Though these days the term wordmonger refers to "a writer or speaker who uses language pretentiously or carelessly," please join me in proposing a new meaning. A fishmonger appreciates and promotes fish, therefore, a wordmonger does the same for words.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

To grasp or enclose

To grasp or enclose

A fascinating construct of linguists is the proto-language, a language we have no direct proof of. Linguists study the earliest languages they can access, find similar words and structures in the languages in a region, and then propose the mother tongue that may have given birth to the tongues spoken in that region. It’s tricky business. One of the most-cited and least questioned proto-languages is Proto-Indo-European, and this week’s post takes a look at the apparent descendants of Proto-Indo-European’s proposed word-part gher- , to grasp or enclose.

It’s easy to imagine a word meaning to grasp or enclose turning into the Old English word gyrdel, a belt, sash, or cord worn around the waist, & gyrdel morphing into girdle, initially meaning to cut off a belt of bark around a trunk to kill a tree (1665), & moving from there to mean an elastic corset (1925). I’ll leave the comparison of the intent of those two words to my readers with more direct experience than I.

Gher- also seems to have been responsible for the birth of the Old English word geard, a fenced enclosure. From geard come the words yard, & garden. Our modern word orchard was original ortgeard &/or wortgeard, a compound word referring to a geard filled with wort (wort being vegetables, fruits & roots).

When those tricky Old English speakers filled a geard with kinder (children), they called it a kindergarten.

It also appears that gher- made its way to Greece, where people danced in an enclosure, inspiring the word khoros, which became our modern word chorus, which on its way through France, referred to the enclosure in the church where people sang, the chouer, the parent of our word choir.

Gher- also made its way into Latin, where it referred to the king’s enclosure & residence, cohors. In time, cohors grew to label the enclosure itself, the court (which makes our word courtyard redundant). Court also began to refer to the folks within it, both court & cohort. When one of the individuals in that group expressed marital interest, he was said to be courting, & doing so in a gentlemanly fashion earned him the label, courteous.

All this from grasping & enclosing? I’d love to hear your comments on any of this, in particular, the darker twists & shadows etymology throws upon words we typically see as positive.

My thanks go out to this week’s sources: OED, Merriam Webster, Wordnik, & Etymonline


  1. It's just amazing how one root word can branch into so many different, and sometimes contradictory meanings. I had no idea garden and girdle had the same root!

  2. Hey Anne - & to my surprise, garter isn't related. Who'dathunk?
    Thanks for popping by.

  3. Howdy Steve -- back from where?
    Here's hoping all's well for you.