Stripping down the origins of ‘naked’

Naked itself is a very old word, deriving from a common Germanic form even before Old English evolved into a separate language. 

Max Ortiz/Detroit News via AP
This Jan. 8, 2019 photo shows a view of The Detroit Institute of Arts Thinker sculpture and the Park Shelton building.

I was reading C.S. Lewis’s 1960 book “The Four Loves” recently and came across an interesting etymology for naked. Lewis asserts that the word was originally a past participle: “the naked man was the man who had undergone a process of naking, that is, of stripping or peeling (you used the verb of nuts and fruit).” 

Lewis writes so beautifully that he could probably convince me of anything, but I had never heard this explanation and decided to investigate.  

It turns out that Lewis’s account is probably more interesting than right. There were verbs to nake and to naken in the Middle Ages, both meaning to strip someone of something, usually clothing but sometimes armor or weapons. But according to the Oxford English Dictionary, these verbs probably come from naked the adjective, which only looks like a past participle. 

Naked itself is a very old word, deriving from a common Germanic form even before Old English evolved into a separate language. It can be traced all the way back to Proto-Indo-European, the prehistoric ancestor of many languages across Europe and Asia, from Albanian to Urdu. Linguists have tried to reconstruct Proto-Indo-European, and have determined that a root that might be approximated in modern English as nog- gave rise to the English naked as well as a surprisingly diverse bunch of other words.

In Latin, the root became nudus, which by the 16th century had produced the English word nude. At first this was a legal term for a promise not formally attested to by witnesses or in writing (“Nude words do not make a binding contract”), but by the 19th century it had come to be a synonym for naked. Today nude has two very different connotations, a positive one when talking about great art (Michelangelo’s David is “nude” not “naked”), and a negative one implying the gratuitous display of flesh (“nude photos”).  

In Greek, nog- became gumnos, which became the Greek gymnasium, a place where men and boys exercised, as was the custom, naked. English adopted this word in the 17th century to mean a space dedicated to athletic instruction, presumably with everybody’s clothes on. And it gave Hindi and Urdu naan, a flat bread that is baked “naked” in an oven and not buried in the ashes of a fire, which had been one of the earliest baking techniques.  

In English naked seems clearly to have referred to human bodies, and not fruit, as Lewis suggests, from the get-go. Adam and Eve realize that they are “nacode” in Old English translations of Genesis long before the word is used in reference to trees (15th century), and trees are the closest I can get to nuts and fruits. 

That’s the naked truth (also 15th century) as far as I know it.

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