Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Keeping social distance: the story of the word “aloof” and a few tidbits

It is amazing how many words like aloof exist in English. Even for “fear” we have two a-formations: afraid, which supplanted the archaic afeard, and aghast. Aback, aboard, ashore, asunder—a small dictionary can be filled with them (but alas and alack do not belong here). The model is productive: consider aflutter and aglitter. One feature unites those words: they cannot be used attributively. Indeed, an asunder man and an astride rider do not exist. The prefix a- in such words usually goes back to an (as in amiss) or of (as in anew, across, afar, and their likes), and it feels at home even when attached to foreign roots: agog, for example, is French. But, as usual, caution teaches us not to generalize. Along derives from Old Engl. andlang, whose original meaning was “complete from end to end; lengthwise” (as is still obvious in German ent-lang). Occasionally we run into opaque formations. For instance, akimbo is a crux, for what is kimbo? At one time, I devoted an essay to this word: see the post for February 11, 2009.

In the past, nautical terms with a- enjoyed some popularity. One of them is aloof. I’ll borrow my explanation of this word from Walter Skeat’s dictionary. Aloof is traceable to on loof, corresponding to Dutch te loef “to windward”; the phrase loef houden means “to keep to the windward,” which is close to Engl. keep aloof, that is, “to keep away” (originally, from the leeward shore or rock; lee means “shelter”). This brings us to loof or luff, whose origin is less clear, but here again Skeat’s etymology looks convincing. His definition of luff ~ loof is “to turn a ship toward the wind,” and he glosses Middle Engl. lōf as “a contrivance for altering a ship’s course.” In Older Dutch, loef ~ loeve meant “thole,” that is, “a pin in the gunwale of a boat” and “windward side.” Middle Engl. lōf seems to have been a sort of large paddle, used to assist the helm in keeping the ship right. Probably named from the resemblance of a paddle to the palm of the hand; cf. Lowland Scottish loof, Icelandic lófi, Gothic lofa “palm of the hand.” I have expanded Skeat’s abbreviations and refrained from citing a few other cognates. The similarity between a paddle and the palm of the hand is obvious. Thus, keep aloof has a nautical origin, but in etymology, one word leads to another, and the chain may go on and on. Middle Engl. lōf, a central link in the chain, merits discussion.

A sailing ship keeping to windward. Windward Tilt by Damian Gadal. CC by 2.0 via Flickr.

This word has curious congeners (cognates): Russian lapa “paw” (the same in several other Slavic languages), Latvian lâpa, Lithuanian lópa “paw,” and many other forms in various languages (but, apparently, not in Classical Greek, for the sense of lôpē “clothes, apparel” is hard to connect with “a flat object,” though attempts in this direction have been made; the English noun lap is a possible, but uncertain cognate of Greek lobós “lobe”). I am coming to the climax of this digression. Middle Engl. lōf may be the historical root of glove. This word has been known since Old English, where it had the form glōf, corresponding exactly to Old Icelandic glófi. The word is opaque, unless we agree that its g- is the remnant of a prefix (then the original form was ge-lōf).

Did the Middle English lōf look like a paddle in this canoe? Image by thatsphotography from Pixabay.
Grendel, his glove concealed, on his way to his last dinner. Illustration from Hero-myths & legends of the British race by John Henry Frederick Bacon. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Many Old Germanic words of obscure origin begin with gl-, gn-, gr-, bl-, and br-. If we separate g- and b- (and assume that they are the stubs of ancient prefixes), the obscurity may disappear. Some such cases are easy: for example, German bleiben “to remain,” gleich “similar’, Glück “good fortune, luck,” and Gnade “mercy” have been attested with bi ~ be-, gi ~ ge-. They lost the unstressed vowel of the prefix and now display indivisible pseudo-roots beginning with bl-, gl– and gn-. But glove has never occurred with ge-, so that the etymology dependent on the existence of an ancient prefix is bound to remain guesswork. In the Scandinavian area, quite a few nouns and adjectives have been analyzed along the lines, suggested above, and almost all the proposed etymons have been refuted. However, so far, no one has disproved the idea of the ancient g(e)-love. To be sure, in linguistic reconstruction, the same principle reigns supreme as in any other discussion: it is the duty of the proposer to offer arguments for the hypothesis in question, rather than for the opponent to refute them (onus probandi). In any case, the dismemberment of glove looks tempting.

Glōf is a famous word in the history of English, because it occurs in a critical passage in Beowulf. The monster Grendel ravages the Danish king’s palace (mead hall). He comes to the place at night, grabs twelve sleeping warriors, and devours them. He has a glōf “huge and awesome,” apparently, for storing up his prey. But in the unforgettably vivid scene of Beowulf’s fight with Grendel, no glōf is mentioned. Beowulf remembers this appurtenance after he returns home and recalls the battle in the presence of his king. Grendel was not in the habit of leaving tidbits for dessert, so that this detail must have been a late addition to the description given in the first half of the poem. In any case, Grendel’s glōf could not be a glove; it was rather a pouch or a bag. Yet Modern Engl. glove means what it does, and Icelandic glófi means the same.

Did Grendel’s glove look approximately like this? Baseball glove, 1904. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

To return to the beginning of this post: keep aloof is a nautical phrase. As pointed out above, many English phrases have a similar origin. Today, I’ll mention only one more. How do you recognize a person at a distance, someone who keeps aloof in the direct sense of the word? If your eyesight is sharp, you do so by the jib of his or her face, that is, by the person’s appearance. I owe my explanation of the idiom (though all good dictionaries say more or less the same) to the excellent journal The Mariner’s Mirror. In time of war, an enemy’s ship, we read, was recognized by the cut of her jib (the foremost sail of a vessel). In a 1740 text, it is said that the natives of Central America recognized Europeans by their jib, staysails, and steering sails, the latter of which they seldom or never set. The editor of the volume added the following to the author’s note: “The origin of the expression cannot have been much earlier than the date referred to (1740), for jibs had then but recently come into general use in full-rigged ships. The phrase seems to have become common during the Great French Wars, there being a decided difference between French and English cut jibs. The English jib was, I think, cut fairly high in the clue, while the French jib had its clue close down to the bowsprit.” This was written in 1912. Clue (or clew) means “corner of a sail to which tacks and sheets are made fast.” The editor guessed well: the OED has no citations of the idiom prior to 1823.

For those who find themselves at sea only figuratively: this is what a jib is. Image in the public domain courtesy of Pearson Scott Foresman. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Have you ever seen or heard the word foy “a parting entertainment by or to a wayfarer”? Don’t worry: hardly anyone knows it. But you certainly know what it means to take French leave. This is what I will now do, but, by way of giving you a parting entertainment, I’ll refer to my post on this idiom (May 22, 2019: “Disbanding the etymological League of Nations”).

Keep aloof and healthy!

Feature image credit: Photo by Negative Space via Pexels.

Recent Comments

  1. Michael Lamb

    “One feature unites those words: they cannot be used attributively”
    >Did you mean to include ‘aloof’? There are plenty of attributive instances of that (and even ‘aloofest’) in the OED.

  2. David Campbell

    G. Loefel

  3. Fred de Vries

    … gleich “similar’, Glück “good fortune, luck,” and Gnade “mercy” have been attested with bi ~ be-, gi ~ ge-.

    In modern Dutch the words still are ‘gelijk’ (gleich), ‘geluk’ (Glück) and ‘genade’ (Gnade).

    Could Glōf be akin to Dutch ‘gleuf’ (slit of narrow opening) to signify the opening of a pouch?

Leave a Comment

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