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An etymological ax(e) to grind, followed by the story of the English word “adz(e)”

Part One

Wherever we look for the history of the names of instruments and tools, we confront a similar problem: the available material is either too copious or too scanty. Last week (March 11, 2020), we followed a hectic but inefficient hunt for the etymology of the word awl, and I promised a continuation: a post on adz (spelled as adze in British English). An adz is an ax (incidentally, in British English, ax is also spelled with an e: axe; Americans have succeeded in chopping off a superfluous ending, while in Britain it managed to stay), and a “disquisition” on axes should preface the main story. Nowadays, such disquisitions are usually called discourses.

These are a few typical adz(e)s. Image by Walter Hough, 1922. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

At first glance, ax and adz look somewhat alike, and the question arises whether they are related. That is why, before attacking adz, something should be said about the etymology of ax and its synonyms. The oldest Germanic form of ax is known from Gothic, a language recorded in the fourth century CE. The Gothic for “ax” was aqizi, that is, akwizi. Its obvious cognates are Old Engl. æx ~ eax (eax is a phonetic variant of æx) and æces, Old Saxon akus (Modern Dutch aaks), Old High German ackus (Modern German Axt, -t is excrescent and does not belong to the root), Old Frisian axa, and Old Icelandic øx. The Old English and other forms were recorded half a millennium and even 900 years later than Gothic akwizi. Along the way, the word seems to have lost one syllable, though it is not improbable that the earliest West Germanic and the Old Norse forms were always slightly different from the Gothic one. (Old English and its neighbors were dialects of the same ancient language, and dialectal variation is a universal phenomenon.)

Although æx was the main Old English word for “ax,” it was not the only one. Taper-ax has also been recorded, a typical tautological compound: each component means the same (ax-ax; see the post for October 7, 2009). This was the name of a formidable weapon, borrowed from Old Norse, where the “tapar-øx” served its purpose very well: one constantly reads in the sagas how enemies’ skulls were cloven with its help all the way to the neck (grisly graphic details are usually provided). But the medieval Scandinavians did not coin this word: it migrated to them from the Slavs: compare Russian topor (stress on the second syllable), etc. Finnish tappara “ax” also goes back to Slavic. Even this is not the end of the journey, because the Slavs must have taken over that word from their eastern neighbors: its probable source was (or so it seems) Old Persian tabar “pickax.” Turkic täbär looks amazingly similar. Nor has the ancient pre-Indo-European word taba “stone; rock” from Asia Minor escaped the attention of language historians.

This is how it all began. Bhimbetka, no. III F-23. Image by Arian Zwegers, CC by 2.0 via Flickr.

Are we dealing with an old migratory word (see the previous post on such words), traceable to the Stone Age? In the essay on “awl,” I noted that a study of the names of instruments and tools provides rare insights into the history of civilization. The wanderings of taba ~ tabar ~ täbär ~ topor ~ tapar ~ tappara all over Eurasia tell us a good deal about the spread of material culture but hardly enough about etymology. Even if at one time taba or tapa meant stone, we still do not know what the origin of this word is. Did our remote ancestors go tap-tap-tap with their pieces of rock?

And this is a tautological but deadly Scandinavian taper-ax. Image by Jasmin Sessler from Pixabay.

The same question arises in connection with the word ax. To be sure, Greek axīne “ax” and Latin ascia (presumably, from acsia “adz”) make us think of the root of acute “sharp” (from Latin acūtus), but is this how the ax got its name? Gothic aqizi had three syllables. If its earlier form was approximately ak-wes-j-ō, with a suffix (wes) meaning “belonging to,” perhaps ax did mean “something sharp, a member of a class of sharp objects.” Long before the nouns of the Indo-European languages acquired grammatical genders, they were classified by their features: soft, warm, round, and so on. This system is well-known from some modern African languages. In Germanic, the word for “ax” (aqizi, and all the others) was feminine, and the same holds for Modern German Axt.  This fact says nothing about the origin of ax. Why should axes be referred to as “she”?

A classic coign of vantage. U.S. Navy photo by Photographer’s Mate 2nd Class Nathanael T. Miller (RELEASED), via Wikimedia Commons.

A migratory word does not have to be a world-wide traveler. For example, French hache “ax” reached France in the twelfth century from its German-speaking neighbors. The etymon was some form like happja (Old High German happa ~ heppa, etc., the name of a sickle, rather than an ax; Modern German Hippe means “pruning knife”). This means that, when we look for the origin of a word like ax, we need not concentrate only on its native and foreign synonyms: a simple association will sometimes do quite well (both sickles and axes cut). Finally, by way of exception, the word we are investigating may be transparent. For instance, another French name meaning “ax” is cognée, that is, “fastened with a wedge.” At one time, this participle was used with a noun; later, it began to function as a self-sufficient name of the tool. The root is familiar to English speakers from the word coin. It meant “wedge” and “a die for stamping money.” Coign of vantage “a favorable position of observation,” revived by Walter Scott, and quoin (pronounced as coin!) “cornerstone” also remind us of the Latin word.

Armed with such an amount of partly superfluous information, we will approach the history of adz with due caution. This history is rather obscure, and it is too long to be used as a supplement to today’s post. I’ll say what I know about the etymology of adz next week. Here I’ll only mention one disturbing fact: adz does not seem to have any cognates in any language, which means that the word was coined in Old English. Such words are rather numerous, and nearly each of them is an etymological crux.

To be continued.

Feature image credit: Image by Klaus Hausmann from Pixabay.

Recent Comments

  1. Constantinos Ragazas

    Anatoly you write,

    “To be sure, Greek axīne “ax” and Latin ascia (presumably, from acsia “adz”) make us think of the root of acute “sharp” (from Latin acūtus), but is this how the ax got its name? ”

    YES! The Greek “axīne” has as root the Greek “xīne” . Which means “to grind”! What you do to get a “stone ax”. Thus “axīne” is a tool you get by grinding.

    No better etymology for English “ax” can exist! All your academic mumble jumble not withstanding.


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