What is the ‘-ling’ in darling? (And what is the ‘dar-’ for that matter?)

One media darling in recent popular culture has been actor, heartthrob, and internet meme Ryan Gosling. His fans, no doubt, readily find a connection between darling and Gosling. And the etymologists among themyes, they have lives toofind another one. It’s -ling.

The -ling in darling and Gosling (if we treat the surname as ‘young goose’, as many do) is an old suffix that indicated ‘belonging to, concerned with, or having the quality of’ some matter. It could also carry a diminutive force. Documented in Old English, darling is literally ‘a dear thing’, with dar- from dear, or ‘precious, worthy, tenderly regarded’. Attested in the early 1400s, gosling, then, is a ‘little goose’, gos- being goose. Isn’t that darling?

The lingo of ‘-ling’

Rooted in Germanic, this -ling is considered, etymologically, two suffixes for the price of one. It comprises a form of -ing and -el or -le. (The noun-forming –ling here is not to be confused with another -ling suffix, which once made adverbs, as in backlings, or ‘backwards’.)

This particular -ing made masculine nouns diminutive and signified belonging or quality. It appears to survive in king, smushed from the Old English cyning, believed to join kin and this same -ing. The suffix -el or -le shows up in various words, especially to name tools (handle, thimble, bridle) and express ‘aptness to’, as in brittle, fickle, or nimble.

-Ling was productive into Early Modern English, though a great many of its historic forms have long become obsolete. Old English had gadling (‘kinsman, relative, companion’); evenling (‘an equal’); and witherling (‘a foe’). It’s a shame we lost some of these Old English -ling’s. A frumbderling was a ‘youth’ (frumbder- from ‘first beard’) while a tharfling was ‘unleavened bread’ (tharf being ‘lumpish’). Again, aren’t they darling?

Not all of these early -ling’s died out, though. Starling, for the ‘European songbird’, and underling, for a ‘subordinate’, both date back to Anglo-Saxon days. Underling once had a counterpart, overling, in Middle English.

And we nearly lost, due to whatever accident of history, one of the most familiar instances of -ling: sibling. In Old English, a sibling was a relative, with sib an adjective and noun for ‘(one) related by blood or descent’. (That sib also shows up in gossip, from godsibb, ‘godparent’; in Middle English this was used for ‘a close friend’, especially ‘a person with whom one gossips’, hence its evolution into ‘idle talk’ centuries later.) At present, the Oxford English Dictionary enters one instance of sibling in Old English and another in Middle English, ostensibly dead until the word was revived as a technical term in early 20th century anthropology and genetics.

Other common –lings crop up throughout the ensuing centuries. The 1300s give us foundling, ‘an infant abandoned by its parents and found and cared for by others’. The 1400s evidence duckling (ugly duckling in the 1870s), suckling, and sapling. The 1500s record nursling, weakling, scantling, and earthling, though the science-fiction Earthling doesn’t come until the 1800s.

The 1500s also record starveling (‘an undernourished person or creature’) and changeling, which in folklore was a child left by fairies in exchange for a stolen one. The 1600s show groundling, seedling, and dumpling, which appears to be dump plus -ling. Two surprisingly late –ling’s with wings are fledgeling and hatchling, which aren’t recorded until the 1800s.

Beastlings of the earth, birdlings of the sky

Animals are a common species of –ling elsewhere in annals of the suffix, with many of these -ling words doubling as terms of endearment or formed as nonce words. We have many a birdling (‘young or small bird’): chickling, crowling, doveling, sparrowling, nestling, chirpling, and peepling, to name a few. And many a beastling (‘young or small beast’), too, including toadling, lambling, pigling, gnatling, wormling, dogling, and ratling. We think you get the idea – but toadling, another darling!

Some interesting food items – or dishlings, ‘little dishes of food’ – are in store. Besides tharfling and dumpling, you can nosh on a sauserling (‘a sausage’) and bloodling (‘blood pudding’). Stuckling is a Suffolk regional word for an ‘apple turnover’ while carling is a dish of boiled peas historically served on Care Sunday, once a term for the fifth Sunday in Lent. And save room for cheeseling, apparently a cheese-in-process. Cheeseling: yet another darling, no?

The many siblings of ‘-ling’

By far the largest class of -ling words are people. Middle English had heanling and hinderling (‘contemptible person’); comeling (‘newcomer’) and out-comeling (‘stranger’); afterling (‘descendant’); and wendling (‘wanderer’).

Outside darling, there’s a sizable group of pet terms for sweethearts, little children, or delicate persons or creatures: niceling, tenderling, kidling, dandling, grandling (‘grandchild’), heartling, loveling, sweetling, sportling (‘lively little person’), liebling (from German lieb, ‘dear’), and pinkling. There are a few terms for naughtier wee ones, too: pertling, bratling, bantling, em>tidling, getling, and petling.

The real fun with -ling, though, starts in the 1500-1600s, when the suffix takes on a dismissive and contemptuous tone, characterizing someone as minor, petty, or base in some way. -Ling hits the court with kinglings and princelings. It hits insignificant writers and thinkers with nonce words like witling, poetling, authorling, bardling, philosopherling, wiseling (‘pretender to wisdom’), and thinkling (‘thinker of no consequence’).

Don’t think the law is immune: lawyerling is recorded. Priests, especially Catholic ones, have been a frequent target of the snubbing -ling: A shaveling, for the tonsured head of a churchman, is recorded in 1529. Friarling, greaseling, popeling, shriveling, ointling, and peterling are some other colorful examples.

Apparently formed as a rhyming antonym for darling, a warling is a ‘despised person’, while others found in the 1600s include rashling for a ‘rash person’, a lapling as a ‘person fond of a lady’s lap’, punkling a ‘young prostitute’, an airling a ‘young, thoughtless person’ (later, creature of the air), and a profaneling a ‘person given to swearing’. Found in the 1800s, a gutterling is a ‘person born in the gutter’, or a ‘low-status person’. Profaneling – yup, you know what I’m thinking.

It’s not all nastiness for us fleshlings and deathlings, or ‘mortal beings’. A worldling (1549) is ‘devoted to life’s pleasures’, a fortunateling (1605) is ‘favored by fortune’, and a wonderling (1658)is a ‘wonderful being’. Not to mention a wonderful word.

Why not try some ‘newlings’?

Most of the various thinglings of -ling, as you’ve surely gathered, are long lost – or never had much of a life in the first place. Still, we think some are very useful or the mot juste and deserve resuscitation. Beardling (1622)? A ‘person who wears a beard’. Monthling (1804)? A baby whose age is measured in months. Thoughtling (1811)? A ‘little thought’. Giftling (1860)? A ‘little gift’. (1872)Lostling?‘Something lost’.

All these words make us wonder. Sure, -ling, due to whatever randomness of language change, pressures of other diminutive suffixes like -let (e.g., booklet or piglet), or the simple utility of the modifier little, largely fell out of use. But could it have a seat at the lexical table again? Could it form some new, shall we say, ‘wordlings’? Or maybe better yet, ‘newlings’?

A textling could be a ‘short text message’.A meetling could be a ‘quick meeting or meet-up’. A laughling could be ‘something mildly funny’. A hipling or a trendling could be a ‘person obsessed with trends’. A splainling ‘someone given to condescendingly explaining things’ (like a mansplainer). A striveling could be ‘a person constantly hustling for success’.

And a tripling, for a final invention, could be a ‘brief visit or getaway’ or maybe even a ‘short journey in a rideshare vehicle’ – though it’s a form like tripling that gets -ling in trouble, as it can be confused for progressive or gerund forms of verbs ending in -le, such as assembling or trickling. Perhaps that’s another reason -ling petered out.

Useful or not, you have to admit: -ling is pretty darling little suffix in English. OK, maybe not Ryan Gosling level, but hey, let the etymologists dream.

John Kelly January 4 2019

Educator, writer, and word nerd, John Kelly blogs about etymology at www.mashedradish.com and Shakespeare at shakespeareconfidential.com. Follow him on Twitter @mashedradish and @bardconfidensh.

Categories: Word origins
Tags: -lingdarlingMiddle EnglishobsoleteOld Englishwhat in the wordword origins
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