Though these days the term wordmonger refers to "a writer or speaker who uses language pretentiously or carelessly," please join me in proposing a new meaning. A fishmonger appreciates and promotes fish, therefore, a wordmonger does the same for words.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

To rise like smoke

To rise like smoke

I’ve just stumbled upon a Proto-Indo-European word that meant to rise like smoke, vapor or mist. The word is dheu-, & it has some intriguing offspring.

Because things that rise like smoke eventually disappear, dheu-‘s offspring include both dwindle (1590s through Old & Middle English) & die (die has been around forever & came through Old English). Dead & death were also born of dheu-, and like die, came to English so early we have no date of entry. A related term that may have come from dheu- is the word funeral. Though nobody has nailed it down, it appears that after sometime while it was visiting the Latin language, funeral’s original source was the root dheu-.

At some point it seems rising like smoke suggested a limited ability or intelligence, as dheu- also gave us dizzy (also an Old English word that’s been around forever, initially meaning stupid or foolish). Dheu- also gave us dull, as in witless, blunt, not sharp. Dull showed up in English about 1200. Another word that showed up from this vein of dheu- is dumb (meaning both unable to speak & lacking in intelligence, now considered rude in either usage). Dumb appeared early enough in English, we have no date for its arrival.

The word dew also came from this source, appearing very early in English, from Old English.

Both airborne & settled smoke can be called dust, which came from dheu- through old Germanic languages.

Any of you who have walked across a patch of thyme while inhaling have experience with why it might have come from a word meaning rises like smoke. Thyme came to English in the 1300s after a voyage through Greek, Latin, & Old French.

Fume made its way to English in the 1300s, also from dheu-.

And apparently because swirling dust can make one confused, the mental confusion & stupor associated with the disease typhus gave that disease its name in 1785, taken from the root dheu- after it spent some time vacationing in Greece & Rome.

Because an animal in cold weather creates small clouds of vapor with its breath, the deer got its name from dheu-, which came through old Germanic tongues to land very early on in Old English.

Dwindle, die, dead, death, funeral, dizzy, dull, dumb, dew, dust, time & typhus: they all started as a cloud of smoke, vapor or mist.

 Anything to say about all this? Please leave a comment.

Big thanks to this week’s sources: Merriam-Webster, Wordnik,  Etymonline, Collins Dictionary, & the OED.


  1. Mon Dieu! That is dizzying! I certainly did not expect typhus to be on the list.

  2. Hi Anne,
    The one I love best is deer -- the reason for it is almost poetic.

  3. I haven't been here in a while. My life has been swirling like a dizzying cloud of dust, it seems. These are wonderful. And amazing!

    1. Christine - may your dizzying cloud of dust settle into something more comfy & less precarious. Soon.