A worm a-wrigglingThe wr- cluster twists and writhes, its words wrap themselves tight, wringing the life out of the poor wretches who incur their wrath. Although the w of the cluster used to be pronounced, wr- has been pronounced /r/ for the best part of four hundred years. Even so, it has a clear and distinct identity with its phonosemantic meaning implying distortion or twisting. The sound symbolism of words beginning with the wr- cluster can also be followed more neatly, because the vast majority of these words emanate from a single origin, the Proto-Indo-European root *wer³- “turn, bend”.
*Wer³- is a mega-root whose influence extends into thousands of words across Indo-European languages. Sanskrit has वृत् (vartate) “turn”, Lithuanian has virsti “turn into, become”, Russian has вертеть (vertet’) “rotate, turn, twist”, Bulgarian въртя (vartya) "turn, spin", and Old English had weorþan “happen”. The Latin descendant is verto “turn”, source of numerous English borrowings, including verse, version, vertebra, versus, versatile, universe, divert, convert, avert etc. *Wer³- is also the origin of the suffix –ward, from Old English –weard (spelt –weardes in the masculine or neuter genitive singular), “toward(s)”, literally “turned toward, in the direction of”, and so makes its wayward presence felt in forwards and backwards, upward and downward, awkward, onward and afterwards. Let's take a closer look at some of the English wr- words which descend from this root.
Match the words below to their definitions by hovering your mouse over the question marks or tapping them on your mobile.
- A wryneck looking backwardswrangle
1. squirm, move about from side to side __________
2. squeeze and twist something to extract liquid from it __________
3. a Eurasian woodpecker which can swivel its neck to look back on itself __________
4. a sudden, violent twist or pull; what our American cousins call a spanner. The spanners. __________
5. snatch something from a person's grasp. __________
6. the flexible joint connecting the arm to the hand __________
7. incorrect, not right __________
8. contort the body in pain or agony __________
9. grapple with a person or a problem __________
10. dry, sardonic, off-beat (humour) __________
11. fury, anger __________
12. a garland of flowers or leaves fastened in a ring __________
13. be involved in a long, complicated dispute; round up livestock __________
14. a fold or crease in the skin or in fabric __________
The wriggling source PIE root *wer³- “turn, bend” spawned a wealth of twisting daughter roots, all containing the wr- cluster or these two consonants with an intervening vowel. One such root is *wert- “turn, wind”. In Germanic languages, this has developed into words for “become”, as in Old Norse verða, Dutch worden and the archaic English verb worth, still found in the expression woe worth the day. German werden is both “become” and the auxiliary verb for the future, combining what will befall us with the notion of “the twists and turns of fate”. This is echoed in Old English wyrd “that which happens, chance, destiny, fortune; the Fates”. The three Fates or Norns are the goddesses of human destiny, and were known in Scots as the weird sisters. Shakespeare borrowed this term for the three witches in Macbeth, from which the “odd, uncanny, abnormal” idea of weird became prevalent. *Wert- is also the likely ancestor of Wurst, sausages being turned and twisted, as well as having a distinctly worm-like appearance.
An Easter wreathAnother daughter root of *wer³- has been reconstructed as *wreit- “turn, twist”, which produced writhe, wreath and wrath (with its archaic wroth variant). Wrath comes to us via Old English wraþ "angry, irate", but is literally "tormented, twisted". Germanic cognates include Danish vred “angry”, Icelandic reiður “angry” and Dutch wreed "cruel". A parallel root is thought to be *wreik- “turn, wrap”, which is the ancestor of wrest, its frequentative wrestle, and its non-standard form wrassle, as well as wriggle and that great turning joint, the wrist. Another descendant of *wreik- is wry, whose sense has evolved somewhat to mean “dry, sardonic”, but was formerly more commonly used for “twisted to one side, distorted” and was a verb meaning “contort, twist”. This sense is preserved in the adverb awry “crooked, askew” and in the wryneck, a type of woodpecker that can twist its neck almost 180 degrees.
*Wergh- “turn, bind, squeeze”, is yet another member of the warped *wer³- family of PIE roots, and gave Old English wyrgan “strangle, throttle”. This gradually morphed in spelling and sense, passing through forms that meant “choke” and “harass” before arriving at the Modern English spelling and meaning: worry. This root’s nasalised form, *wrengh- is the predecessor of wring, wrangle, wrinkle, wrench and wrong, which originally meant “bent, crooked”, and so fits in with so many other Indo-European languages where straight (and right) = “good” and crooked (and left) = “bad”. Other European descendants of this PIE root include French ride “wrinkle” and its derivative rideau “curtain”, from the notion of “plaited (or wrinkled) cloth”, German ringan “wrestle, struggle”, Danish vrang “wrong, crooked”, and Dutch wringen “wring, writhe, twist”.
Worm from Old English wyrm “worm, snake, dragon” also comes from the ubiquitous *wer³- root and has its Latin cognate in vermis “worm”, the base of vermicelli, literally “little worms”. Vermilion, the scarlet colour similar to the dye made from the Kermis vermilio Mediterranean scale insect is also from this origin. Latin vermis is also the source of vermin, which was originally used to denote worms and snakes, before being used for any objectionable creatures, while its colloquial version, varmint, is a later addition to the language. The word vermouth comes from the French pronunciation of German Wermut “wormwood”, which was traditionally used to fortify the wine base of vermouth, as well as in the manufacture of absinthe, beloved beverage of bohemians, poseurs and my sister-in-law Paula, who uses it as a lubricating mechanism to explore life under tables. We'll finish with the north-east England folk song of the Lambton Worm - a north-east wriggly legend, butchered by Sir John, and indeed Bryan Ferry in the below instance.
The Lambton worm - A north-east wriggly legend
I've wrung out all the drops of wr- now, so that wraps up this blog post. Bye!
Wryneck: By Harvinder Chandigarh (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons