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“Breath” and “breathe”

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I decided to make good on my promise to complete a series devoted to a few words referring to the most basic functions of our organism. The previous posts dealt with eat, drink, and throat. Now, as promised, a story of breath is coming up. The basic word here is the noun breath; it already existed in Old English and had long æ. The verb breathe is a later derivative of the same root; it also had a long vowel. The consonant in the verb was voiced (ð), as it still is. In the monosyllables of Early Modern English, vowels often underwent shortening, and that is why breath and breathe sound so unlike. English spelling is here, as in many other cases, conservative, but we are used to the alternation of þ and ð from pairs like bath ~ bathe, sheath ~ sheathe, loath ~ loathe, and so forth. A breath of fresh air. Image credit: “Woman, dress, sea” by wongyulee. CC0 via Pixabay. Breathing to get warm. Image credit: “Cold” by whereslugo. CC0 via Unsplash. The Old English etymon of breath meant “smell, stink, exhalation, vapor,” not “breath.” The path from “smell” to “breath” is not too long; yet it has to be crossed. If we disregard a few fanciful ideas, early etymologists cited words like breast, breed, brood, brew, broth, and German braten “to roast” as cognates or sources of breath. The great Norwegian scholar Sophus Bugge, whose name I have never yet mentioned in this blog, though every one who is interested in Old Germanic studies should know it, cited Icelandic bræla “to burn and produce a lot of smoke.” This word surfaced in texts only in the seventeenth century and occurs, among others, in the alliterative phrase brenna og bræla (brenna “to burn,” og “and”). Bræla is suggestive, just because of the connotation of smoke, and one can well imagine that bræ- in it is the same root we have seen in West Germanic. I devoted a few lines to this conjecture,. . .

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News source: Linguistics – OUPblog

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