Salinas17 at Salinas17 at
Sun Apr 1 07:11:29 UTC 2001

I wrote:
<<....<anapsao:> is cited early for wipe up, clean out.>>

In a message dated 3/29/2001 2:58:35 AM, acnasvers at replied:
<< I see no connection between <psa-> and <sap->, but it is very tempting to
relate Gk. <psa:r> 'starling' to OE <st&r>, OHG <stara>, Lat. <sturnus> (from
PIE *stor-). Other than this I have no plausible comparanda for words with
initial "psi".>>

If I understand correctly, this approaches the issue as a matter of descent
from a common source in the proto-language.  But perhaps the question might
be, as far as "soap" goes, how <psa-> words would look if they were borrowed
into Germanic, sometime before 1AD.  Direct cognacy in this case might be

"Soap" in the specific sense gives all appearances of being a relatively
recent innovation.  If the word were borrowed before the current era, there
is probably no special reason to think that signs of either Pelagasian
ancestry or native morphology would go with it.  The question might be merely
how the word was heard by the borrower and how he accommodated it within his
native phonology and morphology.  (Presuming that at this point in time
Germanic was not adopting Greek or Latin words in their "learned " form.)

Putting aside the <psa-> matter for the time being, the word "soap" in itself
has more to do with Greek, Latin and possibly Celtic than with any possible
semantic connection to a Proto-Germanic "sieve", to which it is supposed to
have cognacy according to Pokorny.

One of the earliest appearances of the word gives it as "a Gallic invention
(hair-dye) adopted by the Germans." (L-S Grk Dict)

This connection to "dye" is totally consistent with what we know about the
early development of what we call soap.  "Saponification is... accomplished
through reaction of a fat or fatty acid with an alkali.... soap was not
invented for purposes of personal hygiene.  Rather, it was invented early on
to solve a problem with textiles: wool as it comes from the sheep is coated
with a layer of grease that interferes with the application of dyes... In
some cases, the causticity of soap was itself a dyeing agent."

Basic early soap is a mixture of fats and alkali such as potash or lye.  "A
soap-like material found in clay cylinders during the excavation of ancient
Babylon is evidence that soapmaking was known as early as 2800 B.C.
Inscriptions on the cylinders say that fats were boiled with ashes, which is
a method of making soap,... Such materials were later used as hair styling
aids." (All this is from the Kirk-Othmer Encycl of Chem. Technology or soap
history sites on the web.)

Early soaps would have been highly caustic and capable of having strong
effects on anything they were applied to.  This is confirmed by Latin
references to "causticus" as "a kind of soap with which the Germans colored
their hair, Mart. 14, 26, 1."  (Lewis & Short).  This name from the Greek
<kaustikos>, burning, caustic, corrosive.

If we did not know this, we might think soap was just the modern Mr. Bubble
stuff.  But the origins of soap as a caustic treatment for wool or hides
gives us some better candidates for the origin of "soap."

In fact, <se:po:> which meant make rotten or corrupt or mortify, is also
attested as meaning to "soak hides" in the fifth century BC in Athens,
("dermata se:po:", Lidell-Scott).  And not surprisingly in Greek <sapon>,
soap, also appears as <se:po:n>.

As to the apparently incongruent presence of such ideas as "rotten" or
"rancid" with soap, this again is only due to an unfamiliarity with the early
soap-making process.  In fact, one of the main ingredients of most early
soaps would have been rendered animal fats, boiled down from rancid
leftovers.  An accurate description of such a product would be

In Latin, pertinent is <sebum /sevum>, tallow, suet, grease; <sebosus>, full
of tallow or grease, tallowy, greasy, as both refer to the fatty ingredient
of soap, although I am not sure when these words are first attested (Sebosus,
a Roman surname, is mentioned by Cicero.)

Also related perhaps in meaning is <apo/zeo:>: boil till the scum is thrown
off. (Cf., <exuper/zeo:>, boil over.)  Under these circumstances, one can
conceive of perhaps a co-occurence of <zeo:>, to boil, with the word for fat
<pion>.  <Zeo:> in the form <zei> makes its appearance for example in regard
to wine ("oinos zei").  And <zo:pissa>, the mixture of pitch and wax
"scrapped off from old ships", may have some association in meaning, if that
mixture was thereafter boiled.

The other ingredient in soap is ash, potash, lye, etc.  Along with <nitron>,
soda, we find the ash word <spodion>.  Thus, <Spodo-nitropoios> "maker of
soap from potash" (called dubious in L-S). Interestingly, we are also given
in Latin, ultimately from <spuo>, in the sense of froth, foam, boiling,
"spuma caustica, a pomade used by the Teutones for dyeing the hair red,...
called also spuma Batava,... nitri." (Lewis & Short)  Here, <spuma> seems
related to the caustic alkaline element in soap.

In none of all this as far as I know is a "sieve" involved, the word
referring to quite different processes, with no apparent relationship to soap.

In all of the above, the word "soap" seems to relate mainly to the
manufacturing process, rather than to end use of human bathing.  This brings
up again the Greek <psao:>, <pse:xis>, <psairo:>, <psapharos>, <anapsao:>,
etc., all words that can be related in meaning to one degree or another to
the gentler end use of soap as a cleaning, polishing or staining agent.
Compare <psao:> to <spao:>, in general meaning to draw-off, strip, suck in,
derive, tear away.  And in the form <spadizo:> "to strip off" as in stripping
hides ("spadixas to derma" Herodotus 5.25).

Steve Long

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