Don’t look back.
Dear Word Detective: I looked up the word “qualm” and found “etymology unknown.” What do you have? — Robert Coleman.
Me? I have tons of qualms. I have qualms about claiming my shoes as a business expense, for instance, because I do most of my writing sitting down. I have qualms about not coming up with a better name for one of our cats than “Little Girl Cat.” (I can tell even the vet thinks that’s pretty tacky.) I have qualms about feeding cookies to the dog. I have qualms about voting for judges based on the similarity of their last names to those of people I know. (Just kidding about that one. Mostly.)
“Qualm” is an interesting, and somewhat mysterious, word. It’s mysterious enough that it’s understandable why most dictionaries, pressed for space, would snap “origin unknown” and move on to the next word. But it would be more accurate to say “origin uncertain,” or (in an ideal world with plenty of space on the page) “origin uncertain, but it seems to be related to a whole bunch of other words although we can’t explain exactly how.”
We use “qualm” primarily to mean, as the American Heritage Dictionary (AHD) puts it, “an uneasy feeling about the propriety or rightness of a course of action.” Other senses currently in use (again quoting the AHD) are “a sudden feeling of sickness, faintness, or nausea,” and “a sudden disturbing feeling.” A “qualm,” in other words, is that sinking feeling, that pang of dismay, that you get when you realize that you probably shouldn’t have seated your boss next to your brother-in-law at your dinner party.
But there are actually four separate “qualm” nouns in English, which complicates the search for origins a bit. One “qualm” can be dismissed immediately as irrelevant, the now-obsolete 15th century use of “qualm” to mean “the sound of the cry of a raven.” We can also probably ignore the 16th century “qualm” meaning “a brief period of boiling.”
It’s the two other “qualms” that may or may not be related. The earlier, which we inherited from Old English, is “qualm” meaning “death, especially violent death,” and, more generally, “widespread death or disaster,” as in a plague or famine. The root of this “qualm” was the Old English “qualm,” derived from Germanic roots meaning “torment, torture or death.” This “qualm” is now obsolete, but was apparently closely related to the same roots that gave us our modern English verb “to quell,” which originally meant “to kill,” but was subsequently diluted to mean “to suppress or extinguish.”
Our modern “qualm,” which dates to the early 16th century, appears to have come from the same Germanic roots as the obsolete “qualm” meaning “death,” but its initially milder meaning of “pang” or “queasiness,” coupled with some gaps in the family tree, make considering these two “qualms” the same word unacceptable to lexicographers. My personal sense is that they are indeed the same word, especially since the earlier “qualm” (in the form “cwealm”) was used in Old English to mean “pain or pang.” Any definite answer is lost in the mists of history, as they say, but I think the “qualm” you feel today when you fudge your tax deductions is the same word that meant “mass murder” several centuries ago.