Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

The story of “adz”

Part 2

I am picking up where I left off last week. The word adz(e) was coined long ago and surfaced more than once in Old English texts. It had several local variants, and its gender fluctuated: adesa was masculine, while adese was feminine. Also, eadesa and adusa have come down to us. Apparently, the tool had wide currency. As will be shown below, adusa may be the form that provides the best clue to the etymology of adz(e). The consonant s in all those forms should have been voiced, but until the seventeenth century the standard spelling was addice, and Samuel Johnson, the author of the famous 1755 dictionary, considered the spelling and the pronunciation adze to be a reprehensible corruption of addice. We do not know why s in adesa and its likes remained voiceless in Old and Middle English, instead of becoming z. The pronunciation with z became the norm only after i in addice was lost (syncopated, to use a technical term); hence the modern spelling. The form atch turned up in the seventeenth century, and some people who said an adz occasionally made the by now familiar mistake of misdivision and turned an adz into a nadz (see the examples of such metananlysis in the post on awl for March 11, 2020). A few other dialectal forms of adz are also known. They are more or less predictable and shed no light on the origin of our word.

Samuel Johnson by Joshua Reynolds. Via Wikimedia Commons.

As mentioned at the end of the previous post (March 18, 2020), adz has no established cognates, even though it is an old word. Most likely, it was coined “locally” and had no currency outside England. If the speakers of Old English had brought it to their new home from the continent, some related forms would probably have turned up in Frisian, Dutch, or German. The texts in which adesa appears owe nothing to the language of the Vikings, and indeed no similar word exists in Scandinavian.

A cagey man. Image by Eren Emre Kanal. CC by 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

The process of formation must have been simple, even transparent, for people are not expected to create words out of nothing. Yet numerous well-known modern (!) adjectives, verbs, and nouns, summarily dismissed in dictionaries without explanation as slang, have no ascertained etymology. You call your new acquaintance cagey. Look up cagey in a respectable reference book! “Origin unknown.” Does a cagey person live in a mental cage of his or her own construction and refuses to leave it? A trite piece of folk etymology? But an adz was a well-known tool, and it is reasonable to suggest that its name, a technical term, was coined by those who dealt with it.

Although adz seems to have been a neologism, quite a few of its possible cognates (or rather, look-alikes) have been offered: some by over-imaginative authors, others by reliable ones. The search was for the words denoting either something sharp or related to manual skills: German Ader “vein,” German ätsen ~ Engl. etch, Engl. thixle ~ German Dechsel “adz” (pay special attention to this pair!), Latin astutus “sharp; astute,” Latin ador “spelt” (a cereal plant) and asser “stake,” Lithuanian vedegà “adz; icepick” (related to Sanskrit vádhar– “some deadly weapon”), and a few others.

One lookalike has attracted special attention. In Hittite, a dead language of ancient Anatolia, the word ateš occurred. Its meaning has been a matter of debate, but the noun is now glossed as “ax.” This is indeed a remarkable coincidence. Our readers interested in all kinds of details pertaining to the Hittite word will find them in the entry adz in my etymological dictionary. Here I’ll only say that, according to the opinion of the most reliable modern specialist, the Hittite word is not related to adz. This conclusion is intuitively correct, because, if adz were a migratory word (a common case with the names of tools and instruments of all kinds), it would have, almost certainly, turned up somewhere between Anatolia and Anglo-Saxon England. Even if the two forms were related as items of the ancient Indo-European stock, the occurrence of a carpentry term only in Hittite and Old English would have been a minor miracle. A Basque cognate or etymon of adz has also been proposed; again, perhaps there is no need to go so far.

An adze. Image by Pearson Scott Foresman. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Last week, while looking for the etymology of the word ax, I mentioned, among many other words, Old Saxon akus. Old Engl. æces seems to have developed from some such form. Walter W. Skeat, in the first edition of his etymological dictionary of English (1882), “suspected” that adesa was a “corruption” of aces or acwesa (acwesa was of course inspired by Gothic aqizi—all those words were mentioned in the previous post); he should have added acusa as a possibility. We now wince at the once widely current term corruption (see its use by Samuel Johnson, above!) and indeed, linguistic change is always an act of “corruption”! If we substitute alteration for Skeat’s corruption, his idea will look reasonable. Yet we are not told why the original form was “corrupted,” altered, modified, or simply changed. That may be the reason Skeat gave up his early suggestion (it does not appear in the fourth, latest edition), and adz joined a long list of “words of unknown origin,” where it stays to the present day, its cutting edge notwithstanding.

Yet, if we begin with Old Engl. adusa (rather than adesa; adusa “ax,” as noted above, has been recorded), Skeat’s idea may perhaps be rescued. There is no doubt that adusa resembles somewhat Old Engl. æx and especially Old Saxon akus. In Old English, this similarity was, quite naturally, noticed, with the result that æx and adesa sometimes formed an alliterative pair. And here comes my timid tentative etymology. I believe (“suspect”) that Old Engl. adusa is the continental acusa “ax”, with d substituted for c (k) under the influence of some form like Middle Low German dessele “adz” (see thixle ~ Dechsel, above), that is, I suggest that adusa was a blend meaning originally “a kind of ax.” The blending happened, because the names of the two tools were frequently mentioned in single breath, like our modern alliterating pots and pans, sticks and stones, and the like.

The process of blending can be established only when it is occurring under our eyes. Thus, sitcom, Eurasia, and workaholic are certainly blends. This fact can be “proved” by reference to the memory of the native speakers still living and the dictionaries that recorded the act. A historical blend is doomed to remain a hypothesis. The same holds for my reconstructed blend, but as the starting point for a perhaps better informed research into the etymology of this intractable word it will probably do.

Feature image credit: book on table by Alex Brown. CC by 2.0, via Flickr.

Recent Comments

  1. Margaret Catambay

    You mentioned-

    “Engl. etch”.

    Is that related “hachet”?


  2. Constantinos Ragazas

    Anatoly you write,

    “And here comes my timid tentative etymology. I believe (“suspect”) that Old Engl. adusa is the continental acusa “ax”, with d substituted for c (k) …”

    Yes but, what does “adusa/acusa” really means? Tracing connections among words does not really tell us the “true meaning” (etymology) of a word.

    Compare this with the meaning of the Greek word axīne “ax”. Derived from the Greek “xīne” (grind).

    Now that’s an etymology of “ax” that
    makes sense!


  3. Constantinos Ragazas

    The Greek “τσαπα” is also a tool very similar to “adz”. If we were to consider “adz” as the contraction of “a dz”, where the “a” is the article “a”, the English “adz” may derive from the contraction “τσαπα” >”τσ”. The “τσ”>”dz” transformation is natural. Such double consonant combinations naturally go together.


Leave a Comment

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