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Old Man Hare: Etymology
I didn’t get to hit the books on Old Man Hare, but I’ve had enough feedback from readers and blegs that I can tell somewhat more of a story than last time. Let’s start with what we know.
- We know of four mediaeval instances of the word.
- In Suda, 10th century, λαγώγηρως is used to gloss μύξος. I glibly said “all we know about μύξος is that it’s a λαγώγηρως”, which is good wisecracking, and poor insight. As LSJ has pointed out (h/t Nikos Sarantakos), μύξος is just a mangling of μυωξός “dormouse”.
- There are two instances in a collection of manuscript miscellanea, published by Delatte ( Anecdota Atheniensia et al. ) in 1927. I haven’t sighted the volume; one instance is λεβηρίς λαγόγερω “Old Man Hare pelt”, and one is λαγόγερος.
- There is one instance in a scholion on Lucian, used to gloss μυγαλῆ “field-mouse”. This scholion was cited in Stephanus’ 16th century dictionary , and in Bast’s 1805 Critical Letter, but is not included in the standard edition of Lucian scholia.
- I don’t know when the texts are dated from, but most scholia come from between 1000 and 1500. The text of the Suda could have been tampered with and embellished by scribes at any time up to the copy we have; but my default assumption is, this word was included as a gloss in the tenth century.
- The mediaeval instances all correspond, in orthography and spelling, to “hare” + “old-man”. The γήρως [ɣiros] spelling of “old man” is archaic; the modern form is γέρος [ɣeros]. -ως is an archaic second declension, which is likely scribal rather than vernacular.
- There is a modern word, which I’ve seen as λαγόγερος, λαγόγυρος, and λαγογύρι, which denote the European ground squirrel aka European souslik.
- The minority form λαγόγερος also means “hare” + “old-man”. The majority form means “hare” + “round”. λαγογύρι is just a neuter variant of λαγόγυρος.
- λαγόγυρος and λαγώγηρως are both pronounced identically, [laɣoˈɣiros].
- The word is certainly attested, according to blog sightings, in Edessa (λαγόγερος) and near Corinth (λαγογύρι).
- γέρος in Modern Greek is both the adjective “old” and the noun “old man”.
- Greek does not allow noun+adjective compounds: λαγόγερος does not make any sense as “an old hare”. The only way it makes sense is as a noun-noun compound, “hare” + “old man”.
To interpret these:
- There is certainly no guarantee that λαγώγηρως meant the selfsame animal that λαγόγυρος does now (h/t Ηλεφούφουτος). It is certainly possible that the word meant a dormouse/fieldmouse back a millenium ago, and a squirrel now.
- OTOH, the scholiasts did not necessarily have a clear idea of what the ancient μυωξός and μυγαλῆ were. So they could have meant the same animal.
- λαγόγυρος “hare roundabout” is etymologically opaque.
- λαγώγηρως could well have been folk-etymologised as λαγόγυρος in modern times, given that Modern Greek no longer has [ɣiros] for “old man”. In fact since the two are pronounced identically, the spelling could be the fault of a modern scholar, who did not know about the mediaeval antecedents of the word (or the variant λαγόγερος).
- λαγόγερος is problematic as a compound: it cannot mean “an old hare”, the only way it can make sense is as an anthropomorphism, “a hare-like old man”.
- To this urbanite, sousliks look anthropomorphic. They stand on their hind legs:
That’s weak evidence for λαγώγηρως meaning “squirrel” from the start.
- There are various Slavic names for the European ground squirrel. Northern Slavic has variants of */sus/ (h/t Epea Pteroenta).
- Slovenian and Serbian have /tekunitsa/. The Bulgarian reflex of the */sus/ root meant “rat”, which suggests it used to mean “squirrel” and was displaced. But it’s just as possible that it changed meaning to “rat” without external prompting.
- The standard Bulgarian word for the European ground squirrel is /laluɡer/.
- The dialectal variants for the European ground squirrel (h/t Julia Krivorucko) are /laɡuder/ in Southern and Eastern Bulgaria; /laɡuntʃi/, /ləɡuntʃi/, /ladʒunjak/, /lədʒunjak/.
- These point to an original /laɡjuT/ or /laɡuT/, with T any coronal: /l, n, d/.
- The standard /laluɡer/ seems to be derived from */laɡuler/, and ηλε-Φούφουτος thinks its an assimilating metathesis, with /laluɡer/ easier to pronounce; the word for “chatterbox” is /laladʒija/
- The Bulgarian etymological dictionary does not speculate on the etymology of /laluɡer/, which suggests it is etymologically opaque in Bulgarian.
- The Greek Balkanist Christos Tzitzilis (h/t ηλε-Φούφουτος) has suggested /laluɡer/ < λαγώγηρος without further discussion, as an illustration of Greek /o/ > Bulgarian /u/; the other example was /protuspor/ < /protospori/ “first seed”. Northern Greek already has unstressed /o/ > /u/, but this seems to be a general process in Bulgarian loans.
- The Bulgarian linguist Slavova has recently cited Tzitzilis’ derivation in passing, without disputing it.
Back to Greek:
- Modern λαγός “hare” has an allomorph λαγουδ- /laɣuð/ (from the Mediaeval diminutive λαγῴδιον), used in compounding: Modern diminutive λαγουδάκι, surname Λαγουδάκης, λαγουδοφωλιά “hare warren”. That would explain Bulgarian /laɡud/
- The accepted etymology of λαγωνικό “hunting dog” is from λακωνικό “Laconian dog”, with contamination from λαγός—so “hare dog”. That would explain Bulgarian /laɡun/.
- Modern Greek has the word λαγουδέρα /laɣuðera/, “rudder”; its etymology is unknown, but it looks like “hare”.
What does this tell us?
- The sideways step of */sus/ in Bulgarian from squirrel to rat confirms the flexibility of animal names across time, and that a λαγώγηρως was not necessarily a squirrel. Still…
- The Greek form appears three or four centuries after the arrival of the Slavs in the Balkans. So it could be originally Greek or originally Slavic.
- The form is attested in Greek Macedonia (which makes a Slavic loan quite possible) and the Peloponnese (which makes it not impossible). If I had attestation from the islands, a Slavic loan would look more doubtful.
- If the form is indeed opaque in Bulgarian, and especially if the form is absent in Proto-Slavic, then a Greek origin is likelier.
- The form attested in the Middle Ages in Greek (and reasonably early at that) is only /laɣoɣVr/, not a form based on /laɣuð/ or /laɣun/. If the form was derived as some sort of Greek adjective from “hare”, it has only left traces in Bulgarian: there are no traces of a λαγουδ- based form in Byzantine or Modern Greek. That’s not impossible, but it’s not my default assumption.
- George Baloglou wondered whether there might have been calquing of a Slavonic form into a Greek “Old Man Hare” within Bulgarian, before the form moved south, which would explain the grammatical awkwardness. If we accept the anthropomorphic “a hare-like old man”, the formation is slightly less awkward; and while such cross-linguistic calques do happen (e.g. German Handy for “mobile phone”), they are rare and learnèd. Again, not my default assumption.
- The palatalised variants of /laɡuntʃi/ and /ladʒunjak/ in Bulgarian are not obviously motivated within Greek; I don’t see a clear reason why Greek would offer *λαγιουδάκι or *λαγωινικός as models. For now, I’m happy to make that Bulgarian’s problem.
- The conservative take is to assume the Greek word was always λαγώγηρως; that it was borrowed into Bulgarian as */laɡuɡer/; and that the awkward l-g-g was dealt with in dialect by assimilation to l-l-g (/laluɡer/), as ηλε-Φούφουτος suggested, or by dissimilation to l-g-d (/laɡuder/). The latter dissimilation may have been modelled after the Greek diminutive λαγούδιν, without that implying that the beastie was ever called a “little hare” or variant thereof.
- I don’t know what’s happened with /laɡuntʃi/ and /ladʒunjak/, and it’s a bit much to go straight from /laɡuɡer/ to /ladʒunjak/. But unlike /laɡuder/, I don’t see a straightforward way for Greek to explain that level of variation.
More tentative than I’d like, but it looks originally Greek, and there’s circumstantial evidence (the standing on two legs) to suggest it was a squirrel back then too. That’s my take at any rate.