Something Fishy

There is an excellent etymological discussion on Polish Radio about the words:

  • wędka – fishing rod
  • wędzić – to smoke fish

The expert on the show provides a fascinating discussion of the history of these words in the Polish language.  Everyone interested is encouraged to listen to this.  Of course, the translation requires some time.

The only quibble may be with the ultimate conclusion.

The discussion was spurred by a question posed by a listener (a Mr. Lech, incidentally) as to whether there is an etymological relationship between those words.  The expert on the show concludes that there isn’t.

But this is clearly wrong. She analyzes the usage of the words throughout history but finding no clear connection in the written sources, she answers the question in the negative.  The problem is that she does not care to ask the “next question.”  Let’s see what that means.

We first explain what she says about the history of these words:

Wędka – Fishing Rod

Wędka [pronounced vendka] is a word for a “fishing rod”.  It is a diminutive of the older form of the word – węda [pronounced venda] which may also have meant a “hook”.  (Incidentally, this is the same Slavic diminutive formation as one would expect to produce a laverca from a laver or lavera).

Wędka > Wędzić  – To Catch Fish

Apparently, from this word – węda/wędka – there later came a verb – wędzić – which meant as much as “to catch fish.”  Later this also became zwędzić meaning “to steal”.  (A similar meaning to łowić as in to fish/hunt which also became a colloquial synonym for “to steal”.)  This cognate of węda/wędka, however, was unrelated to the other wędzić (the one from Mr. Lech’s question).

Wędzić  – To Smoke Fish

But says our expert the above are unrelated to the word wędzić meaning “to smoke fish”.  That word, namely, comes from a “pre-Polish” (presumably meaning some old Slavic?) word meaning “to lose freshness” – same as wiotczenie as in “thinning.” But earlier that word, says our expert, the same meant “drying” or “losing water”.  She then says that “as is known, the preserving of meat by using smoke causes the meat to become dry” and that is why “the process of smoking fish was named by means of a word which referred to the [process] of drying.”

Typical ancient Slav meal

Expert Conclusion

“Of course, pure coincidence caused that wędzić and wędka are similar to one another – they  do not have the same origin.” (Incidentally, this is not original – Alexander Brueckner arrived at the same conclusion).  However, she says one can imagine a situation where a fish that is wędzona was a fish that was caught on a węda or a fish that was smoked or a fish that was first caught on   a węda and then was smoked (a “twice wędzona” fish).

The Smoking Elephant in the Room

The above conclusion however is not supported by the above discussion.  To use an oft-used aphorism “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence”. Without getting into the question of whether you can prove a negative, it is worth noting that the expert does not bother to get into the question of:

  • why exactly did węda [pronounced venda] mean “fishing rod”?; and
  • why exactly did wędzić [vendit] mean “smoking fish”?

Taken each by themselves, the words remain a mystery but, taken together, they can be explained logically.

First of all note that while węda may have meant a “hook” that hook never referred to hooks used for anything other than catching fish or fishing rod hooks.  In other words, whether as a “hook” or as a “fishing rod” the word essentially meant a device for fishing.

To further pursue this, we know that fishing with a fishing rod or hook or both is a laborious exercise which you spend most often sitting around for quite some time hoping that something will bite.  Of course, you do this by sitting on a boat which sits on water or by sitting on the water shore.

So the first candidate for the meaning of węda [venda] is water.

But, maybe it refers to “fish”?  That would be a good guess too and perhaps even a better one!  (There was, after all, that fish named Wanda…)

That is where matters would likely stand if… we did not know that there was also the word wędzić meaning “to smoke fish” and, as our expert noted, originally meaning “to lose freshness”.

Note, of course, that what a smoked fish loses is freshness, yes, but it does so by losing water.  In fact, as per our expert, the word first used to mean “to dry” or “[cause] to lose water”.

Thus, it would seem that a better guess would be that wend refers to “water”.

This is further supported by:

  • the fact that wędlina [vendlina] or wędzonka [vendzonka] refers to smoked meats other than fish (typically pork);
  • the fact that więdnąć [viendnot] refers to the “withering” or “wilting” of flowers (usually this results from lack of water obviously);
  • the fact that in other Slavic languages a similar word exists that tracks the Slavic name for “water” – woda as in (following Brueckner) proso woditi meaning to “smoke/cure” in Slovenian or uditi/údený meaning “smoked/cured meant” in Czech/Slovak or wudyty in Ruthenian (?) or вэнджаны in Belarussian;
  • the fact that wundan [vundan] meant “water” in Old Prussian and vanduo means “water” in Lithuanian.

The fact that the princess Wanda has traditionally been associated with the Vistula is also suggestive.

For more on this see here and – regarding Odin/Wodan see here.

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June 25, 2017

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