Thursday, January 2, 2020

Language of Confusion: One Good Turn, Part I

Look, coming up with new words to do this to is hard. Sometimes I just have to pick the first word that I haven’t done already. And it’s the New Year! I definitely want a multipart series where I don’t have to think up a new idea for a while.

Turn came about sometime around the thirteenth century, with the verb coming from the Old English turnian (which was to turn, particularly on a lathe). The noun is actually from the Anglo French tourn, but the verb can be traced to the Old French torner, so they’re related, but further back than you might think. Both come from the classical Latin tornus, which means a lathe, and is from the Proto Indo European root tere-, to rub or turn. Lathes turn, so… yeah.

That tere- shows up in a lot of other words. First (and most obviously) is return, which showed up in the early fourteenth century, from the Old French retorner (so like torner with a re- on it; how familiar). The re- means back, meaning the word is turn back. How refreshingly straightforward.

There are a lot of other words that it’s related to, most of which you wouldn’t think could be related. The ones I think are the easiest to understand are tour and drill. Tour showed up in the fourteenth century meaning a turn or a shift on duty, coming from the Old French tor/tourn/tourn, a turn or a round, which is from the abovementioned torner. Because a tour was having a turn, we have tour. And detour, of course, which didn’t show up until the mid eighteenth century. It’s from the Modern French détour, fro the Old French destor, side road,  from the verb destorner, to turn aside. The des- is from dis-, which means aside here, and the -tourner means to turn. A detour is a turn (or tour) aside.

And finally today, drill. I mean, it makes sense, right? A drill turns! Drill showed up in the seventeenth century, and it’s earliest form was probably the name for the tool. It’s actually from the Dutch word drille, which means drills, from drillen, to drill. And that word is from tere-, to turn. Isn’t it nice when the explanations make sense? It happens so rarely.

Tony Jebson’s page on the Origins of Old English


  1. Turns come from pottery. Interesting.

  2. Tornus sounds like a good name for a character in a Roman era bodice ripper novel.


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