Fun Etymology Tuesday – Lukewarm

Another Tuesday comes our way, and so does your regular FunEty!

Today’s word is “lukewarm”, meaning something that is neither hot or cold, but a bit tepid.

This little compound (of the adjective “luke”, meaning tepid, and the adjective “warm”, meaning… well, warm.), came to English around the late 14th century but that is about as much as the etymology will tell us. It’s origin is unknown, but two prominent hypotheses have been put forth:

1. It’s a borrowing from Middle Dutch or Old Frisian “leuk”, meaning tepid or weak

or

2. It’s an unexplained, unattested variant of the Old English word “hleowe”, an adverb meaning warm.

Both “leuk” and ”hleowe” find their origin in Proto-Germanic *khlewaz from PIE *kele-, meaning warm (it’s a bit hard to tell where the unknown form comes from).

Now, we’re a bit wary about explanations that include the word “unexplained”, yet, the OED tells us that it appears etymologically impossible to connect the first element of this compound with modern Dutch “leuk”, though it doesn’t expand very much on that so we’re not entirely sure on why that is so, and suggests instead a transformation from a (unattested) Old English verb *hlíewcian.

The OED entry doesn’t leave us any less wary of unexplained developments, though it should be kept in mind that it is certainly possible as only a limited number of Old English texts survive today and most of them are written in West Saxon.

Tell us what you think – borrowed or native (or perhaps a combination)?

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