Thursday, January 7, 2016

Language of Confusion: Ward

Yay! It’s the first etymology of the new year! How is that not something to celebrate? Today’s word is ward.

Ward—just plain ward, not as a beginning or an ending to something—comes from the Old English weard (noun) and weardian (verb), the former being a watchman and the latter being to keep watch. So basically, the same word. They come from the Proto Germanic wardaz/wardon, again, the noun and verb forms of guard. Both are descended from the Proto Indo European war-o-, which comes from wer-, to watch out for. Words like warden and even wardrobe come from ward. Seriously, wardrobe is from the Old French warderobe, the idea being that it was a place to guard your clothes.

The suffix -ward is not related to the word ward because why would it be? It comes from the Old English -weard—which is actually different from the other weard because it’s a suffix that means towards. That weard comes from the Proto Germanic warth and Proto Indo European wert, turn or wind, and related to the word wer-, turn/bend and origin of versus verse.

So that’s why ward and -ward are so different, but that’s far from the end of things. There are a lot of words with -ward as a suffix. Toward for example is to + -ward. Similarly, forward and backward are just fore (in front of) and back (I’m assuming you know what back means) in the direction of. Although originally backward was “abakward”, making it to-back-in the direction of.

Next, let’s look at award and reward, which seem a bit weirder when mixed with -ward. Award showed up in the late fourteenth century meaning “a decision after consideration”. It comes from the Anglo French award/awarder and Old French esguarder/esguarder. Yes, that’s a g in there, although it really is from the -ward suffix. The es- is from ex-, out, and with warder, which in French was watch like non-prefix ward, making the word literally “watch out”. Which makes sense considering that awards are given out after “careful consideration”. Reward is somewhat similar in its history. It showed up in the early fourteenth century, meaning to bestow or to give as compensation. It comes from the Old North French rewarder, regard or reward. The re- prefix is just supposed to be an intensifier here, so with warder it’s like to really watch. It somehow switched to reward (or regard) in Old North French. No idea why. How weird.

Next, words that seem even less related to -ward. Awkward showed up in the mid fourteenth century actually meaning “in the wrong direction”. The modern definition came later, although there’s no reason why. Maybe because when you’re awkward you’re not really going in the right direction? I don’t know. But awk literally meant turned in the wrong direction, so that at least makes sense. Next, steward. It comes from the Old English stiward/stigweard, meaning housekeeper…or house guardian. Stig means a sty, a hall, or a building, and ward meant guard here. So…house guard.

TL;DR: Ward and -ward aren’t related. The first means guard/watch, the second means direction.

Tony Jebson’s page on the Origins of Old English


  1. So, Wrong Way signs could be Awkward Way?

  2. I have no smart remark today, but I've been sick, so I'm using that as my excuse.

  3. It makes sense in terms of the definition of a child in foster or adoptive circumstances described as a ward.

  4. If a wardrobe guards clothes, I'm surprised we didn't end up with more like that. Wardfood for fridge for example.

  5. Love that awkward means in the wrong direction. It works, somehow.

    As for the g in esguarder/esguarder, I wonder if that's like how it's William in English but Guillaume in French.


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