Grappling With Yiddish Words That Punch Above Their Weight

Could ‘Shlogn’ Be Related to ‘Slug?'

FIghting Words: An old-school boxer demonstrates the meaning of the Yiddish word shlogn.
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FIghting Words: An old-school boxer demonstrates the meaning of the Yiddish word shlogn.

By Philologos

Published April 14, 2013, issue of April 19, 2013.
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How can that be, you ask, when the parallel with German schlagen seems so clear? The OED’s editors, needless to say, were not unaware of schlagen, but they connected it to another English word, “slay” — not the “slay” of “to kill,” but “slay” meaning “an instrument used in weaving to beat the weft,” called slag in Old German.

The post-vocalic shift of Germanic “g” to English “y” is a regular phenomenon. Thus, for example, we have German/Yiddish Weg/veg (from Germanic uegh) and English “way”; German/ Yiddish sagen/zogn (from Germanic seku) and English “say”; German/Yiddish Regen/regn (from Germanic regna) and English “rain,” etc. It was this shift, presumably, that led the OED’s editors to rule out the possibility that “slug” or “slog” could be related to schlagen, since the Germanic “g” would not have survived in English.

I was now in Stage 2. Who was I to challenge the OED? And yet its verdict bothered me. The resemblance between “slug” and schlagen/shlogn just didn’t seem likely to be a coincidence. Could there be any grounds for arguing that it mightn’t be?

I thought for a minute. The “g”-to-”y” shift took place early on in Old English’s development, in the first centuries of the Common Era. Were there any Germanic languages that might have introduced a word like “slug” or “slog” into English after this shift took place, so that the “g” would not have been affected by it? Indeed there were.

Starting with the ninth century, large areas of northern and eastern England fell under the control of Danish invaders, who bequeathed to English such everyday words as “egg,” “dirt,” “leg,” “sky,” “take,” and “ill” – and in Danish, the word for a blow is slag, as it also is in Swedish and Norwegian. (In contemporary Danish, to be sure, slag is pronounced “slow,” but in early medieval times the “g” was still sounded.)

Could slag, then, have entered medieval English from Danish and lived on there to become “slog” and “slug”? I can’t on the face of it imagine any reason that it couldn’t have — apart from the fact, that is, that the OED’s all-knowing editors didn’t think of it. That’s undeniably a weighty reason, but not quite weighty enough to carry the day. I vote for a “slug”/shlogn connection. It’s better than obscurity.

Questions for Philologos may be sent to philologos@forward.com


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