Dear Word Detective: I happened to use the phrase “it wouldn’t budge” the other day and realized that I had no idea about the word “budge.” I found on the internet this: Origin: 1580–90; from Anglo-French, Middle French “bouger” to stir, from Vulgar Latin “*bullicare” to bubble, frequentative of Latin “bullire,” which did not make it any clearer just how the word “budge” came to specifically mean “slightest movement.” A question for one of your many rainy days. — Nancy.

Rain, rain, go away, come again some other day. Like tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow…. But seriously, it’s rained every single day here in rural Ohio for the past three weeks and shows no sign of stopping. The fields are under water and the farmers can’t plant crops. We’ve had two tornadoes touch down within a mile of us. And the worst part is that I can’t mow the lawn, my favorite pastime in the whole world. All I can do is watch reruns of House, eat pizza and wait. It’s horrible.

They say that you should never watch sausage being made, and the same probably goes for consuming raw etymological notes. That string of and words symbols you found (I changed “<” to “from” to make it a bit less cryptic) really doesn’t explain much of anything. Incidentally, that asterisk preceding the Latin word “bullicare” means that it’s a hypothetical form, i.e., it’s never actually been found in print but its existence can be inferred from other known forms. Whee!

Today we use the verb “to budge” to mean “to move,” usually by a small amount. Oddly enough, “budge” is a word we almost always use in a negative sense referring to something firmly fixed that we “cannot budge it an inch” or a person with a firmly held opinion who “can’t be budged” (“You’re as obstinate as a mule … you don’t intend to budge an inch, do you?” Noel Coward, 1930). This negative “refuses to move” usage is probably why we associate “budge” with a tiny, grudging movement and not, for instance, with running a marathon.

When “budge” first appeared in English in the late 16th century, however, it meant simply “to move” or “to stir” (although even its earliest recorded uses cast it in that “hard to move” sense). Its source was indeed the Latin “bulliere,” meaning “to bubble or boil” (also the source of our modern English “to boil”), and the important connection to “boil” is the sense of constant movement. That connection would seem more logical if we hadn’t gotten into the strange habit of using “budge” almost exclusively in contexts where the thing or person was refusing to move. If “budge” had, for some reason, come to be commonly used to mean “to dance rapidly,” its “boiling” origin would seem perfectly appropriate.

Incidentally, we most often use “to stir,” which I mentioned above, to mean “to mix a liquid or semi-liquid with a rotational movement,” as in “stirring” paint or a cake mix. But, like “budge,” the verb “to stir” (from Germanic roots meaning “disturb”) basically means simply “to move or set in motion,” and particularly “to move a limb or other body part, as on awakening.” Interestingly, this use has also come to be used mostly in negative contexts (“Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse…”), and even in positive uses, “stir” has come to mean “to make a small movement” or “to prod in an attempt to rouse someone to activity.”

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