The Mysterious Etymology of Rabelais’ “Fine Thing”: War – in Several Languages

Whether or not the reader has ever heard of Rabelais or his “Gargantua and Pantagruel”, wherein he pretends that the Latin words for war and beauty, bellum and bellus (bella, bellum) are related – and without doubt, there have been many of the military caste who would not deny it, to the very point of demanding bellicosity against real or imagined enemies as a patriotic duty – what we may imagine as more serious investigations of the origins of these two words suggest that such derivations as “bellicose” (from bellum) and “duel” (coming from the older version, duellum) are identifical.

We will also go off on a tangent, to suggest that French “guerre”, and Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian guerra are of the same origin as the above.

This may strike the reader who is versed in a minimum amount of etymological knowledge as hard to accept – at least such has been the case for this writer.  Lack of access to the required scholarly books forces the imagination to look for answers, and here his conclusions are presented.  Should they result in an exposition of what is already known, it would be gratifying to know that such is the case.  In any event, we hope that some readers may find a solution to their curiosity here, even if the ideas presented are no more than speculative.

First Theory

There are some basic rules in etymology of Indo-European words, which let one know what transformations are allowed.  That “ph” in English is pronounced “f” is a given, and such words may well begin with the latter in another language, for example, we have filosofía in Spanish, while German has kept the former in Philosophie.  The latter language has several examples of words ending in “ss” [including “ß”] , or “tz” converting to “t” in English: Fuß: foot, Nuss: nut, Hass: hate, Biss: bite, heiß: hot; sitzen: sit, Hitz: heat, Katz: cat, and so on.  It may also be seen, in the examples, which vowels can easily change into others, as seen in the example words “foot” “hot”, and “heat”.  For the purposes of this article, we will not specify any specific rule, and permit any vowel to change into any other.

The permutations of consonants that we allow in this article exist, and will not be explicitly documented.  Again, we may be ignoring a specific rule, and base ourselves only on generalities, in order to derive our theoretical explanation of how duellum becomes bellum.

The problem which presented itself is that there was never any instance found in which a “d” converts to “b”.  Here several years of puzzling over this phenomenon were invested, with unsatisfactory results until the day of this printing.

A further complication is that our English source, the American Heritage Dictionary [henceforth AHD], could trace the origin only as far back as Latin. Our older Dictionnaire des racines des langues européenes is more courageous, in suggesting a root DAU – for belico (bellicose,  – and one might again notice that the derived word begins with “b”). This source goes no better than to suggest that duellum and bellum are a probable derivations (of a word meaning to burn, to torment).

This writer’s not too convincing original idea was that it was all the result of scribal error: someone had written the “d” of duellam backwards, giving buellum.

We could get a slightly more understandable misprint error by considering that in a language such as Spanish, confusion often exists between the “b” and the “v”; and furthermore, by reflecting upon the convention in older texts of writing the “u” as “v”, whence we get:


There not being any reason to reduplicate the “v”, creating a “w”, the extra letter just disappeared.  Because of the “b”-“v” confusion, it changed back to “b”.

Further theoretical justification for the above can be extracted through knowledge of Russian handwriting.  In printing, the equivalent of “V” looks just like our “B”, the small “b” being written as a smaller “B”.  On the other hand, the printed “B” looks like our small “b”, with a horizontal line on top, as with our capital “F”.  The handwritten version, however, for the small “b” does look like a “d”.

We might add, just for the sake of further reflection, that the equivalent of “D” has in handwriting a “D” similar to ours as a capital, but something that looks like a handwritten “g” for a variant version of the small “d”.  Thus, whatever conclusions we make which are false, are, at least, the result of amazing coincidences.

3 letters & variations

What You See is Not Always What You Get: When G is D, D is B, and B is V

It is with sadness that we must conclude, that as fascinating as those coincidences may be, they were not sufficiently convincing.  Had other examples of transformations of “d” to “b” been found, and attributable to transcription errors by some medieval copyist, we would have been happier.

Well Copied, but Differently Pronounced.

Further reflection led us to try and try again.

Duellum, … bellum” …

Our conclusion is similar to that of our derivation of the final spelling, but is based solely on considerations of pronunciation.

We will expand our idea by introducing the fact that German “w” is in fact pronounced as English “v”.

Let us then, put into the mouth of a Rheinlander the idea of the “duel”:


This immediately raises the question if their is any relation between “dwell” and “duel”. Our sources suggest that this is not the case, although by a stretch of the imagination, some words derived from the Indo-European root “dheu” might suggest consequences or other ideas possibly related to war: smoke, soot, dust, burnt sacrifice, deaf, sulfur ( AHD: Indo-European Roots).  We prefer not to “dwell” upon these possibilities, the reader may well consider them not very apparent.  Let us rather maintain the course suggested by the cognoscenti.

Taking the hypothetical dwellum, we next consider the inconvenience of pronouncing the initial “d”.  As a consequence, we are left with wellum.  As this was, in our example, uttered by a German, we change the “w” to “v”, to correspond to the English language, and then, remembering the possible change of “v” to “b” in Spanish, we get bellum.  Strangely, Spanish does not represent the word “war” with this word much better than English, though it keeps words similar to our “belligerent” and “bellicose”.

The major difficulty with this postulate is that we have found no word in English beginning with “b” derived from the “dh” of dheu.  The best that we can suggest is that if we consider the number of words in English beginning with “f” which come from dheu, and if we further consider that “f” is the pronunciation of “v” in German, as in “Volkswagen” – Folk’s Wagon, a tenuous connection is obtained.

We might further consider the “d” as representing an article, “the”, which in German has the forms “die, der, das”, and which might in dialect be reduced, depending on the gender of the noun involved, to “d'”.  It could function as a type of partitive genitive, as the French “d'” in front of words beginning with vowels.  We shall consider this as a shortened form of the supposed root, the morphological loss of the original “d”.  Truth be told, this idea is really far-fetched in the form just presented, which does not exlude loss of the “d” for other reasons.

Well, we can do better with a statistically insignificant proof, which is not the same as saying that it is wrong.  It is found that the English prefixes “bi” and “di” come from a common root, shown in The American Heritage Dictionary (on-line) as

‌‌dwo-, a variant of  *duwo.   This gives, in Russian, the word два (dva), meaning “two”.  [See our chart above for the correspondence between the Cyrllic letters and our own.]

The above example gives credence to our position that the “d” may be dropped.

The ideas expressed above improves upon the transcription error idea in that it at least corresponds to phenomena existing in the derivation of words from the supposed roots of our European languages.

We wish to add to this what may be equally plausible, if not more so.

The English word “war” is derived from a German root, not giving any modern German word of the same meaning; though there are derivatives such as Wirren (troubles, disorders, turmoil), verwirren (entangle, etc.), unwirsch (disgruntled), and even the famous German Wurst, as in Bratwurst (given as a derivative in Wasserzieher, not AHD.)  This Germanic derivative is the root of the French guerre, or the Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian guerra.  No Indo-European word has been postulated for this in the sources used by this writer.

It is not impossible to see one.  Here’s how:

It is a fact that there are transformations which occur between the “w” and the “gu”, seen even in contemporary Spanish variant for “whiskey” as güisqui (pronounced “gwisky”).

Let us further consider the frequent interchange of the letters “l” and “r”, a topic of distasteful jokes on the pronunciation of Oriental peoples, but existing again, even in Romance languages, as the sur meaning “south” in Spanish is sul in Portuguese.

Thus, changing guerra according to the above simplified rules, we get: werra, similar to the supposed German root, wirra, and the explanation for the origin of the word “war”  Changing the “r”, we get wella; now substituting “b” (for “v”) we get bella.  That is “beautiful” in Latin, but as the termination may be considered arbitrary, the root is “bell”, and the bell tolls for war, paraphrasing here a title of a Hemingway novel. Adding the correct suffix, we get bellum.

We may not write as well as Rabelais, and we disagree that war is a fine thing – an idea supplemented by our French source, which gives the English “revel” as another derivation of the hypothetical DAU root of duellum. (When one considers the noisy revellers of soldiers on R&R, we are tempted to agree.)

Loose Ends – Twisted Together

Yes, “twist” is another word ultimately coming from the root dwo-.  Think of a pair twisted together, or dancing the twist.

Our subtitle has been chosen in the belief that it is possible to unify the ideas we have shown – concepts originated by others as the sources of the prefixes and roots “bi-“, “di-” and the Latin words bellum – and its original version, duellam. Not only have we seen the phenomenon of “d” being transformed into a “b” – as facts – but we believe that we can detect possible additional features which suggest a further common ground.

Let us consider the similarity of pronunciation of the words “dual” and “duel”, which, in fact, the  AHD shows as identical. The former word is derived from the same roots as “bi-” and “di-“; the latter’s ancestry has been more than adequately presented.

Given the nature of a duel as a contest of honour between two persons, could we not assume that the word “duel” originally was meant to convey the idea of a bellum inter duo – a war between two people, as it were?

Going a little further, we might even suggest something for the word “dwell”. We have already shown that the root form might just suggest some words relating to consequences of war, but here is another idea.

The combination of “tw” or “dw”, “dv”, and “du” just seem to generate words having to do with the number two: 2, 20, 12, in English and Russian. [The “dw” changes to “do” in the Romance languages, to “zw” in German.]

Two - Bellum

Agreements and Disagreements about Duellum and Bellum, with the Author’s Thoughts Included.   Click to enlarge.

The Christian New Testament gives the idea of two people forming a new unit, leaving the tent of their parents, and dwelling together apart from them (though not necessarily far away). One of the two in the dwelling is the husband. We will use the non-copyrighted Douay Bible, to avoid the King James version’s use of the word “twain”.  This is Mark 10:8: And they two shall be in one flesh. Therefore now they are not two, but one flesh. This causes Paul, in 1 Corinthians 7:12-13 to say “If any brother hath a wife that believeth not, and she consent to dwell with him, let him not put her away  . . . In the Old Testament, we find the Israelites dwelling in booths [this word is mentioned below].  While there is no direct proof of any reason to think that “dwell” should make us think of a married couple, the reference we have found mention offspring but rarely.  Any increase, then, is the result of the dwelling of two together.

Husband is a word which is derived from the ideas of “house” and the Indo-European word “bheu” (AHD). This root is given as the source for later roots, meaning “house” (which makes “husband” a word reduplicating an idea, such as Chinese does, in order to avoid ambiguity within a limited vocabulary); dwelling (that word again!), dweller (we just can’t get away from it!); being two (we are here sent back to the root two, “dwo”); and, as a last suggestion, farmer, peasant, boer. The roots suggesting this again find their counterpart in the meaning of husbandman. (May this word offend no one, did any lady really cherish the thought of being a “husbandwoman”?)

Let us dwell a moment longer on this. A Old Danish word meaning dwelling, the source of our English word “booth” is “bōth”. [Compare Swedish både två, approximate pronunciation “boda tvo”, literally, almost redundantly “both two”] which looks much like our “both”. Larousse gives a root as “bho”, meaning two, but sends us to ambho-, which agrees with the American Heritage Dictionary. What a lonely word the etymologists have made of this, not connecting it to the other words that have “b” in the beginning, but originated in “d”, and meant “two”!

It may not seem necessary to know the etymology of the word, but at least in the opinion of this writer, such knowledge is useful in the acquisition of more vocabulary, in one’s own language, or in another.  Sometimes our books disagree on the question of where a word derives from, but even a false etymology may have its uses, something which might be discussed in a future article.

Opinions are welcome.

February 1, 2017.

Ⓒ 2017, Paul Karl Moeller.


(Non-specialized dictionaries for English, French, German, and Spanish are not listed, as the author has at least a reasonable familiarity with those languages.)

Coromina, Joan. Breve Diccionario etimológico de la lengua castellana, 3a ed., Editorial Gredos.
Derksen, Rick. Etymological Dictionary of the Slavic Inherited Lexicon, [Leiden: Brill, 2008].
Drosdowski, Günther, et. al. Duden, Etymologie, Herkunftswörterbuch der deutschen Sprache, [Mannheim: Bibliographisches Institut (Dudenverlag), 1963].
Grandsaignes d’Hauterive, R. Dictionnaire des racines de langues européenes, [Paris: Librairie Larousse, 1948].
“Indo-European Roots” in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, [Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1981].
Patrick, George Z. Roots of the Russian Language [Lincolnwood, Ill., U.S.A.: Passport Books, 1994].
Reiff, Christian Ph. Dictionnaire russe-français, dans lequel les mots russes sont classés par familles; ou dictionnaire étymologique de la langue russe, A – O, [Saint-Petersbourg: Н. Греча [?], 1835].
Wasserzieher, Ernst. Woher? [Bonn: Ferd. Dümmler Verlag, 1974].

Dictionaries for Additional Vocabulary in Other Languages

Henningson, Henning. Langenscheidts Taschenwörterbuch der dänischen und deutschen Sprache, [Berlin, Langenscheidt, 1956].
King, Peter and Margaretha. Dutch Dictionary, Hodder & Stoughton, 1958.
Kornitzky, H. Langenscheidts Taschenwörterbuch der schwedischen und deutschen Sprache [Berlin: 1959]


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