Thursday, March 6, 2014

Language of Confusion: Parts

Body parts, to be specific. I guess I could have been more clear in the title.

We’ve got hands, we’ve got legs, we’ve got eyes, we’ve got toes…so many things that this is going to be another multiparter. Haven’t done that in a while. Wait, don’t leave!

Arm the body part comes from the Old English earm (same meaning), and can be traced further back to the Proto Germanic armaz and Proto Indo European ar-, which means join. There’s also the arm that means weapon. That arm comes by way of Old French and classical Latin, but before that, it also came from ar-. So the two definitions of arm started out from the same thing, became different words in different languages, only to come back together as a homonym in English. Languages!

Leg first showed up in the late thirteenth century. It came from one of the Scandinavian languages (not sure which one), which in turn came from Proto Germanic where it was lagjaz. Further back is a big question mark, but it’s worth noting that “leg” replaced another word, the Old English shank. Which today survives as a word for an improvised stabbing utensil.

Hand comes from the Old English hond/hand, which in addition to meaning hand, meant control/possession, or a side, and before that the proto Germanic khanduz. The interesting fact about this one is that back in Old English, the plural of hond/hand was handa, and then in Middle English, it was handen.

Foot comes from the Old English fot and Proto Germanic fot. They didn’t even attempt to change that. Anyway, before it was fot, it was the Proto Indo European ped, which you still see in Latin derived words like pedicure. The reason the plural of foot is feet is because of what’s called a mutation of the oo in foot. Basically, a mutation is when saying a word wrong becomes so common that it turns into the correct way of saying it. In this case, foot underwent an i-mutation, where people stopped saying oo and started saying ee—think of how you pronounce “women”; you don’t say woe-mehn, you say wim-min. In this case, the mutation was used as the plural of foot.

That’s all for this week. Tune in next week for…a bunch more of this stuff, I guess.

Tony Jebson’s page on the Origins of Old English


  1. So feet came from bad pronunciation? Amusing.

  2. Why am I not surprised that bad pronunciation would lead down that road?

  3. Doesn't shank mean leg, at least the legs of things we eat? Ham shank. Lamb shank.

    Seems like the words don't really go away...

  4. Shank - hilarious! I guess I never thought about calling my leg, my leg. This is really interesting to know! :)

  5. Interesting. I never thought about body part words and their origins.


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