Thursday, January 23, 2020

Language of Confusion: One Good Turn, Part IV

And now the last part of this exhilarating series about how the word turn is related to some weird things.

First, let’s look at throw. It showed up in the fourteenth century from the Old English þrawan, which means twist, turn, or writhe, so at least it’s relation to turn makes sense. As to why it came to mean throw (the Old English word for throw was actually weorpan, the origin of warp), well, one theory is that it’s in the sense that something you throw can turn in the air. Anyway, it’s from the Proto Germanic threw-, which is then from the Proto Indo European tere-, to rub or turn.

Thread comes from the Old English þraed, which just means thread, from the Proto Germanic thredu-, twisted yarn. Twist—like a turn. So because thread it twisted, it is from the same origin as turn.

Continuing with the th words, thresh. It comes from the Old English þrescan, which is just to thresh, from the Proto Germanic threskan, also just to thresh, and that one can be traced to tere-. Uh, I guess threshing involves rubbing or turning? I really don’t know what it is. I’ve never threshed before. Unsurprisingly, thresh is the origin of thrash as well, although it’s really never used as a version of thresh anymore. Unlike all the other words here, there’s a time of origin for thrash, as it was a dialect variant that appeared sometime in the late sixteenth century. It definitely went on a much weirder journey than thresh. In the early seventeenth century, it started to mean to beat someone (with a flail), and then in the mid nineteenth century it also came to mean to make wild movements (like a flail). So that’s how we got that.

And there’s also threshold, which has quite a different meaning. It comes from the Old English þrescold, which is how they used to say threshold. Apparently, since thresh had a sense of being trampled on, and yeah, that’s what you do to a threshold. The hold part is trickier. It’s not thought to actually be related to hold, and hey, in Old English it had a C in there. It’s likely from something else, but no one actually knows what.

Tony Jebson’s page on the Origins of Old English


  1. Threshing is whacking at grains, which seems an odd relation to turn.

  2. Wasn't hold also the name of a dwelling? But not cold, so...

  3. Alex thought of the same thing as I did.


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