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Eerie is a rather common word but its origin is somewhat strange. In fact, OED doesn't provide the origin of the word eerie, but provides the etymology where it is given as a variant of an obsolete word from Middle English. (Note: OED usually provides both the origin and the etymology of words, but did not provide the origin in this case.)

Here is the etymology of the word eerie, along with its various forms thruout the history, its senses and earlier citations from OED:

eerie, adj.

Forms: Middle English eri, hery, Middle English–1500s ery, 1500s erie, 1700s iry, 1800s eirie, eiry (Anglo-Irish airy), 1700s– eery, eerie.
Etymology: Middle English eri, ? variant of erȝ, argh adj.; or perhaps < erȝ + -y suffix1.
The word occurs in the northern (not in the midland) version of the Cursor Mundi. ‘It has recently been often used in general literature, but is still regarded as properly Scotch.’ ( N.E.D.)

1. Fearful, timid. In modern use, expressing the notion of a vague superstitious uneasiness.

c1375 ? J. Barbour SS. Cosmas & Damian 321 & scho..wes for hyme hery.
a1400 (▸a1325) Cursor Mundi (Gött.) l. 17685 Ioseph be noght eri.

2. Fear-inspiring; gloomy, strange, weird.

1792 R. Burns Let. 10 Sept. (1985) II. 145 Be thou a bogle by the eerie side of an auld thorn.

Etymonline says that eerie is variant of an Old English word:

north England and Scottish variant of Old English earg "cowardly, fearful, wretched; slow, indolent, useless," from Proto-Germanic *arh-
(source also of Old Frisian erg "evil, bad," Middle Dutch arch "bad," Dutch arg, Old High German arg "cowardly, worthless," German arg "bad, wicked," Old Norse argr "unmanly, voluptuous," Swedish arg "malicious")

OED doesn't directly mention Old English in the etymology of eerie, but says that eerie is a possible variant of argh which is the West Saxon (a dialect of Old English) form of Old English arg. Argh is given as an obsolete word but the first two senses of the word are still used in northern dialect, and it is a word inherited from Germanic per OED.

† argh, adj.

Obsolete exc. dialect.

1. Cowardly, pusillanimous, timid, fearful; (also) weak.
‘Still in northern dialect.’ ( N.E.D.)

2. Inert, sluggish, lazy, slow, loath, reluctant.
‘Still in northern dialect.’ ( N.E.D.)

I wonder, if argh is still used in northern dialect, how did the variant eerie (which OED mentions that it is properly Scotch also) slip through other variants and gain a new sense in modern use as a distinct word?


Additional thoughts:

OED also mentions the Cursor Mundi (which is the source of the second earliest citation of eerie) as if it may have an influence. Could it be the case? For reference, here is some info about the Cursor Mundi from Wikipedia:

The Cursor Mundi (or ‘Over-runner of the World’) is an early 14th-century religious poem written in Middle English that presents an extensive retelling of the history of Christianity from the creation to the doomsday. The Cursor Mundi is more or less completely unknown outside of medievalist and lexicographical circles. Yet, the poem is one of the texts that provides the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) with over 1,000 new words, i.e. words that were unknown before they appeared for the first time in the Cursor Mundi.

As provided by OED, the modern sense "expressing the notion of a vague superstitious uneasiness" given within the first sense is a later usage; and also connected to the second sense "fear-inspiring; gloomy, strange, weird". The earliest citation of the second sense is from The letters of Robert Burns, from 1792. Robert Burns is a Scottish poet and lyricist, and he is widely regarded as the national poet of Scotland. I suspect Robert Burns is a big influence on the modern sense of the word eerie also.

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  • 2
    Fun fact: modern-day Swedish word arg (adj.), meaning angry, seems to have the same etymological origin. So one could speculate that some central notion of evilness survives both in EN eerie, but in reference to the environment, and in SV arg, but in reference to the person. Meanwhile, anger seems to be etymologically related with SV ånger (noun), or ångra (verb) which, oddly enough, means sth almost entirely different, namely regret, or in GUI contexts, undo.
    – m.a.a.
    Commented Nov 14, 2022 at 14:53

3 Answers 3

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A Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue show usages of argh and its variants from the 15th century:

Argh, Arch, a. Also: arche, arch(i)t; airch, airche. [Northern ME. argh, ONhb. arᵹ (WS. earᵹ, earh), ON. argr, cowardly, faint-hearted.]

Timid, reluctant, backward, unwilling.

  • c1420 Wynt. II. 1447 (W). Sen faynt be kynd all wemen wes, And wounder argh for to se blud
  • a1508 Kennedy Flyt. 477. Be na thing argh, tak ferily on hand
  • 1513 Doug. XI. vii. 119. Thai wait … in quhat estait Our materis standis; bot thai ar arch to schaw
  • 1535 Stewart 39207. This King Duncan so arch a man wes he Ib. 59784. Quhilis ouir arch, and quhilis ouir rigorus

and its more recent usages in the form of ergh:

Hesitant, reluctant (Sc. 1808 Jam., ergh; Lth., Fif. Ib., erf; Sh.10 1950, obsol.); “reserved, distant in manner” (Lth. 1808 Jam., erf; Abd. 1813 D. Anderson Poems 116, arrow).

  • Abd. 1778 J. Beattie Address viii. in A. Ross Helenore: In kittle times, when faes are yarring, We're no thought ergh.
  • Abd. 1898 E.D.D.: Ye're ergh to file your fingers.

It appears that argh and its variants are rare and obsolete also in Scots dialects.

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  • OED provides arf as the latest form of argh in the northern dialect: "Scottish 1500s– arch, 1800s argh, ergh, erf, arrow; English regional (northern) 1600s– arf." It is still a very rare word indeed.
    – ermanen
    Commented Nov 14, 2022 at 12:02
  • @ermanen - what I understand from other sources (but I may be wrong) is that eerie is a doublet of argh and that they both probably derive from Old English “earg”.
    – user 66974
    Commented Nov 14, 2022 at 12:31
  • Doublet is an interesting consideration which I haven't thought about; although they are just mentioned as variants in etymology sources. I'm not sure if they could be both variants and doublets. It might require a detailed explanation to prove the doublet theory; but we still need to find how eerie has become prevalent where OED also adds that "It has recently been often used in general literature".
    – ermanen
    Commented Nov 14, 2022 at 12:43
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Wiktionary to the rescue.

Eerie: Etymology (Wiktionary)

From Middle English eri (“fearful”), from Old English earg (“cowardly, fearful”), from Proto-Germanic *argaz. Akin to Scots ergh, argh from the same Old English source. Doublet of argh.

Reconstruction:Proto-Germanic/argaz Etymology (Wiktionary)

From Proto-Indo-European *h₃orǵʰ-, *h₃erǵʰ- (“to copulate”). Cognate with Lithuanian aržùs, Russian ёрзать (jórzatʹ).

Eri Etymology (Wiktionary)

Probably from a variant form of Old English earg, from Proto-Germanic *argaz. Doublet of argh.

Earg : Etymology (Wiktionary)

From Proto-West Germanic *arg, from Proto-Germanic *argaz. Cognate with Old Frisian erch, Old High German arg, Old Norse argr.

Erch : Etymology (Wiktionary)

Borrowed from Middle Irish erch (“salmon, perch”), from Old Irish erc, from Proto-Celtic *ɸerkos (“perch”), ultimately from Proto-Indo-European *perḱ- (“colored”).

Meaning:

  • (obsolete) mottled, speckled

  • (obsolete) frightful, terrible, awful

From PIE to modern English, which one is more likely, the one through Proto-Germanic or the one through Proto-Celtic, is a matter for debate.

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I've found evidence that eerie is a borrowing from Scots literature, from Robert Burns as I've suspected before. Here is the related excerpt from the book English in Nineteenth-Century England: An Introduction (by Manfred Görlach), from the section "Borrowing from Scots":

Borrowing from Scots literature had happened before 1800 (eerie, gloaming from Burns), but most loans date from the 19th century, coming mainly from the works of Sir Walter Scott. He gave to the English language possibly more English words than any author since Shakespeare. Although many of these items have remained marginal or were forgotten outside their specific literary source, a great number of words survived. These include awesome, blackmail, brownie, cosy, eldritch, forbear, glamour (n.), gruesome, guffaw, kale, kith, raid, warlock, winsome and wizened; other words became at least better known than they had been before (golf, bonny, dour; cf. Tulloch 1980:232-7).
      Note that Scots (and IrE) also handed on a few Celtic items, as happened to sporran and colleen; Scott made the earlier loans slogan and claymore popular.

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