Japan Currents, October, 1997

What's in a Word?

The State of Being X

Freedom, friendship and brotherhood. Kingdom, township and neighborhood: -dom, -ship, and -hood. These three suffixes have always seemed somewhat mysterious to me, but it wasn't until a classroom discussion a few weeks ago that I was moved to seek out their roots. We were reading a newspaper article about the dwindling Japanese birthrate, and the somewhat startling headline: "The End of Motherhood?" prompted one of my students to ask,"What does motherhood mean?" I hadn't considered motherhood a particularly difficult word, and I explained that in the same way as "-ness" could be added to an adjective to make a noun meaning "the state of being x," -hood could be added to a noun. We don't say "mother-ness"...only "motherhood." I asked if they could think of any other words which ended in -hood, and after a few minutes we were considering "neighborhood" and "childhood," and soon "fatherhood," "brotherhood" and "sisterhood"...and why this "hood" has no connection to something worn on the head.

A thousand years ago, back in the Old English period of the language, hood was an independent word, with a fairly broad range of meaning, including "person, personality, sex, condition, quality, and rank." It occurred in combination with other nouns, and eventually became a suffix, expressing the state or condition of being the word with which it combined. It can be used to make new words even today. We can see that a falsehood is something with the quality of being false, or that priesthood is the state of being a priest, but language being what it is, the system doesn't always work so perfectly. Take the word "livelihood," for example, as in the phrase "to earn one's livelihood," another way of saying "to earn a living." It would seem that "livelihood" should mean the state of being lively, and in fact that's exactly how Shakespeare used it. The current meaning is a result of the kind of mistaken analogy which seems to create new words all the time. An old word "liflode," essentially a combination of life+load, meaning "life's course or way" some four hundred years ago, was re-spelled and re-analysed as livelihood, which it replaced. Other pronunciations of the old "hood" developed into "-head" words, of which "maidenhead" is almost the only remaining example, with the meaning of "maiden-ness", "the state of being a maiden," at one time used for both men and women. "Apartheid," borrowed into English in the 20th century from Afrikaans to describe a political situation in South Africa, shows the form as "heid" in a related Germanic language, with the meaning "apart-ness" (separateness).

The history of "-ship," similar in meaning, is not so different. It was an independent form in Old English, originally meaning "to create, appoint, or ordain," but eventually it, too, was joined with other words with the sense of "the state or condition of being x," and another productive suffix developed. The original word was related to our modern "shape," and appears in a slightly different guise in "landscape." We have little trouble seeing the sense of friendship, hardship, membership, partnership, scholarship, workmanship, etc., but a word like worship is old enough for the "wor" to be almost unrecognizable. It comes from the shortening of "worth," from "worth-ship" the condition of being deserving, being held in respect. As with the imported apartheid example, we can find numerous German words ending in "-schaft," such as "wissenschaft" (learning, scholarship, science), the condition of knowing, which is essentially the same form, going back to the period when English and German were one.

The "-dom" of wisdom (wise+dom), boredom, kingdom, freedom, martyrdom... with the sense of condition, state, and (earlier) dignity, also derives from an independent form in Old English, in this case the word which became the current English "doom." But while "doom" today has the sense of an unhappy destiny, the early meanings seem to have developed through "law" and "judgment" into "decision" and eventually "destiny," "death" and "ruin." The productive suffix in the modern language is a little less frequent than "-ship" and "-hood," but still makes its appearance in new coinages. We can find "dealerdom" appearing (and disappearing) in the early 20th century, supplanted by "dealership," and even "scholardom" and "scholarhood" in the 19th century, though only "scholarship" remains.

Today's "meaningful relationships," "planned parenthood" and the red tape world of "officialdom," display traces of the English of a thousand years ago.

Stephen Trussel