Something sharp in that sock

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.

11 thoughts on “Something sharp in that sock

  1. “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” and… they didn’t stop at that! The Poles went even further, creating more diminutives: skarpeteczka, skarpetunia, skarpetusia or even skarpetuńka.

    As for the Italian “scarpetta”, I do wonder how it found its way into “fare la scarpetta” at dinner table.

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    • The Italians are also good at multiple diminutive suffixes. The Italian chapter of my book Lingo (Polish: Gadka, due out this summer) is about exactly that.
      As for ‘fare la scarpetta’, I remember reading somewhere that originally it wasn’t scarpetta at all, but some obscure (dialect?) word that was simplified into the more well-known word for shoe. On the other hand, I can easily imagine someone using an old sock in lieu of a proper cleaning cloth, and I guess cleaning your plate with bread would look very much like it. But that explanation only works if the meaning ‘sock’ already existed in (parts of) Italy. It’s hard to visualise cleaning your plate with an actual shoe…

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  2. Here’s something else. The Spanish zapato (shoe) is related to the French sabot (from which we get sabotage) and savate (a type of French boxing; I learned about it from the Tintin book “Flight 714”).

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      • I was agreeing with your comment that “the word for ‘sock’ is routinely derived from a word for ‘shoe’“, rather than the main post. 😉 I wonder if these adoptions of foreign words were driven by fashion, even long ago. After all, there must have been another Polish word for sock before that. Just as the Dutch word for sleeveless jumper has changed from spencer to gilet (and possibly on to something more hip) in the last 30 years and must have existed before then with a proper Dutch word.

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      • Either I misunderstand you for the second time, or you misunderstand me. You’re saying, I believe, that French provides another case where the word for shoe has acquired the meaning ‘sock’, as happened in Italian, Polish and English – am I right? In response to that, I’m pointing out that the French case is different in that the language has kept its word for shoe (chaussure) and has additionally created a diminutive, chaussette, ‘little shoe’, to mean sock. That’s not the same thing as changing a word’s meaning, though admittedly, it comes close.

        As for spencer and gilet: I’m probably about the least reliable source when it comes to apparel terminology. Personally, I would call a sleeveless jumper an overgooier, because that’s what my Mum said half a century ago. A Google search shows me that this is not, or no longer, correct. I remember the spencer from secondary school days – it was worn by the hockey-playing sons of corporate fathers. A gilet (‘gileeke’) to me is something very different, and this time Google backs me up: a gilet has buttons.
        I’ve heard archaic terms such as keursje and jakje and wambuis that conjure up only vague images. One of these may be the old term for a sleeveless jumper…

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      • Ah, I see what you mean about the French.

        I’m obviously not paying enough attention to Dutch fashion, either. I was unaware of the button rule. My parents’ generation called a woolly version of the sleeveless jumper a ‘pullover’, but in the 1970s I had a rather snazzy ‘tank top’ knitted in variegated wool. It’s so difficult to keep up with fashion and the related words.

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  3. I wonder what Italians called shoes before, and why they decided that their own word wasn’t good enough any more?

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    • Haha, that’s a brilliant question. It made me look into the history of these words, and I discovered that the word for ‘sock’ is routinely derived from a word for ‘shoe’. The Latin calceus for ‘shoe’ morphed into calcea, which then became calza in Italian, meaning… sock. The Greek súkkhos for some type of shoe became soccus in Latin, for a light slipper-like shoe, which in turn was borrowed into Germanic – and became our sock! So Polish turning an Italian word for ‘shoe’ into a word for ‘sock’ fits the pattern. As for why this happens: I have no idea.

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