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Etymology - a confusing example?

Chris Robinson

This is the third in an occasional series of articles focusing on a particular area of SLD's work, to give readers a glimpse of some of the things we do on a day-to-day basis. This one highlights the task of investigating the etymologies of the headwords in for the second edition of the Concise Scots Dictionary.

'Nae wonder that I was confaised awee' (Falkirk Herald, Thursday 5 September 1872)

In the process of tracking down the origins of the words in the new edition of the Concise Scots Dictionary, some interesting differences appear between Scots and English. Much of our vocabulary has made its way into Scots from other languages through the intermediary of English, but quite often Scots is the innovator. One example is CONFEESE (to confuse, abash), with the variant spellings confuse and confaise, which provides an instance of Scots apparently leading the way.

Confus appears as a adjective from the 14th century in such literary works as Chaucer's Knight's Tale: "I am so confus, that I kan noght seye". This adjective originates from the Latin confūsus, the past participle of confundere which gives us confound. So confuse was the past participle of confound. In that case, where did the modern adjective confused and the modern verb confuse (confeese, confaise) come from?

The etymology for the verb CONFUSE in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) tells us that confused is used adjectivally from the 14th century; but the present tense and the active voice are "only of modern use". OED explains that these were formerly expressed by confound and draws a comparison with French confondre, confus, Latin confundere, confūsus.

In order to explain the –ed ending on the past participle, OED concludes that French confus or Latin confūsus was altered by the addition of this native participial ending –ed suffix. So the –ed is a completely redundant and spurious appendage. But, once it is there, later generations assume that where there is confused, there must also be to confuse. All very confusing! OED says that this happened "much later".

How much later? The earliest quotation in OED where we can be sure we are not dealing with a past participle dates from as late as 1805. It comes from The Medical and Physical Journal: "Those various combinations..are sufficient to confuse a weaker mind".

In A Dictionary of The Older Scottish Tongue (DOST), hidden within the entry for FLATLY, is this quotation from The Contemplacioun of Synnaris by William of Tours, dating from before 1499: "Than sall our consciens all our trespas explane Our fenȝeit fassoun flatlie to confuse" (Then shall our conscience all our sin explain, our false pretences completely to confound). Here we have a clear example of the infinitive in Scots over 300 years before the first recorded instance in English. As proof that that this is not an isolated aberration, the same Older Scots text also uses the verb as a simple past tense: "This first leif confusit in figoure Quhar that the warld is set in the salt se ... And as apperis in to this first figur The sone the mone & sternis to our sicht Ar neir all closit in till a clud obscure." This last example is to be found in the DOST entry for LEFE n1. It is just one of many where a word shared by English and Scots appears first in Scots. Other surprising examples include guffaw and registration.