While ago,text by Piotr Gasiorowski
Why is a bridegroom called ‘a bridegroom’? The first half is easy, and the second seems to be the same as groom ‘a person employed to clean and look after horses’ or (archaic) ‘manservant’ . A bridegroom would therefore be ‘the male attendant of a bride’, perhaps, though none of the things he actually does to her is normally described as grooming.
This kind of explanation is called folk etymology or popular etymology. It looks sensible and most people would accept it without asking further questions. But the linguist’s duty is to make sure, just in case, that the etymology is endorsed by historical data. The word in question is known from early English, as well as from other Germanic languages, but in a slightly different shape:
Old English brydguma, Old Norse bruþgumi, Old High German brutigomo.
It begins to look as if the r in -groom were unetymological, that is to say added to a word that didn’t originally contain it. But what was guma supposed to mean? Fortunately, the word existed on its own in Old English with the meaning ‘man’. Some of its grammatical forms, such as the nominative plural guman, display a stem-final n lost in nominative singular. Guma has not survived (or it would be goom in Modern English) except in the compound bride-goom, reshaped into bride-groom precisely because after the extinction of goom people couldn’t make sense of the second element unless they misheard it as groom.
Old English guma and its cousins
Guma (pl. guman) is cognate to Latin homo (pl. homines) and Old Lithuanian žmuô (pl. žmónės). In Latin, the word-family grew larger: humanus, humanitas etc. All these nouns go back to something like PIE *ghmon-, *gh@mon-. But here a new story begins. In the stem just reconstructed, *-on is a suffix added to a root which is also found in a family of words meaning ‘earth, ground, land’ and the like. Here are some examples:
Old Macedonian zemlja
Greek kham-aí ‘on the ground’
If you consult the long note in the left-hand margin, you will find that the initial consonant represents in each case the expected development of PIE *gh. We could finish here, reconstructing PIE *ghom-/*ghem- ‘earth’ and its derivative *gh(e)m-on- ‘earthling, man, human being’, were it not for the fact...
Mysterious chthonic roots
... that here and there we also find unexpected developments:
Greek khthōn, gen. khthonós
Hittite tekan, gen. tagnas, cf. tagan ‘on the ground’
It has always been clear that the two sets are somehow related, but the consonants of the second set do not seem to fit any established pattern of regular sound correspondences. Hittite and Tocharian were unknown to 19th-century linguists, so problematic forms were restricted to Greek and Sanskrit. Some scholars concluded that PIE had additional fricative sounds like those spelt th in English. The sounds would have been extremely rare and found only in some special environments. Thus reconstructed, the ‘earth’ root would be *ghðom-, with the initial *ghð giving Greek khth and Sanskrit kš. It was further supposed that the phonetic simplification of *ghð to *gh in most other IE dialects produced the first set of correspondences. Still other Indo-Europeanists posited an initial *ghz to account for the second set.
The discovery of Hittite and Tocharian texts in the early 20th century suggested a different solution. The PIE root was of the form *dheghm-/*dhghom- with vowels alternating between the two slots available for them.
Quite possibly the original state of affairs can be seen in Hittite: the noun *dheghm (>tekan) ‘earth, soil, ground’ (genitive *dhghmos or *dh@ghmos > tagnas) was a neuter; it had a by-form *dhgho:m or *dh@gho:m meaning ‘a lot of soil’, or collectively ‘the earth’. In this latter form it could be personalised as Mother Earth, the earth goddess (Hittite Dagan-tsipas).
You may well wonder why the final consonant of the root in Hittite is n rather than m. The most likely reason is the fact that word-final m became n in Hittite. To be sure, in inflected forms like the genitive tagnas the n is not final, but the analogy of the base form made it appear even there. A similar change took place in Greek, hence the inflected form khthonós instead of expected *khthomós. But Greek retains derivatives with m, e.g. khamaí and khthamalós, which betray the older state of affairs. They did not belong to the declensional paradigm of khthōn
While the original shape of the neuter noun was lost in the other branches of the family, the feminised form *dhgho:m survived. However, the embarrassing combination of consonants, *dhgh, was either simplified to *gh or underwent special transformations, the results of which are visible in Greek and Sanskrit.
Curiously enough, most native speakers of English find it impossible to pronounce the initial sequence in chthonic (Greek khth-) as two consonants, and say ‘thonic’ instead. They may draw some comfort from the reflection that early speakers of Indo-European experienced similar difficulties and solved them in a similar manner.
So do you know now why we call a bridegroom a bridegroom?
Net ling is out of order