The origin of Estonian oht and ohter


Keywords: etymology, origin of Finnic phonetics, Germanic borrowings, Scandinavian borrowings, derivatives

The dictionary of Estonian dialects (EMS) lists oht as three lexical items: oht1 (= South Estonian oht) ‘1 peril, danger, menace; jeopardy, risk, hazard; 2 distress’; oht2 ‘(herbal) medicine, drug, antidote’; and the partitive-only ohtu ‘-like, -ish, resembling, as good as’. Mägiste (1929) has connected oht1 to Votic and Ingrian ohto ‘enough’ and further with Estonian oher (in literary language ohter) ‘abundant, plentiful; liberal, bountiful; rich; opulent; profuse’, explaining the meaning ‘distress’ as derived from ‘abundance of distress’.

I equate the Estonian, Votic and Ingrian words with the Finnish and Karelian ehto ‘condition; alternative, choice, possibility; sufficient, abundant’, derived from the Proto-Finnic verb *ehti-, meaning ‘have time, arrive in time, forestall; get ready, finish; turn green, ripen; decorate; wear’ in different Finnic dialects. Estonian ohtu has developed from ‘alternative of’, perhaps under the influence of Middle Low Saxon achte ‘like, in -ish way’; the derivative oher has arisen from the ‘abundant’ semantics.

The Finnic equation is made possible by positing the change *e– > *o– before a second syllable o in Votic, Estonian and South Estonian. The same change has occurred in Estonian onu ‘uncle’, cf. Finnish eno ‘maternal uncle’, and in two words with initial h-: Estonian hobu ‘horse’, cf. Finnish hepo id., and Estonian orm ‘string or loop of a birch-bark shoe’, cf. Finnish hermo ‘nerve’.

In addition, I propose a borrowing from Old Norse ótti < Proto-Scandinavian *ohtō ‘fear’. Mingled with the inherited *ohto (< *ehto) ‘choice, possibility’, the loanword has acquired the meaning ‘possibility of sth. fearful, i.e. danger, menace, risk’, making in turn the inherited *ohto – meaning ‘choice or help against evil’ – still visible in Old Literary Estonian oht, and further ‘(herbal) medicine, drug, antidote’. Another possibility is to explain oht2 through the verb ohutama1 ‘heal, attack evil forces with witchcraft’ derived from the borrowed *ohto ‘fear’ (the homonymous ohutama2 ‘pester’ is derived from oht1).


Santeri Junttila (b. 1974), PhD, Institute of the Estonian Language, Senior Lexicographer (Roosikrantsi 6, 10119 Tallinn), Santeri.Junttila@eki.ee