By Anatoly Liberman
I would rather write about prisms and prunes, but those words are ultimately of Greek descent, and I try to stay on Germanic soil as much as possible, though sometimes the spirit of adventure (not to be encouraged in a serious etymologist) makes me trespass on Romance territory. The origin of spoon is well-known, but the story is instructive and deserves repeating.
Spoons of some sort were invented at the dawn of civilization. Liquid and soft food cannot be eaten with hands, so that spoons, contrary to forks, are a necessity, not a luxury. Human beings have fingers, that is, natural forks, and the Europeans resisted the introduction of “artificial fingers” long and manfully. The English are famous for even ridiculing forks five hundred years ago. However, by the 16th and especially the 17th century the wealthy in Italy, France, and England got used to the newfangled utensil, partly because forks could be made of costly materials and impress guests (the Italians were in the forefront of this important battle). The idea of the monstrous phrase plastic silverware could not have occurred to those nobles. The Old English noun forca ~ force betrays its origin from Latin furca “a two-pronged pitchfork,” “a stake for punishment” (hence furcifer “villain, gallows bird”), “a claw of a crayfish,” and so forth (a word for which no satisfactory etymology exists; the original root can be seen in Engl. bifurcation). In Old English, as in Latin, forca ~ force meant “pitchfork.” The earliest known mention of Engl. fork “eating utensil” traces back to 1463, and the next occurrence in the OED is dated 1554. Furca, despite its obscurity, may have been native in Latin, for such a primitive agricultural implement would have been unlikely to go by a foreign name. The other Germanic words for “pitchfork” (such as German Gabel, related to Engl. gable) and their Slavic counterparts (such as Russian vily) are also opaque from an etymological point of view, though less troublesome than furca.
Spoon is certainly native and can serve as a classic illustration of how the history of words and the history of things are connected. Old Engl. spon (with a long vowel), the etymon of spoon, meant “chip, splinter, shaving,” and this is still the meaning of German Span and one of the meanings of Dutch spaan. In Middle English, the change from “chip” to “eating utensil” probably occurred under the influence of its Scandinavian equivalent in which the same change happened earlier. The ancient spoon was a primitive sliver before it became elaborate silver. Spoons have transparent names in many languages. Latin coclear, the ancestor of French cuiller, Spanish cuchara, and Italian cucchiaio, shares the root with coclea “snail; spiral” (in our dictionaries, coclea sometimes turns up with -ch-, as do its English reflexes derived from Greek) either because of its initial twisted form or because it had pointed ends for eating shellfish. Shells as spoons have been used widely all over the world. Swedish sked (with closely related forms in all the Scandinavian languages) refers to something split or divided, as the corresponding English verb to shed and -shed in the compound watershed make clear. Dutch lepel “spoon” is an instrument for “lapping up” food.
Older than the spoon and the fork is the knife, and the origin of the words for it is sometimes lost. The easiest case is German Messer (with cognates elsewhere in Germanic). Messen “to measure” is related to Engl. mete (out). Apparently, the instrument was used for “measuring.” Meat (but not meet) is also related, for the original sense of meat was “food,” or rather “a portion ‘meted’ to the partaker.” But Engl. knife is enigmatic despite the fact that almost identical forms exist in several Germanic languages (compare Dutch knijf). Old English had cnif (here again with a long vowel); however, the word surfaced late and seems to have been borrowed from Scandinavian. When knife came into existence, k was pronounced in it, as in Modern Engl. acknowledge, for example. Germanic words with initial kn- and gn- are numerous; today the spelling of Engl. knock, gnaw, and the like reminds us of medieval sound values but confuses learners. In the written form of some words, initial k- and g- have been abolished.
Although the nouns and verbs that at one time began with kn- and gn- show some similarity in meaning, their common semantic denominator is evasive. At least some of them refer to a light, quick movement (nudge, for instance). Knife may be part of that group, and Skeat saw no reason for separating it from nip and nibble. Everything depends on the purpose of the original knife. If in the remote past it denoted a stabbing tool or weapon, a kind of bayonet, its name will align itself easily with many other kn- words. But the prehistory of our object is hidden. According to a daring hypothesis, knife is a loan from Basque. (I need hardly remind our readers that linguistic loans are permanent and that the lending language does not become poorer after sharing its riches with a neighbor. Borrow is a remarkably inappropriate term in this context; take over makes better sense.) Words for tools are often “borrowed,” because they travel from land to land with the objects they designate. Thus, foreign axes, adzes, hatchets, and their likes come to new countries, and their names seldom resist domestication. With knives it happens rarely, if at all. In any case, we do not know to what uses the object called knife was put when its name emerged and are likely to remain in the dark forever. It is important to remember that, in order to discover the etymology of a word, we must know exactly what the word means. Plato, or perhaps Socrates before him, already realized this connection, but in our work we are apt to forget it.
Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them as well as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here, each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to email@example.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”