The Grammarphobia Blog

Arabian flights

Q: Here’s a riddle: what’s the connection between “utter” and “mutter”? If you manage to get Umm Bab into your answer, I’ll fall face down into the gutter.

A: Get your mind out of the Qatar. (For any puzzled readers, Umm Bab is a city in the emirate of Qatar, which can be pronounced several ways in English, including “cotter,” “cutter,” and “gutter.”)

Now, let’s get serious. I’m glad you asked this question, since I had no idea that “utter” and “mutter” were unrelated. Now I know.

We owe the English verb “utter” partly to the word “out” (an early spelling of “utter” was “outer”) and partly to the Middle Dutch uteren (to drive away, announce, speak, show, make known) or to the Middle Low German üteren (to turn out, sell, speak, demonstrate). This comes from the Oxford English Dictionary, which traces the English word to around 1400.

In the early days, “utter” had at least three meanings: (1) to speak or send out an audible sound; (2) to put out goods for sale; (3) to put into circulation or pass off as legal tender (a usage that survives today in the verbal phrase “to utter a check”).

To my surprise, as I’ve mentioned, “mutter” is no relation. It entered English at about the same time, the OED says, noting that it bears similarities to the Latin muttire (to murmur or mutter) and to the Old High German mutilon (to murmur or trickle).

In modern German, though, mutter means mother, and that’s all I have to utter.

Buy our books at a local store, Amazon.com, or Barnes&Noble.com.