Guts and River Mouths

From: x99lynx@...
Message: 15933
Date: 2002-10-05

tgpedersen" <tgpedersen@...> (Thu Oct 3, 2002  11:49 am) wrote:
<<I was puzzled by all these river names beginning in *gH-wdH- "pour" (Göta
Älv, Gud-en-å, God-acrus (=Warnow), Guthalus (=Oder?). How about: the
reflexes in Germanic of this root in Germanic meant "river" or "mouth of
river" (-ujscie, -münde, -mouth), thus the
names are River This or That or The Other, and *gaut- etc were "peoples of
(mouths of) rivers"?>>

It is interesting to note in this regard several groups of words that may not
pass strict phonological muster, but do seem to have strong semantic

The original OED gives <gat> in English, ON, Danish and Swedish as "an
opening between sandbanks; a channel, strait; in Kent, a opening, natural or
artificial, in the cliffs, serving as a landing-place." Naturally it is
assocaited with "gate" and as such the Oxford Etym. Dictionary recontructs it
to a "Gmc. z:atam" and to have meant any kind of a hole, meantioning such
meanings in continental German.

However, it should be pointed out that the description fits certain
river-mouths very accurately, particularly those in the Baltic, which
normally have sandy archipelagos formed from deposited river sediment,
interrupted by a a narrow channel carved by the river's outflow current. You
can see this on a big scale on a map showing even minimal detail of the
Oder's mouth, but it happens even with hard-flowing rivers like the Go:te,
because of the way the Baltic was formed.

The idea of channels or courses are naturally important to mariners who deal
with finding their way thru shallow waters into rivers and cope with the
danger of shoals or capsizing. Getting to the mouth of rivers --
consistently the sites of intense activity since neolithic times -- is not as
simple as it looks with a seaworthy boat which requires a deeper draft than
river boats. "Staying on course" -- and off the shoals-- also may involve
dealing with the river's outflowing current, which might mean avoiding
certain parts of the channel where the counter-flowing current is

In New York City, there is a portion of the East River (actually a long salt
water channel between Manhattan and Long Island) called Hell's Gate (from the
Dutch Hellegat) which was clearly a reference to a navigable channel within
the "river" rather than the whole channel itself.

In that sense <gat> matches an old meaning of a different English word,
"gutter," first recorded in the 1300's, that specifically refers to
"watercourses" or navigable channels, man-made or natural -- given as from
the AN gotere, OF gotiere and supposedly ultimately from L gutta (sprinkle,
drop, droplet), though it is difficult to see how that line of meaning

The word "gut" itself has been used in English for some time to mean either a
navigable channel or a strip of sand or tidal flats connecting islands. The
former meaning is actually attested a little bit earlier (1500's), but when
we view guts not as solids but as biological "channels," earlier usage might
be supposed. There are a large number of local "Guts" up and down the east
coast of North America.

Negotiating channels has never been a task for just anyone. A "pilot" has
taken over the coursing of a ship in such water for centuries. One of the
first "harbors" in English-speaking America, on the Outer Banks of North
Carolina, was named "Port Fernandez" for the "hired-gun" Spanish pilot who
guided Sir Walter Raleigh's ships past the Hatteras shoals and into
Albermarle Sound -- quite an honor for a Spaniard working for the
Elizabethian English. Folks who knew the inlets and channels, currents and
river mouths or how to handle them had a lot of power in the sea-going world.
With writing, "rudders" -- written course guides for piloting -- were
closely guarded secrets considered of immense value.

I don't know what the ancient word for "pilot" was, but connecting it with
navigable channels or watercourses -- "guts" or "gats" -- would not be
surprising. A group of affiliated people who lived at and controlled the
mouth of rivers in this way might acquire such a name. Pytheas's apparent
description of the pirates of the Kattegat also might suggest that similar
channels at sea could also be a point of early economic and naval control.

Another obvious application of the "gut" pour words or "gat" channel words
might be expected for falls or rapids -- presenting the same sort of problem
for river transport. These were key points in shipping on rivers (the
original highways) because baggage would have had to be unloaded and portaged
around the falls or rapids. Control of these portages have always been a
source of economic power, often protected by threat of force. The falls at
Trollhättan mentioned in earlier posts might be an good example, being a
potentially monopolistic "bottleneck" between the Swedish interior and the
Baltic that was the location of intense activity and settlement from before
the iron age. An excellent opportunity to tax goods and overcharge for
portage services. Control of such a location could turn a local chieftain
into a king. And such folks could have been called "those found at or who
control the 'gut' or 'gat'."

Steve Long