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All Aboard and James A. H. Murray

By Anatoly Liberman

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) appeared
thanks to the efforts of the Philological Society. Every May the society opened
its “anniversary” (that is, annual) meetings with long presidential addresses,
which also graced the early volumes of the Transactions of the Philological
(TPS). Both the society and its transactions are still very
much alive, and the dictionary has been a source of inspiration for every
student of English since its first fascicle came out. The end of the 19th
century witnessed the peak of public interest in etymology: one could talk
about word origins for hours and keep the audience in suspense (provided, of
course, that the orator knew how to engage the listeners). In 1879 the president
of the Society was James A. H. Murray, the most famous editor of the OED.
Work on Volume 1 had nearly come to a close, and in his address Murray discussed some words beginning with the letter A. Today I’ll follow his

Some a-words form a close-knit group: abed,
abreast, aflame, asleep; afresh, anew,
and so forth. They are made up of
the prefix a (the remainder of the prepositions on or of),
followed, as a general rule, by an easily recognizable noun or adjective. None
of them can be used attributively: the man is asleep is fine, while an
asleep man
is impossible. However, not all a-words are equally
transparent. Afraid is the past participle of the verb affray; agog
is probably an adaptation of Old French en gogues “in (the state of) merriment”;
the evidently foreign source of askance, as The Oxford Dictionary of
English Etymology
informs us “has been much disputed [and] remains
unknown”; akimbo may be a continuation of a Scandinavian three-word
phrase meaning “bent in a curve”; abaft is also the sum of three words
(for -baft is b- + -aft, whose modern reflexes are by and aft[er]);
aback, originally a nautical term, like abaft, acquired its
figurative meaning, unconnected with the sails of a ship being laid back
against the mast by a headwind, only in the 19th century (to take someone
), and ajar is obscure despite the existence of its alleged
source on char, that is, “(on the) turn open.” Abroad is a- +
but one wonders why it means “in foreign lands” if it traces back to
the unattested phrase on brede (brede “breadth”).
Presumably, on brede meant “at large,” another phrase whose grammatical
structure is puzzling to modern speakers. Expressions like it is rumored
(“far and wide”) and the antiquated to be abroad “out of
doors” preserve the old meaning of abroad “not here.”

The word that attracted Murray’s special attention was aboard.
Old English bord combined the meanings of two originally distinct nouns.
One (“board, plank”) referred to objects made of wood, pieces of furniture
among them (for example, the table: compare Modern English bed and board, in
which board means something put on the table, meals). The other meant
“edge, ship’s side.” Whether it is cognate with its look-alike (“board, plank”)
remains a matter of debate. More important is the fact that the second word
was borrowed by the Romance languages in the meaning “boarding” and “side of a
ship.” Later, French “loaned” or rather returned it to English. Although aboard
frequently occurred in Middle English in descriptions of galleys running “close
up aboard one of another,” as well as of “falling aboard with another ship” (or
even “person”), Murray pointed out that the phrase go aboard,
from French aller (venire) à bord, was the commonest of all. “As board
was in use in English, in such phrases as within shippes borde, over
the adopted French à bord was very soon treated in English as
if it were a genuine descendant of the O[ld[ E[nglish] on borde, and in
due course expanded into on board, which I suppose all modern Englishmen
use under the impression that the board is the boards of the
deck, and not, as it is really historically, the boarding of the ship’s
side, and hence by extension the vessel as a whole.” This explanation made its
way into the OED, but in an abridged form. For many years I have
been trying to introduce the word abridge “on the bridge” on the model
of abed, but, as they put it in Victorian novels, with slender success.

Three things remain to be said. First, the word border
is an adaptation of Old French bordure, which goes back to Germanic bord-
“edge, boundary,” mentioned above. Second, Murray notes that in older texts aboard
and abroad were often confused. He quotes from the 1611 Version of
the Bible: “And finding a ship sailing vnto Phenicea, we went abroad and set
foorth” (Acts XXI: 2; in the Authorized Version: unto, aboard, Phenicia,
and forth). And finally, Murray, while analyzing aboard and
another noun with a similarly checkered background, suggested that “a word may
have two origins.” The recent idea that a word may have several etymologies is
an almost verbatim repetition of Murray’s statement, though I doubt that our
contemporaries get their cue from the old presidential addresses of the Philological
Society. Despite my reverence for Murray, I prefer to think that a word may
have a convoluted history, with many factors shaping its fate, rather than that
it may have two origins. Yet disagreeing with James A. H. Murray always makes
me feel uncomfortable, partly because he was such a great scholar and partly
because his responses to those who dared to oppose him were anything but

Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”

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