A Historical Survey of the Semantic Field of Nakedness

Jennifer Pangman

copyright 2001

This article will survey the course of development of the semantic field of nakedness from its roots in Proto-Indo-European (PIE) down through Proto-Germanic (PGer), Old English (OE), and Middle English (ME), with particular consideration of the parameters of the field suggested by Old English, the proliferation of grammatical forms in Middle English, and the impact of loan words such as nude and divest on modern usage. 


Current Issues and Ancient Ambiguities


In present day English, the semantic field of undress includes the terms naked, bare, and nude.  Although bare and naked have remained largely synonymous, naked and nude have become used in opposition to each other.  Although the latter two ultimately stem from the same root in PIE, nude descends through Latin and becomes a prestige term in English, whereas naked descends through the Germanic path of Old English along with bare.   In effect, nude acquires associations of idealization and abstraction and, more negatively, with objectification, even though Latin nudare lacks such associations (OLD).  In contrast, naked tends to be characterized as more concrete and immediate.  However, whereas Sir Kenneth Clark portrays naked as a privative term (23), John Berger has preferenced it as a state of potent presence retaining self-possession through its subjectivity (53).   The slipperiness of naked in PDE thereby reflects the essentially paradoxical nature of its etymological origins, which can signify both lack and presence, emphasizing either what is missing or what is thereby revealed.  This paradoxical “polysemous” quality can be traced back to the roots of naked in PIE, which potentially signified both potent presence and privative exposure. 


Proto-Indo-European Roots


According to The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots (1985), the PIE root *nog-w- “naked” branches down several paths through various suffixes:


PIE Root:                                                        *nog-w-                      


+ Suffixes:            *nog-w-edo            *nog-w-eto, *nog-w-oto               *nog-w-mo


     Latin nudus           PGerm nakweda, nakwada          Greek gumnos


OE nacod


                                                            ME naked


  PDE nude, denude             PDE naked          PDE gymn(o)-: gymnasium,

                                                                                 gymnast, gymnosperm


PIE roots can also have several semantically related morphological variants: the “o-grade”, the “zero-grade”, and the “e-grade” (e.g. *nog-, *ng-, and *neg- respectively).  From a reconstruction of these, Huld has suggested that the semantic field of nakedness in PIE is specifically phallocentric, interpreting derivatives of *ng-w- such as Latin inguengroin” as suggesting that the zero-grade root may have referred to the male genitalia and that the unattested verbal root *neg-w- therefore referred to the exposure of the male sex organs.  The particularly male nature of PIE nakedness is also attested to by the Tocharian words for man (as opposed to human) onk and enkwe, which Huld traces from *nog-w-o-.  In contrast, Knobloch (1993) interprets the root *nog-w-o as denoting “a stripped tree or a bald mountaintop” (Hitchcock LLBA).


Huld also identifies the proliferation of irregular derivatives of *nog-w-o and attributes them to taboo deformation based on magico-religious beliefs in the potency of the naked body, inferring an association with magical powers.   Along similar lines, Knobloch ascribes the derivation of Greek gumnosnaked” from PIE *nog-w-o to a taboo deformation in women’s speech (LLBA).  In PDE, although terms such as gymnasium and gymnast have lost their initial associations with the practice of exercising naked, the combinative form gymn(o)- (from Greek gymnosnaked”) retains its etymological sense in terms such as gymnosperma plant with ‘naked seeds’ in the sense of being unprotected by an ovary”. 


Although, as Huld notes, the standard reference works do not readily acknowledge any variants but the adjectival o-grade (*nog-w-), Janda suggests that Greek nebrosfawn” and nebraxchick” derive from the e-grade root through the association of nakedness with lack (i.e. the absence of antlers or a rooster’s comb), particularly lack of protection (LLBA).  Substantiating this etymology, Wood places OE nacod within the broader pattern of Germanic w-gemination, aligning it with other words descended through –kw- developments of PIE u-stems (Wood 304).  As Wood also notes, the shift reconstructed between *nakweda, *nakwada and nacod is part of a pattern of similar syncope by other cognates.


The semantic field of nakedness in PIE also included *bhoso- “naked”, from which we derive PDE bare through OE bær and Germanic *bazaz (AHDIER).  Throughout OE and ME, bær and bar(e) remain closely synonymous with nacod and naked, covering the same semantic range and occupying the same register of language (DOE; TOE; MED). 


Old English


Within OE, synonyms of nacod include many compound formations that refer explicitly to the lack of clothing, but can also refer to broad range of lack of coverage, not necessarily human. (Unless otherwise noted, all citations from TOE; bracketed forms are rare):

-“not dressed, unclothed”: nacod, bær, unscrýdd , (ÁwÁde), (ungegearwod), (ungegerad),(unscirped), (unwáeded)

-more generally “exposed, bare”: nacod, bær, unbehelod [lit. unconcealed (Hall)]

-with specific emphasis on being “not covered”: nacod, open, (unoverwrigen)

-as a noun, “nakedness”: næcednes, næced(u)

-as a verb, “to lay bare, divest, strip”: ábarian, barian, genacodian, ongierwan, ungierw(i)an, geréafian, unscrýdan, (barenian), (benacian)

-referring specifically to “lack of adornment, plain, simple”: ánfeald, forthriht, hál, geráede, nacod, (also bær “unadorned”, as when glosssing nudus in   

  the sense of apertus “plain” [DOE]).

-figuratively: (of words) “empty, not backed by deeds”: nacod;

                   (of sword) “drawn, unsheathed”: átogen, nacod

-in compound formations:  “half naked”: (healfnacod);

     “stark naked”: (eallnacod), (limnacod)                              

We thereby find that in OE bær is closely synonymous with nacod, in that it spans a similar spectrum of usage.  It derives from PIE *bhoso- “naked” through Germanic *baza- (AHDIER) and descends through ME bar, bare to PDE bare.  Comparison of the entries for naked and bar in MED suggests that this close correspondence also continues through ME.


Middle English


Within ME, the range of meaning for naked is similar to that of OE nacod, except that it broadens to include being scantily clad or having only an under garment on, as in Chaucer (c137) CT Mk B.3320: “On his bak this sherte he wered al naked” (MED “naked” adj. 1b.).  In addition to the adjective naked, several other new forms develop, but all except the adverb are rare and/or do not survive into MnE (OED):

-adj. “naked”: nake

-substantive, “the naked skin”: the naked

-noun, “nakedness”: nakedhed(e), nakidhe(e)d; naked

-verb “to make naked”: naken, nakenen

-adv. “nakedly”: nakedliche

Although Delany emphasizes the distinctly privative nature of the verbal form, the substantive form and the noun reflect the dual capacity of the adjective to suggest a state of unobscured presence (not necessarily derogatively exposed), as in the pristine state before the Fall of Man (118-23).  This more positive aspect extends the use of nacod in OE as a synonym for “open, forthright, whole” (TOE). 


Modern English


The verb naken remains in use at least until 1483 (OED), but in early MnE it falls out, in favor of its old synonym strip (trans. “to remove the covering or clothing of; to tear off”; intrans. “to take off all clothing”), from ME stripen, stepen, originally from OE -strýpan in bestrýpanto plunder” (Klein).  The latter was joined in early MnE by the French loan word divest (1605+) (lit. “to unclothe”, fig. “to deprive”), refashioned (through Latin analogies) from early MnE devest (1563-1848),  from OF desvestir, from MLat disvestire, dívestire, from dis- +  Lat vestireto clothe”, from vestisgarment”.  As a Latinate prestige term it tends to occupy a higher register than strip and lacks its violent, undignified connotations of plunder (OED; Klein).  (For example, King Lear proposes to “divest” himself of kingship [I.i.51]).  Early MnE also adapts the verb denude (1523+) from Lat denudareto make naked, lay bare”, from de- “completely”  + nudareto make naked” (OED).  


Also from Lat nudus, MnE acquires the doublet for the adjective naked, nude, which enters the language through early MnE as a legal term meaning “not formally attested or recorded” (OED).  It does not acquire the sense of “unclothed” until the 19th century, by which time the use of the term as a substantive had long been imported from French nu as an artistic term referring specifically to “a nude figure in painting or sculpture” (1708+) (OED).  The aesthetic idealization attributed to the term by Clark is thus particularly reflective of the French path of its descent from Latin. 


We thereby see that the major shifts that have taken place in the semantic field of nakedness have occurred in MnE, through the importation of foreign loan words. However, in spite of the tendency for the Latinate terms to occupy a higher register than their native Anglo-Saxon counter-parts and in spite of attempts by theorists to assert a strict dichotomy with nude, the term naked has remained resistant to any clear division between presence and absence, potency and privation. 


For further reading


American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots.  Ed. Calvert Watkins.  Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1985.


Berger, John, et al.  Ways of Seeing.  London and Harmondsworth, MS: BBC and Penguin, 1972.


Clark, Kenneth.  The Nude: A Study in Ideal Form.  Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1959.


Delany, Sheila.  The Naked Text: Chaucer’s Legend of Good Women.  Berkely: U of  California P, 1994.


Dictionary of Old English.  Eds. Ashley Crandell Amos and Antonette dePaolo Healey.  Toronto: for the Dictionary of Old English Project, Centre for Medieval

Studies, University of Toronto, by the Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, 1986-


Hall, J. R. Clark.  A Concise Anglo-Saxon Dictionary. 4th ed.  Toronto: U of Toronto P in Association with the Medieval Academy of America, 1984.  (No

historical examples.)


Huld, Martin E.  “Magic, Metathesis and Nudity in Indo-European Thought.”  Ancient Languages and Philology.  Vol 1 of Studies in Honor of Jaan Puhvel.  Eds.

Dorothy Disterheft et al.  Journal of Indo-European Studies Monograph 20.  Gen. eds. A. Richard Diebold and Edgar C. Polomé.  Washington: Institute for

the Study of Man, 1997.  75-92


Janda, Micheal.  “Ancient Greek nebros ‘fawn’ and nebrax ‘chick’”.  Die Sprache 38:1 (1996) 97-92.  Linguistics and Language Behavior Abstracts. (The full

article is in German.)


Klein, Ernest.  A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the English Language.  Amsterdam: Elsevier, 1966.  2 Vols.


Knobloch, Johann.  “Greek gumnos- A Relic of Mediterranean Woman’s Language”.  Historische Sprachforschung.  106:2 (1993) 303-4. Linguistics and

Language Behavior Abstracts .  (The full article is in German.)


Middle English Dictionary.  Ed. Hans Kurath et al. Ann Arbor, MI: U of Michigan P, 1952-


Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology.  Ed. C. T. Onions.  Oxford: Clarendon P, 1966.


Oxford English Dictionary.  2nd ed.  20 vols. Oxford: Clarendon P, 1989.


Oxford Latin Dictionary.  1985 ed.  Oxford: Clarendon P, 1968.


Roberts, Jane, and Christian Kay.  A Thesaurus of Old English. 2 vols.  London: King’s College London, Centre for Late Antique and Medieval Studies, 1995. 


Shakespeare, William.  The Tragedy of King Lear.  Ed. Russell Fraser.  Signet Classic Shakespeare.  Gen. ed. Sylvan Barnet.  New York: Penguin, 1963.


Wood, Francis A.  “Germanic w-Gemination”.  Modern Philology.  18 (1920-1) 79-99, 303-8.