Thursday, September 19, 2019

Language of Confusion: Perfect Cell, Part II

Remember last week how I started talking about cell (coming from the Proto Indo European kel-, to cover/conceal/save) and it got crazy fast? Yeah. That was just a warm up for this week.

First today, we’re looking at hull. Like on a ship. And also like the outer casing of a seed, because people used to say that ship keels looked like open peapods, although it’s not totally sure that the two are related. The one thing that’s sure is that the seed covering hull comes from the Middle English hol/hole, from the Old English hulu, from the Proto Germanic hulu-, to cover. And that word happens to be from kel-. There’s also hold—not like holding an object, the hold of a ship. A ship hold showed up in the fifteenth century as a corruption of the Middle English holl, the hull of a ship. What? You thought it was because it was something that held cargo? Don’t be ridiculous.

Hall comes from the Old English heall, a large room in a residence where “social and public affairs of the house” take place, and somehow that’s descended from kel-. Maybe the house business was something they wanted concealed? Anyway, it didn’t mean a passageway until the seventeenth century, evolving from a sense that doors to private rooms in the house opened to the large public room. No, I’m not sure how you get from one to the other, I’m just reporting it (hallway came two centuries later, BTW, so that had no influence). Anyway, if you ever wondered why a town hall is called that, it’s because it’s one of the only uses of the word that’s close to the original meaning.

Next, hole. It comes from the Old English hol, which means a cave or pit, coming from the Proto Germanic hulan, which is from kel-. I guess because you can hide things in holes? Also related is hollow, which hole mostly replaced in English. It showed up in the thirteenth century from the Old English holh and Proto Germanic hul-, both of which we can probably assume are from the same words as hole descended from.

Finally today, a helm, as in, the one you’d wear on your head, not like you steer a ship. The word helmet showed up in the mid fifteenth century, and it’s possibly from helm. To be honest, people aren’t totally sure, so it’s just a guess that it’s from helm, which comes from the Old English helm, Proto Germanic helmaz, which is then from kel-. Since a helmet is a covering for the head, you can kind of see it, although not why they dropped the K and replaced it with H.

Tony Jebson’s page on the Origins of Old English


  1. In fantasy you'll see 'great hall' often, so it's still used properly.

  2. All the schools here have school halls where they hold assemblies and things. And you can rent them out over the weekends at some schools for events.

  3. I was going to ask why h came from k. They don't even sound alike.

  4. That bit about 'town hall' is interesting!


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