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Q&A

Etymology of "ohyra"?

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I'm wondering about the origin of the Swedish word ohyra (vermin). Someone humorously suggested that this would be because vermin are unwanted guests not paying rent (hyra), though they had no source for that.

I did a little bit of research and Google dropped me in Svensk Etymologisk ordbok (The Swedish Etymology Dictionary), first edition from the year 1922. It suggests that the word originates from German ungehûren/ungeheuer, which supposedly (I don't speak German) means demons, beasts, behemoths etc. I find that strange, since vermin are typically small: lice, rats and so on. And it's quite far from ungeziefer.

The source also claims that the origin of the word is that using the words lice, rats etc directly would have been a taboo.

Is this source correct/trustworthy? Does the word originate from German? Any idea how old the word could be?

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2 answers

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This is not a proper answer as I cannot verify this etymology beyond Old Swedish "ohýris" meaning something like "immense". I'm rather inclined to think that the word could be related to even older Old Norse "úhýrr" meaning "unfriendly looking"; you can readily see its reflections (in both meanings mentioned) in Danish and Norse. But that's just a layman's guess which weighs less than the dictionary you are quoting.

However, the referenced dictionary entry does NOT indicate that the word originates from modern German and this should be cleared up.

On the very beginning of the entry, "1500-talet" suggests that the word existed in this form already in the 16th and 17th century, used about pests such as rats. (To be applied to insects only later.) This kind of answers the question about age in itself: it is an old word in Swedish (per this dictionary).

The dictionary does suggest that the word was borrowed into Old Swedish from "German" but that must be referring to medieval precursors of German.

To decode the rest of the entry reliably, you'll probably need to go to approximately page 1280 (of the original numbering) and get familiar with all the language abbreviations. That will show where a related word is suggested as the origin and where just as a sibling or a distant cousin. The (modern) German word is ultimately given just as a distant cousin that many 1922 readers are likely to be fluent in, and thus quickly appreciate the semantic connection. However, it's supposed to be a pretty distant connection, while a common ancestor is likely to be semantically mid-way.

For example, "fhty." stands for Old High German and "fsax." for Old Low German; we are talking about a 11th or 12th century (potentially) common ancestor of the modern Swedish and modern German word. That's long ago, enough for long sequences of semantic shifts. Even if you disbelieve the ancient borrowing, you should be prepared to see a whole string of semantic shifts over a millenium. That's in itself quite normal.

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Interesting answer, thank you! Now come to think of it, Swedish has ohygglig (hideous, abominable) which is also an old word and likely related too. Lundin‭ about 1 month ago

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Quoting from https://svenska.se/tre/?sok=ohyra&pz=1:

sedan första år­tiondet av 1500-talet (Helige mäns lefverne); fornsv. o­hyra ’o­djur; stor mängd’; urspr. ’ngt o­täckt, o­trevligt’

See more at SAOB over there.

If I am reading that correctly, and my Swedish is not very good, the original meaning was something not nice.

Note that in modern Norwegian there are concepts such as uvær (bad weather or storm, vær is weather), udyr (monster, dyr is animal), uår (year with bad crops, år is year), så adding prefix u-, which corresponds to the Swedish o-, is a way of making things bad.

Hyra

The same source gives an etymology for hyra:

lågty. hüre

Low German hüre, which is supposed to have the same meaning.

Danish and Norwegian use leje/leie/leige/leiga for "to hire", though Swedish also has att leja: https://svenska.se/tre/?sok=leja.

"Hyre" in Norwegians and Danish is usually naval terminology: https://ordbok.uib.no/perl/ordbok.cgi?OPP=hyre , https://ordnet.dk/ddo/ordbog?query=hyre

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Yes this prefix is what got me curious about the word, because if you add o to hyra (rent, lease), you get ohyra :) Though apparently those two words aren't at all related, hyra probably originates from somewhere else entirely, it is similar to English hire. Lundin‭ 30 days ago

I added a bit about hyra to the end. tommi‭ 30 days ago

Swedish got "leja" = "to hire" too, fairly synonymous to "hyra". Though "hyra" is more broad/generic and can also be used as a noun for rent, just like English "rent" is either a verb or noun too. Lundin‭ 30 days ago

So it seems. And "å/at hyre" is naval terminology in the other Scandinavic languages, looks like. tommi‭ 29 days ago

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