Thursday, May 23, 2019

Language of Confusion: -Pelled, Part II

Remember last week when I taught you all about words ending in -pel? I said things were going to get crazy, and I stand by that.

Want to know the first -pel word we’re looking at this week? Push. Seriously. It showed up in the early fourteenth century from the Old French poulser. Before that, it was the classical Latin pulsare, pulsate—but it could also mean to beat or to knock. It’s a frequentative (repetitive action of the verb pellere, to beat or drive, which happens to be the Latin root word for all the -peal and -pel words we talked about last week, from the Proto Indo European root pel-, push, drive, throw, or beat. So because of a word that’s essentially pulsate, pel- transformed into “puls”. We started saying the S like Sh, and lost the L. Because words.

Catapult probably isn’t all that surprising as being a relative. A catapult throws something, which is the gist of the pel- words. It showed up in the late sixteenth century from the Middle French catapulte and classical Latin catapulta, which is just catapult. They actually took the word from Greek, where it’s katapeltes (and also just means catapult). The kata- is thought to mean against (you catapult something against something else), and the peltes comes from pallein, which means thrust or pulse, and is from our old Proto Indo European friend pel-. Also, the word pelt comes from pelt (like, to throw, not like from an animal), but that should be even less surprising. It showed up in the sixteenth century, and again, is thought to be from pellere. Man, what a coincidence it would be if a word meaning “to throw” came from an origin other than the PIE “to throw.

Next is polish. Uh, no capital letter polish. It showed up in the early fourteenth century as polischen, make smooth, from the Old French poliss- and it’s root form of polir. Polir comes from the classical Latin polire, to polish, and is thought to come from pel-. I guess polishing does have a kind of driving, pulsating force. On the other side of pulsing movements is anvil. It comes from the Old English anfilte. It’s Proto Germanic in origin, but can also be traced to the PIE pel-, which makes it the first of these words that came to us from outside of Latin.

And if you want things to get really weird, we have felt and filter. Really. Felt doesn’t have an origin date, but filter showed up in the early fifteenth century, and is definitely from felt since it originally meant a “piece of felt through which liquid is strained”. Filter actually came to us through the Old French feutre, felt, and Medieval Latin filtrum, also felt, but that was actually taken from the West Germanic filtiz. Felt on the other hand came from the West Germanic feltaz, meaning “something beaten” or “compressed wool”. In any case, both those Germanic words come from pel-. Because it is “beaten” fabric, we have felt.  And filter.

Tony Jebson’s page on the Origins of Old English


  1. And just how often do we use the term catapult these days anyway?

    1. I have a cat-apult, so I use it all the time.
      Along with cat-astrophe.
      And, well, a lot of other "cat' words.

  2. Pulsh. Just trying that around in my mouth. Interesting.


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