Oh blast

Little-Bugger-Infant-RedWhat a pity! In Lingo, I claimed that “English has no loanwords from Bulgarian, with the debatable exception of the name of the Bulgarian currency, the lev, which literally means ‘lion’.”

I’ve just discovered that I missed one, and a very colourful one too: bugger. The invaluable Online Etymological Dictionary has this to say about it (I’ve edited the entry for clarity):

Bugger Meaning: ‘sodomite’, earlier ‘heretic’. First attested in 1550s. Derived from Mediaeval Latin Bulgarus, meaning ‘Bulgarian’. So called from bigoted notions of the sex lives of Eastern Orthodox Christians or of the sect of heretics that was prominent there in the 11th century. Compare the Old French word bougre for ‘Bulgarian’, also ‘heretic, sodomite’.

So it was either sex life or sect life among the Bulgari, as perceived by Western European Catholics, that gave us bugger. And of course Bulgarus was merely the Latinised form of the word used by the Slavic people in question. They in turn had borrowed it from a Turkic language, spoken by their erstwhile Turkic overlords. Its original meaning seems to have been either ‘mixed (group)’ or ‘disturbers’.


2 thoughts on “Oh blast

  1. The story with lev is more complicated than that. In Old Bulgarian (which is the same as Old Church Slavonic), the word for ‘lion’ was indeed lev. It was borrowed by Russian, displacing the native cognate lëv (lyov), although one of the nicknames for someone named Lev is Lyova, and 19C editions of Tolstoy in French and English gave his first name as Lyoff rather than the now-usual Leo.

    At the same time, regular sound-change turned the original Bulgarian word to ləv, now the only word for ‘lion’ in Bulgarian. When Bulgarian borrowed the Russian word for use as the name of its currency, that became the only meaning of lev in Bulgarian. The word was then borrowed a second time into Russian, so that it now means both ‘lion’ and ‘Bulgarian currency unit’ in Russian.

    (Why use the Russian word for ‘lion’? Russian had higher prestige than Bulgarian at the time, and the arms of Bulgaria is “gules, a lion rampant or, crowned or”.)

    Liked by 1 person

  2. “the sect of heretics that was prominent there in the 11th century” – why not call them by name? The members of this sect are known as the Bogomils.


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