Thursday, September 14, 2017

Language of Confusion: Tops

And now words for things that are above.

The earliest top was probably the noun version, meaning the highest point of something. It started as the Old English top, which means, well, top. And it comes from the Proto Germanic tuppaz, but before that it’s a big old question mark. All the other tops come from it, like the spinning kind of top, to top something off (which showed up at some point between the mid fifteenth and sixteenth centuries), and the adjective (end of the sixteenth century). How disappointingly boring.

The earliest known tip showed up in the thirteenth century and meant to strike or occur suddenly—it might be related to tap), and it’s where we get things like tipping point or tip one’s hand. It’s thought to be related to the Middle Low German tip, which is significant because that’s where the tip that we all know as meaning the end of something. That tip didn’t show up until the fifteenth century and in addition to being Middle Low German is probably Scandinavian in some way. I have to admit, I had no idea that the first tip had that definition. I always wondered why a tip-off was called that.

Above comes from the Middle English above/aboven, which was also pronounced aboun or abow. In any case, the word comes from the Old English abufan, above [], which was originally onbufan. See, that bufan means above or over, and the on unsurprisingly means on (it turns out that there are a lot of words where the on- turned into a-, like asleep and alive). Bufan is actually a mix of be, which means by and ufan, which once again just means above and is from the Proto Germanic ufan- and Proto Indo European upo, under. More on that in a second, but basically above is a nesting doll of words meaning above.

Up comes from the Old English up or uppe, which we all know just means up. It comes from the Proto Germanic upp-, and that’s from upo, too. Since upo could also mean “up from under”, it morphed into over in places and now we have up. And above, apparently.

High comes from the Old English heh or heah, both meaning high but with what I have to call way more sensible spellings. Heh and heah come from the Proto Germanic haukhaz, which is “uncertain in origin” (i.e. they don’t know where it came from). The reason it has the g in there is because it was supposed to have a guttural sound in it, but apparently people stopped saying it that way and never bothered to update the spelling. Fun fact, there used to be another high that meant thought or understanding, but it hasn’t been used since the thirteenth century.

Tony Jebson’s page on the Origins of Old English


  1. Thought or understanding haven't been used in that long? I believe it.

  2. Onsleep, huh? I could go for being onsleep.

  3. Let me guess, next week will be down words?

  4. These are always so interesting! Amazing how words evolve and change over time.

  5. Haukhaz could be quite a character name.


Please validate me.