I told you yesterday what the word was gonna be.
The best thing about this word is that it sent me off to the library to hang with the OED for a while because the AHCD had absolutely nothing on its etymology. I guess, as words go, there aren’t any deep human truths buried in the meaning of the word, so perhaps it was one of those etymologies the AHCD editors just had to cut. While I was there, I picked up a nifty word for Thursday, so make sure you come back then.
“Quagmire,” you might have easily guessed, breaks down into two parts: “Quag” and “mire.” (Strong syllable breaks are such telling things.) “Quag” first shows up in the record around 1589 A.D. as a word for “marsh.” Interestingly, “quagmire” predates “quag” in the written record by ten years, as far as the OED folks demonstrated in the concise version, at least. The possible paths of meaning and causality are all over the place with this one, because “quag” is supposed to be from the same root as “quake,” the Old English cwacian, whose stem “cwac-“ is from cweccan, which forms the base for words implying instability and agitation. Although cweccan is seen in words talking about the instability of things as early as 825 A.D., “quag” doesn’t show up as a non-marshy word until 1611 A.D., when it’s first written down as being a verb meaning “to shake” (usually said of something flabby). So is a marsh a quag because it’s unstable, or are unstable things quags because they have marsh-like qualities? Probably the first, but the record is a messy one.
Moving on to “mire” is possibly enlightening because, guess what? “Mire” means “bog.” It means it today: I can be mired down in paperwork or bogged down in paperwork. The connotation is more or less the same. It also meant the same thing, as far as we can tell, in the hypothetical days of English’s structural parent: Original Teutonic. This language, which we’d have to travel into the B.C.’s to get to, is the real parent of English, although our linguistic ties to Proto-Indo-European are so strong that we can imagine English essentially running away from home to be fostered by the PIE circus. Anyway, “mire” was from the Old Norse myr-r, which came from the Original Teutonic *meus-, from which we also get the modern “moss.” It meant “moss, lichen, or bog.”
So…given that our options for “quag” are either “bog” or “shaking,” we can either say that quagmire originally meant “bog-bog,” “shaking bog,” or “shaking moss.” Poetically speaking, I prefer the last, but I’m going to hazard a guess and say that the second option is at least more plausible than the first. Can you imagine running around and calling something a “bog-bog,” then generalizing such a silly term for use in discussion of your state of being?
Well, maybe. Those British are quite silly, aren’t they?