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Keeping social distance: the story of the word “aloof” and a few tidbits

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It is amazing how many words like aloof exist in English. Even for “fear” we have two a-formations: afraid, which supplanted the archaic afeard, and aghast. Aback, aboard, ashore, asunder—a small dictionary can be filled with them (but alas and alack do not belong here). The model is productive: consider aflutter and aglitter. One feature unites those words: they cannot be used attributively. Indeed, an asunder man and an astride rider do not exist. The prefix a- in such words usually goes back to an (as in amiss) or of (as in anew, across, afar, and their likes), and it feels at home even when attached to foreign roots: agog, for example, is French. But, as usual, caution teaches us not to generalize. Along derives from Old Engl. andlang, whose original meaning was “complete from end to end; lengthwise” (as is still obvious in German ent-lang). Occasionally we run into opaque formations. For instance, akimbo is a crux, for what is kimbo? At one time, I devoted an essay to this word: see the post for February 11, 2009. In the past, nautical terms with a- enjoyed some popularity. One of them is aloof. I’ll borrow my explanation of this word from Walter Skeat’s dictionary. Aloof is traceable to on loof, corresponding to Dutch te loef “to windward”; the phrase loef houden means “to keep to the windward,” which is close to Engl. keep aloof, that is, “to keep away” (originally, from the leeward shore or rock; lee means “shelter”). This brings us to loof or luff, whose origin is less clear, but here again Skeat’s etymology looks convincing. His definition of luff ~ loof is “to turn a ship toward the wind,” and he glosses Middle Engl. lōf as “a contrivance for altering a ship’s course.” In Older Dutch, loef ~ loeve meant “thole,” that is, “a pin in the gunwale of a boat” and “windward side.” Middle Engl. lōf seems to have been a sort of large paddle, used to assist the helm in keeping the ship right. Probably named from the resemblance of a paddle to the palm of the hand;. . .

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News source: Linguistics – OUPblog

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