A lisp is a "a speech defect in which s is pronounced like th in thick and z is pronounced like th in this". Its etymology reads:

Old English wlispian (recorded in āwlyspian), from wlisp (adjective) 'lisping', of imitative origin; compare with Dutch lispen and German lispeln

What does imitative mean here? Onomatopoeic? Considering the word's definition, how is that even possible?

It seems like a rather cruel etymological in-joke.

  • 4
    I would think that if the word was imitative, it would be spelled lithp. Nov 15, 2012 at 18:44
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    In my (admittedly stereotypical) understanding, people with lisps often can't pronounce L's or R's properly either. So if it was onomatopoeic, I'd expect the word to be yithp. But if it was so blatantly "imitative", I imagine it would have been supplanted by some less contentious term by now. Nov 15, 2012 at 20:34
  • @FumbleFingers I somehow doubt that the Early Middle Ages were much troubled by that sort of political correctness; and today the imitative quality has, as this question demonstrates, been lost by intervening linguistic changes. I suggest below that the "imitative" component (if there was any) was the "wl-". Nov 15, 2012 at 20:41

2 Answers 2


MED offers two citations in which lyspynge is glossed blesus or blesura, which is clearly cognate with wlisp-.

According to Lewis & Short, blaesus means "lisping, stammering, hesitating in utterance, speaking indistinctly" (giving a citation however corresponding to the modern sense of defective sibiliance: blaesus, cui litterae sibilantes (s, z) molestae sunt vitioseque pronunciantur, Popm. Differ. p. 133). Blaesus is there derived from Greek βλαισός, which the "Greek Word Study Tool" at Perseus defines thus:

A. bent, distorted: hence, splay-footed, Hp.Art.53, cf. 82 (Comp.); ἐς τὸ β. ῥέπων ib.62, cf. Gal.18(1).674, al.; “οἱ β. τῶν ἀνθρώπων” X.Eq.1.3; also, bandy, “β. καρκίνοι” Batr.297, cf. Arist.HA526a23; τὰ β. τῶν ὀπισθίων the hollow of the hind-leg in which bees carry the pollen, ib.624b2: generally, twisted, crooked, “πλατάνιστος” AP4.1.17 (Mel.); κισσός ib.7.21 (Simm.).

So the root sense seems to be "distorted" or "twisted".

On the other hand, one variety of lisp subsitutes a lateral "l-coloured" consonant for the sibilant, and in my mouth the /wl/ seems to exert some pressure toward that sort of pronunciation of the following /s/. It is easy to conceive that this might support an extension of a word meaning "twisted, stumbling (legs)" to "twisted, stumbling (speech)".

It may be coincidence, but in the Ystoria Taliesin the magical child-poet charms King Maelgwn's bards by pouting out his lips and playing "Blerwm, blerwm" upon them, so that they are incapable of verse but can only play "Blerwm, blerwm" on their lips likewise.

  • Very interesting. One would think blais- and Proto-Germanic *(w)lisp- were related...so the specific s/θ meaning was added in Latin, and either independently in Germanic, or Germanic got the root from Latin, or the specific meaning was added later from Latin to the existing Germanic word. Nov 15, 2012 at 20:28
  • This drunk /wl/-like sound you mention is most probably related to Dutch lallen, which means to speak in a drunk manner. Nov 15, 2012 at 20:30
  • @Cerberus - Yes - the origin of Lollard, I believe. In mediaeval Dutch it seems to have meant "mumble" or "stutter". Nov 15, 2012 at 20:37
  • Thank you. I was under the impression that the word lisp in English was particular to defective sibilance. Interestingly, Google's Greek translation of lisp suggests words with the following definitions: stutter, haw, falter, lisp, splutter, stammer. Nov 19, 2012 at 16:49

Yes, the suggestion seems to be that the word imitates the sound of those who lisp, but I don’t find that entirely convincing. The OED online gives a more complete etymology, but doesn’t mention the imitative origin. It does, however, point out that the Old High German adjective lisp meant 'stammering', and that Old High German and Middle High German lispen meant ‘to trip in speaking’.

  • In Dutch, lispelen is often used to mean simply speaking softly or unclearly; it is also used for the specific s/θ sound, but by no means always. Het Woordenboek der Nederlandsche Taal mentions the s/θ sound as the primary sense, muttering secondary. Philippa in het Etymologisch Woordenboek van het Nederlands says "probably onomatopoeic" and mentions Proto-Germanic *(w)lisp-. Nov 15, 2012 at 20:21

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