Muddy waters | OUPblog

… what happens when we begin to investigate the origin of the English word mud.

Its immediate neighbors are plentiful. The first occurrences of mud in texts go back to the fourteenth century, and that is why it is believed to be a borrowing from Middle Dutch or Middle Low German, even though a word of such semantics might easily exist for centuries, without making its way into books: one needs a special context for it. Dutch has modder, corresponding to German Moder and northern German Modder; in their vicinity, we find old and late words like mode, mudde, mod, modd, and many others.

Moder (a German word mentioned above), like Engl. mud, seems to have the root mo– or mu– and some suffix (or extension, as consonants of this type are called in etymological dictionaries). Once we are left with such a short root, we encounter an overwhelming number of seemingly related formations. If we begin with the Scandinavian mo– words (including those occurring in dialects), we will end up with “sand, gravel; grain; dust, haze, cloud; clay, peat,” and a few other nouns whose sense has strayed too far from any one listed here. A great multitude of such words was the subject of an investigation by the Swedish linguist Ivar Lundahl (1931). He suggested that the original sense of the mo– words was something like “crushed, broken matter.” I might add “loose earth” to it. Mud and its look-alikes will easily fit this definition.
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