Thursday, July 28, 2016

Imprecise amounts

Imprecise amounts

This week I discovered something about words that refer to immeasurable amounts. Most are of questionable origin.

The noun heap came to Old English from the West Germanic word haupaz, meaning a great multitude or pile. Its earlier source is not clear. One school of etymologists argues that heap may have come from a Latin word meaning lie down, while another argues it may be related to another Old English word meaning high.

The noun lump came to English in the 1300s as a surname (a shame Mr. Dickens never made use of it). Though etymologists quibble over lump’s origins, no definitive source has been found. 

The noun jumble, meaning a confused mixture, showed up in the 1660s. Its source was the verb jumble, which appeared forty years earlier, meaning to move confusedly. Though its origin is uncertain, it seems jumble may have been modeled on the sounds of the words stumble & tumble.

The noun wad originally meant a fibrous mass. Wad appeared in the 1400s. Though nobody’s sure about wad’s origin, it may have come from Medieval Latin (wadda), Dutch (watten), French (ouate), Italian, (ovate) or Medieval English (wadmal).

In the early 1300s bunch came to English, meaning a protuberance on the body. Though some etymologists posit that bunch may have been born through combining the word bump with the sound of being hit, nobody’s really sure about the source of bunch (and being hit sounds like –ch? Ouch, I guess?)

Meaning a thick block, chunk came to English in the 1690s. Again, we’re not sure of its source, though it may be a nasalized version of the cut of meat called a chuck.

And finally we reach the noun slew. It showed up in 1839 meaning large number. Unlike its brethren, slew has an identified source. It came through Irish (sluagh) from a Celtic & Balto-Slavic word spelled sloug, meaning help or service.

I’m hoping you have some reaction to this heap, bunch, wad, jumble, chunk, lump, or slew of words. If so, please enter your thoughts in the comments section.

Big thanks to this week’s sources: Etymonline, Wordnik, Merriam-Webster, & the OED.


  1. I guess when people lie down when they're high they look sort of like a heap? Haha. Interesting that so many of these words are mysterious in their origins.

    1. I agree, Anne. It's just strange that so many of them are mysteries.