Douglas G Kilday acnasvers at
Thu Apr 5 04:14:00 UTC 2001

Steve Long (1 Apr 2001) wrote:

>"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..."

>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.)

These are important points. To properly etymologize "soap", it's necessary
to know what early "soap" was.

>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.)

The attested Latin forms are <se:bum>, <se:vum>, and <saevum>. The b/v
alternation suggests competing p-Italic and q-Italic forms derived from PIE
*gw (cf. Osc. <kumbened> = Lat. <convenit>). If so, the native Latin form is
probably <saevum>, with <se:bum> from Sabine (cf. Sab. <fe:dus> = Lat.
<haedus>) and <se:vum> a mixed form. The PIE root would be *saigw-.

"Soap" is from OE <sa:pe>, and the OHG cognate <seifa> points to a PGmc root
*saip-. Watkins considers this a variant of PGmc *sib- 'to pour out, sieve,
drip, trickle' to which he refers "sieve", OE <sife>. He regards Lat.
<se:bum> as "of obscure origin". OTOH Whitehall refers both "soap" and
<se:bum> to PIE *seib- 'to trickle, run out'.

In my opinion Watkins's arbitrary lumping of PGmc *sib-, *sip-, and *saip-
is unjustified and makes as little sense etymologically as it does
phonetically. Whitehall's *seib- doesn't yield the correct vowels; one would
expect OE *si:pe (or *sipe from zero-grade) and Lat. *si:bum (or *sibum).
Neither etymologist addresses <saevum/se:vum>.

The most plausible scenario has PIE *saigw- 'tallow, fat, grease, etc.'
undergoing "pre-Germanic" labialization to *saibw-, yielding PGmc *saip-. If
the pre-Germans learned the technology of soaking wool or hides in an
ash-tallow preparation from PIE-speakers, they might have borrowed the word
in this technical sense, and there is no need to force an etymology on the
basis of "trickling, dripping, resin, etc."

The alternative is (pre-)PIE oscillation of *bw/gw in parallel with the more
common labialized phonemes, but I confess I can't fully follow most of the
recent postings on the "*gwh in Gmc." thread. Things became horribly
complicated when three-way instabilities were introduced.

>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

Agreed. I see no basis for connecting "soap" with "sieve". The latter is
IMHO most plausibly referred to a pre-Germanic borrowing from a PIE noun
based on the zero-grade of *seikw- 'to filter, dry out'. Pre-Gmc.
labialization produced *sipw-, yielding PGmc *sif-. Meanwhile *seikw- itself
became PGmc *si:hw-, attested in OHG <si:han> 'to filter'.


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