The Hidden Past of Words: English final -y


Consider the following list of everyday English words:  memory, happy, baby, crazy, victory, city, silly, puppy, army

For starters, they all end in -y and they can be grouped further as nouns (memory, baby, victory, city, puppy, army) or adjectives (happy, crazy, silly).  For the nouns, English speakers know that we form the plural by replacing the final -y with -ies. Is it the same -y that gets replaced in memories and babies? Probably yes according to the intuitions of most modern English speakers. However, memory’s -y and baby’s y have different origins.

The final -y of memory, victory, city and army is a nominal suffix whose origins come from Latin forms which Middle English acquired through Old French forms:  memory, victory (English) <- memorie, victorie (Anglo/Old-French) <- memoria, victoria (Latin),  city, army (English) <- cite, armée (Old French) <- civitas, armata (Latin).  Modern -y here corresponds to the -e suffix of Old French and to the -atus/-atum suffix of past participle forms of certain Latin verbs and to final -ia for certain Latin nouns.

The final -y of puppy and baby is a diminutive ‘pet name’ suffix which applies to not only these common nouns, but to personal names, e.g., Billy, Benny, Johnny.  The Online Etymological Dictionary mentions that the popularity of Robert (Bobby) Burns’ poetry led to widespread usage of this diminutive suffix with the common noun lad -> laddie, but this dictionary also points out the much earlier (14th century) occurrences of baby as a diminutive of babe, and puppy for pup.  Modern speakers may still discern the diminutive sense in modern dolly (a child’s toy doll) or mommy (mom/mother), but baby and puppy are now the unmarked cases, at least in American English.

The final -y of adjectives is a suffix which originally meant ‘characterized as’.  But, modern English speakers don’t analyze happy as ‘characterized by hap’ — happy is now a single unit of meaning. The history of this word is interesting. Hap, in fact, is the original root of happy and in Middle English it meant ‘chance, fate, fortune’.  Hap has become archaic in Modern English, still related to happenstance and haphazard. The formation of happy (hap + -y) took on the sense of luck, good fortune, but later replaced other terms (including gesaelig -> silly) to mean pleased, joyful. The original Old English word meaning happy survives as modern blithe. Note, though, how blithe’s usage has largely shifted from joy to a somewhat pejorative sense of nonchalance (his driving shows a blithe indifference to posted speed limits).

Silly has come a long way semantically from its origins.  Its core meaning apparently changed from ‘blessed’ to ‘pious’ to ‘innocent’ to ‘harmless’ to ‘pitiable’ to ‘weak’ to ‘feeble-minded’ in the course of a few hundred years.  What a semantic downgrade for the hapless lexeme! 🙂 Today it seems less harsh, mostly conveying the sense of non-seriousness, sometimes in a fun and whimsical way.  (Note: Old English gesaelig referenced above meant happy in the same sense of German selig, which translates as ‘blessed’, ‘blissful’.)

Where is modern-day final -y going? Some English dictionaries maintain a meaning distinction between the spellings hippy and hippie; hippy is an adjective that means ‘having wide hips’, hippie is a person with a certain (hip) outlook or lifestyle.  But other dictionaries now treat hippy and hippie as mere spelling alternates for a single noun. Ditto for yuppy and yuppie. (No one will confuse hippie/hippy with hipster, however!)

I’ll end this post with a few more examples of final adjectival -y.  The adjectives breezy, mighty, hasty,  tasty, angry, toasty convey a straightforward sense of ‘characterized by’ or ‘full of’.  They mean, respectively,  ‘characterized by’  a breeze, might, haste, taste, anger or toast (the verbal sense of ‘warming something’).

What about these y-ending adjectives:  haughty, sorry, feisty, merry, naughty, steady, busy?

For most English speakers the interpretation  ‘full of, characterized by’ is less clear here than for the preceding adjectives. Yet, haughty, feisty, naughty, steady also arose in the language by combining nouns with -y:  haught (‘high self-esteem’) + y, feist (‘small dog’) + y,  naught (‘nothing’) + y, stead (‘unwavering’) + y.  The earlier meanings of the nouns have changed and the ‘characterized by’ relationship is now more obscure. Haughtfeist and stead don’t appear in modern English in these original senses. Naught still means ‘nothing’, but the form combined with -y in Middle English to mean ‘needy’ and only later took on the sense of ‘wicked or morally bad’.  Feist’s originally meaning was ‘bad odor, fart’ and became associated later with lap dogs in the phrase feisting cur (‘stinking dog’) then shortened to feist to refer to a small dog — which has little to do with the modern meaning of  ‘aggressive, tough, plucky’.  Okay, maybe you know a tough little lapdog, or two.

For sorry, merry and busy, the etymologies are sarig (Old English ‘distressed’), myrge (Old English ‘agreeable, pleasing’), bisig (Old English ‘anxious, careful’). These adjectives are not the result of a base noun combining with a -y suffix, so perhaps it’s not surprising that these have indivisible meaning similar to modern happy. (Note: sorry is etymologically related to sore and not sorrow, although modern English speakers might feel a natural connection between sorry and sorrow.)

As babies entering the world, we don’t get to choose our parents or our first language. But we do learn the histories of our families, our parents and grandparents, great-grandparents, aunts and uncles, through the stories they tell to us, through our interactions with them. Words aren’t able to tell us their stories directly, we just use them in the context we learn them in, taking their current meanings for granted. It’s how communication is possible. Yet traces of their often long and complex histories can be discerned in their present-day form and meaning if we, like beachcombers, pause to pick them up, turn them over, and study the clues.  Enjoy words!

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This entry was posted in etymology, history of language, language change, Meaning Change, Word Usage and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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