Some familiar words have etymologies right in front of us yet apt to stay hidden. Breakfast breaks a fast, the vowels disguising it well. Remorse is ‘biting back’, your conscience gnawing at you. Semicolon is a folk etymology of samey colon, on account of its resemblance to the other mark.
I read a nice account of another such etymology in Geoffrey Hughes’s Swearing: A Social History of Foul Language, Oaths and Profanities in English (1991). The book packs considerable detail, scholarly insight and amusing lists into its 280 pages, so I’ll follow its lead and keep this post short.1
In a section on ‘numinous words: charms, spells and runes’, Hughes writes:
One of the most dramatic instances of the use of a malign spell in Anglo-Saxon literature is wrought by the monster Grendel [in Beowulf].2 Described as one of the evil tribe of Cain and an enemy of the Lord, he puts a spell on the weapons of his victims, the Scyldings. The key verb in the text at this point is, fascinatingly, forsworen, literally ‘forsworn’, indicating that the verb forswerian could mean ‘to hinder by swearing; to render powerless by incantation; to make useless by magic’.
Hughes goes on to relate other examples of such word-magic from the Life of St Wilfrid and Bede’s Ecclesiastical History. Then he quotes from The Battle of Maldon and picks up the -swear- thread again:
A word of importance to our theme which is buried in this passage is answer, which is today an unremarkable, mundane term. As the example of forswerian, just discussed, suggests, the term has greater potency and acquires increasingly serious implications as one goes back in time. This earlier notion of ‘answer’ is vitally related, in the Maldon context and elsewhere, to its etymology, since Anglo-Saxon andswarian means literally ‘to swear against’, to make a formal, legal reply to a charge. Indeed, the dominant early meaning of the word was legal, a sense we are still aware of in the phrases ‘to be answerable for something’ and ‘to answer to a charge’.
The OED notes that this semantic development parallels that in Latin with respond: re-spondēre from re- ‘back, undoing’ + spondēre ‘pledge oneself, undertake a liability, hence to rebut a liability or legal obligation’.
Using answer every day, with silent w and posterior schwa, it’s easy to overlook the swear in its tail – but not once you’ve seen it.
[P.S. Hughes’s book appeared in a book spine poem here last year: ‘Broken words spoken here‘.]
1 For a still shorter version of the etymology of answer, see this tweet.
2 The etymology of Beowulf is uncertain, but Henry Sweet proposed, pleasingly, that it comes from ‘bee wolf’ as a kenning or code for bear. Hughes says this is possible ‘given the totemistic aura of the animal among the Germanic people’.