Etymology is like chocolate: dispensable but irresistible. Words hopping from one language to the next, shape-shifting, gaining new meanings…
Take our sharp. Or rather skarpo, the word used by the Goths (a Germanic people who neither built cathedrals nor dyed their hair black) for ‘sharp thing’ or ‘pointy thing’. In the Early Middle Ages, this was borrowed into Italian, where scarpa came to mean ‘shoe’. After all, most shoes are somewhat pointy, and mediaeval fashion sometimes prescribed them very pointy indeed. A common alternative was the diminutive scarpetta, which somehow sounds even pointier.
At some point – I haven’t been able to figure out when, nor why – the Poles adopted the word. They changed not only its spelling, to skarpeta, but also its meaning, to ‘sock’. Not a huge leap, granted, but one does wonder why they didn’t borrow the Italian word for ‘sock’ to begin with. Also, since the Poles are as fond as Italians of lengthening their lexemes in order to minify the meaning, they added another diminutive ending: skarpetka.
The resulting word then travelled east: Ukrainian adopted it as shkarpetka, meaning simply ‘sock’, without any inherent smallness. To make the thing sound tiny or cutesy, they shove in another syllable: shkarpetochka.
So these skarpos were made for walking, it seems: from Gothic through Italian to Polish and Ukrainian. In family terms, that means from Germanic through Romance to Slavic. And indeed back to Germanic, given that the Polish word was borrowed into Yiddish. Along the way, the sturdy two-syllable skarpo acquired no fewer than three diminutive endings, doubling its length. And most surprising of all: the Goths’ sharp pointy thing became the Slavs’ soft cuddly sock.
Etymology – who needs it? But I could eat a bar a day.