There is a strange puzzle in the English language — we have many words which have more than one meaning. The meanings are sometimes totally unrelated — how can one word mean two or more different things? For instance, how can lead be a verb meaning to go first and also the name of a heavy metal? How can bear be a noun for a type of animal and also a verb meaning carry?

The answer lies in the fact that English is an invaded language — it has been influenced by many other languages over its long history. Words which now look the same might have come from entirely different sources. Some words might have started from the same source but gradually acquired different shades of meaning between, say, the 13th and 16th centuries.

Another factor is involved. As centuries go by, and different words are coined or adopted from other languages, the way they are pronounced might shift and change in emphasis. An example of this is explained under bear. Here are the brief stories behind nearly 150 of those apparently confusing words which make English such a rich language.


This section gives you the main meanings of many homonyms. It does not list every meaning. The simplified history of most words is explained in brief. There is a HUGE amount of information in this section to enrich your brain, so rummage around!


NOTE: Homophones are words which are pronounced the same way even though their spelling differs. There is a section on homophones here.

Click a homonym in this panel to go to the explanation:



file jam mean peer range squash top



firm jet member pine rear staff trip



flag key mess pinion reel stalk tuck



flake kid might pit refuse stall utter



flat knot mind plug rest staple volume



grain lap mint pole rock state wake



gross lead moor pound rook stem well



gum lean mug press row stick wind



habit light mummy pride scrap stunt wound



hail litter nick punt seal tap yard



ham lock noodle pupil season tender  



hatch long note quack shed tense  



hawk loom object quail shell tick  



hip magazine organ quarry sole tide  



import maroon page race sound till  



interest mass pale ram spell tip  



jack match palm rank spring toll  


air Breathe it or sing it?

The word for the air we breathe came into English from Old French about 800 years ago.
Air can also mean the manner or appearance or the impression a person makes, in statements like "She had a distinctive air about her". That came from a different French word in the later 1500s.
Air can also mean a melody or a tune. With this meaning, it was borrowed from the Italian word aria.


angle Where two straight lines meet or to fish?

The way we measure the space between two straight lines came into English in the 14th century from a French word. Its origin is in the Latin word angulus, which means corner.

Angle meaning to fish comes from the Old English word angil, angul, a fish-hook. At the time angle came into English as a word used for a measurement, the word for a fish-hook was angel. There was no confusion with heavenly beings, because one of those was called an engel, the Old English word from a Latin word angelus.

Meanwhile, the Angles were one of the tribes that invaded Britain in the 5th century. Their name forms part of Anglo-Saxon, denoting the people whose language gave rise to English. It is also found in the part of England still called East Anglia. They came from an area of the country we now call Germany. The Romans called them Anglus because the land from which they came was said to be shaped like a fish-hook. Sailing in small boats round the Danish peninsula, from west to east, negotiating the overall shape as well as the twists and turns, could give this impression.

When Pope Gregory I (560–604) saw a group of Anglo-Saxon child-slaves being offered for sale, he was struck by their beauty, and commented, Nam et angelicum habent faciem, ‘For they have the faces of angels’. In popular folkore, this has become, Non Angli, sed Angeli, ‘Not Angles, but angels’.  Back to list of words

ball A round object or a dance?

The spherical object used in games gets its name from an Old Norse word, bollr. It came into English around the 13th century and was known as a balle.

In Middle English, ballen meant to dance. It came from an Old French word, baller. Its use as a noun to describe an organised dance started in the 17th century. The word ballet came into English at about the same time but was adapted from the Italian balletto, meaning a little dance.   Back to list of words

bank The side of a river or a place for money?

Meaning the edge of a river or a raised area of ground, bank came into English in the 12th century. It was adapted from Scandinavian words like Swedish backe and Danish banke. In Middle English, bank meant a mound or a shore. Bonk meant mound of earth. One of the best loved references to this type of bank is in Oberon's song in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream:

I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,

Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,

Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,

With sweet musk-roses, and with eglantine;

There sleeps Titania sometime

The word for a financial institution came into English in the 15th century, adapted from such words as Italian bance and French banque.   Back to list of words

bat A flying mammal or a wooden rod?

The name of the little animal came into English as bakke around the 14th century from Scandinavian words such as Old Norse ledhrblaka, ‘leather-flapper’ and Swedish natbakka, ‘night-bat’.

In Middle English at that time, bat was already used for boat, from Old Norse batr, which has survived in modern Icelandic as bátur. Bats have the unusual distinction of being mentioned only three times in the Bible: Leviticus 11:19, Deuteronomy 14:18 and Isaiah 2:20.

Batty, meaning crazy or dotty, did not come into use until the 16th century, as an allusion to the erratic movements of bats.

In Old English, batt meant mean wooden club. It might have come from an Irish (Celtic) word, bat and thus be one of the few Celtic words that have survived in English.   Back to list of words

bay Coastal inlet, and more
This word has several uses. Here are four of them:
1. An inlet on the sea-coast, larger than a cove but smaller than a gulf. It came into English before the 15th century, perhaps from the French word baie.
2. The bark of a hunting dog when it can scent its prey. It probably came from another 15th century French word, abaier, to bark. Also used as a verb, to bay.
3. A type of small tree or shrub. The leaves are used for flavouring. From a 14th century French word baie. Notice that in this case, the original Old French words might also have been homonyms.
4. The reddish-brown colour of some horses. From 14th century Old French bai.
This set of synonyms is an example of how words were borrowed from Old French in the centuries following the Norman Conquest.

bear A furry animal or to carry?

The furry animals were well-known to the folk of England. Their word was bera. Old English was a Germanic language. The modern German word is very similar to ours, Bär.

The verb meaning to carry was beran in Old English so it has also been in the language for a very long time. In fact, it occurs in the classic saga Beowulf, written in about 725 AD, e.g:

Hi hyne þa ætbæron to brimes faroðe [ætæron = bore away]

His companions bore him away to the edge of the sea.

leton holm beran

let the sea bear [him away]

...Gewitaþ forð beran

wæpen ond gewædu...

Go forth bearing

weapons and weeds [clothes, armour]

Beren was an adjective meaning made of bear-skin. Even in Old English, the word with two meanings looks similar. In Middle English they both became bere. The difference was in the way each version was pronounced. The word for the animal had a longer ‘ee’ sound.   Back to list of words

beef Cow meat or to complain?

The word for the meat came into English in the 13th century as boef, bef, from Old French boef. The modern French word for cow is very similar. It has its source in the Latin bos, bovis. So that's where we get our word bovine! The earlier Old English words for the meat were related to cu, cow.

Dictionaries tell us that the use of the same word for to complain or grumble comes from USA farming slang in the 19th century. However, a different story is told by an 18th century of English slang, where to beef was to shout, to yell, particularly at an actor on stage.   Back to list of words

boil Two meanngs
Verb. To boil water, making it bubble and steam. First appeared in print in English around 1300, from French words like boillir, buillir, which came from Latin bullire, meaning to buble, to steam.
Noun. An unpleasant and painful swelling on the skin has been used since Old English byle, which meant a boil or a carbuncle. There are similar words in other European languages because it has a very long history in the Indo-European language group, which is explained on my other website The Brain Rummager Too.
boot On your foot, a car, or your computer?

The footwear word came into English in the 14th century from Old French bote. Its earlier history is not known for certain, but it might be related to butt, meaning something blunt and stumpy.

It use for the luggage compartment of a car derives from the word used from the 16th century for an open area on a coach where attendants would sit or stand. It was also used for the space beneath a seat where luggage could be stored. The origin of this usage seems to be lost in the mists of time. Perhaps it related to the idea that a boot was a sort of container.

But how is it that we boot up a computer? Well, footwear comes into this one, too. In the 19th century, a bootstrap was attached to a boot to help in pulling it on. To bootstrap was to go through the first part of the procedure of putting on one's boots. In the early 1960s, the term was adopted to denote the process of getting a computer ready for work.

Boot used to have another meaning related to ‘advantage’ or to something given as extra to what was already there. An example of this usage could be in a statement such as, ‘This food is rich and tasty, and colourful to boot’. In this case, boot comes from Old English bot, benefit, compensation. Middle English had bote, meaning remedy, repair. They are related to Old High German buoza, improvement. This use of boot appears as early as about 725 AD in the saga Beowulf, chapter 14:

Ðæt wæs ungeara þæt ic ænigra me

weana ne wende to widan feore

bote gebidan...

It was but recently that I was in great misery [depair of ever] receiving a remedy...

It appears in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, e.g., ‘The Squire's Tale’:

She shal eek knowe, and whome it wol do boote

She shall soon know, and whom it will cure   Back to list of words

bowl A dish or to throw a ball?

In Old English, bolla meant bowl, from earlier Anglo-Saxon bollo.. In later Middle English, bolle meant globe or bowl. Our word ball comes from the later 13th century Old Norse böllr, which comes from Latin bulla, a knob.

Bowl meaning to throw a ball did not come into English until the 15th century, from French boule, but the word boule was already used in Middle English for a bowl in the sense of dish.   Back to list of words

box A container or to have a fist fight?

The word for the container comes straight from Old English. It comes from the Latin name of the box tree, buxus, which is related to the name given to a container for medicine, pyxis.

To box someone by hitting them comes from the 14th century, perhaps from Dutch boken, to push into position.   Back to list of words

bud Flowers and friends?
A partially opened flower. The first part of a flower's growth on its stem. It has been in English since the 1400s.
Bud and buddy meaning a friend first appeared in American English about 150 years ago. They might have come from baby-talk for "brother".
cape Cloak or land jutting out to sea?

Cape meaning an item of clothing comes from 16th century French capa, from the Latin cappa, hood, from which we also get the word cap. The Latin word for cape was chlamyx, which survives in English only in technical words related to biological and medical matters.

Cape meaning a headland comes from 14th century cap, which comes from Latin caput, head. The Latin for cape in this sense was promunturium, from which we get promontory.   Back to list of words


noun: A pickled flower bud used to flavour food. Came into English in the 15th century from Latin and Greek words.

noun: A prank, a playful activity for amusement. Came into English in the 16th century but its origin is uncertain.


noun: A type of fish. Came into English in the 14th century from an Old French carpe.

verb: To find fault or complain about small matters. 13th century, from Old Norse karpa, to boast.


noun: an occurrence, instance or example. Check your dictionary to see how it is used. From Old English casus, which was used in the sense of a case in grammar; related to Old French cas, a happening.

noun: a box or container. 13th century from Old French casse, from Latin capere, to take hold of something.   Back to list of words

The verb meaning to throw came from Scandinavian words about 900 years ago. In modern Icelandic, which descends from the language of the Vikings, kasta still means "to throw".
The later use meaning a list of people, actors, taking part in a play developed from the same origin, with the sense of organising, putting together. The same applies to something formed by pouring liquid metal or plastic into a cast, the mould that makes the shape.
Caste, a homophone meaning a particular group of people in society, has a completely different origin and is not related.

cataract All sorts of meanings
This word has been used in English for about 600 years. It comes from old Latin and Greek words meaning to strike or to dash down, like a portcullis. It is used for a large waterfall that crashes down. The same word is used for a medical condition where the eye is clouded. The idea behind this use was originally that something has come down like a portcullis and blocked sight.
This word for a type of weapon came from Scandinavian words meaning heavy stick, gavel, club, about 800 years ago. It can also mean:
1. A wooden bat or stick used to hit a ball in some sporting games.
2. One of the suits in a pack of playing cards comprising hearts, diamonds, spades, clubs.
3. A group of people who meet together. Also the place, the room, where they meet.
How these different uses developed from the same origin is very complicated.   Back to list of words

Adjective. A cordial greeting is an open, friendly greeting. A cordial person is a happy, affable person.
Noun. A cordial is drink made with fruit juice and water. It was so called because it is a drink which makes you happy.
The word is from 14th century Latin cordialis, relating to the heart.

verb: to check a number of things in sequence to see how many there are. Adopted into English in the 13th century from Old French conter.

noun: the act of counting. As above.

noun: title of a nobleman in some European countries. 16th century from Old French conte.


noun: a table or other structure over which purchases are made in a shop. From 13th century Old French comptouer; related to count above.

noun: something or someone who counts. Related to count, above.

verb: to oppose something. The word came from Norman French contre, meaning "against", in the 15th century.

adverb: in the opposite direction. The same origin as the verb above.   Back to list of words

The leaping, chirping insect gets its name from 14th century Middle English criket. It is thought to be an "imitative" word — the sound of the word imitates the sound made by the cricket when it chirps.
The game gets its name from the French word criquet, from the late 16th century.

Noun. The name of the spicy Indian food comes from a Tamil word, kari. It was first used in English in the late 1600s.
Verb. When you curry a horse you do not cook it in spices! You comb it with a currycomb. This form of curry probably comes from 14th century French words meaning to prepare, to make ready, a horse. The figurative phrase "curry a favour" means to seek a favour by perhaps devious means — it's rather like being nice to a horse so that it will be nice to you!

dash A short stroke of the pen or to rush?

In this case, both words come from the same source, Middle English daschen, which could mean both to strike and to rush. The earliest meaning was to strike something violently.

Dashboard originally meant a wooden flap at the front of a carriage to prevent mud from splashing up. This meaning is related to a dash of something thrown into something else.   Back to list of words

date A time or a fruit
Meaning a time at which an event occurs, it came into English from Latin in the 14th century.
Meaning a type of fruit which grows on a palm-tree, it came into English at about the same time but from words related to "dactyl" that meant finger or finger-shaped.
deck A ship's deck of a pack of cards?

Both come from the same source. The word came in the 15th century from Dutch dec, a covering. It referred to the planks of wood used as a covering in a boat which eventually became the part of the boat we walk on. It used for a pack of cards came in the 16th century, and probably relates to the similarity in appearance of a stack of planks and a pack of cards, as uniform flat items.

To deck somebody out with clothes also relates to Dutch dekken through Old English theccan from which we also get our word thatch.    Back to list of words

Meaning mixture of flour and water for bread-making, it was doh in Old English over 1,000 years ago. Used as a slang word for "money" it rose in American English about 150 years ago, perhaps because of the importance of having bread as a symbol of being rich or poor.

Several uses of this word came into English in the 1600s and 1700s. Here are some of them:
1. Verb. To learn something, fix it firmly in your mind, by repetition. Also used as noun. Often used in reference to Army routines and exercises.
2. Verb. To bore a hole in something. Also noun, for the instrument with which you make a hole.
3. Noun. A type of African baboon which is related to mandrills.
4. Noun. A shallow trench in the soil in which seeds are sown.
5. Noun. A type of strong cotton fabric.
6. Noun. A type of marine snail.
1. Noun. A water-bird. The word comes from Old English duce and Middle English doke.
2. Verb. To dive or plunge into water. This meaning comes from similar origins to the above.
3. Noun. A type of strong cotton cloth. This form of the word came into English in the 17th century from the Dutch word doek.
4. Noun. A term of endearment. To call someone your duck or duckie is similar to calling them your darling. It came into English in the 16th century.
5. Noun. A score of nil (nothing); "out for a duck" in a game of cricket. This came into use about 150 years ago, perhaps from the idea that the figure 0 is the same shape as a duck's egg.


noun: a place through which one enters, such as a door. 16th century from French entrer, to enter.

noun: the act of entering. As above.

verb: to attract, to fill with delight. Related to the above origin but from earlier Latin word meaning "inside". You can see how the meaning emerged if you follow this sequence of ideas: enter > into > in > inside > fill.


verb: to put something into words. It came into English in the 14th century from Latin expressus which means literally push out, squeeze out.

adjective: fast, such as an express train, express mail. Came from the same origin as above.   Back to list of words

1. Adjective. Meaning lovely or beautiful, when describing someone, it comes from Old English fæger, beautiful. This meaning is not used very much nowadays, apart from in poetry.
2. Adjective. Meaning of light complexion, or light coloured (blonde) hair, it has been used in English for over 800 years.
3. Adjective. Meaning reasonable, equitable, free from self-interest, it developed in the 14th century.
3. Noun. Meaning a gathering of people to sell and barter goods, or to enjoy entertainment, and also a travelling show of rides, stalls and sideshows, this form of the word came into English from French in the 14th century.
fast Speedy, tight or to go without food?

The Old English adjective fæst meant fast, firm, strong. The adverb fæste meant fast, firmly, vigorously. They are related to Old High German festi, firm. Modern German for firm, solid, is fest.

To fast by abstaining from food, in Old English, was fæstnian, related to Old High German fasten, to fast, and the same word is used in modern German.   Back to list of words

file Cardboard folder or metal rasping tool?

The word for folder has an interesting history. It came into English in the 16th century from the French verb filer, to string on a thread. This relates to storing documents by tying them together with string. It comes from the Latin filum, meaning thread, from which we also get our word filament. In Middle English, fildor meant thread of gold. A file was a list, as in Shakespeare's Macbeth, Act 1, Scene 3, where list of special qualities is compared to a general catalogue:

Ay, in the catalogue ye go for men,

As hounds and greyhounds, mongrels, spaniels, curs,

Shoughs, waterrugs, and demi-wolves are clept

All by the name of dogs. The valued file

Distinguishes the swift, the slow, the subtle,

The housekeeper, the hunter, every one

According to the gift which bounteous nature

Hath in him closed, whereby he does receive

Particular addition, from the bill

That writes them all alike; and so of men.

Now if you have a station in the file,

Not i' the worst rank of manhood, say it,

The hand-tool used for smoothing rough surfaces gets its name from Old English fil and feol, related to Old High German fihala and has its roots in the Greek pikros, bitter, sharp.

In Middle English, file could also mean a worthless person. This meaning came from Old English fylan and ful, from which we also get our words foul and defile. However, from the late 16th century, file also referred to a row of people, hence the phrase ‘rank and file’ and filing as queuing.    Back to list of words


adjective: secure, solid. It was adopted into English in the 14th century from the Latin word firmus.

noun: a business organisation, a company. This word came from the same Latin origin but via the Spanish word firma, meaning signature, meaning the title of a business partnership. The idea behind this is that a partnership is regarded as secure.


noun: a piece of cloth with colours and designs to represent a country or an organisation. It came into English in about the 16th century but its origin is uncertain.

noun: another name for iris (a type of flower). This usage of the word came in the 14th century from similar European words with the same meaning.

verb: to grow weak, to become tired. Like the first meaning, above, it came via an uncertain route into English in the 16th century.   Back to list of words

(Noun) A small particle or piece of something, as in snowflake. A small piece that has become loose or peeled off a surface, as in a flake of paint.
In Australia, the same noun is also used for gummy shark, a type of fish.
As a verb, flake used to mean to become flabby or languid. This meaning is now obsolete but from about the 1940s we have "to flake out" meaning to faint or fall asleep, to suffer the effect of being extremely tired.

adjective: even, level, smooth. (Check other meanings in your dictionary.) It came into English in the 14th century from Old Norse flatr. With similar words in other European languages it originates from the Greek word platus. You can see that it is related to plate and plateau.

noun: an apartment for accommodation in a larger building. This comes direct from Old English flett, meaning floor or house. It is related to the history of the other meaning of flat.


noun: a small hard seed of a cereal plant such as wheat. This word was borrowed in the 13th century from Old French and had its origin in a Latin word, granum.

noun: the lines made by fibres in wood, or texture in a fabric. The same source as above.

gross Twelve dozen or repellent?

Both uses of this word come from the same source. A gross meaning 144 originated from the French grosse douzaine, large dozen, where gross means large. The word came into English in the 14th century from French gros, large. In about the 16th century, the idea of ‘overfed, bulky’ also came to imply ‘repulsive’.   Back to list of words

For about 1,200 years, gum has been used as a word for the flesh inside the mouth. It is now used mainly in the plural when we talk about our gums.
For about 600 years, from a different origin, it has also been used for the sticky substance that oozes out of some trees.
About 500 years ago, the above meaning developed to also mean gum used to stick things together, glue.
For over 300 years, gumtree has denoted any tree that exudes gum. Nowadays, it is used particularly for eucalyptus trees.


noun: a usual way of behaving or acting. This usage and the next both come from 13th century Latin habitus, custom, which came from the Latin verb habere, to have.

noun: a type of costume worn by members of a religious order, e.g., a monk's habit.


noun: small pieces of ice falling as frozen rain. From Old English hægl.

verb: to fall as hail. As above.

verb: to greet someone; to call for someone's attention. From 12th century Old Norse (the language of the Vikings) heill, which meant whole. Our word "hale" comes from the same source.

From exactly the same word in Old English, over 1,000 years ago, ham refers to part of the leg.
From the 1600s, it is also used for the dried, salted, of smoked, meat of a pig's thigh.
A hamstring, sometimes strained by people playing vigorous sport, is a tendon on the side of the leg or at the back of the knee.
From about the 1930s, to ham it up has been a derogatory term to describe over-acting by a performer. 
 Back to list of words

verb: to break out of an egg. Also figuratively, e.g., to hatch a plot. This word came into English in about the 13th century from similar Germanic and Scandinavian words.

noun: an opening in a floor, roof, wall; the cover for such an opening. From Old English hæcc, related to old words meaning "gate".


noun: a type of bird. From Old English hafoc, related to other old European words but nothing to do with the old word from which we get our word "havoc".

verb: to offer things for sale by going from door to door. From the noun "hawker" which might have come into English in the 16th century from a similar German word.


noun: the bony wider part of the body below the waist. From Old English hype, related to old German huf.

Noun: the ripe fruit of a rose. From Old English heopa, related to Old Saxon hiopa.

adjective: being up to date (slang). This is a 20th century slang term which was also known as "hep".


verb: to bring something from another country. This word came into English in the 16th century from Latin verb importare, to carry in.

noun: the importance of something (not often used). This usage is from the same origin, implying something or someone distinctive.


noun: if you have an interest in something, it holds your attention. Came into English in the 15th century from a Latin phrase meaning "it concerns".

verb: to hold the attention of. As above.

noun: payment for the use of money. From the same source, with a shift in meaning.   Back to list of words


noun: a device used for lifting heavy items such as a car.

Noun: another name for the knave in a pack of playing cards.

All the uses of "jack" and "Jack" come from the same origin, which is the 16th century Jakke, another form of John. To see how they developed, consult a good dictionary.


noun: a spread made of fruit and sugar.

verb: to squeeze together into a tight or small space.

verb: in radio, to transmit signals designed to block other signals.

All the uses of this word probably evolved around the 18th century from the same informal word meaning "to squeeze in" but its etymology (history) is not known.


noun: a fast-flowing stream of liquid or gas under pressure. Came into English in the 16th century from a French verb jeter, to throw.

noun: a vehicle such as an aeroplane which is powered by jet propulsion. Short for jet plane, jet aeroplane.

noun: a hard black coal which can be polished to make jewellery. 14th century from Old French jaiet, from Latin gagates, from Greek lithos gagates meaning a stone from Gagai, a place in Asia Minor.

The main group of uses for this word started over 1,000 years ago, developing from the Old English word cæg.
A small metal device used for opening and closing a lock.
The figurative use of the first definition — something crucial to an explanation or solution to a problem.
A list of explanations of symbols, e.g., on a map.
A button you press on the keyboard of, e.g., a computer.
A lever you press on the keyboard of a musical instrument, e.g., a piano.
Originating in the 16th century, another form of the word denotes a musical scale or a set of notes on which a piece of music is based.  
 Back to list of words

noun: a young deer or goat; a young person (informal). Came into English in about the 12th century, related to Old Norse (the language of the Vikings) kith. Not related to our modern English word "kith", which comes from Old English cynthth.

verb: to tease of trick someone. Might have been adapted in the 19th century from the above, relating to the playfulness of a child.

knot Twisted string or the speed of a boat?

The word comes from Old English cnotta, related to Middle High German knotze, meaning knob. Modern German is Knoten. In German, the K in such words is pronounced, as it was in Old English, but we no longer sound it in modern English. Its original meaning related to the intertwining of rope. In the 17th century, knots tied in a long piece of rope or string were used as a measure of speed along a particular course.

The same word was used to knobs or knotty parts of timber or plants from the 15th or 16th century.   Back to list of words

lap Splash of water or part of a race-course?

Related to water lapping against a boat or on a shore, or to the way an animal drinks, the word comes from Old English lapian, related to Old High German laffan, from Latin lambo, to lick, to touch, to wash (as of the water of a river lapping against the banks),.

As a circuit of a race, the word came into use during the 19th century. It derives from other uses of lap in relation to measurement and overlap. These come largely from Middle English lappe, lap, border, which comes from Old English læppa, flap.

Lap in the meaning of border also gave rise to that part of our body which disappears when we stand up, our lap. It originates in relation to the borders of the clothing which covered the area in question.

Lap was also used to denote a large fold or pocket in one's clothing, as in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales:

...His walet, biforn hym in his lappe

His knapsack before him in large pocket.

...And carie it in a cofre or in a lappe

And carry it in a coffer or in a lap    Back to list of words

lead To go first or a heavy metal?

In Old English, lædan meant to lead, show the way, or even carry away. It is related to Old High German lidan, to go. In modern German, leite is to lead, to guide, Leitung is direction or guidance.

The heavy metal was called lead in Old English, though the pronunciation was not the same as we used today. It is related to similar words in other old European languages, e.g., Old Frisian lad, Old Dutch lood, Middle High German lot.    Back to list of words

lean Incline or slim?

Old English and Middle English hlæne meant thin or poor. They are thought to have a Germanic origin, perhaps from Lithuanian and Latvian words implying fragment and weak, respectively. The usage in relation to meat came in about the 15th century.

Lean in the sense of inclining towards something comes from Old English hleonian, to lean, to rest. This is related to Old High German hlinen. The Latin sources are words related to clinatus, inclined.   Back to list of words

light Shining or without much weight?

Both come from Old English leoht, could meant both light in the sense of the opposite of dark, bright, and also light in the sense of not heavy. Leocht was also used in relation to weight. At the same time, lyt meant little and liht meant light in weight, easy. The situation seems confusing, but Skeat's etymological dictionary might have the clue. He suggests that the meaning related to illumination links with Anglo-Saxon leoht, and the meaning to do with weight to Anglo-Saxon lecht.

In Middle English, leoht kept its meaning in relation to illumination but liht related to weight.

In modern German, the first is now Licht, the second leicht.

Somewhere along the 1,500 year history of these words, there is a period when the two shades of meaning diverged. Could it be that light, in the sense of illumination, is an ever-present factor in life but is intangible and cannot be weighed?

There is a third meaning. In Middle English, lihte meant lung, giving rise to modern English usage of lights for the lungs of animals. Lights in modern German are Lunge.   Back to list of words

Litter can mean the offspring of an animal at one birth, e.g., a litter of puppies born to a dog at the same time.
It can also mean rubbish which is carelessly dropped or left around.
The oldest meaning, from over 700 years ago, is a portable bed. This could also mean an important person's chair carried by servants on two poles. Because straw was often used for bedding, the word also came to have this meaning, around 600 years ago.
You can work out how these different meanings of the same word developed: bed — straw for a bed — straw spread on the floor — anything dropped or strewn on the floor.
Meaning a fastener on a door, this word comes from Old English loc, which meant a bolt, a bar.
From this origin, it also came to mean a section of a canal which can be closed off by gates.
Meaning a cluster or tress of hair, it comes from Old English locc, which meant a lock of hair or a curl of hair.
long Of great length or to hope?

In the sense of measurement, long comes from Old English lang, long.

In the sense of yearning, it derives from a related Old English word, langian. Longe was also used to mean a long time. The meanings are linked, one to space and the other to time.   Back to list of words

loom A weaving machine or to come into view?

In Old English, geloma meant tool. By the time of Middle English, it had been modified to lome, meaning a loom for weaving as well as a tool or implement.

The origin of the word in relation to come into view, perhaps ominously, is not as clear. It came into English during the 16th century, perhaps from East Frisian lomen, to move slowly. However, in Old English we find leoma ray of light, and in Middle English leome, gleam, and leomen, to give light, to shine.    Back to list of words

This word came into English from other languages as magosine, in the 16th century. It meant a depot, a store. Magazine still means a store-room or depot for ammunition. It also means the part of a gun into which cartridges are placed before firing.
Magazine also denotes a published book or periodical which is, figuratively, a store of information.

Verb. To maroon someone is to leave or abandon them on a desolate island. This form of the word was adapted from French and Spanish words in the 1600s. In its older history, it denoted runaway slaves in the West Indies who were hiding in the mountains and forests!
Noun. A dark brownish-red colour. This form of the word was borrowed from French marron, also in the 1600s.
Note: The USA and British pronunciation of this word rhymes with -oon but the common Australian pronunciation rhymes with -own.

1. Noun. A lump, a heap, of something. It came into English in the 14th century from a French word meaning a lump of dough.
2. Noun. In Physics, the property of having weight.
2. Adjective. Involving many people, as in a mass meeting.
3. Noun. The Eucharist, the main service held in Roman Catholic and other churches. This meaning comes from adaptations of the Old English word mæsse, meaning dismissal. The closing words of the Mass are "Ite, missa est" meaning, roughly, "Go, it (= the prayer) has finished (= been sent)".


Noun. A small wooden stick with a combustible head, used for lighting fires. It came into English in the 1300s from old words meaning candle wick or wick of a lamp.
Noun and verb. An equal, to make equal, to be exactly the same. From Old English, about 1,000 years ago, mæcca, which meant equal, mate, companion.
Noun. A game or contest, as in a cricket match. First used in English in about the 1400s.    Back to list of words
It can mean both a part of the body, such as a limb, and a person belonging to a group, e.g., a church member, the member of a club. From a 13th century French word, membre, a part of a body.
mean Miserly, average or to imply?

In the sense of miserly, from Old English gemæne, common, and Middle English mæne, common. The meaning of niggardly did not come until the 18th century, from the 17th century meaning of unkind. These developed from the meaning of ordinary, poor in quality.

In the sense of average, it comes from 14th century French moien, relating to the middle. In modern French, this has become moyen.

In the sense of to imply or communicate a meaning, it comes from Old English mænan, to relate, speak of. In Old English and Middle English it could denote complain and moan as well as communicate and signify. Moan and mean are related. From the 15th to the 18th century, mean could be used in the sense of making a complaint of stating a grievance. Could there be shades of this meaning in the colloquial phrase still used today, when people say in a critical or whinging manner, ‘I mean,’ as a response to something they disapprove of?   Back to list of words

Around 1300, mes meant a portion of food which had been prepared for a meal. In the 1400s, it applied particularly to liquid and pulpy food such as porridge and gruel.
The figurative use of the same word for confusion, jumble, disorderliness, did not start until the 1800s.

might Power or stating a possibility?

Might as power comes from Old English miht, meaht, might, strength. power, with the same words in Middle English. Old English also had mægen, might, power, virtue, host.

Might as a verb is a tense of the verb ‘may’ which comes from Old English mæg, which became mæi in Middle English., Until the 15th century, may implied to have to power to as well as to be able to.   Back to list of words

mind A thinking component or to take care of?

From Old English gemynd, memory, recollection, the mind. To mind in the sense of to take care of arose in the 17th century from the earlier sense of to think about, to apply oneself, to care for.   Back to list of words

A type of herb with a sweet-smelling leaf which is used in cooking. This form of the word was in Old English minte, about 1,300 years ago.
A place where money is coined for a government or official authority. This form comes from the Old English word mynit, meaning coin. Mint, as in mint condition, meaning new or fresh developed from the idea of a freshly minted coin.
Noun. A stretch of open land, wasteland, swampland, covered with heather and moss. From Old English mor, over 800 years ago.
Verb. To bring a boat or ship into a dock or wharf, to secure it to the wharf. From 13th century words meaning to tie up, to make secure with rope.
Also used as a term for a Moor, one of the Moors, people from northern Africa who conquered Spain in the 8th century. This comes from ancient Greek and Latin words for an inhabitant of the African country  Mauritania.

A type of drinking vessel, usually a different shape from a cup and heavier. It came into English in the 1500s from Scandinavian words for a jar, a heavy drinking vessel.
In the 17th century, mugs were made with grotesque faces on them for decoration and amusement. That is how we come to use the same word, mug, as a slang term for someone's face.

The ancient Egyptians preserved body is nothing whatever to do with the affectionate word for mother!
We get the word for embalmed bodies from old Latin, Arabic and Persian words. In Persian, mumiyah meant asphalt, which was one of the substances used to preserve a dead body.
Mummy as an affectionate term for mother is simply baby-talk, an informal term, for... guess what... mother, Back to list of words


noun: a small cut or small notch. This word came into English in about the 15th century but its origin is uncertain.

verb: to cut slightly. Also to steal (slang). Both developed from the above, the second with a figurative meaning.


noun: a type of pasta cut into strips. It came into English in the 18th century from a German word, Nudel.

noun: the head (slang). An 18th century slang word.


noun: something written down in just a few words. It came into English in the 13th century from an Old French word which came from Latin, nota, meaning a sign. The other uses of the word, below, developed from the same origin. Also used as a verb meaning to notice, e.g., to note something, to take note of someone's comment.

noun: in music, a single sound or the symbol used to represent it.

noun: a piece of paper money is called a note or a bank note. Back to list of words


noun: a thing that can be seen or felt. It was adopted in English in the 14th century from an old Latin term which meant "something thrown before" the mind.

a grammatical term for the item which receives the action of a verb. From an origin related to the above, with the meaning "to throw against".

verb: to say you do not like or approve of something.


noun: a musical instrument such as a pipe organ or an electric organ.

noun: a specific part of the body such as the heart or liver.

noun: a printed paper such as a newsletter, used to express an opinion or a specific viewpoint of, for example, a political party.

All the meanings developed from the 13th century Old French word organe, which came from Latin and Greek terms meaning "tool".


noun: a sheet of paper, or one side of it, in a book. Came into English in the 15th century, when book printing really developed, via a French word from the Latin word pagina.

noun: a boy who acts as a servant, sometimes wearing a uniform. Came into English in the 13th century from an Italian word, paggio, which came from earlier words meaning child. The next meaning, below, developed from this usage.

verb: to page someone is to have their name called in order to find out where they are. Back to list of words


adjective: without much colour. Came into English around the 13th century from Old French palle, which came from Latin pallidus.

verb: with the same meaning, to become pale. You can see that our word "pallid" is related.

(Check your dictionary for other meanings of this word.)


noun: the flat inner part of your had. Old English for the palm of the hand was folm, which later, in the 14th century, was linked with Old French paume.

noun: a type of tree which grows in tropical countries. Comes from similar sources, so named because its fronds (branches) spread like the fingers of the hand.


noun: a dish, especially a broad, shallow dish for cooking. From Old English panne. Other uses of the same word, including the two below, developed from the same origins. An Old English term for the skull was literally "brain-pan".

verb: to wash gravel or sand in a pan when looking for gold.

verb: to criticise strongly. A figurative development of the idea of separating gravel from gold. Back to list of words


noun: someone of your own age or status.

noun: a titled person such as a duke or duchess.

In the above meanings, this word came into English in the 14th century from Old French per which came from Latin par, meaning equal.

verb: to look intently in an attempt to see clearly. This came into English in the 16th century from Flemish pieren, meaning "to look with narrowed eyes".

Noun. A type of coniferous evergreen tree. The word existed in Old English as pin, and is related to Latin pinus.
Verb. To pine for something is to yearn for it. This word developed from an Old English verb, pinian, to suffer, to torment.
A bird's wing, a joint of a bird's wing, a large feather. Borrowed from French pignon or penon in the 15th century.
A small gear with teeth in it, as part of a machine. Borrowed from French pignon in the 17th century
A large or deep hole. Sometimes used as a term for a coal-mine. It has been in English for over 1,300 years, starting in Old English as pytt, meaning water-hole or pit.
The hard seed or pip of a fruit such as a cherry. American English, borrowed from Dutch in the mid-1840s. Back to list of words
A bung, a stopper that fits into a hole of a container to keep it closed and watertight. Adapted in the early 1600s from the Dutch word plugge.

Also used for the small device which is plugged into a socket when connecting something to the electricity supply.
Meaning to work hard at something or for an advertisement or marketing promotion, it was first used in American English in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
A long rod of wood, metal or plastic. It comes from an Old English word, pal, meaning stake.
Either end of Earth's axis, north pole and south pole. First used in English in the late 1300s, perhaps from Latin polus, meaning the end of an axis, or the sky.
Also used to denote input and output points of a magnet or electrical device.

In olden times, a pole was also a unit of measurement in Britain, equivalent to 16.5 feet.

pound Unit of currency, a weight, a lost dogs home, or to hit with force?

The unit of currency arises from the weight, which comes from Old English pund, the value of a pound weight of silver (a long time before devaluation!).

The lost dogs home meaning comes from the meaning of an enclosure from the 14th century prefix pund-. In Middle English, punfeald or pinfold meant an enclosure field.

To pound someone or something with a striking blow comes from Old English punian, related to Dutch puin, break down into rubble.

The pound the streets, to walk with heavy footsteps, or to pound at a keyboard, is a 20th century colloquial use.   Back to list of words

Verb. To push something against or into something else. From 14th century Latin and French words. Figuratively, it is also used to denote persuading someone forcefully to do something.
Noun. A single term to denote newspaper editors, writers and photographers, the press. This comes from the name of the machine first used in the early 1500s, the printing press.
pride Group nouns can be picturesque
The quality of being proud. The word comes from Old English words prüd and pryde.
A group of lions is called a pride of lions. This is probably from the idea that lions are proud-looking animals. Group nouns for animals and birds are often picturesque, e.g., a murder of crows, an exaltation of larks, an army of caterpillars.
A shallow, flat-bottomed boat. The word has been in English for over 1,000 years.
In the game of football, to punt the ball is a way of kicking it. This use has been in English for only about 150 years.
To punt can also mean to place a bet on something.

pupil A surprise here!
A student. Thus form of the word came from Old French pupille over 600 years ago.
The pupil in your eye is the lens in the centre of the coloured part which is called the iris. This form of the word comes from Latin pupilla, which means little doll. It was given that name because you can see a tiny reflection of yourself, like a little doll, when you look directly at the pupil in someone else's eye.   Back to list of words
Noun. An imposter, a charlatan, and fake doctor. It came into English in the 1600s.
Verb. When a duck makes its characteristic noise, it quacks. This verb has been used in English for about 700 years. It has been used as a noun, too, since the mid-1800s.

Noun. A type of game bird, sometimes prepared for eating. The word came from Old French quaille in the 1300s.
Verb. To quail is to lose courage, to draw back because of fear. This form of the word came from Middle Dutch quelen in the 1400s.
A large hole in the ground for the purposes of excavation of sand, stone, or slate. This form of the word came into English in the 14th century from Old French quarriere.
An animal hunted and caught for food. It has been in English since before 1300, as the word quirre, which meant entrails. After a hunt, the entrails of animals which had been caught were given to the hunting dogs as food.

race Group of people or run in competition?

The first meaning comes from 16th century French from Italian razza. Its history before that is uncertain.

The running type of race comes from Old English ræsan, rush, hasten, related to 13th century Old Norse ras, running. In Middle English, ræs meant race, rush or course.    Back to list of words

Noun. A male sheep. From Old English ramm.
The meaning of pile-driver, battering ram, a device for driving something in by impact, comes from the same origins.
range Many meanings, same origin
A series of things in a line or row.
The limit within which there can be difference, or within which something operates or has control.
A row or line of mountains.
A large area of land. Grassy land on which livestock can graze. A shooting range for rifle practice.
A cooking stove with a flat top and an oven, heated by coal or wood fire.
All the above come from the same origin in a 14th century Old French word.
rank Offensively smelly or position in army?

This is an interesting example of how words change in meaning. In Old English ranc meant straight, leading to erect, proud, haughty. In Middle English denoted strong, brave, proud. In its original meaning, it could imply growing vigorously, as in plants, to the point where it was too prolific. This took on the negative meaning of being ‘too much’. This seems to have led to the meaning of festering. By the 16th century, rank implied having an offensive smell.

Middle English also acquired rancle, a festering sore, from which we get rankle. This came from Old French rancler.

In the 17th century, the word rancid also came into English, from Latin rancidus, meaning rank, disgusting.

Meanwhile, the word rank as a position within an organisation came into English in the 16th century from Old French ranc, row, rank, related to Old High German hring, circle. In modern French, rang means row, line, rank, and in modern German Rang means rank, station, position.   Back to list of words

Noun. The back part of something, as opposed to its front. From 14th century Old French words related to Latin retro- meaning back.
Verb. To raise, to rise up, e.g., when you rear children you bring them up in a family; when a horse rears it stands on its hind legs. From Old English ræren, to raise.
Noun. A roll of something. A winder such as the spool on a fishing rod. From Old English hreol, a reel for winding thread.
Noun. A type of dance with circular steps and movements. 16th century, probably from the above.
Verb. To walk awkwardly, out of control, in a drunken manner. Related to the above.
Noun. Pronounced REF-use. Food waste, general rubbish, useless stuff. Adapted from Old French refus in the 14th century.
Verb. Pronounced ref-USE. To say no, to decline an offer, to reject. From Old French verb refuser, probably in the 13th century
Noun. Something left over, as in "We put the rest of the food back into the fridge". From 15th century Old French, reste, residue, remnant.
Noun and verb: Relax, stop moving, take time to recover, as in "You must rest after your exercise", "I have a rest after my exercise". From Old English, 1,200 years ago.
rock Lump of stone or sway back and forth?

In its first meaning, the word came in the 14th century as roche from Old French roche, roke, rocque. Roche which has the same meaning in modern French, and Italian rocca. For the earlier history, some dictionaries say ‘origin unknown’, but it might be related to an Old English suffix -roc.

Hard sticks of peppermint flavoured confectionery, popular in English seaside resorts, were given the name rock in the middle of the 18th century.

To rock meaning to sway from side to side comes from Old English roccian, related to Old High German rucchen or rocken. The early words related to move or push, and the first use of the word seems to relate to rocking a cradle.    Back to list of words

A large black European bird like a crow. From 11th or 12th century Old English hroc.
One of the pieces in a chess game, also called a castle. Adapted from 13th century Old French roc, originally from Persian rukh.

row A line of people, to propel a boat, or a noisy argument?

In Old English, raw, ræw, and in Middle English rawe, rowe, meant line, series, row. They are related to Old High German riga, line, and words in other European languages. Modern German Reihe means row, rank, line.

Old English rowan meant to row a boat. In Middle English, it became rowen. Related to Middle High German rüejen, it became rudern in modern German.

Row as a noisy quarrel came into use in the 18th century. Most dictionaries indicate ‘uncertain origin’ but one or two relate it to the word rouse, in the sense of a drunken uproar.   Back to list of words

Noun. A small piece or fragment of something that has broken off or been torn off. In about the 14th century, a scrappe denoted a scrap of food. In the 16th century, it came to mean a small piece of anything.
Verb. Finish with something, throw something out.
Verb and noun. Slang for fight or quarrel, from the mid-1850s. It was probably adapted from "scrape".
Noun. One of many types of fur-coated sea mammal. From Old English seol.
Verb. To close something so that it cannot easily be opened. Related to the next meaning:
Noun. A design pressed or stamped into a piece of wax to close or authenticate a document. From 13th century Old French seel.
season Time of year or add flavour to food?

Middle English sesoun from 13th century seson from Latin serere, to sow relate to seseli, plant. The seasons of the year were related to seedtime and harvest, sowing and reaping. To season, as in adding herbs to food, comes from a directly related source: 16th century French saisonner.

Modern French for season, as a time of the year, is saison, for to season food is assaisonner.

There has been very little change in these two related words in their short life in English.   Back to list of words

shell Husk of a nut or destructive projectile?

Old English scell, sciell related to Middle Low German schelle, pod, shell. In Middle English, schelle could mean shell, drinking vessel or anything hollow. In the 17th century, the same meaning was adapted for a metal or board container for chemicals making up a firework or other explosive. About the same time, it came to be used for the actual explosive device, a bomb fired from a cannon or large gun.   Back to list of words

Noun. A simple or roughly built outhouse for storage or for keeping animals. From 16th century Middle English, perhaps related to the word "shade".
Verb. Get rid off, cast off, throw off, let fall. From Old English sceadan, to separate, divide.
sole Part of the foot, a fish, or only?

Sole as part of the foot came into English in Old English or Middle English period, depending on which dictionary you consult, via an Old French word from Latin solea, a sandal or shoe, which is related to solum, ground, floor, bottom.

The fish was given the same name in Middle English, i.e., later, because of its shape.

Sole meaning the only one was adapted in the 14th century from Old French soule, from Latin solus, alone. During the 15th century, it could also mean unmarried or celibate.    Back to list of words

sound Noise, sea channel or free from damage?

Relating to noise, the word came from 13th century Old French soner, to make a sound, which comes from Latin sonus, a sound. Middle English son meant sound.

Middle English sund referred to the sound of the sea and also meant strait. It comes from Old English sund, meaning the sea, a channel or water, and also swimming. From this, we get the use of sound as a channel between the mainland and an island.

Sound in the sense of free of fault of damage comes from Old Saxon gisund and Old English gesund, safe and sound, unharmed, also favourable. In Middle English, gesund meant sound and healthy.   Back to list of words

Noun. A short or indeterminate (= not fixed) period of time, work, or rest. Adapted from Old English spelian, to represent, to take the place of.
Noun. A group of words that is supposed to have magical powers. Origin perhaps related to the next usage:
Verb. Say or write the letters of a word in the correct order. From Old English spellian, to relate.
spring All from the same origin
Noun. A natural flow of water from beneath the ground. A source of supply.
Noun. The season of the year between winter and summer. It is the season when flowers and blossoms spring forth.
Noun. A coil of wire which bounces back to its original shape when it is stretched or pressed and then released.
Verb. Leap or pounce.
All uses have developed from the same Old English verb, springan, to jump, leap, spring.
Noun. An edible fruit of the gourd family which is served as a vegetable. The name first appeared in print in English in 1643.
Noun. A ball game played by two players with racquets. From 19th century English.
Noun. A type of drink made with fruit juice and water. From 19th century English.
Verb. Compress, crush. squeeze tight. From 14th century Old French esquasser, to crush.

staff Employees or walking stick?

Old English stæf meant staff and also letter. Stafas meant letters, writing, literature. In its early usage stæf could mean literally a wooden staff to help a walker, and figuratively a source of support. In the second meaning, it could denote the military personnel who supported a commanding officer. In the 19th century it was applied to salaried employees of non-military organisations such as schools. The two different meanings thus arise from literal and figurative use of the same word.

The meaning of stæf as a letter, or even a verse in Middle English, and stæfcræft meaning grammar, have almost died out. The only remaining use is in a stave, from the plural stafas, in music, which comes from the plural of staff.   Back to list of words

stalk Part of a plant or to follow somebody?

Stalk, for a plant, comes from Old English stalu, an upright piece of wood, which became stale, stalk of a plant, rung of a ladder, in Middle English with the diminutive form stalke, stalk or reed.

Bestealcian in Old English meant to walk stealthily, probably related to bestalan, to depart stealthily. Stalcung was stalking. Middle English stalkin, from Danish stalke, was to go softly.   

stall A market booth or an engine stopping?

Old English steall was a place for standing, a position or a state of affairs. In Middle English, stal meant a place or station. Both modern English meanings come from the same origins. A market stall is a place for standing — to stall a car is to bring it to standing position.  

Noun and verb. A type of paper fastener. To staple papers together. It developed from an Old English word, stapol, a post, stake, and stapel-post, fencing stake.
Adjective. The most important, as in "Rice is their staple diet". Also used as a noun. From 14th century Old French, estaple, market.
state A province, a condition or to say clearly?

13th century stat from Old French estat, meaning estate, state, from Latin status, posture, attitude, position. The same meaning was related to the condition and circumstances of an individual and to organisation of a nation. In the 16th and 17th centuries, the meaning developed of setting out conditions, of expressing clearly.    Back to list of words

stem Plant stalk or to stop a flow?

Old English stefn, stemn meant the stem of a tree or ship, a trunk, or a root. Related to Old Norse stafn, the stem, the upright timber structure at the bow, of a ship. Also Old High German stam, from which comes modern German Stamm, stalk.

15th century stemmen meant to stop. It is related to Old Norse stamr, blocked, and Old High German stemmen, to prop. Modern German Stemmen can mean to dam up, to stem the flow, and also to prop, to stand firm against.   Back to list of words

stick Piece of wood or to adhere to something?

Our thin piece of wood gets its name from Old English sticca, stick, peg or spoon, and Middle English sticke, stick or fragment. Related to Old High German stecca. Modern German Stück means piece, bit, fragment and Stock is stick, staff, rod.

To stick in the sense of to remain fixed or attached comes from Old English stician, to pierce. This became stikien in Middle English, meaning stick, stab, or prick. The original idea of making something stick was by pushing its pointed end into something. The meaning of using pins or an adhesive substance, to make another object stick firmly, came a little later.   Back to list of words

Noun. A difficult, unusual or dangerous feat or performance. First used in American English in the late 1800s but the etymology (origin and history of the word) is unknown.
Verb. Check or delay the growth of something. Probably from 16th century Scandinavian origins.

tap A water valve or a light knock?

Tæppa in Old English came from Old Norse tappi, meaning a stopper to plug a hole in a barrel or cask. It is related to Old High German zapfo, zapho. In Middle English, it became tappe, which was also the Middle English version of Old English tæepe, tape. A tappestere was a tapster, a bar-maid. Tappen meant to draw water. 13th century tappen was also added to English from the Old Middle German word for to tap, to beat. You can see that similar or identical words with different meanings have a long history!

In modern German, Zapfen is a plug, Zapfhahn a tap.   Back to list of words

There are several uses of this word. Here are just a few of them.
Noun. The carrier at the rear of a steam locomotive where coal is stored. Not a common usage nowadays.
Verb. To offer or present in hope of acceptance.
Adjective. Soft, not tough, affectionate. "Tender skin." "Tender hearted."
Noun. A form of a verb which indicates the time of action. Past tense, Present tense. Future tense. Used in English since the 1300s.
Adjective. Nervy, uneasy, not relaxed. Borrowed from Latin tensus, stretched, in the late 1600s.
tick A nasty parasite or the noise of a clock?

The insect gets its name from Old English ticca, ticia, which became tike in Middle English. Tick as a metallic clicking noise came into English in the 13th century from Low German tikk, meaning a light touch. It was not used for the noise such as that made by a clock until late in the 17th century. In the 19th century, as a quick touch of the pen, it came to denote a tick on paper.    Back to list of words

tide The movement of the sea or a time of year?

Old English tid meant time, hour or time, in the sense of a season, such as in Christmastide. It came to be used in about the 15th century for the daily tides of the sea, which was related to time by the movement of the moon.

Our word tidy comes from the same source. In Middle English, tidi meant seasonable, honest.  

till To cultivate or a drawer for money?

In Old English, tilian meant to try, to attempt, and also to gain one's living. The underlying meaning was ‘endeavour’. Tilling the soil was, of course, a major way of making one's living.

As a drawer for cash, the use of the word started in the 15th century but its ultimate source is uncertain. In Middle English, tillen meant to reach, extend or draw, from Old English fortylan, to draw out.    Back to list of words

tip A point or to push over?

As a point or apex, typpa came into English in the 15th century from Old Norse typpa, according to one major dictionary. However, A Middle-English Dictionary states that it is related to Middle High German zipf, tip, extremity, from which modern German for tip is Zipfel. Barnhart's Dictionary of Etymology traces it back to the 12th century, related to various historical German and Dutch terms, including zipf.

The use of tip meaning to topple or fall over is from the 14th century, with uncertain origins. The Middle English dictionary links tippen, to overthrow, with Swedish tippa, overthrow.

A tip as a payment for services is from early in the 18th century, perhaps from tap, a light blow. In underground slang, to tip was to give or to lend. A light blow might have encouraged an unwilling giver to succumb.   Back to list of words

toll A tax or to ring?

Old English toll or toln meant a tax, tollere a tax-collector. Middle English tollen was to pay or to take a toll. They come ultimately from Greek telos, tax.

Toll in the sense of the pealing of a bell came in the 15th century, probably from Middle English tollen, to draw, entice, as the bell was used to draw people to church. In this way, it might be related to fortylan, to draw out (see Till).   Back to list of words

top The highest point or a spinning toy?

As the highest point, the word comes straight from Old English top, topp. It is related to Old High German zopf, meaning top, head or tuft of hair. Now, in modern German, Zopf means a plait of hair.

As a wooden toy, the same word has its origin in Old English. Dictionaries report that its origins and related words are uncertain. One dictionary links it with Middle High German topf, which may or may not be related to modern German Topf, pot or jar, on account of its shape. Another links it with tip, as the top, or point, is the point on which it spins.   Back to list of words

Noun. A journey, a tour.
Verb. To stumble, to miss a step and fall. Also used a noun.

tuck Fold or food?

As folding or tucking cloth, the word originated in Old English tucian, which meant, rather surprisingly, to torment, to chastise. However, it is linked to tucken in other European languages, in the sense of to tug, to pull sharply. These meanings of physical manipulation seem to have given rise to it as a way of handling a piece of material or a sheet when we are tucking it in, pushing and pulling almost as punishment.

Tuck as food has a more difficult history to trace. Partridge's Dictionary of Historical Slang offers a possible origin, in the 18th century schoolboy and slang use of ‘tuck up’ and 19th century ‘tuck in’ as to over-eat, to push too much food into one's mouth. Morriss's Dictionary of Australian Words, first published in 1898 as Austral English, confirms the schoolboy slang of tuck for food, especially pastry, in relation to the Australian slang tucker, food.

Friar Tuck, the famous friend of Robin Hood, had no particular liking for food. According to one source, his name was actually Tooke. But there is a more likely story in Folklore, Myths and Legends of Britain. A renowned friar in Yorkshire is said to have challenged Robin Hood to a sword fight. Robin won the fight but invited the friar to join his band, naming him Friar Tuck. This could arise from the fact that a tuck in olden times was a rapier, a type of slender sword.   Back to list of words


verb: to speak. This might have come into English in about the 14th century from Dutch and German words meaning to make known, to show.

adjective: total, complete. Originally from Old English utera, meaning "outer", it seems to have taken on the meaning of total, complete, in about the 15th century.


noun: a book or one of a series of books.

noun: the amount of space occupied by something.

noun: the loudness of a sound.

All of the above uses developed from an Old French word borrowed in about the 14th century, It originally came from Latin volumen, a roll, a book, from the verb volvere meaning "to roll up".


verb: to rouse from being asleep. From Old English waclan.

noun: the pattern of water spreading behind a moving boat or ship. Probably came into English in the 16th century, related to Old Norse vak, implying a hole.


adverb: satisfactorily, in a good way. From Old English wel.

adjective: in good health. The same as above.

noun: a hole dug in the ground for water, oil, etc. From Old English wella related to Germanic words meaning "wave".

wind A current of air or to turn round and round?

Old English had wind and also windig for windy. It also had windan for to win, to twist and in words related to rolling and flying. Old High German does not help us very much, with equally similar wint.

The first meaning comes from the Latin ventus, wind (as in current of air). The second, in its original meaning, implied to move quickly and, later, to haul up.

Middle English had wind, for the current of air, wind-milne, windmill, wind-oge, window (literally meaning wind-eye). There was also winden, wind, turn, twist, windi, windy, and windwen, winnow.   Back to list of words


noun: an injury such as a cut caused by violence. From Old English wund.

verb: the past tense of the verb "wind" which came from Old English windan which is related to other Germanic words. The other use of "wind" meaning a current of air came from Old English wind which is related to Latin ventus.

yard A measurement or a back garden?

The measurement developed from Old English gerd, gierd, a rod or a twig, from Old Saxon gerdia, switch (a flexible twig). This was applied to gerde, a stick approximately three feet long, used for measurement. Chaucer uses yerde to denote a spear.

Old English geard was a yard, piece of land, garden or dwelling place. It is related to Old High German gart, which is reflected in garth, a yard, now seen only in the almost obsolete bishopsgarth, bishop's dwelling place.    Back to list of words


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