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Some of our tools: “awl”

The names of weapons, tools, and all kinds of appurtenances provide a rare insight into the history of civilization. Soldiers and journeymen travel from land to land, and the names of their instruments, whether murderous or peaceful, become so called migratory words (Wanderwörter, as they are called in German: words errant, as it were). I have dealt with such words in the post on bodkin (October 7, 2015) and ajar (August 22, 2012). For a long time, I have been meaning to write a short essay on adz(e), a word discussed in my etymological dictionary. As a rule, I prefer not to replicate the material of the dictionary in this blog, but there the exposition is technical, so next week I’ll probably retell the story in more popular terms.

Before going on, I would like to note that not only awl but the very word tool ends in -l. This –l is a remnant of several once productive suffixes. We detect it, for example, in bridle, girdle, saddle, satchel, and needle. Tool has it, because its root meant “to produce, prepare.” Many Romance words also end in -l—there, a diminutive suffix (so in satchel “little sack” and the like). The Latin for “awl’ is sūbula. Its – is akin to Engl. sew-; apparently, the word meant an instrument for sewing. Russian shilo (that is, shi-l-o) is a close analog of sūbula (shi-t’ “to sew”). Deceptively or for good reason, awl, too, ends in -l.  In any case, this l might help it to survive. All the rest is enveloped in obscurity.

A cobbler and his tool. Image credit: Ancient Egyptian cobblers at work via Wikimedia.

The Old English for “awl” was æl. It occurred only as a translation of or gloss on Latin sūbula. The word figures in the biblical texts in descriptions of torture: for example, people’s ears are said to be pierced with an æl. The word continued into Middle English, but for phonetic reasons the form awl, homonymous with all, cannot be its reflex: the modern word would have been pronounced as ale. Awl goes back to Scandinavian al-r, a cognate of æl. This is a common situation: an English word competed with its Danish relative and lookalike and was ousted by it. See the map: the Danes ruled over two thirds of mediaeval England.

This is the part of England where the native population interacted with the invaders (new settlers). Image Credit: OpenDemocracy via Flickr.

A similar instrument was called prēon(e) in Old English. It means “pin; brooch,” and dialectal preen still means “pin” or “pincers for removing clothes pegs” (unrelated to the verbs preen and prune), but German Pfriem(en) and Dutch priem designate the same instrument as awl. Their origin is as obscure as that of awl. A word cognate with æl was known elsewhere in West Germanic. Old High German ala became Ahle (h in it is only a graphic sign of vowel length).  I always pass by the niceties of pronunciation irrelevant to the word’s origin, but in this case, the length of the vowel in æl is of some importance, because dictionaries give partly misleading information on this subject and because the etymology of awl depends on our knowledge of the value of æ in æl and of a in Old High German ala.

The spelling of the attested forms provides no information on how those æ and a were pronounced, because in Middle English and Middle High German they would have been lengthened anyway. Therefore, when our most authoritative sources (solid dictionaries and papers bydistinguished German and Finnish scholars) reconstruct the ancient Germanic and Indo-European form with a long vowel (for example, ērō), this information should be taken with a grain of salt. Awl has close counterparts in Baltic, Finnish, and Sanskrit (a typical situation when one deals with the names of instruments and tools), and in those languages the root vowel is indeed long. Yet when a word travels from one part of the world to another, its pronunciation is liable to change. Perhaps Old Engl. æl and Old High German ala did have long æ and long a, but perhaps not. Migratory words are just vagabonds wearing similar clothes, and Old Engl. æl, Lithuanian ýla, Finnish ora “thorn,” and Sanskrit ārā “awl” need not go back to an Indo-European root. Some speakers of an extinct language that invented a thorn-like instrument may have taught the inhabitants of Indian how to use it, and the tool, along with its name, began to move west.

The form ala enjoyed obvious popularity, because it also existed with an additional instrumental suffix. Alongside Old High German ala, in later northern German texts elsene and elsen were recorded (hence Modern Dutch els).  The suffix is familiar from the German noun Sense “scythe.” It appears that one instrumental suffix (l) in ala was not enough, or perhaps -l was not understood as a meaningful element. This detail would not have been worthy of mention if some Germanic form like alasno had not migrated to the Romance-speaking world: hence Spanish alesna, French alène, and Italian lesina.

Of course, not the word but the tool and the people who wielded it “migrated.” However, we cannot ascertain the epicenter of its spread in the enormous territory between India and the Baltic Sea. It seems more reasonable to reconstruct the starting point in the East, but what was so special in that first awl, and who carried its fame to the remotest borders of Europe? We have no answer, and that is why the etymology of awl remains “unknown.”  Awls are used for piercing small holes in leather, wood, etc. and can be bent- or straight-pointed. Hence the distinction between bradawls and sewing awls. It has also been suggested that some ancient awls were used as weapons. Is this what made them so well-known over most of Eurasia?

The new settlers were not particular about phonetic niceties. Image Credit: British Library via Flickr.

A curious episode unites the history of awl and augur, another piercing instrument. Augur is what remains of the once long compound nafogār, from nave (as in the name of the hub of a wheel) and gar “spear” (as in garfish and others). A nauger became an auger, because of misdivision (the technical term for it is metanalysis). By contrast, an awl has often been attested in dialects as a nawl. Phonetics played a decisive role in the name of another boring instrument, namely, wimble. The well-known alteration of French gw and English w (as in Guillaume versus William) produced gymble. A diminutive suffix turned it into gimlet, remembered mainly from the phrase eyes like gimlets. Awl, bodkin, preen, auger, wimble ~ gimlet—I don’t find the story boring.

Only a postscript remains to be added to this essay. Alongside æl, Old English had āwel “flesh hook,” this time definitely with a long vowel, which developed because of the loss of h after short a in the original combination. Its root is akin to ac– in acute. Consequently, the flesh hook was simply “a sharp instrument.” Yet the similarity with the word for “awl” is almost uncanny. For some time, historical linguists believed that they were dealing with the same word; yet James A. H. Murray, the OED’s first editor, sensed the difficulty. In 1905, a special article dealt with this small problem, but it took the authors of even dependable manuals and dictionaries quite some time to represent facts in their true light. According to a Russian saying, one cannot conceal an awl in a sack: the truth will come out. And it did.

[Editor’s note: the post originally referred to the German noun Sense as “saw”, not “scythe.” An eagle-eyed reader pointed out the error, and it has been corrected.]

Featured Image Credit: Dominique grassigli via Wikimedia

Recent Comments

  1. Constantinos Ragazas

    Anatoly you write,

    “A similar instrument [to “awl”] was called prēon(e) in Old English.”

    That is very interesting! Why? Because in Greek prēon(e)/”πριονι” means “saw”. And this is also attested in ancient Greek. Likely the English “prick” derives from the same Greek root.


  2. Rudy Troike

    Would not the long /a/ in Sanskrit have supported a long vowel in OE and OHG? Or was there evidence for secondary lengthening of the stem vowel in Sanskrit?

    Since cognates are attested in 3 branches of IE, why is this not a PIE word rather than a loanword from an unknown source?


  3. Constantinos Ragazas


    As to “awl” (for making holes), the Greek for “making a hole” is “τριπαω”. Also attested in ancient Greek.

    If we drop the first syllable (as often occurs) and shorten this to “αω” (the stressed “stem vowel” in the word “τριπαω”) we can get “aw(l)”.

    A possibility in light of “unknown source”!


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