Monday, 29 June 2009

gift and malady

The German, Swedish, Danish and Norwegian word gift means "poison". What's up with that?

Proto-Germanic *ǥiftiz meant "something given or received", and that meaning is found in German Mitgift "dowry", and Dutch gift (altho the Dutch word can also mean "poison"). Something went horribly wrong semantically, and according to Grimm it happened in the 19th century, which is when the "poison" meaning arose in German. Then in the last third of the 19th century, the "poison" meaning was borrowed from German into Swedish, Danish, and Norwegian.

Old Norse gipt is "something given or received" - this is the source of the /g/ of modern English gift. Old English gift meant "payment for a wife", but we know it was replaced or influenced by the Old Norse word, because otherwise the modern word would be yift.

*ǥiftiz is from Proto-Indo-European *gʰebʰ-ti- from *gʰebʰ- "to give or receive". In Latin, the form *gʰabʰ-eh₂- (*-eh₂- formed stative denominative verbs) became habeō "to hold, possess" and habitus "condition, state, habit" (why did *bʰ not become f?) [answer: because it's not word-initial, thanks _duif]. Latin male habitus "in poor condition" became Old French malade "sick". The phonological development was something like male habitum - malabitum - malabde - malade. This was borrowed into English and became malady.

The image is one of Tove Jansson's illustrations for Moominpappa's Memoirs (Muminpappans memoarer).


_duif said...

(why did *bʰ not become f?).

Because it's not word-initial (cp. ἄμφω vs. ambo, νέφος/νεφέλη vs. nebula)?

_duif said...

The semantic shift must have happened a lot earlier, btw.
Pfeifer's 'Etymologisches Wörterbuch des Deutschen' says early 15th century. It's also worth noting the shift in grammatical gender: by mid-16th century it had become a neuter, as it still is (das Gift). The fem. die Gift ('something given') was largely pushed aside by die Gabe ('something given; talent; portion'; although it was a very old word itself, so they must have coexisted happily for centuries) etc., probably to avoid confusion.
Two similar things happened in Dutch. (1) We also seem to have made an effort to avoid confusion by saying gif (or vergif) much more often than (archaic) (ver)gift, when the meaning is 'poison'. But, while we also have the word gave (= Germ. Gabe), gift meaning 'the act of giving, something given' is nowhere near extinct as it is in German.
(2) Gender-wise, the same distinction has been made (de gift: 'the act of giving, or something given' vs. het (ver)gif(t) (neuter!): 'poison').

zmjezhd said...

I always thought of it being a kind of calque on the medical term dose 'something given' from L. dosis from Gk δοσις. (Cf. Gk φαρμακον 'drug' whether healing or noxious as LSJ puts it, as well as the English drug.)

Wickham said...

Of course in Icelandic, if I remember correctly, "giftar" is "to marry."

goofy said...

Thanks, everyone, for your informative comments. I learn so much from writing this blog.