Phonesthetics and the Etymologies of Blood and Bone

English Language & Linguistics, vol. 25, no. 2, pp. 225–255


The etymologies of English blood and bone are obscure. Although their cognates are well represented in the Germanic family, both lack clear cognates in other Indo-European languages. Various explanations of their origins have been proposed, including that they may be non-Indo-European (e.g. Hawkins 1987). Blood and bone, and their cognates, share an initial /b/ with numerous body-related words (e.g. beard, breast, bosom) throughout Germanic. This initial /b/ constitutes a phonestheme. Phonesthemes – ‘recurring sound-meaning pairings that are not clearly contrastive morphemes’ (Bergen 2004: 290) – are present in many Germanic languages, but their role in lexicogenesis is little understood. I suggest that blood and bone were formed by blending the initial /b/ phonestheme with two preexisting lexemes: Proto-Germanic *flōda– ‘something that flows’ and *staina– ‘stone.’ Phonesthetic blending may be a fruitful avenue for future etymological research.

The bearded woman of Limerick displays numerous body-related b– words, including bare, body, brow, beard, breasts, belly, and buttocks.

Image: Public domain via British Library Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts (British Library MS Royal 13 B VIII, f. 19r)


This article has a fairly long history with a number of different versions. In its earliest instantiation, it served as my second qualifying paper (QP2) in graduate school, earning me an en route M.Phil. in February of 2017.

I used the feedback that I received from my QP2 committee to strengthen the paper, and won the 2018 Richard M. Hogg prize from the International Society for the Linguistics of English (ISLE). That version of the paper can be read here.

In March of 2018, I presented this paper at the Word-Formation Theories III & Typologies and Universals in Word-Formation IV conference at Pavol Jozef Šafárik University in Košice, Slovakia.

Factoring in the feedback I received at that conference as well as from the Hogg prize committee, I submitted an updated version of the paper to English Language & Linguistics in October of 2018. In May of 2019, I got a revise and resubmit. I made the suggested revisions, which greatly strengthened the piece, and resubmitted in August. It was accepted in October, a few more revisions were requested, and it was complete in November. It appeared online in March of 2020, and in print in the June 2021 issue of ELL.

Like all Hogg prize winners, I was invited to present this paper at the following ISLE conference, which was scheduled to be held in Joensuu, Finland, in the summer of 2020. Due to the Covid pandemic, this did not happen. Instead, the conference was held virtually in the summer of 2021, where I did ultimately present it.

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