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An ax(e) to grind

That words travel from land to land is no secret. I do not only mean the trivial borrowings of the type known so well from the history of English. For instance, more than a thousand years ago, the Vikings settled in most of Britain, and therefore English is full of Scandinavian words. Some time later, the French conquered the country, and, as a result, two thirds or so of the words one finds in Webster’s dictionary are of French origin. Cultural cross-currents are equally obvious: the language of music is full of Italian terms, and the language of art testifies to the influence of French and Italian on English. All this is trivial information. It is much harder to trace the history of migratory words, for instance such as denote the names of tools. A case in point is the origin of the word ax (or, if you prefer the British spelling of it, then axe: an extra letter at the end of a word never hurts).

A stone ax. This is how the migration of the thing and the word began.
A stone ax. This is how the migration of the thing and the word began.

All the Old Germanic languages had cognates of ax, though the forms were not identical: Old Engl. æx ~ eax (æ was pronounced as a in Modern Engl. ax), alongside ex ~ øx, acus ~ akus ~ ackus, and akis elsewhere. Modern German Axt got its final t later. The most dissimilar form is Gothic aqizi. Gothic was recorded in the fourth century, but this does not necessarily mean that aqizi is the oldest Germanic form of our word. At that time, the Goths lived on the shores of the Black Sea and could have had a regional (“peripheral”) form, not current in other Germanic languages. Yet there is no doubt that we are dealing with the same name. The familiar search of etymologists for the so-called protoform will not bother us here. We can skip the details and make do with the conclusion that some word like ak(w)is– was known to all the Germanic speakers but existed in several shapes.

The usual next question is whether our word has non-Germanic cognates. In Latin, we find ascia “ax,” and, if ascia goes back to acsia, the match is perfect. The change from sk to ks is trivial: for example, at one time, half of the English-speaking world pronounced asked as aksed. Many people still do so. But the consonant k in acsia cannot correspond to k in Germanic, unless acsia ~ aksia goes back to agsia, whose root was ag– “sharp,” with g devoiced before s.  Greek aksīnē (stress on the second syllable) also had k and also meant “ax; hatchet.”

Here is a hatchet man. Why not an ax-man? It would be nice to be able to sing something like: 'All theses axes now pay taxes'
Here is a hatchet man. Why not an ax-man? It would be nice to be able to sing something like: “All these axes now pay taxes”

The double gloss (“ax; hatchet”) is less innocuous than it seems. In order to reconstruct the ancient meaning of a word, it is necessary to have a clear picture of the thing it designated. Thus, an ax is not quite the same as a hatchet, and a root meaning “sharp” is perhaps a better match for a knife than for an ax. (Incidentally, the origin of knife is most unclear.) The idea of sharpness comes up more than once in dealing with ancient tools. For instance, hammer meant “hammer” and occasionally “stone” in Germanic (to be more precise, in Old Icelandic), and Russian kamen’ “stone” is its secure cognate. According to one opinion, the root of the word hammer also meant “sharp.” So we are left with sharp axes and sharp hammers, though, in principle, axes are for hewing, while hammers are for hammering away. This is what the great god Thor’s hammer did: it broke the enemies’ heads to smithereens.

I’ll leave out of discussion the idea that the Indo-European name of the ax is a blend. The hypothesis is too speculative; yet I will soon resort to a version of it in promoting my own etymology of another word. If the Germanic, Latin, and Greek names of “ax” are related, the word in questions must be very old indeed, for axes are among the most ancient tools human beings invented. Surely, some axes were known long before the family we call Indo-European came into being. Hence the idea, promoted by some, that the word we are dealing with was borrowed from some lost pre-Indo-European language. (It may not be entirely inappropriate to observe that the origin of Indo-European and the genesis of its speakers remain matters of involved debate.) In the Indo-European languages, many words for “ax” have been recorded. The ghost of a substrate is ever-present in this area of research.

A parallel to the history of ax is the history of adz (again, if such are your predilections, adze). Unlike ax, it has no cognates, though the word already existed in Old English. Until the seventeenth century, its standard form was addice, very much like Old Engl. adusa ~ adesa. It will now not come as a surprise that some researchers tried to interpret the original root of adz as meaning “sharp.” Also, quite naturally, there have been attempts to connect adz and ax. Those attempts have been unsuccessful and are now forgotten. I will pass by an elaborate discussion of a Hittite word resembling adz. Its meaning and origin are unclear (to say the least), and nothing is less productive than explaining one opaque word by referring to another word, equally or even more opaque (obscurum per obscurius).

At first sight, more promising are Italian azza “battle ax” and Spanish azuela “adz,” but it has been shown that the Romance words were borrowed from Germanic (Franconian, to be precise). Those interested in details will find all the information they need under hatch, hack, hash and hatchet in English etymological dictionaries and under Hacke “hoe, mattock” in dictionaries of German. Unfortunately, today the words hacker and hacking are known only too well, to need an elaborate explanation.

The names of tools were among the most common migratory words in the Middle Ages. Russian topor (stress on the second syllable), Finnish tappara, and Middle Persian tab’ar are among them. They mean “ax.” The Anglo-Saxons did not stay away and had taper-æx “a small ax.” Such words are sometimes borrowed not because speakers lack a name for the object in question but in order to designate a special variety of the otherwise familiar artifact. Surely, the Finns had their own name for the ax but took over tappara, while the English appropriated a compound: a taper-æx was an ax of the kind taper.

A good collection. It all adds up.
A good collection. It all adds up.

As mentioned above, I have my own suggestion; it concerns the etymology of adz. It will probably die in the mass grave of equally ingenious and equally hopeless hypotheses. Yet it seems to me that in Old English the word acusa “ax” existed, with d substituted for k under the influence of some continental form like Middle Low German dessele “adz.” If I am right, Old Engl. adusa is a blend. Francis A. Wood, at one time an ingenious, if not always reliable, etymologist at the University of Chicago, had a somewhat similar idea, but he reconstructed pre-Old Engl. a-dehsa, as in OHG dehsala (a southern cognate of dessele, mentioned above). I think my approach is a bit more realistic because it does without relying on the doubtful Old English form with the initial vowel a-. In any case, it is perhaps not entirely improbable that a German word of the same meaning influenced the form we have in English. German dehsala ~ dessele (their Modern English cognate is the little-known thixel) is a word of well-established etymology.

Our migration, ax ~ adz ~ hatchet ~ topor in hand, is over, indeed in the dark, but not entirely without a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel.

Images: (1) “Stone axes” by Celeste Lindell, CC BY 2.0 via Flickr. (2) Angry man axe cartoon by Clker-Free-Vector-Images, Public Domain via Pixabay. (3) Axe by Sergey Klimkin, Public Domain via Pixabay. (4) Axe hatchet by Alberto Barrionuevo, Public Domain via Pixabay. (5) “Adz and Pick End of Halligan Tool” by Skipatrolkid, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons. (6) Hammer by Rudy and Peter Skitterians, Public Domain via Pixabay. Featured image: “Indo-European languages” by MapLoader, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. Jevgēnijs Kaktiņš

    Latvian cirvis is derived from the verb cirst (cut, hew, chop, fell), but I suppose more ancient tools could explain the k/s split in akmens/asmens (stone, blade). Both of them are among the few current exceptions to the 2nd declension. The same root shows up also in ecēšas (harrow) to be related also with edge.

  2. Masha Bell

    I strongly disagree that ‘an extra letter at the of a word never hurts’, especially an -e. Most of them help to obscure the English short/long vowel system, e.g. drive – givE, surprise – promisE (cf. mat – mate, is – wise).

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