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.
The interestingly named Wells-next- the-Sea in Norfolk.
‘The end is nigh, the end is near, the end is bound to come next year.’ As doom and gloom goes, this prediction is not only charming – impeccable metre, simple but correct rhyme – but also linguistically interesting.
Its main attraction lies in the three words beginning with n: nigh, near and next. Say them out loud – does anything strike you? If not, let me help you by spelling them the Old English way: neah, near, niehsta. Rather like near, nearer, nearest, aren’t they? Or like high, higher, highest, for that matter. And that’s no coincidence, because they were indeed degrees of comparison, as grammarians call them: the positive neah meaning ‘near’, the comparative near meaning ‘nearer’ and the superlative niehsta meaning ‘nearest’. Continue reading