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All’s well that ends well

By Anatoly Liberman


The year 2011 is coming to an end.  Strange that we say “come to an end,” even though a year, unlike a rope, a street, and even life, in which it is hard to make ends (or both ends) meet, can have only one end, but such are the caprices of usage.  In any case, the end of the year is close at hand.  Those interested in such tricks may recollect that year sometimes needs neither the definite nor the indefinite article when we speak about this time of year, and so it has been for centuries.  Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73 opens with the line: “That time of year thou mayst in me behold…”  Likewise, end feels quite comfortable without an article in the phrase stand on end.  Next Wednesday will be devoted to December’s “gleanings,” but to celebrate the season, today I am offering a short essay about the word end; by contrast, January will start with the verb begin.

“End” is a more abstract concept than, for example, “edge” or “border,” and, although it is not an immutable law, in language abstract notions tend to develop from concrete ones.  The first recorded sense of Old Engl. ende “end” was “extremity, final limit,” but there must have been other senses.   In Gothic, a Germanic language known from a fourth-century translation of the New Testament (the language has been dead for a long time), andeis, a cognate of end, glossed Greek telos “termination, completion; result,” and exactly the same meaning of end surfaced in thirteenth-century English.  Possibly, it existed earlier but found no reflection in texts or at least in extant texts.  Telos also referred to many more things that happen “in the end”: “final solution; tax; prize” and, especially important, “aim, goal” (hence English learned words like teleology and pseudo-Greek coinages like telegraph, telephone, and television, from tele-“at a distance far off”).  In English, end “purpose” surfaced only in the fourteenth century, and again we may suppose that this late attestation is an accident of transmission rather than of semantic history.  We still say to that end and the end justifies the means.  The sense “remnant” has been preserved mainly in the idiom odds and ends and  in candle end.  Yet looking through books reveals a few curious idioms.   There is fiddlestick’s end (preceded by fig’s end) “rubbish, nonsense,” and pack up one’s ends and awls (with a pun on awl ~ all) means “pack up all one’s belongings.”  Perhaps in fiddlestick’s end, end should be glossed as “tip,” for to have something at one’s fingers’ tips had (or has?) a variant to have something at one’s fingers’ end.  As the OED and other dictionaries tell us, in East End, West End, and the ends of the earth we have a survival of the sense “quarter, region.”

The word end, most obligingly, allows historical linguists to trace its development.  English does not provide enough material, but related languages do.  Old High German had andi and endi (those were two variants of the same noun), which correspond to Old Icelandic enne (nn in it is from nd).  All of them meant “forehead.”  In Icelandic, ende “end” also existed, so that ende and enne were etymological doublets, the result of a split.  Engl. forehead, which in the pronunciation of most speakers of American English does not rhyme with horrid (as happens in the poem about a little girl who had a little curl right in the middle of her forehead) gives away its origin at once: fore-head is the front part of the head, its “end.”  Latin antiae “forelock” is close enough.  The Lithuanian cognate of ende means “breast,” that is, “the front of the body,” while Latin ante “before” corresponds to Greek anti “opposite” (not everybody agrees that ante- ~ anti-belong here; however,  they probably do).  The picture could not be clearer: from forehead (concrete) to end (abstract).  But “beginning” and “end” are relative concepts, and poets have been forever exploring the ambiguity their relation entails.  Indeed, what is the end of a street for one is its beginning for another.  Even the ends of the earth are its ends only if we look at them from the center (where we are at the moment).  Once we address the inhabitants of those quarters, they will respond that we, not they, occupy the earth’s “end.”

Language sometimes reflects this state of affairs, and here Slavic offers a particularly good example.  Russian konets (stress on the second syllable) “end” has the root kon- (-ets is a suffix), and the verb nachat’ “to begin” (also stressed on the second syllable) has the prefix na- and the root -cha- (-t’ is the marker of the infinitive).  Both words have numerous cognates.  I will not go into detail and only state what can be accepted as fact: from an etymological point of view, -kon- and -cha- (ch goes back to k, and there once was an n after the vowel) are forms of the same root.  Thus, we end where we begin.  In some authoritative dictionaries, Slavic lob- “forehead” was compared with a Greek word for “the nape of the head.”  The comparison is dubious, but the idea is sound: the back and the front are also interchangeable concepts.

Since I began this essay with Gothic, I will also end with it.  The Gothic historian Jordanes (unfortunately, he wrote his book in Latin) mentioned Gothiscandza, the name of a stretch of shore on the Baltic Sea where the Goths once landed.  For a long time it was believed that Gothiscandza stood for  Gutisk-andeis, that is, Gothic “end” (or peninsula), a place name like Ostende (Dutch Oostende, a town in West Flanders).  But it may have been a folk etymological alternation of Gutisk-Skandia “Gothic Scandinavia, Götland.”  Although history finds the Goths on the shores of the Black Sea, their homeland may have been in Scandinavia.  Such is all philological speculation.  It either leads to a dead end produces worthy results.  Andilaus is Gothic for endless, and the Greek word is aperantos (stress again falls on the second syllable), obviously a piece of valuable information to store up and use in the year to come.

Land’s End, Cornwall,  the extreme westerly part of England’s mainland.


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 him care of blog@oup.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”

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Recent Comments

  1. W.N. Frota

    I really thought that Cornwall and England were two different countries belonging to Great Britain along with Scotland and Northern Ireland. The latter being not part of Britain’s “mainland”. S, “the extreme westerly part of England’s mainland should be the westerly border between England and Cornwall”, shouldn’t it?

  2. Terry Collmann

    While Cornish men and women might demur, Cornwall has been part of England since at least the 9th century. You may be thinking of Wales.

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