Thursday, March 13, 2014

Language of Confusion: More Parts

Did you know there were a lot of parts that make up the human body? Last week barely scratched the surface. Today, we’ll be focusing on things from the neck up.

Head comes from the Old English heafod, meaning either top of the body or a leader (which explains another definition of head). Heafod comes from the Proto Germanic haubudam, which in turn comes from the Proto Indo European kaput. Seriously, kaput, which in some crazy way is actually related to the modern word kaput. Anyway, the reason head spelled with an A when it rhymes with red is because back in the fifteenth century, when spellings started to matter, head was pronounced “heed”, so the h-e-a-d actually made sense. Then the pronunciation changed and no one bothered to update the spelling, because they never do.

Eye showed up in the early thirteenth century from the Old English ege/eage. It came from the Proto Germanic augon and can be traced all the way back to the Proto Indo European okw (think ocular).

Nose comes from the Old English nosu and Proto Germanic nusus, and further back the Proto Indo European nas, all with the same meaning of that thing on the front of your face. Hm, not much interesting about this one.

Ear, like what’s on your head, not what corn comes from, is from the Old English eare (not too different) and before that, the Proto Germanic auzon (now that’s pretty different). This one can also be traced to Proto Indo European, where it was ous-. The corn ear has a totally different origin, coming from the Old English ear/aeher (where it was a “spike” of grain) Proto Germanic akhaz, and Proto Indo European ak, which meant sharp or pointed (hence the spike). The only reason they’re the same word in English is because somewhere between Proto Germanic and Old English, we stopped pronouncing all the letters that made them different.

Mouth comes from the Old English muþ (remember, þ is thorn, one of the forgotten letters; it’s pronounced like the th in math), where it had basically the same meaning. It comes from the Proto Germanic munthaz and before that, the Proto Indo European mnto-s. Don’t ask me how to pronounce that; I have no idea. But in my head, I can’t help but think of it as “Mentos”.

Wow. I find the etymology of the words for body parts entirely too interesting.

Tony Jebson’s page on the Origins of Old English


  1. Funny how we can trace back to see where English went so wrong...

  2. So, you're saying that head got caught up in that great vowel shift of...when was that? It was called the great vowel shift, wasn't it?

  3. These posts are always so interesting. And a little scary too...


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