Earthquakes and shaking words

Today in Christchurch, New Zealand they are sending teams into the cathedral to try to recover the bodies of people killed there during the earthquake. We cannot think of much else than the terrible emotions that the New Zealanders are feeling with the loss of so many people to this unpredictable act of nature. So this week’s word of the week is written in sympathy for New Zealand.

Earthquakes are primordial forces and the word to describe them is old and a bit mysterious. While the word for earth, comes from Old English, eorpe, and can trace its origins back through the Germanic languages, quake has no such history.

The word for quake, cwacian, comes from Old English and meant quake, tremble, and chatter (of teeth). It was related to a similar word, cweccan, which meant to shake, swing, move, or vibrate. Neither word has relatives in other languages and their predecessors are not known.

Quake has a more powerful connotation than other words with the same sense, such as, shake, tremble, vibrate and shiver. Quake is not related to shake, which comes from another Old English word, sceacan meaning to vibrate, make vibrate, or move away. Shake is derived from an old German word and has relatives in other Germanic languages (for instance, skaka in Swedish and skage in Danish).

Although shake and quake are near synonyms, shake is the less violent of the pair, while quake is reserved for the shakes associated with fear and panic. The Quakers were given that name because as part of their religious observance they were to tremble at the word of the Lord.

Tremble and vibrate are derived from Latin words, tremulus, meaning trembling or tremulous; and vibrare meaning to move quickly to and fro, or shake. Shiver is thought to come from a Middle English word chiveren derived from an Old English word, ceafl meaning jaw—from the association with chattering teeth. Seismology, the study of earthquakes, is derived from the Greek word for earthquake, seismos.

Words are not enough for our New Zealand friends but our thoughts are with them. Hilda Doolittle (1886-1961), an American poet, described her experiences in London during the First World War in Ancient Wisdom Speaks. There may be some small solace in her words:

Remember these (you said)
who when the earth-quake shook their city,
when angry blast and fire
broke open their frail door,
did not forget