On the word "bumblebee"

The story of the word bumblebee is curious, but (contra Mr. Burns of the Simpsons) certainly doesn't lead back to a form like bumbled bee, in the way that ice cream leads back to iced cream, or the American form skim milk descends from the form skimmed milk still current elsewhere. The bee part is transparent, and there is a Middle English verb bomb(e)len, meaning to make a humming sound, presumably of imitative origin. So there you are.

However, it's clear that the older form was humble-bee, where hum(b)le is an intensive of hum, which is also presumably of imitative origin. Whether bumblebee is a new coinage based on bombelen, or whether it is an alteration of humble-bee by dissimilation, or a mixture of both, it's impossible to say.

But when we look in Pokorny's etymological dictionary of Indo-European for hum, we see it under the root kem²-, as expected by Grimm's Law, and with Lithuanian reflexes in k- and Slavic ones in ch- that also refer to humming noises and bees. That certainly does not sound imitative to me -- the sharp sound of [k] is nothing like a bee hum, which has no beginning and no end. So in the end the obvious imitative nature of bumblebee leads to a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.

And there remains at least one dangling oddity: Pokorny also lists an Old Persian -- at least I think that's what "Ai." means -- reflex meaning "yak". Yaks grunt (as the Linnaean name Bos grunniens indicates), they don't hum, and what is Old Persian doing with an inherited word for "yak" anyhow? English, like most modern languages, has borrowed its word from Tibetan.


Jeremiah said...

The Swedish word for bumblebee is humla, which certainly sounds like the noise a bumblebee makes. Maybe the English word comes from the Swedish word but changed slightly over time.

John Cowan said...

Humla is definitely a relative of the humble- part of humble-bee. As in most cases like this, it is not a matter of English words being borrowed from Swedish or vice versa, but of a word that descends from the common ancestor of both languages, Proto-Germanic.

English has borrowed very few words from Swedish specifically (as opposed to the large number of borrowings from Old Norse, mostly from the western varieties that eventually became modern Danish and Norwegian), and most of them are recent and obvious: angstrom, gauntlet (somewhat altered), gravlax, lingonberry (with English -berry), ombudsman, smorgasbord, and tungsten.)

WordzGuy said...

English also borrowed from Swedish the phrase bork-bork-bork, disseminated primarily via "The Muppets." :-)

Andrew West said...

Altindisch rather than Altiranisch I think. Yak is camara in Sanskrit -- see Tibeto-Logic's recent discourse on Yaks.

goofy said...

Ai is "Old Indic" and Air is "Old Irish". Don't get them mixed up!

Vinod said...

I was googling the etymology of 'bumble bee' and came upon this post.
The reason I was so doing is the fact that in the Sinhala language, the bumble bee is called a 'bambara'.

Looking further [http://starling.rinet.ru/cgi-bin/response.cgi?root=config&morpho=0&basename=%5Cdata%5Cie%5Cpiet&first=301], I find that there is a common Proto-Indo-European root, *bhembh-, meaning bumble-bee, big beetle or bombyx. Derived from this are the 'sanskrit' term bambhara- (from which the Sinhala word is derived), the slavic *bǭbā and the germanic *bumbl.