"Skin" and "hide" ("pelt") in Old Sinitic and Proto-Indo-European

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Browsing through the The American Heritage Dictionary "Indo-European Roots Appendix", a favorite activity of mine, even before the pandemic lockdowns, I came to "pel-3" and was stunned when I saw that one of the derived words was Greek peltē, a shield (made of hide), about which three years ago I had written a very long post (nearly three thousand words): 

"Of armaments and Old Sinitic reconstructions, part 6" (12/23/17)

Utilizing a mass of archeological, art historical, textual, linguistic, and other types of evidence, I had shown a close resemblance between the Greek peltē and Sinitic fá 瞂  pelta; small shield — Middle Sinitic bjwot — as defined in Paul Kroll, ed., A Student's Dictionary of Classical and Medieval Chinese (Leiden: Brill, 2015), p. 104a.  In that whole, long post, I did not mention Sinitic pí 皮 ("skin; hide; pelt; leather"), because I was determined to cite only linguistic evidence from the Classical Greek to the Middle Sinitic period and the associated artifacts and images.

Today, looking at PIE pel-3 ("skin; hide") and its derivatives (see below), I immediately thought of Old Sinitic pí 皮 ("skin; hide; pelt; leather"):

(BaxterSagart): /*m-[p](r)aj/
(Zhengzhang): /*bral/


In comparing PIE pel-3 ("skin; hide") and Old Sinitic /*m-[p](r)aj/; /*bral/ ("skin; hide"), we do not need to worry unduly about the final "-t" of the English word "pelt", which is what inspired me to undertake the research that resulted in this post, since that is a suffixed form derived from the PIE root.


"Skin, hide".

1. Suffixed form *pel-no-. fell3 from Old English fell, skin, hide, from Germanic *felnam.
2. film from Old English filmen, membrane, from Germanic suffixed form *fel-man-ja-.
3. Suffixed form *pel-ni-. pelisse, pellicle, pelt1, peltry, pillion; pellagra, surplice from Latin pellis, skin.
4. erysipelas from Greek -pelas, skin.
5. Suffixed form *pel-to-. peltate from Greek peltē, a shield (made of hide).

[Pokorny 3b. pel- 803.]

(AHD appx. IE roots)

If you want to get a quick sense of words for "skin" in many different languages around the world, check here.  This list, however, must be used with care.  As Jim Mallory cautions:

Just looking at this website, I would only regard it as a starting point. For example, it lists the Irish word as pelt. It might be used as such in Irish although I could not find it in the standard Irish-English dictionary nor in the English-Irish dictionary where you would use the Irish word for skin to which you would simply attach 'animal' or a separate word meaning 'green hide' (used in tanning). Also it gives pelt (in Cyrillic) as the Russian word – again not in my Russian dictionary (perhaps not so complete) but I would expect 'shkura' 'skin, hide". In any event, if the word simply seems to be a loanword, I suspect that the compiler did not make much of an effort trying to find the right word.

In these days of the super close presidential election, I can't help but think of the strange expression, "by the skin of my teeth", as I bring this post to a close.


Selected readings


  1. Steven said,

    November 7, 2020 @ 11:37 am

    "If you want to get a quick sense of words for "skin" in many different languages around the world, check here. This list, however, must be used with care. As Jim Mallory cautions:"

    The compiler of the list did nothing more than rely on Google Translate.
    For Hebrew, the list, copying Google Translate uncritically, gives לִזרוֹק, which, once shorn of its irrelevant preposition, leaves the triliteral root זרק, from which a verb meaning 'throw' derives. The root and its derivatives have nothing to do with the Hebrew for 'pelt, skin'.

  2. Dara Connolly said,

    November 7, 2020 @ 5:06 pm

    In reply to Jim Mallory: The relevant Irish cognate is "peall" (hide, pelt). We also have the word "peil" meaning football, from the same root.

  3. Chris Button said,

    November 7, 2020 @ 8:50 pm

    We actually discussed the possibility of such a connection in the "Of jackal and hide and Old Sinitic reconstructions" post included in the selected readings:


    Personally, I would follow Zhengzhang in reconstructing an *-l coda in 皮 but his medial *-r- doesn't seem necessary.

  4. Cuconnacht said,

    November 9, 2020 @ 7:10 pm

    "By the skin of my teeth" is Biblical. Job 19:20 in the Authorized Version: "My bone cleaveth to my skin and to my flesh, and I am escaped with the skin of my teeth." I suppose it is a literal translation of the Hebrew; whether the expression is any less surprising in Hebrew I do not know.

  5. ajay said,

    November 10, 2020 @ 4:47 am

    "With [not by] the skin of my teeth" is Biblical – apparently a mistranslation of a phrase meaning "jawbones". Job is bemoaning his pitiful condition to his comforter Bildad, and it could be a reference to Job being thin and famished – though the preceding verses of the chapter are all about Job being rejected by his friends and family, not about his physical condition, so it stands out a bit.

    But escaped "by the skin of my teeth" implies that the speaker has escaped either _by means of_ the skin of his teeth (as in "escaped by rope", "escaped by cunning") or escaped by a very small margin (as in "escaped by seconds", "escaped by a hair's breadth").

    I used to think it meant something like "I have escaped so narrowly that I left some skin behind in the teeth of my pursuer" – but then it's my teeth, not my pursuer's teeth, so that doesn't make sense either. Or maybe it has acquired some association with the idea of lips and teeth being very close together – so "I have escaped something that came as close to me as my skin does to my teeth".

    (Incidentally, a few verses on in that chapter is where Job delivers the verses familiar to anyone who's heard Handel's Messiah: "I know that my Redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth; for though worms destroy this body, yet in my death shall I see God.")

  6. Rodger C said,

    November 10, 2020 @ 8:20 am

    *yet in my flesh

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