Thursday, November 2, 2017

Language of Confusion: Middles

I did highs and I was going to do lows next, but then Liz reminded me that middles exist. Yeah, she does a lot of prompting for this blog.

Middle comes from the Old English middel, which of course means middle and… is it just me or does the spelling make way more sense? Anyway, it comes from the West Germanic middila, Proto Germanic medjaz, and Proto Indo European medhyo-, which again, means middle, and is the origin of a hell of a lot of words with mid and med in them, like medium and medieval and some without, like milieu and Mesopotamia. What a weirdly eclectic word. And speaking of medium…

Medium showed up in the late sixteenth century and comes from the classical Latin medium, which means half. Or, you know, middle. After it showed up as middle, it somehow got turned into “intermediate agency” or “channel of communication”. Maybe like a metaphorical halfway point? I don’t know. And like I said, medium is also from medhyo-.

You’d expect this one to be related to middle, and it is. It’s also from Old English, where it means with or by means of, and it’s traced back to medjaz and medhyo. Midst is also related, having shown up in the fifteenth century from the Middle English middes. Not much else to say here.

Center showed up in the late fourteenth century meaning the middle of a circle or a point around which things revolve. It’s from the Old French centre and classical Latin centrum, center, which originally meant the fixed point of a drafting compass. Did you ever use one of those in math class? Boy, were they tedious. Anyway, like most things, Latin stole the word from the Greek kentron, which could mean center as well as a sharp point (like in a compass!). And that word is traced to the Proto Indo European kent-, to prick. No snickering. Okay, some snickering. Fun fact of the day, the –er ending of center is older than the –re ending!

Half comes from the Old English half/halb/healf (depends on which dialect), which just meant half, but could also mean side or part instead of equal halves. It’s from the Proto Germanic halbaz, something divided, and might be related to the Proto Indo European skel-, to cut, but that isn’t certain. Funny how it used to mean only part of something!

Tony Jebson’s page on the Origins of Old English


  1. Only part means my half could be bigger than your half of the cake!

  2. The "mid" words all come from words beginning with M. Normally there's not that kind of consistency.

  3. I have vague memories of those drafting compasses, thinking they'd been invented by someone with an interest in torture.

  4. You prompt me as well. You should see the Halloween post ;)

    "Intermediate agency" and "channel of communication" must be why medium is used for psychics who channel the other side ;)


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