Q: I assume the adjective “loath” (meaning reluctant) and the verb “loathe” (meaning to dislike) are relations of one sort or another. Which of these came first? And where did it come from?
A: Yes, the two words are related. John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins says the verb “loathe” is derived from the adjective “loath,” which was láð in Old English. (The letter ð, or eth, was pronounced like “th.”)
The adjective, according to Ayto, “originally meant ‘hostile’ or ‘loathsome,’ and goes back to a prehistoric Germanic laithaz,” which gave German leid (sorrow) and French laid (ugly or disgusting).
Two of the earliest examples of the adjective “loath” in the Oxford English Dictionary are from the Old English epic poem Beowulf, which is believed to date from the 700s.
Early in the poem, the monster Grendel kills dozens of warriors, leaving King Hrothgar grief-stricken from a feud described as to strang, lað ond longsum (“too cruel, loathsome, and long”).
Later, during Beowulf’s battle with Grendel’s mother, she clutches him, but her laþan fingrum (“hostile talons”) fail to pierce his chain-mail shirt. (The letter þ, or thorn, was also pronounced like “th.”)
It wasn’t until the 1300s that the adjective “loath” took on the modern sense of reluctant or unwilling, according to examples in the OED.
The dictionary’s earliest example is from Chaucer’s 14th-century Middle English translation of De Consolatione Philosophiae of Boethius: “She lyueth loþ of this lyf.”
Here’s an example in modern English from a Feb. 7, 1667, entry in Samuel Pepys’s Diary: “I … would be loath he should not do well.”
As for the verb “loathe,” it meant to be hateful, displeasing, or offensive when it first showed up in Old English in the late 800s, but the OED says that sense is now obsolete.
“Loathe” went through several other senses now considered obsolete before the modern meaning of “to feel aversion or dislike” showed up in the 12th century, according to the OED.
The dictionary’s first citation is from Poema Morale, an anonymous early Middle English work from sometime before 1200.
However, the Middle English is easier to read in this example from A Paraphrase on the Seven Penitential Psalms (1414), by Thomas Brampton: “Good werk he lothith to bigynne.”
Now, let’s skip ahead to a couple of 19th-century poetic examples in modern English:
“To breathe and loathe, to live and sigh, / Than once from dread of pain to die,” from Tennyson’s “The Two Voices” (1842).
“Man who, as man conceiving, hopes and fears, / And craves and deprecates, and loves, and loathes,” from Robert Brownings’s “The Family” (1884).
Although careful writers are now careful to spell the verb “loathe” with an “e” at the end, the OED has many literary examples from the past of the “e”-less verb.
Here’s an example from Dryden’s 1697 translation of Virgil’s Georgica: “The Swarms … loath their empty Hives, and idly stray.”
The OED even has a 14th-century citation for the adjective spelled with an “e” at the end, but you’ll have to trust us on this. We’re loath to give one more example.