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Words & Devices: "Muck, muck, muck!"

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  • Patrick H. Wynne
    [In VT 17 (May 1991), Carl Hostetter and I began a column called Words and Devices , the purpose of which was to examine words and other linguistic features
    Message 1 of 1 , Jul 11, 2006
      [In VT 17 (May 1991), Carl Hostetter and I began a column called "Words and
      Devices", the purpose of which was "to examine words and other linguistic
      features of Tolkien's Secondary-World languages that have apparent cognates
      and analogues in the languages of the Primary World" (pg. 11). The title was
      taken from a passage in _The Silmarillion_ explaining why the languages of
      Men often resemble those of the Elves: "It is said also that these Men had
      long ago had dealings with the Dark Elves east of the mountains, and from
      them had learned much of their speech; and since all the languages of the
      Quendi were of one origin, the language of Bëor and his folk resembled the
      Elven-tongue in many words and devices" (pg. 141). This column went into
      a state of "indefinite abeyance" many years ago, when VT became predominantly
      dedicated to the publication of new primary material by Tolkien himself, but
      I would like to revive it here on Lambengolmor in the form of occasional posts.
      -- PHW]


      In 1903 J.R.R. Tolkien (then eleven years old) was re-enrolled in King Edward's
      School, where he was placed in the Sixth Class under the tutelage of assistant
      master George Brewerton. Humphrey Carpenter describes Brewerton as a
      "fierce teacher" of English literature and a medievalist by inclination, who
      "demanded that his pupils should use the plain old words of the English
      language. If a boy employed the term 'manure' Brewerton would roar out:
      'Manure? Call it muck! Say it three times! _Muck, muck, muck!_' " (_Tolkien:
      A Biography_, pp. 27-8).

      In light of this anecdote, it isn't surprising that Tolkien would later make a
      rather obvious historical pun on the English word _muck_ in the Qenya
      Lexicon, where we find the word _mûko_ 'dung, _stercus_' (Lat. _stercus_
      'dung, manure, muck'). Eng. _muck_ is from P.Gmc. *_muk-, *meuk-_ 'soft',
      whence also Eng. _meek_ ('quiet, gentle, submissive'), while Q. _mûko_ is
      listed under the root MUKU 'cacare' (Lat. 'to empty the bowels') along with
      other derivatives, all of which refer to filth or excrement: _mut (kt)_ 'dirt,
      filth', _muqa, munqa_ 'filthy', and _mukta (mûke)_ 'cacare'.

      The expected Goldodrin form of a Qenya root MUKU would be *_mug-_ (or
      *_maug-_ if the original U were long). The Gnomish Lexicon does cite a verb
      _mug-_ (pret. _maugi_), but this means 'keep silent, say nothing (about)', and
      has several cognates that also all refer to silence or secrecy: _maug_ 'silent',
      †_maugli_ 'secret, hidden', _mugol_ 'taciturn', _mugwen_ 'secret', _munc_
      'shut mouth; silence; secretiveness' (as an adj., 'mum'). It may be that in the
      two years intervening between QL (1915) and GL (1917) Tolkien simply
      rejected MUKU as 'cacare' and decided that this root would mean 'keep silent'
      instead. But if we entertain the possibility that MUKU 'cacare' and Gn. _mug-_
      'keep silent' were intended by Tolkien as coexistent concepts, then perhaps
      the meaning of this root in Qenya developed from a euphemism, i.e., 'cacare'
      was the act one did 'in secret, in private, while hidden' -- cp. Eng. _privy_,
      which means both 'sharing in the knowledge of something secret or private'
      as well as 'outhouse, toilet'.

      GL also includes the word _gorn_ 'dung' -- and while this is clearly not
      cognate with Q. _mûko_, it does appear to be another historical pun based
      on a "plain old word of the English language": OE _gor_ 'dirt, dung, shit', of
      uncertain origin but cognate with several other Germanic forms such as
      OHG _gor_ 'animal dung' and Middle Dutch _goor_ 'filth, mud'. (The Mod. Eng.
      equivalent _gore_ means 'clotted blood'.)

      As for its _internal_ etymology, Gn. _gorn_ 'dung' is perhaps related to the
      QL root KORO(2) 'be round, roll', with derivatives such as _korne_ 'loaf',
      _korin_ 'a circular enclosure, esp. on a hill-top', _korma_ 'lump, cake', etc.
      Related forms in GL suggest the existence of two distinct roots, *KOR- and
      *G(U)OR-, both meaning 'be round, roll'. Forms such as _corn_ 'loaf', _corm_
      'ring, circle, disc', _corol, corin_ 'round, circular; rolling', etc. obviously
      derive from *KOR-, while on pg. 47 of GL Tolkien mentions "Another root
      _gwas-_ or _gor-_ < _guor-_ = Q _kor-_; cp. _gorin_ (= Q _korin_) circle of
      trees". Below this note, Gn. _Gwâr_ is equated with Q. _Kôr_ 'the town on
      the round Hill', and an alternative Gn. form _Goros_ is given on pg. 41.
      Thus _gorn_ 'dung' was perhaps derived from _gor-, guor-_, parallel to the
      derivation of _corn_ 'loaf' < *KOR-. The original sense may have been 'round
      lump' or 'small (round) hill' -- cp. Welsh _tom_ 'horse dung' (orig. 'ball of
      dung'), which is cognate with Irish _tomm_ 'small hill' and Grk. _tymbos_
      'burial mound'.

      -- Patrick H. Wynne
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