of sensible answer. Glum showed up in the mid sixteenth century, so before gloom, and is from the Middle English gloumen, become dark. That word might be influenced—only influenced—by the Middle Low German glum, but it also might not be. Frigging words, man.
Finally today, dim comes from the Old English dimm, so dim with an extra m. It comes from the Proto Germanic dimbaz, and… nowhere else, apparently. Dim does not exist outside of Germanic languages. It just apparently showed up a thousand-ish years ago.
Man, I suppose it’s fitting that all the dark words are so obscure, but still. Weird.
Online Etymology Dictionary
University of Texas at Austin Linguistic Research Center
University of Texas at San Antonio’s page on Proto Indo European language
University of Texas at Arlington
Tony Jebson’s page on the Origins of Old English
Old English-English Dictionary
Corpus of Historical Low German


  1. Did you see that NOVA did two episodes on the alphabet and writing? It gave us some idea why the A and B are shaped the way they are. I was riveted.

  2. Gloom is such a great word. I really must use it more...


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