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Some of our tools: “awl”

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The names of weapons, tools, and all kinds of appurtenances provide a rare insight into the history of civilization. Soldiers and journeymen travel from land to land, and the names of their instruments, whether murderous or peaceful, become so called migratory words (Wanderwörter, as they are called in German: words errant, as it were). I have dealt with such words in the post on bodkin (October 7, 2015) and ajar (August 22, 2012). For a long time, I have been meaning to write a short essay on adz(e), a word discussed in my etymological dictionary. As a rule, I prefer not to replicate the material of the dictionary in this blog, but there the exposition is technical, so next week I’ll probably retell the story in more popular terms. Before going on, I would like to note that not only awl but the very word tool ends in -l. This –l is a remnant of several once productive suffixes. We detect it, for example, in bridle, girdle, saddle, satchel, and needle. Tool has it, because its root meant “to produce, prepare.” Many Romance words also end in -l—there, a diminutive suffix (so in satchel “little sack” and the like). The Latin for “awl’ is sūbula. Its sū– is akin to Engl. sew-; apparently, the word meant an instrument for sewing. Russian shilo (that is, shi-l-o) is a close analog of sūbula (shi-t’ “to sew”). Deceptively or for good reason, awl, too, ends in -l.  In any case, this l might help it to survive. All the rest is enveloped in obscurity. A cobble and his tool. Image credit: Ancient Egyptian cobblers at work via Wikimedia. The Old English for “awl” was æl. It occurred only as a translation of or gloss on Latin sūbula. The word figures in the biblical texts in descriptions of torture: for example, people’s ears are said to be pierced with an æl. The word continued into Middle English, but for phonetic reasons the form awl, homonymous with all, cannot be its reflex: the modern word would have been pronounced as ale. Awl goes back to Scandinavian al-r,. . .

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News source: Linguistics – OUPblog

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