While working on my last post I was reminded of a question posed to me at a recent talk. Specifically a member of Stone Historical and Civic Society asked about the use and origins of the word ‘plant’ when speaking of heavy machinery. Did it have an entirely different etymology to its more common use? Of course at that moment I had absolutely no notion. However I did promise to cover such in my blog and here it is.
Any word having the same spelling and pronunciation but having more than one meaning is described as a homonym. Correctly these should be seen as different words for, as we shall see, they have rather different histories. When contemplating this post I had wondered just how many examples I could discuss and whether there would be enough to make it worthwhile. I will admit to being a little surprised by just how many there are and hence have opted for a simple alphabetical list. No apologies for omitting the letters X and Z for there are no homonyms beginning with these two letters – unless you can show me otherwise.
Ash – referring to the tree and also the residue from a fire. Doubtless one of the oldest words as it is one of the simplest sounds and an examination shows this to be true. Related to Greek azein ‘to parch’, to Latin ardus ‘dry’, and even Sanskrit asah ‘ashes, dust’. All have the common root of Proto-Indo-European ai meaning ‘to burn, glow’ and what was originally a reference to the fire later used in a plural form to give the modern meaning. When it comes to the tree, as with many tree names, it is the use of the wood we should look to. Ash was used to make the shafts of spears, indeed Old English aesc referred to both the tree and the spear, and comes from Proto-Indo-European root os for the ‘ash tree’. Over millennia this gave Old Norse askr, Dutch esce, German esche, Armenian haci, Latin ornus, Russian jasen, and Lithuanian uosis.
Bank – either the financial institution or used topographically. Clearly the latter will have been known and described thousands of years before even the concept of finance existed. However from an etymological perspective there is virtually no difference in the two. Both are known from around the thirteenth to fifteenth centuries and both seem to be derived from an unknown Proto-Indo-European word meaning something akin to ‘build up’, ascend’. The modern words have been derived from Old Italian banca ‘table’, in the case of the financial institute, and early Germanic bankiz or ‘bench’, when speaking of a feature in the landscape.
Carp – is either a fish or to complain. The piscine form is by far the simplest, ultimately from an East Germanic karpa and the name given to a fish found in the Danube. Once the carp was prized as a food fish, indeed this was the reason for the creation of the many fish ponds into which these fish were introduced – they satisfied the need for protein in a diet, especially when religion deemed it wrong to eat red meat on Fridays. We do not know the original use of the word, however anything other than a reference to food is highly improbable. When it comes to the use of ‘complaint’, the word comes to English from Latin carpere ‘to slander, revile’ and ultimately from Proto-Indo-European kerp meaning ‘gather, pluck, harvest’. Hence the phrase ‘to pick or pull apart’, as in an argument, has the identical origin and ‘carp’ in this sense shares an origin with ‘harvest’.
Dock – as in a place where craft come to be unloaded or in the sense to remove the tail of an animal. The former appears to have been used initially to refer to a rut created by the passage of a wheel through wet or muddy ground. As a dock is a man-made feature, the cutting to where the goods can be unloaded would resemble the wheel rut. To remove part of an animal’s tail is first used in the late fourteenth century, ultimately this comes from Proto-Germanic dokko meaning ‘a bundle’ or ‘something round’ and its use for a shortened tail a reference to the muscle which had been cut.
Egg – the obvious reproductive reference is ultimately from Proto-Indo-European awi meaning ‘bird’. When it comes to meaning ‘to incite’, it comes to English from Old Norse eggja and from ‘edge’ as in ‘to advance slowly’ and thus misunderstood pronunciation.
Firm – meaning ‘solid, stable’ and another word for a company or business. The former is ultimately from Proto-Indo-European dher ‘to hold, support’ and evolved before coming to English through the Latin firmus ‘strong, steadfast’. When used in the business sense the origin is also Latin but here from firmare or ‘to sign’, this giving us the modern ‘affirmation’ in the same sense.
Gum – can be a part of the mouth where the teeth erupt or an adhesive. In the latter the use can be traced to Latin gumma, Greek kommi and Egyptian kemai, all meaning ‘resin’ and used in this sense to refer to texture. When it comes to a part of the mouth we can trace it back to gheu, the Proto-Indo-European word meaning ‘to yawn’. Later we find Lithuanian gomurys, Old High German goumo, and Old Norse gomi, all meaning ‘palate’.
Hail – used to describe frozen rain and to refer to a greeting. The latter was first used as a nautical greeting, first seen in print in the sixteenth century, and from the religious salutation Hail Mary or ave Maria. Weather-wise it is related to Greek kakhlex ‘round pebble’ and ultimately from Proto-Indo-European kaghlo ‘pebble’.
Inch – as in the imperial measurement and also a small Scottish island. The former comes from the Latin root uncial meaning ‘a twelfth part’. The island is much earlier and seen in Gaelic innis, Old Irish inis, Welsh ynys, and Breton enez, all from the earliest meaning of ‘land by a river’.
Jade – used for the ornamental stone and also in ‘to weary’ and possibly my favourite homonym, at least from the etymologies. The stone can be traced back to Latin ilia meaning ‘flanks, kidney area’. It came to English through Spanish piedra de la ljada around the sixteenth century to mean ‘pain in the side’ or ‘stone of the colic’. It was thought jade could cure such an ailment. Its use meaning ‘to tire’ seems to be from the earlier noun referring to ‘a worn-out horse’ – and was also once used as a derogatory term for a woman.
Key – either that used to open a lock or a musical reference. The former is of uncertain etymology but thought to come from the Proto-Germanic ki meaning ‘to cleaver, split’. Musically the reference is from Latin clavis and French clef and thought to come from a reference to ‘the lowest note on the scale’.
Lark – either the bird or meaning ‘a prank’. The latter has been suggested as coming from ‘skylark’, a nautical reference to the play of sailors in the rigging likened to that of the singing of the skylark – hence ‘larking about’. As for the bird the modern etymology is all we have, although some sources suggest a compound of Norse and Saxon referring to a ‘treason-worker’, the reason for which is unexplained.
Mace – is either a weapon or a spice. The weapon is ultimately from the Latin matteola or ‘type of mallet’. The spice is less certain but may be related to Latin macir, this the name of an Indian spice obtained from the bark of a tree, although this is disputed.
Nap – can be a short sleep, or a reference to the smooth surface of cloth. The sleep is known in earlier tongues, such as Old High German hnaffezan and Norwegian napp, yet with identical meaning the source is unclear. Of course it is always possible that ‘nap’ was the original word for ‘sleep’, certainly the latter has no very earlier references. When it comes to cloth the term comes from a root giving Old Swedish niupa and Gothic dis-hniupan ‘to tear, and a description of removing anything from the cloth which would spoil the finish.
Ounce – and when it comes to the imperial measurement of weight is ultimately from Latin uncial ‘one-twelfth’ and thus sharing an origin with ‘inch’. Of course there are 16 ounces to the pound in the avoirdupois system, this refers to the Troy system of weights. Note the abbreviation oz is from Italian onza. The ounce is also an alternative name for the snow leopard, this comes from the Old French word lonce, originally referring to the lynx.
Plant – was the original question posed and can refer to either flora or to heavy machinery. The more common usage is clearly the oldest for plants were plants before the Industrial Revolution. Whether used as a noun or verb the origin is Proto-Indo-European plat meaning ‘to spread’ or ‘flat’ and clearly first a reference to where the plants were planted, literally ‘a place’. In its modern sense it is not seen before the sixteenth century. In the machinery sense it is first recorded in a document dated 1789, where the reference is to where something had been constructed for industrial purposes, literally the machinery had been placed or planted.
Quack – used to refer to the sound made be a duck and a medical figure of dubious qualifications. Taking the anseriformes first, the sound can be traced back through Middle Dutch quacken to the Latin coaxare ‘croak’, and Greek koax meaning ‘the croaking of frogs’, and Hittite akuwakuwash ‘frog’. In a medical sense it is short for ‘quacksalver’, a Dutch phrase ‘hawker of salve’ where salf meant ‘salve’, and originally used as ‘to play the quack’.
Race – either a reference to cultural heritage or to a speed contest. That meaning ‘of common descent’ is only seen from the sixteenth century, itself from Middle French razza meaning ‘lineage, family’ and first used in English to denote those with a common occupation. The predictably earlier use, although not by much, comes from Scandinavian rasen meaning ‘to rush’ is first seen in the thirteenth century.
Sage – is used to describe wisdom and is a herb. In the former we find Latin sapere ‘to have taste’ as well as ‘be wise’. This is from Proto-Indo-European sap ‘to taste’. As a herb it came to English from Old French sauge, itself from Latin salvia meaning ‘healthy’. Interestingly the English ‘safe’ has identical origins. The herb gets its name through usage, sage being used to clean teeth, ease soreness of the gums, and as a cure for arthritis.
Tender – either meaning ‘soft’ or ‘to offer’. The former comes to English through Old French and from Latin tenerem not only used for ‘soft, delicate’ but also ‘youthful’. Here Proto-Indo-European ten ‘stretch’ was used in the sense of ‘thin’ then ‘weak’ and finally ‘delicate’. The latter comes to English from tender Old French for ‘to offer’ and from Latin tendere ‘to stretch, extend’.
Utter – either ‘to speak’ or ‘absolute’. Sharing an origin with ‘out’ and from Proto-Indo-European ud which has the same ‘to put out’ meaning. The use of ‘to the utmost degree’ comes from Old English uterlic meaning ‘external’. Thus both have a loosely common root. Note ‘utter’ was also used until comparatively recently to mean ‘to release’.
Vault – is either a leap or a strong-room. The athletic reference is ultimately from Latin volvitare ‘to turn or leap’, coming to English through the Old French volter. The other origin is from an Old French vaulter referring to ‘an arched roof’. Today used more often as in a bank vault, the term originated as a reference to a vault in a crypt. Architecturally this referred to the arch.
Wax – is either used as a noun or as a verb. Originally wax was seen occurring naturally in honeycombs and thus Old English weax, Old Slavonic vosku, Polish wosk, Russian vosk and Proto-Indo-European wosko all referred to ‘that substance made by bees’. As a verb and meaning ‘to grow’, the term comes through Old English weaxen, Old High German wahsan, Old Norse vaxa, and Proto-Indo-European weg.
Yak – is either a wild Asian ox or a term meaning ‘to talk idly’. The former is first seen in Europe from the end of the eighteenth century and comes from Tibetan g-yag ‘a male yak’. Idle chatter was originally seen as ‘yack’, a term unheard before the twentieth century and having no etymological history to speak of.
Naturally many are monosyllabic, itself a reasonable, albeit general, explanation of why two words of different etymological beginnings and sources sound identical and consequently have the same spelling.