Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Language of Confusion: Take a Bow

Words that are spelled the same and pronounced differently are my favorite. Bow…if it rhymes with know, then it’s what goes on top of a present, or what you shoot arrows with. If it rhymes with now, it’s what you do after completing your performance of Schubert’s Symphony Number 8 in B minor. Or, it’s the front of a ship! So, what’s the origin of these homographs?

The front part of a ship was first called “bow” in the mid fourteenth century and is related to the Old Norse  bogr or the Middle Dutch boech. It’s related to the homophone bough, which descends from the Old English  bog, the Proto Germanic bogaz (both meaning shoulder) and Proto Indo European bhagus (forearm). So the nautical bow is related to human anatomy? Yes. Bow is the “shoulders of the ship”.

Bow—as in bowing before the queen—is from Old English buganto bend. It goes back to the Proto Germanic bugon and the Proto Indo European bheugh.

The word for bow (the weapon) is boga in Old English, but its Proto Germanic ancestor is the same as the bow above—bugon! Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find out whether bugon had two meanings or if the word for this bow was simply derived from it. But I think the latter is most likely. Bugon meant bent and a bow is bent. As for the similarly pronounced bow (a knot), I haven’t been able to find anything on it, either, except that it showed up in the 1540s.

A Grammar of Proto-Germanic, Winfred P. Lehmann and Jonathan Slocum, ed. The Linguistics Research Center, University of Texas at Austin.
OmniGlot’s article on Old Norse


  1. So, the nursery rhyme when "bough" rhymes with "now"... is that just poetic licence, or is that pronunciation derived from the same place?

  2. When the bough breaks, the cradle will fall...

    You know, those nursery rhymes were pretty sadistic.

  3. It's a wonder that anybody ever learns English. It's so complicated and so wonderful at the same time.


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