Strange words

A cheap cheap: semantic change in Germanic and Romance cognates

As a Norwegian and Danish speaker who learned English as a second language, there are a couple of fun facts I’ve learned about false cognates. Did you know that if you use the verb grine in Danish you’re laughing, but in Norwegian you would be crying? Kind of messed up. One of the last incidents that inspired me to write about this was the Norwegian word kjip (/çi:p/, potentially /ʃ/i:p/ if you’re woke).

The word kjip can be translated to ‘lame’ or ‘crappy’. If you tell a boring story at a social event, people may call you kjip. If you’ve had a long day at work and burn your food when you come home, you’ve had a kjip day. But why kjip? It doesn’t mean anything else in Norwegian, unlike other similar words in English (lame, crappy, party pooper, etc.). I decided to look kjip up in the Norwegian Language Council’s online dictionary, and would you look at that! It comes from English cheap:

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This on its own is interesting. It’s funny how cheap somehow was borrowed into Norwegian, possibly when talking about products, and then the word went through a change of meaning and kept its Norwegian accent, eventually changing the properties of the word entirely.

But the story doesn’t end there! I looked up the etymology of the English word cheap, and it turns out that cheap itself went through a bit of a transformation: according to Wiktionary, the word cheap can be traced back to Latin caupō ‘tradesman, innkeeper’ and gradually through Proto-Germanic the word changed into more generally referring to trading. In Old English, it could mean a lot of trade-related things, including ‘purchase’. This is also found in other Germanic languages through, e.g., German Kauf, Swedish köp, Danish køb and Norwegian kjøp. So not only has the cognate which ended up as cheap developed naturally in the Norwegian language, it now has two distinct pronunciations and meanings in Norwegian.

It is not uncommon for the meaning of cognates to diverge over time: this chart tweeted by Martin O’Leary shows how the Proto-Indo-European word sek developed into skei ‘to split’ and sken ‘to peel’ while also diverging into Latin secare ‘to cut’, resulting in scienceshit and insect coming from the same Proto-Indo-European root.

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I recommend that you check out Martin’s tweet if you want to see more of these! These charts show how it seems to be the case that the more time passes, the further the cognate will stray from its original meaning. Cheap and kjøp are both still connected to the act of purchasing something. Grine in Danish and Norwegian, although they refer to opposite acts (laughing or crying), they still refer to acts of displaying emotion. The Norwegian word fjord comes from the same root as the Old Norse verb fara ‘to travel’, because Norwegians traveled through the fjords. Now they are separate words and serve separate purposes.

To finish off this post I will say bye. Or, God be wi’ you, as that’s where the word bye comes from. It developed in such a way that God be wi’ you > God buy you > God bwy yee > Good b’w’y > Godby’e > Godby. At some point people mistook God for good, because of expressions like good morning and good evening. Now you can just say bye and people get it. So that’s cool?

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