Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

The fruit of the loom and other looming revelations: Part 1

When we deal with old languages, Jacob Grimm’s rule works rather well. He suggested that homonyms are usually related words whose meanings had diverged too far for us to recognize their original unity. One can demonstrate the validity of this idea even while looking at some modern forms. For instance, autumn is called fall in American English, and it takes minimal effort to connect the season’s name with “the fall of the leaf.” By contrast, spring “to jump,” spring “the source of a stream,” and spring “a season of the year” have almost come apart, and people hardly think of them as related, though of course they are.

Obviously, not all homonyms are related. For example, we have sound, as in the sounds of music; sound, as in Long Island Sound; sound, as in sound judgment, and sound “to probe the depth of” (one can also sound one’s colleagues as to their intentions). Some of them may be related, or perhaps each word has its own etymology, even if our intuition suggests the possibility of ties here and there. To discover the truth, one needs the help of a professional historical linguist. But the general advice stemming from Jacob Grimm’s approach is valid, namely: “When you encounter homonyms, ask whether they are related.”

Observe a weaver and a loom on the left. On the right is our hero, Noah Webster. His family name means "weaver."
Observe a weaver and a loom on the left. On the right is our hero, Noah Webster. His family name means “weaver.”

This is what I am going to do with two words: loom “weaving machine” and loom “to appear indistinctly” (there is also a third word, but it will appear as an afterthought). Although the origin of both is supposedly unknown, the picture may not be so opaque. We have to begin from afar. Loom “weaving machine” is (as Skeat showed)  the remainder of weblōme, while lōme is the stub of Old Engl. ge-lōme “implement, utensil” (ge- is an ancient prefix, whose obliterated remnant e- can be seen in enough: compare it with German ge-nug, the same meaning; some people may have seen in dictionaries the participle yclept “called”; ō designates long o). Heirloom contains apparently the same element, even though it surfaced in texts only in late Middle English. I wonder whether hoodlum, which, according to at least one suggestion, goes back to a family name, can be derived from hoodloom. Was the original Mr. Hoodlum a hatter?

While thinking of heirlooms, don't forget the heirloom tomato (the American name of the vegetable). It is called heritage tomato in Great Britain. The main description on the Internet praises it's (sic) valuable characteristics.
While thinking of heirlooms, don’t forget the heirloom tomato (the American name of the vegetable). It is called heritage tomato in Great Britain. The main description on the Internet praises it’s (sic) valuable characteristics.

Side by side with gelōme “implement” stood gelōme “often.” It occurred mainly in the tautological phrase oft and gelōme, something like “often and frequently” (such binomials are not too rare: compare safe and sound, prim and proper, fine and dandy, and so forth; they are like tautological compounds of the courtyard type, on which see my post for 11 February 2009). The prefix ge- was a marker of collective nouns, so that perhaps gelōme “utensil,” along with its Old English synonym andlōman “furniture” (that word had a Dutch cognate), once meant “utensils, stuff,” rather than a single implement.  Oft and gelōme, as well as gelōme, continued into Middle English and then “died.”

Before going on, I have to mention the little-known Modern Engl. adjective loon “gentle, easy” (this is the afterthought). Loon, unlike all the words mentioned above, is not an etymological orphan, for it is allied to Dutch loom “slack; languid.” It also had many cognates in Middle High German in the form of the suffix –luomi (uo in it developed from ō). This sound complex showed a strange aversion to an independent existence: also, in Old English, –lōme did not occur without ge-, a phenomenon that baffles me but is probably of no importance in our search for origins.

I will cite only two Middle High German adjectives, because their meaning is easy to guess: sumar-luomi “sunny, hot” and gast-luomi “hospitable.” The suffix meant something like “susceptible to, provided with.” The other adjectives, of which there are about half-a-dozen, follow the same pattern.  Jacob Grimm connected the suffix –luomi with the root of the adjective lame, from lam-, a congener of Slavic lom-, as, for example, in Russian lomat’ “to break” (stress on the second syllable). This derivation works very well for the adjective meaning “slack” (from “slack, weak” to “lame”) but worse for the suffix attested with the sense “provided with.” However, the contradiction will disappear if we start from the meaning “break,” as in Slavic, because broken means both “not solid” and “incapable to offer resistance, yielding.” Sumar-luomi and gast-luomi can therefore be understood as “yielding to summer” (hence “sunny, hot”) and “yielding to guests” (hence “hospitable”).

The sense “broken” will also provide us with a bridge to Old Engl. ge-lōme “often.”  Let us repeat that “broken” can mean “not solid; soft, yielding” (such is a broken reed) and “made up of odds and ends, in fragments; in close proximity but lacking cohesion” (such is a broken social order). In the languages of the world, the notion “often” tends to go back to “thick, dense, crowded together” or “heap, mass.” The most transparent examples are German häufig (Haufe “heap”), Dutch dikwijls (dik “thick”; –wijls is akin to Engl. while); compare also Engl. thick and fast. In Old Engl. gelōme, the suffix ge– is as though it were made to order, for us to discover the origin of the adverb and the noun. At one time, the noun (“implement, utensil”) must have designated a heap or a set of tools. I made this suggestion at the beginning of the post.

Occasionally I see objections to the etymologies I defend because they are not perfect: the idea looks attractive, but some details do not click. Very much depends on the nature of the imperfection. When an established sound correspondence is violated, it has to be accounted for. Likewise, when senses are at cross-purposes, they have to be harmonized. Grammar is an equally important factor. For example, the English word wife was once neuter (German Weib still is). In my opinion, all the etymologies of wife proposed by numerous scholars were wrong because they failed to explain the gender of the noun: indeed, how could a word for “woman” be neuter?!  (Those interested in a possible answer to this fateful question should consult my post of 12 October 2011; it has the provocative title “Were ancient ‘wives’ women”?). In Icelandic, skáld “skald, poet” is neuter. Alas, I have no idea why. But the fact that the sense “utensils” (plural) in gelōme has not been recorded does not look like an insurmountable obstacle to accepting the etymology proposed above. The prefix points to a collective noun. Probably the sense “stuff” yielded the meaning known to us. In any case, the Old English adverb gelōme “often” appears to align itself perfectly with the adverbs of the same meaning in several languages. It must have suggested the idea “made up of odds and ends.”

Only Praxiteles is perfect. Etymologies seldom are.
Only Praxiteles is perfect. Etymologies seldom are.

Thus, from “broken, lacking cohesion; yielding” to “slack, weak, gentle,” to “a heap or set of things; utensils,” to “loom” (a single utensil), and, most unexpectedly but not illogically, to “often.” I am sorry to say that Engl. oft(en), unlike Old Engl. gelōme, lacks a persuasive etymology. Perhaps it belongs with häufig, dickwijs, chasto, and the rest, but the picture is far from clear.

Yes, but what about loon “gentle” and the verb loom? Wait until next week.

Images: (1) “Weaver in India” by Claude Renault, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons (2) “Noah Webster engraving” Photographed from the holdings of the University of Manitoba, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons. (3) Heirloom tomatoes by Amy Guthrie, Public Domain via Pixabay. (4) “Leaning satyr by Praxiteles” photo by Shakko, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons (5) “Roman Venus Copy of Praxiteles Front” photo by Shawn Lipowski, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons. Featured Image: Autumn, forest by Valentin Sabau, Public Domain via Pixabay.

Recent Comments

  1. Stephen Goranson

    One thing that interested me about “hoodlum” when I antedated the OED earliest quotation of 1871 is that the name appears to be a self-designation.
    1866 _San Francisco Evening Bulletin_ 14 Dec., page 5, column 4 (America’s Historical Newspapers) We yesterday mentioned the arrest of five boys who have been committing petty thefts for some days past. … It is doubtful if any thieves ever did a more driving business than these young fellows, for all of their plunder has been stolen since last Saturday night. They call themselves the “Hoodlum Band,” and unless their thieving propensities are nipped in the bud, the reputation of Orliniski will fade before that of a “Hoodlum.” … Among other exploits of the “Hoodlums” was the stealing of a lot of keys from the pockets of a clerk in an office on Montgomery street, to enter the office and unlock and rob the safe of $2 in silver.

  2. Elmira Gutieva

    I am sure you have enormous database to write such insightful etymological detective stories, but, anyway, I would like to highlight Ossetian word læmæğ – “weak, unstable, tender…”
    and now am waiting (impatiently) until next week

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *