Dr. Hurlbutt ponders a peculiar suffix

Posted on Monday, February 9, 2009, at 9:11 am, by Dr. Allardyce Hurlbutt.

Some years ago, a non-native speaker asked me about the English suffix ‑ling, as in gosling or hireling. Her inquiry inspired a brief but enjoyable quest to compile a list of examples of this rather peculiar form, which has after all given us such fine words as princeling, hatchling, and earthling. The better to amuse myself, I have now reconstructed that list, expanded it, and researched the matter properly through Archelaus’s office copy of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED).

The OED lovingly devotes approximately seven column-inches of abstruse detail to -ling, informing us that it is a suffix of Germanic origin and forms nouns from other nouns, as well as from adjectives, verbs, and even adverbs. The OED distinguishes two uses. The first dates back to Old English and involves no more than a very general connection to the underlying word. For -ling words formed from nouns, the OED accordingly provides the following blanket definition: “a person or thing belonging to or concerned with” whatever is denoted by the underlying noun. The Old English ierð (plowing) thus yielded ierðling (plowman). Similarly, for words formed from adjectives, the OED provides the following definition: “a person or thing that has the quality denoted by” the underlying adjective. The Old English déore (dear) thus yielded déorling (darling). New words continued to form this way in Middle and early modern English, although by the 16th century the ones denoting people were taking on decidedly pejorative connotations — the most delightful example perhaps being the now archaic shaveling, a widespread term of contempt for a tonsured cleric during the 16th and 17th centuries.

The second use, according to the OED, was to form a diminutive. Old Norse had employed the same suffix to denote the young of animals, but conclusive evidence that English was doing so, too, does not survive until the 14th century, when stray mentions of codling (i.e., a small or young cod) and wolfling appear in the written record. In the 15th century, examples of the more familiar gosling and duckling appear. The OED notes that the earliest spellings of gosling suggest the direct influence of Old Norse, despite the lapse of time. In any case, these words inspired a great many analogous diminutive uses in the 16th century and afterwards. Those which applied to people were almost always derogatory.

What follows is a list of -ling words, which I have broken up into somewhat arbitrary categories of my own. Dates in brackets refer to the earliest examples documented by the OED.

First up are straightforward diminutives, mostly for animals or plants. Several of these words were not invented until the 19th century, which seems to be about as late as the suffix remained productive. Very few remain in common use today.

To this group I should perhaps add deviling [1575], meaning a young devil, imp, or mischievous little creature. The OED professes uncertainty as to whether the correct derivation is devil + -ling or devil + -ing, “the suffixes being here confounded.” In this particular meaning, however, the -ing suffix does not seem apposite.

Next are young people, animals, or plants considered by their stage of development. Surprisingly, almost all of these words remain in use.

Then there are these two marvelously peculiar, specialized words for animals.

The words in the following group all derive from verbs. All have negative, or at least unfortunate connotations.

The words in the next group come mostly from adjectives. The OED describes two of the exceptions, fleshling and worldling, as deriving from the nouns flesh and world, but their sense is the same as if they had derived from the adjectives fleshly and worldly, so I am including them here. The third exception, underling, is adverbial in origin.

All the words in the following group derive from nouns, and all but one are contemptuous.

A few miscellaneous words remain, each of which requires a little extra explication.

Sibling [c. 1000] dates back to Old English (when it meant “kinsman”) and derives from the adjective sib (“related by blood”). The word passed out of use before the pejorative sense of -ling began to take hold in the 16th century. It is familiar to us today, however, because it was revived at the turn of the 20th century to provide a generic term for those having the same parents, i.e., either brothers or sisters.

Starling [1050] also dates to Old English and resulted from adding the ‑ling suffix to stare (another word for this kind of bird). The OED admits the possibility that the suffix may in this case have had a diminutive sense, but there is no way to know for certain.

Groundling [1601] is best known for its use in Shakespeare’s time to denote low-ranking spectators at the theater, who frequented the “ground” or pit. At the same time, however, the word denoted various small, bottom-dwelling fish such as gudgeon and loach, while in the 19th century its meaning expanded to include plants and animals that live close to the ground.

Earthling [1593] was both a neutral word, meaning an inhabitant of the Earth, and a derogatory one, denoting someone who was considered too earthly in outlook. Assisted by the equivocal flavor of the -ling suffix, 20th-century science fiction writers gave earthling new, clumsy, and humorous connotations by placing it in the mouths of alien invaders.

Halfling [1794] historically meant a half-grown person or stripling. J. R. R. Tolkien’s use of the term for his race of hobbits has given the word a new lease on life, at least among gamers.

Finally, certain 19th-century authors used the -ling suffix to invent nonce words, some of which are simply too peculiar to omit.

Comments (closed):

Alethea Oglethorpe wrote on February 9, 2009, at 10:10 pm:

One of our faithful readers advises me that she has seen “fingerling potatoes” on display in the grocery store. A quick Google search indicates that this variety is small, narrow, and finger-like.

Dr. Allardyce Hurlbutt wrote on July 9, 2009, at 10:59 pm:

I noted above that the -ling suffix does not seem to have remained productive beyond the 19th century, but I have encountered an apparent exception. Though not found in the OED, pouchling is now sometimes used to refer to baby marsupials. The word remains rare and occurs most often in science fiction, with reference to alien marsupial species.

Dr. Allardyce Hurlbutt wrote on December 17, 2009, at 3:45 pm):

Reportedly, wreckling is (or was) used in Lincolnshire to mean the “runt” of a litter of piglets.

Dr. Allardyce Hurlbutt wrote on June 9, 2010, at 12:21 pm:

Easterling [1534] is an archaic word for someone from the East. It was most often used specifically for German merchants of the Hanseatic League but could also be more generic and was sometimes even used to mean members of the Eastern Church.

The OED rejects the theory that sterling [1297] derives from Easterling. It describes the word as being of “uncertain origin” but suggests that the “most plausible explanation is that it represents a late O[ld]E[nglish] *steorling, ‘coin with a star’ (f. steorra star), some of the early Norman pennies having on them a small star.”

Dr. Allardyce Hurlbutt wrote on July 27, 2011, at 11:02 am:

Grayling [1450] is a silver-gray freshwater fish. The word is thus another example of -ling being attached to an adjective. Later [1819] grayling also came to refer to a butterfly with gray undersides to its wings.

Dr. Allardyce Hurlbutt wrote on January 1, 2012, at 7:58 pm:

Here’s another one formed from an adjective: feebling [1891], meaning a feeble person, a weakling.

Carol wrote on January 25, 2012, at 12:57 pm:

“Sweetling” is a word with the basic meaning of something small and sweet, not often used now in its original sense. I have heard it used as a term of endearment, however, generally by people who are fans of fantasy novels and Renaissance fairs.

Dr. Allardyce Hurlbutt wrote on January 25, 2012, at 3:17 pm:

Thank you, Carol! I am much obliged to you. As it turns out, “a term of endearment for a beloved person” is the older meaning, which the OED traces back to 1648, while it is able to document “a small sweet thing” no earlier than 1840.

Dr. Allardyce Hurlbutt wrote on March 29, 2012, at 6:20 pm:

Although quisling (traitor, collaborator) technically does not belong among these -ling words, since it was taken directly from the surname of the Norwegian Nazi collaborator Vidkun Quisling (1887-1945), it seems worth mentioning simply because of the convenient way the derogatory tendency of the -ling suffix buttressed its contemptuous connotation.

According to Wikipedia, the name Quisling “derives from Quislinus, the Latinised name of the village of Kvislemark in Jutland, Denmark, from which the Quislings had migrated [to Telemark] in the 17th century.”

Veronica Broussard wrote on April 12, 2012, at 5:11 pm:

Very informative blog article. Thanks Again. Really Great.

Dr. Allardyce Hurlbutt wrote on January 9, 2020, at 9:38 am:

I seem to have overlooked snakeling [1868].

Dr. Allardyce Hurlbutt wrote on November 23, 2020, at 6:08 pm:

Also fondling:
      “A ’fond’ or foolish person” [1440];
      “One who is fondly loved” [1640].

Dr. Allardyce Hurlbutt wrote on June 20, 2021, at 3:04 pm:

Not in the OED, but:
“The extinction of the last pale ghostling of a race of spectres did not immediately deter the wild spirits of the steppes from struggling against the elements of order.” Hector H. Munro, The Rise of the Russian Empire (London, 1900), 316-17.