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Barbarian Europe

What's in a Name - Sicambri

by Edward Dawson & Peter Kessler, 26 February 2021

In the first century BC the West Germanic tribe, the Sicambri, were a large group that was occupying territory on the east bank of the Rhine.

Their location was between the rivers Lippe and Sieg and their junctions with the Rhine. In the medieval period the Sieg was known as the Sega or Segaha, but the river remains entirely unmentioned by ancient writers.

Even so, either the tribe or the river is likely to have gained its name from the other. Which way around this occurred is perhaps vital in ascertaining the meaning behind the name, but only a study of the tribe offers a chance of breaking down that name.

Multiple choices

Shown alternatively as Sicambri, Sigambri, or Sugumbri, the name offers multiple choices when it comes to an in-depth examination. The most likely possible meaning breaks down into sig- plus -ambri. 'Sig-' would be from *sego, and 'ambr-' means both sides or all of something.

The word *sego is listed in the proto-Celtic list of words as meaning 'to hold, possess; to overcome someone, victory'. However, the use of 'victory' could be a later derivation, with 'to hold, possess' perhaps being earlier, and possibly being extended to refer to dominance or one-upmanship: 'I am better than you'. The core meaning could be one of boasting superior fighting skills. In this usage however it may simply be the name of the river valley occupied on both sides by a tribe.

Since all of this is in common Celtic to refer to the name of a Germanic tribe, we can posit that Germans took over the area and adopted the name from the Celts which they replaced and/or absorbed (the latter is a common tale amongst Celtic tribes in what became Germany).

Looking into an alternate, and in a different direction from above, it is possible to break the tribal name down as 'si-' plus 'cambri'. The 'si-' as a prefix is admittedly odd. Left to itself it means 'she'. There were probably one or more letters that had been dropped off, so perhaps it was originally 'sir' or 'sis', meaning 'oneself'?

This may imply that they were Cambri who went off alone, almost certainly as part of the process of tribe division in and migration from Scandinavia and the Baltic and German coastlines.

'Cambri' is a Latinised form of a Brythonic word referencing fellow countrymen. It originates in the word 'combrogi', meaning 'people of the same land' or more specifically 'brothers-in-arms, compatriots', and similar expressions of a close bond. The modern Cymru and Cumbria in Britain have the same source and meaning, as do the ancient Cimbri.

However, proto-Celtic words offer little help in breaking down the meaning of 'Cambri' in the sense of this tribe.

The choices seem to be between *kambito-, meaning 'fellow', *kom-bī-to- (?), meaning 'battle', and *kom-bero-, meaning 'confluence'. Only the last one has the requisite K-M-B-R sequence.

Map of Barbarian Europe 52 BC
This vast map covers just about all possible tribes that were documented in the first centuries BC and AD, including the growing mass of Germanic tribes (shown in orange - click or tap on map to view full sized)

WHAT'S IN A NAME?:
Apennines
Asia
Britain
Catuvellauni
China
Frey & Freya
German
Helvetii
Picts & Caledonia
Sakas & Scythians
Scandinavia
Sicambri
Slav
Xionites


Proto-Germanic offers *kambaz (sb. masculine), which is Old Norse 'kambr', Old English 'camb', Old Saxon 'kamb', and Old High German 'kamb', all meaning 'comb'. This is identical with Tocharian 'kam' and 'keme', meaning 'tooth', Sanskrit 'jmbha-', meaning 'tooth, tusk', Greek 'gmfow', meaning 'peg, nail', Albanian 'dhmb' and 'dhamb', meaning 'tooth', Lithuanian '≥aMbas', meaning 'sharp edge', Latvian 'zobs', meaning 'tooth', and Slavic *zb˙ (a comb itself has teeth, of course, which is the common link here).

While this word seems widespread, it uses the wrong initial vowel and is unlikely as a tribal name.

Another possibility is *kembaz and *kemb (sb. mas/fem), which presents in the Swedish 'dial', or 'kimb', meaning 'ends of a stave protruding over the ground', and Middle Low German as 'kimme', meaning 'rim'. The 'r' is missing, but this may not be a problem as '-er' indicates a doer of some action. But what action? This uncertainty largely kills off this avenue of exploration.

Favourites

Based solely on the vowel sequence, the favourites seem either to be the proto-Celtic 'kombrogi', meaning 'compatriots', or possibly the proto-Celtic 'kombero', meaning 'confluence'.

Combrogi seems the most likely choice, based on frequency of use elsewhere.

Alternatively, perhaps the original Cambri home was in a location at which two rivers came together? Or the confluence could be meant in the sense of where the Atlantic Ocean met the Baltic Sea, which is where they lived.

Either way, it points to an early Celtic influence, making it likely to be a resident tribe of the Cimbric peninsula or southern Baltic coast where it could have interacted with Belgic tribes.

In theory it could even be Belgic itself, slowly made more Germanic by being surrounded by other Germans who were becoming a dominant force in Northern Europe.

 

Main Sources

Anthony, David W - The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World

Mallory, JP & Adams, DQ (Eds) - Encyclopaedia of Indo-European Culture, 1997

Pokorny, J - Indo-European Etymological Dictionary, online database which updates Pokorny's Indogermanisches Etymologisches Wrterbuch

Online Sources

Indo-European Chronology - Countries and Peoples

Linguistics Research Center, University of Texas at Austin

Online Etymological Dictionary

Pokorny - Indo-European Etymological Dictionary

The United Sites of Indo-Europeans

 

 

     
Images and text copyright © Edward Dawson & P L Kessler. An original feature for the History Files.