The title part about age and crabbed youth is taken from Shakespeare’s poem The Passionate Pilgrim. His authorship of this poem has been questioned more than once, but we’ll let him be because at the moment we’re only interested in the journeys of crabs and scorpions across the linguistic map, rather than the literature, and your passionate pilgrim is the Oxford Etymologist.
Obviously, crack, die, to yell, strike outand their tastes are sound imitators and sometimes sound–symbolic. Crabs crawl while others kr-creatures crawl and the roots of words starting with kr– often have the variant skr– (the said s-mobile has often been mentioned in this blog). Such observations are trivial. The enigma is not the origin of such words but their similarity in at least half the world. The crab, we are told, may have been named after its claws (see below). Fairly true. Crustaceans are generally clawed. Insects also know how to make us scratch. Scarabs provide another good example.
how the word crab and his tastes have spread so far? Where was the first such word coined? Classic Greek karabos meant “crab”. In ancient Egypt there was a goddess called Serket. She controlled her breath, and choking people bitten by poisonous insects invoked her when they were in agony. Later she was associated and identified with scorpions. The root of Serket is (s)rk-. Are the names with (s)rk– ~ (s)kr– originally in Egypt? I owe my knowledge of Serket and scorpions to a thesis defended quite a long time ago in France. Many words and intrigues spread from Egypt to ancient Europe. For example, Egypt worshiped frogs. Millions of them appeared in the bogs left by the flooding of the Nile and were revered as symbols of abundance and fertility. The water goddess Heket was half frog and half woman (in this half-anthropomorphic [“having a human form”]half-theriomorph [“having an animal form”] ability, she resembled Serket and several other deities and monsters, including Sphinx).
Knowledge of Heket reached Greece and Rome and survived in Europe in the form of a fairy tale. In Russian folklore, the tale is known as “The Frog Princess” (without any trace of the ancient plot, except that a prince is destined to marry a frog). Similar versions were recorded across Europe. One of them reached Germany but in a hopelessly distorted form (perhaps via a medieval Latin text: in this one a princess marries a male frog (which, of course, when crushed against the wall, turns into a handsome prince).The frog as a totem in Native American folklore may have had similar roots, but the motif arose independently of its Old World analogue.If the Frog Could Find a New Home in Europe, why the name of the (s)kr ~ (s)rk creature?
In Germanic, the colloquial word for “crab” is ubiquitous. This is German Krabbe “shrimp” (originally a low german form), Krebs “crab; crayfish ~ crawfish” (but more often used with the meaning “cancer”). Incidentally, crayfish is an almost direct relative of German Krebs (This is, Middle High German krebiz). The German word was borrowed from French and later returned to its Germanic home, namely, Average English. The, crevasseby popular etymologybecame urge and (by the same trick) crayfish; hence the American form crayfish. Every element of this story is trivial: Germanic words were often taken over by French and later borrowed by Middle English. Likewise, folk etymology produces the most extravagant creatures in all languages. A crab turns into a fish, and a squirrel becomes a horned creature on an oak (such is, for example, the German Eich-hornchen, literally, “oak hornet”). Dutch creeft and old Icelandic krabbi does not add anything to what we already know.
Although ancient Egypt Serket contains a variant of the same root as crab, his path from Egypt to Europe could not be straight. In 1926, the French linguist Marcel Cohen quoted a long list of Semitic words that were surprisingly similar to those quoted above: Arabic vsaqrab “Scorpio,” qaranba “a kind of beetle” (almost the same form with not between), qambri “shrimp” (the latter sounds almost like the Greek kammoras ~ kammaras) and Latin cameras. Cameras also reached German-speaking lands. There, as usual, k became hand we recognize the old word in French Lobster “Lobster.”
Thereby, beetle, Scorpio, craband crayfish ~ crayfish appear as cousins in a loose word family. You can look at them from several points of view. For example, the Greek chart meant “to write”, but its original meaning was “to scratch” (many words for writing go back to such a notion). The Greek verb is reminiscent of scratching and scratching, although the relationship between them and the crab group is not direct. A few Old Germanic verbs that sounded like chart and crab existed, and it has been suggested that the crab got its name from its claws. Although this idea can be found in several authoritative etymological dictionaries of the Germanic languages, it is not entirely convincing, as it ignores the non-Indo-European words cited above.
It may be that skr-~ kr– the combinations evoked the same reaction everywhere and at all times. Perhaps it is the universal phono-symbolic group (s)kr which is reminiscent of scratching, and this is how the names of several insects and crustaceans were born. Wilhelm Oehl, the Swiss etymologist I often refer to in this blog, could have said so. But here too a certain dissatisfaction remains, because we are dealing with a lot of animal nouns rather than elementary verbs.
Finally, it is also likely that we have before us a word migratory (the German term is Wanderwort), once borrowed from a discoverable (Proto-Semitic?) source, and never remaining in the same place. It would be a satisfactory solution if we had to explain the origin of a single word, for example, crab. But beetles and scorpions are not crabs! The Egyptian goddess had nothing to do with crabs either. Therefore, it would probably be reasonable to refrain from a binding solution. The facts are known, but the etymology of the words listed above still remains largely unclear.
Now a few lines can probably be devoted to the odd adjective surly. As often before, I will quote The Oxford English Etymology Dictionary: “CRAB+ED, with original reference to the crab’s gait and habits, which suggest a cross-grained or restless disposition; cf. to mean Low German krabbe ‘cantankerous man’; krabbig ‘litigation, cross’, and for training obstinate.” And here is our eternal authority Walter W. Skeat (I’ve edited the entry slightly for style): “Crabbed, brooding, cramped…. From crab; that is, resembling a crab, lively or clumsy. See Dutch krabben ‘scratch’, kriben ‘to be sullen’.
Dictionaries and the Internet provide carefully written explanations of the origin of wild apple, and I have nothing to add to the information there (but see our image in the header!). However, if you are interested in the origin of the idiom to catch a crabTo see the post for 21 September 2016 (“I stick my oar in….”). I hope you like this blog post even if your layout is constitutionally contradictory or choppy.
Featured image by Wehha via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0