Too Dumb To Be a Thief?

On Language

By Philologos

Published August 28, 2008, issue of September 05, 2008.
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Dr. Harold J. White writes:

“At the beginning of ‘The Miller’s Tale’ in Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales,” in Vincent Hopper’s interlinear translation, I came across the line ‘A riche gnof that gestes heeld to bord,’ which Hopper renders as ‘A rich scoundrel who took in paying guests.’ Could gnof come from Hebrew/Yiddish ganef, a thief? And if so, how did Chaucer know of such a word, since there were no Jews then in England?”

My first reaction to the suggestion that gnof might come from ganef was one of skepticism. In the first place, although “ganef,” “gonnof” or “gonoph” is probably the oldest documentable Hebrew/Yiddish slang word in the English language, having first appeared in print in Dickens’s “Bleak House” in 1858, Chaucer was born in 1340 — 50 years after the expulsion in 1290 of England’s Jews. Second, my Oxford English Dictionary, which defines gnof as a “churl,” “boor” or “lout” and traces its use from Chaucer’s age until its disappearance in the 17th century, derives it from East Frisian knufe, “lump,” and gnuffig, “coarse” or “ill-mannered.” And last, ganev or ganef (from Hebrew ganav, “thief,” accent on the second syllable) is stressed in both Eastern European and Western European Yiddish on its first syllable as GAH-niv, which could not possibly have yielded the English “gnof.”

And yet, lo and behold, when I opened my copy of “The Student’s Chaucer,” published in 1900 by Rev. Walter W. Skeat, Litt. D., LL.D., Ph.D., M.A., Elrington and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon in the University of Cambridge, and turned to “gnof” in the glossary, I found: “Churl (literally, thief), Modern English ‘gonoph.’” In other words, Skeat, who did not lack degrees or academic standing, did think that gnof came from ganav. Dr. White’s suggestion had to be taken seriously after all.

I glanced at the first lines of “The Miller’s Tale,” which, I confess, I have not read since I was an undergraduate, nearly as long ago as Chaucer was born after the expulsion of England’s Jews. The lines went:

Whylom there was dwellinge at Oxenford
A riche gnof, that gestes held to bord,
And of his craft he was a carpenter.
With him there was dwellinge a povre scoler,
Had lerned art, but al his fantasye
Was turned for to lerne astrologye.

To make a long story short (“The Miller’s Tale” has 668 lines), our gnof of a carpenter is named John, while his boarder, the poor scholar-astrologer, is Nicholas. John has a much younger wife named Alison, with whom Nicholas is in love; seduced by him with no great difficulty, she loves him back. In order to get John out of the way so that they can spend time trysting together, Nicholas tells the carpenter that it is written in the stars that a flood greater than Noah’s is imminent. And so the credulous John goes off to the attic to construct a boat from an old kneading tub, and Nicholas and Alison are left alone. Just as they are in flagrante delicto, however, who should turn up but the parish clerk, Absalom, who is also in love with Alison. What happens next? Unfortunately, even if I had space for the story’s extremely bawdy and funny ending, this newspaper never would agree to print it. The curious are referred to Vincent Hopper.

But who is right about gnof, the OED or Walter Skeat? It is not impossible, after all, that Hebrew ganav, used by England’s Jews prior to their expulsion, was picked up by Christians and became part of their vocabulary. And if it did, we have learned something very interesting about the medieval Ashkenazic pronunciation of Hebrew words — namely, that the characteristic shift in stress, from the ultimate to the penultimate syllable, that determined their form in Yiddish (think, for example, of Hebrew to-RAH but Yiddish TO-rah, Hebrew ka-DISH but Yiddish KADD-ish, Hebrew sha-BAT but Yiddish SHA-bes) had still not taken place, or not taken place entirely, by the late 13th century. Only if English Jews, prior to their expulsion, had said gah-NAWV and not GAH-nif could the word have had its first syllable elided by non-Jews and become gnof.

And yet it is highly unlikely that this shift took place so late, which is one reason that I think Skeat is probably wrong. Another is that our gnof, John the carpenter, is neither a thief nor a scoundrel, but a gullible idiot. Thieves are generally associated with cunning; why should a word denoting them have come to mean a simpleton? Most probably, Skeat, who was an Anglo-Saxon scholar but not a Hebraist, let himself be fooled by 19th-century English gonnoph into thinking that gnof was an early, long-lost form of it. The OED’S derivation of gnof from East Frisian gnuffig strikes me as far more reasonable.

And with that, as Chaucer’s miller puts it, “This tale is doon, and god save al the route!”

Questions for Philologos can be sent to

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