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Hugging is a universal form of endearment and the verb hug is a very common word in English, yet the origin of the word is unknown.

OED boldy says that "Appears late in 16th cent.: origin unknown." for its etymology, and adds that it shouldn't be mixed up with the word hugge:

Not to be confounded with hugge v. to dread, shudder, shrink with fear or cold. Not connected with Swedish huka, Danish sidde paa huk to squat. In some shades of meaning it approaches German hegen to foster, cherish, originally to enclose or encompass with a hedge; but it is difficult to see how they can be connected.

Although, hugge is an older form of the verb hug, used in 1500s–1600s.

Per OED, the earliest citation of hug (first used as hugge) is from 1567:

And hugge, and, busse, and cull, and cusse Thy darling apishe fruite.
1567 T. Drant tr. Horace Arte of Poetrie sig. Bvjv

With the form hug, though in past tense, it first appears in Shakespeare's Richard III as "He hugd me in his armes." in 1597, per OED.

The noun hug is from the verb hug; and the earliest citation is from 1659 per OED.

Etymonline also says of unknown origin for hug but adds some possible Germanic connections:

1560s, hugge "to embrace, clasp with the arms," of unknown origin; perhaps from Old Norse hugga "to comfort," from hugr "courage, mood," from Proto-Germanic *hugjan, related to Old English hycgan "to think, consider," Gothic hugs "mind, soul, thought," and the proper name Hugh. Others have noted the similarity in some senses to German hegen "to foster, cherish," originally "to enclose with a hedge." Related: Hugged; hugging.

It is not usual that OED completely rejects any connection and doesn't provide any possible routes, especially for common words (although there are other examples). Etymonline adds some possible connections but it is still not certain for a very common word like hug. Would it be possible to find further explanation or more details about the etymology of hug to unravel its mysterious origin?

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  • When was the OED page last updated?
    – Laurel
    Commented Sep 6, 2022 at 14:19
  • @Laurel March of 2022.
    – tchrist
    Commented Sep 6, 2022 at 14:26
  • I comment rather than answer, because sources are as available to the PO and others as they are to me, and authoritative reply is difficult. Old Norse hugga seems a frequent and reasonable online offering, and it parallels the contemporary Danish hygge (for example), which is associated with comfort and warmth. I favour this over the Old German hegge, to enclose (as with a hedge) but with no clear association of comfort.
    – Anton
    Commented Sep 6, 2022 at 16:20
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    @Anton Thank you. I believe it is acceptable to provide an answer with additional findings and offer a conjecture; or the most favored etymology, if you prefer. Moreover, OED doesn't always have the full story. The users on EL&U are able to find additional sources for etymology questions; and it is possible to find details beyond OED and Etymonline where I've witnessed many times. I will search myself further when I have time; and I'm also trying to ask a good and informative question worthy of EL&U.
    – ermanen
    Commented Sep 6, 2022 at 16:49

1 Answer 1

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Eric Partridge, in his etymology dictionary Origins: A Short Etymological Dictionary of Modern English provides an additional possibility that the verb hug might be of echoic origin:

hug (v, hence n) app comes from ON hugga (s hug-), to comfort or soothe, as a mother hugging her child: prob orig echoic from the accompanying words of comfort or sounds of lullaby.

An unexpected possible origin I've found is the monosyllabic origin of both hug and huge in Bantu and Herero, as ku. This origin is also mentioned for the word eke. Here is the relevant excerpt from the book A Language-study Based on Bantu: Or, An Inquiry Into the Laws of Root-Formation (by F. W. Kolbe) where a vocal and semantic comparison of hug and huge is provided; and the connection to Bantu is explained:

We may thus learn in Bantu that the original form of English eke is UKU, or more correctly KU-KU, a reduplication of the monosyllable KU (the initial k having fallen off), with the primary sense to run upward, to run over, to overflow, hence to be full, and to fill, to fill up, increase, add, supply.

Closely allied to EKE (AUK) are the words HUG (O. Eng. hoge, hugge, Icel. huga, to care, think, hugga, to comfort, console, Swed. hägna, to hedge, wall in, Dan. hygge, to guard, A.-Sax. hegan, to wall in, guard, Ger. hegen, hägen, 0. Dan. häge, to fence, hug, cherish) and HUGE (O. Eng. hogge, houge, Dutch hoog = HIGH, O. Sax, hoh, Goth. háus, Swed. hög, Ger. hoch). HUG and HUGE are found close together in the dictionary as near neighbours, but as to origin and meaning they seem to be as distant from each other as the east is from the west. And yet they will probably, by means of the vowel-method (Chapter IV.), one day be recognised as offshoots of one and the same root; the only difference between them being that in HUGE the vowel u means up, high, whilst in HUG it has the opposite meaning, from above, from on high, downward, bowed down, hence bent, curved, round. The primary meaning of huge would seem to be to run up, to be high, whilst hug appears to have the radical sense of to run or go round, to enclose, embrace, to surround, as a garden with a fence, a child with the arms. Both words can easily be identified in Herero. Here we have the roots hunga and honga (nasalised forms of huka and hoka), which mean—

  1. To go up (or before), to rise up, be high, end in a point, be prominent; hence o-honga, high point, point, top, and o-hunga, isolated hill, properly prominent point; hunga-ma = "sich nach etwas richten," to go by a thing, keep a prominent point in view; and
  2. To go down, bow, bend, curve, go or be round, go round a thing, put something round it ("umstellen "'), protect, as with a fence, cover, thatch, &c. (hok-era); take care of, "pflegen, verpflegen," nourish, foster, cherish (hunga).

Now, if the above identification is true, then we are able to trace in Bantu the very first monosyllabic origin of HUGE and HUG. For in Herero the root-words huka, hoka, strengthened hunga, honga, can be proved to be modifications of kuka, to rise, start, travel, and koka, to be crooked, curved. The primitive monosyllabic root is KU, reduplicated KU-KU - HU-KU = HU-NGU = to go up (be high, foremost, prominent), and to go down (bow, bend, curve, put round).


The above finding provides a possible answer to my previous question also:
What is the origin of "huge"?

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