09 March 2011

On My Soap Box

Here's one of the reasons I love living in Europe: a product label with 24 languages. In this case, a box of soap labeled in each language: "Liquid soap / Mini / Mild".

I see connections among 23 of these items. (My Arabic, however, is a little rusty, well a lot rusty, well, okay, non-existent.) But concerning the rest of them, I began to write down some observations for this blog. Unfortunately, it kept getting longer and longer as I noticed exciting! new! things! Opting instead for brevity, I'll let the connections speak for themselves. (For anyone who wants more explicitude, I've got a 1-slide quick guide here.)

(I had to handwrite in some because the tape unstuck some of the words when I took it off the box. I think I got the languages right, but don't hold me to the claim.)

Is anyone else amazed that of the 23, fully 16 of these languages, across multiple language families, use the sap root for "soap"? The fact that they do suggests a borrowing somewhere in the mists of time, and in fact it appears wild Germanic warriors are to blame (see below). That said, it's also clear from below that the root is Indo-European.
soap (n.), O.E. sape "soap" (originally a reddish hair dye used by Germanic warriors to give a frightening appearance), from W.Gmc. *saipo- "dripping thing, resin" (cf. M.L.G. sepe, W.Fris. sjippe, Du. zeep, O.H.G. seiffa, Ger. seife "soap," O.H.G. seifar "foam," O.E. sipian "to drip"), from PIE base *seib- "to pour out, drip, trickle" (cf. L. sebum "tallow, suet, grease"). Romans and Greeks used oil to clean skin; the Romance language words for "soap" (cf. It. sapone, Fr. savon, Sp. jabon) are from L.L. sapo (first mentioned in Pliny), which [itself] is a Germanic loan-word, as is Finnish saippua. [My OED]
But wait, there's more: If the West Germanic root *saipo- means "resin" and the PIE base *seib- means "drip, trickle", I think we just found the origins of tree sap, and maybe even of some Germanic words for "juice", such as Dutch zap and German Saft.

So when parents tell their kids they'll wash their filthy mouths out with soap, maybe what they're really saying is they'll get them a glass of O.J.

[Again, I've updated the Abbreviations list with the new ones from this entry.]


  1. Interesting. Any insights on Shea Butter? :-)

  2. Absotively posilutely fascinating!

  3. Good stuff!

    Today, while changing a diaper in a public restroom, I discovered a link (probably pretty obvious really) between "vigilance" and "surveillance" by seeing the gradual transformations of the terms used to exhort the diaper changer to keep his eye on the baby in a number of romance languages.