Saturday, 13 June 2015

Weaponry Etymologies

A break from the tour of the place names of the world. This time the post is a result of an overheard conversation - although my interest was a little different and not really related to their conversation save for a couple of the words.

They spoke of a friend or acquaintance in hospital, apparently they were considering paying the patient a visit. It seems he (I say 'he' even though gender was never specified) had been in an altercation (hence my assumption of 'he') and managed to get himself stabbed. It didn't seem as if it was a particularly serious injury - and his acquaintances seemed quite convinced he had always had it coming to him - and asked the question "Why knife, though?" I assume they meant "Why a knife?" and were not questioning why the assaillant had not been armed with a gun, bow, grenade, or rolling pin. Yet I found my etymological mind thinking of the answer to the question they had actually asked. Thus this time I have produced a list of weapons and examined the origins of the words.

Knife seems the sensible place to start, although it did prove to be something of a disappointment for me as the origins were uncertain. The only early forms known were from the Germanic language group: Old English cnif, Middle Low German knif, Middle Dutch cniif, German kneif, Norse knifr, and all from the Proto-Germanic knibaz. None of these mean anything other than 'knife' used solely as a noun - the earliest written use of 'knife' as a verb is found as recently as 1865. Whislt this may be disappointing in one sense, it is quite the reverse in reality for it shows the age of the word referring to what must have been one of the first words ever coined for a tool. Thus it is simply because it is so old that the earliest sense is unknown.

Blade is used as a slang term for a knife, as well as describing something with a sharp edge, and also used to refer to a leaf as in 'a blade of grass'. Amazingingly the third usage is by far the earliest. Seen in many Germanic tongues, these all come from the Proto-Germanic bladaz meaning 'leaf' and ultimately from the Proto-Indo-European bhle and bhel with the meaning 'to thrive, bloom' - ironic considering it is now used to describe a weapon.

Hilt is another part, not of a knife but of a sword or dagger. It would have followed these in the list were it not for the origins. This comes to us from Proto-Germanic helt and is ultimately from the Proto-Indo-Germanickel which oddly meant 'strike' - although this is the part which does not strike the opponent.

Sword has its origins in words which we would consider far more appropriate than that of 'blade'. Here Old English sweord, Old Frisian swerd, Old Swedish svard, Middle Dutch swaert, Dutch zwaard, Old High German swert, and German Schwert all come from Proto-Germanic swerdam which mean exactly what it does today. All these come from Proto-Indo-European swer meaning 'cut, pierce'. Just to confuse matters there is also an Old Saxon word heoru, also seen in the related Gothic hairus, both meaning 'sword' but neither etymology is understood.

Dagger came to English from Old French dague. Also seen in Old Provencal dague and Italian daga, these may have come from an early Latin daca and describe 'a Dacian knife' - Dacia being a region of Europe roughly centred on modern Romania and Moldova, with parts of Bulgaria, Serbia, Hungary and Ukraine.

Gun is first defined as 'an engine of war that throws rocks, arrows or other missiles from a tube by the force of explosive powder or other substance', this from the 14th century and also seen in gonnilde in an inventory from Windsor Castle when referring to a cannon. Both have the same origin as the woman's name Gunilda, itself from Old Norse where gunnr and hildr both meant 'war, battle' - the first from Proto-Indo-European gwhen meaning 'strike, hit' and the latter sharing an origin with the female name 'Hilda' in Proto-Indo-European kel 'to strike, cut'. Throughout history it has been normal for large weapons of war to be given female names.

Rifle, in terms of weaponry, is a fairly recent development, getting its name from the rifling of the barrel. This cutting of a spiral groove in the barrel improved accuracy by spinning the projectile in flight. The word is seen referring to this cutting much earlier than the 17th century and weaponry. By the early 14th century it was used in the sense 'to plunder', while the original Old French rifler 'strip, filch, peel off, fleece' has been adapted to describe the cutting technique. Hence we find the alternative use of rifle in English as a synonym for 'pilfer' is older than the normal sense.

Cannon is of comparatively recent origin considering the length of time the weapon has been employed in war. It comes from the Italian cannone meaning 'large tube, barrel' and ultimately from the Latin canna and suggesting this represented something similar to 'a reed' or 'tube'.

Bullet is, as we would expect, another recent development. It comes from the Middle French boulette meaning 'small ball' and is a diminutive of boule, also seen in the game, and from the Latin bulla which could be used to mean 'round thing' or 'knob'.

Arrow may be from the Old English arwan, but this was not the normal term used by the Saxons who most often described it as strael and seen in Slavic and Germanic tongues where it meant 'flash, streak'. Ultimately the 'arrow' comes from Proto-Indo-European arku where it described 'the thing belonging to the bow'.

Bow refers to its shape, coming from Old English boga, a word also used to mean 'arch' and 'rainbow'. Ultimately these can be traced to Proto-Germanic bugon 'to bend', Proto-Indo-European bheug also 'to bend', and Sanskrit bhujati 'bends, thrusts aside'.

Bazooka has only been used to refer to the weapon since 1942. This was the name of a junkyard musical instrument used by comedian Bob Burns, and is thought to have suggested itself from the American slang 'bazoo' meaning 'mouth' or 'boastful' and in turn probably from the Dutch bauzin 'trumpet'

Bayonet is first seen in the early 17th century, said to be from the city of Bayonne in Gascony where they were first made.

Cutlass came to English from Middle French, itself from the Latin cultellus 'small knife' and ultimately from the Prroto-Indo-European kel 'to cut'.

Machete is quite badly named as it is derived from the Spanish machete, itself from macho or 'sledge hammer', and that from mazo or 'club'.

Spear has changed little through the many centuries since Proto-Indo-European sper meant 'spear' and also 'pole'. The latter meaning has come to modern English as 'spar'.

Bomb is first used in its modern sense in the late 16th century. This word originated in the Latin bombus or Greek bombos both describing 'a deep hollow sound'.

Dynamite was named by its inventor, Alfred Nobel, who took the name from the Greek dynamis meaning 'power'.

Grenade was once called a 'pomegranate', likening the fragmenting bomb to the seeds of the fruit - the fruit gets its name from pomum granatum or 'apple with many seeds'.

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