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Etymology behind objects


or objects behind etymology?

We, 21st century people, often use language only as a means of understanding and do not think about the origins of words. As the result, we often miss interesting connections, which tell us about the state of things that is already gone. In this short article, I would like to draw attention to a few interesting connections between a piece of organic material and the name of an object (etymology), mainly in Central European languages and Old Norse of which I am a user. In each case, I will briefly describe the etymological relationship. I am sure that there are many similarities like these in European languages, and I will be very pleased if you send me examples from your language. I would like to also stress that the examples suggest that prehistoric people excelled at recyclation and using the most of animal bodies during livestock slaughter.

Ox-bone shoulder bone → shovel, chopping board

Since the Neolithic until relatively recent times, shoulder bones of large animals, especially cows, have been used for shovel production. Finds of ox-bone shovels can be found in whole Europe and Near East. It is therefore interesting to note that in all Slavic languages, there is a direct link between words shoulder blade (cz. lopatka; sk. lopatka; pol. łopatka) and shovel (cz. lopata; sk. lopata; pol. łopata). Rejzek suggests the starting point of lopata is Indo-European *lēp-, *lōp-, *lƏp- (“something flat”) and could derive from *lopъ, whose meaning would be “a tool similar to a leaf”, similar to Lithuanian lãpas (Rejzek 2007: 362). The same connection is present in Latin scapula, which is derived from the meaning shovel (de Vaan 2008: 543), or more precisely, from a root *(s)kep-, from which Slavic kopati (“to dig”) is derived.

An ox-shoulder bone shovel from Árbær Open Air Museum.
Picture taken by Marianne Tóvinnukona.

Hungarian language borrowed the Slavic connection lapocka (“shoulder blade”) and lapát (“shovel”) no later than in 14th century (Zaicz 2006). What is more, my Hungarian friend Gábor Suba confirmed that words lapicka and lapító denote “a chopping board” in some parts of Hungary. However, in case of lapító, the etymology is probably different, derived from Urallic *lapp (“smooth surface”).

Bone → die (game piece)

In various Slavic languages, game dice have direct connection to bone: for example cz. kost – kostka, sk. kosť – kocka, pol. kość – kość do gry, ru. кость – игральная кость. According to Rejzek, dice were made of talus bone, which can be tracked back to Indo-European languages (Rejzek 2007: 315).

Bone dice, made by Michal Dienstpier.

Pig bristle → brush

In both Germanic and Slavic languages, words for bristle are connected to a brush. All the Germanic words for bristle and brush are derived from Proto-Germanic *burstiz (“bristle”), while all the Slavic equivalents are derived from *ščetь (“bristled type of solid hair”). The fact that brushes were made of bristles is very well archaeologically attested (for example Hjermind 1998: 294).

Wooden peg → revenue stamp

In Czech and Slovak languages, words kolek and kolok mean revenue stamp and little peg at the same time (Rejzek 2007: 295). This association is particularly interested when we compare it to small wooden cyllinders known from 10th and 11th century Novgorod (Janin 2007: 266268). These items served as seals on the ropes to which marten skins were attached. Alternatively the rope could be wrapped around the money bag. The knot was stored inside a cyllinder, which was sealed from the side with a wooden peg so that the knot could not be pulled and untied. The cyllinders themselves contain inscriptions with names, amounts and royal signs. There is a presumption that similar cyllinders were used durin Early Medieval times in present-day Poland.

The construction of wooden cyllindrical seal. Janin 2007:  268.

Guts → bow-string

In Old Norse tradition, a word for “a bow-string” is the same as for “guts” – þǫmb (Cleasby–Vigfússon 1874: 756). This is especially visible in case of the famous Norwegian nobleman and archer Einarr þambarskelfir, whose nickname can be translated as “String-shaker”. Even though we do not have any hard evidence, this could lead to the fact that some bow-strings were made of animal guts.

Ash wood → spear

Archaic cultures tend to use word for “ash” basically for anything made of that kind of wood. In Old Norse, askr denotes not only an ash tree, but also a kind of ship, a vessel and a spear (Cleasby–Vigfússon 1874: 25). It is an archaeologically attested fact that ash wood was used as a preferred material for spear shafts. A similar logic in language can be seen in Homer’s Iliad, where spears are called “ashes”.

Jawbone → sledge

The last example is a true masterpiece. In Czech and Slovak languages, there seems to be a kind of connection between “a jaw” (cz. sanice, sk. sanice) and “sledge” (cz. saně, sk. sane). The connection seems to be based on “sliding movement”, however, Rejzek suggests that sanice is derived from saně (Rejzek 2007: 590). Analogically, Old Norse kjálki denotes “jawbone” and “sledge” (Cleasby–Vigfússon 1874: 340). This is particularly interesting because of the ancient tradition to make sledges out of horse and cattle jawbones, which is very well archaeologically attested (for example MacGregor 1985: 145-6).

Jawbone sledges. Stopp – Kunst 2005: Fig. 9.

We hope you liked reading this article. If you have any question or remark, please contact us or leave a comment below. If you want to learn more and support our work, please, fund our project on Patreon or Paypal.


Cleasby, Richard – Vigfússon, Gudbrand (1874). An Icelandic-English dictionary, Toronto.

de Vaan, Michiel (2008). Etymological Dictionary of Latin and the other Italic Languages, Leiden – Boston : Brill.

Hjermind, J. (1998). Pensel. In: Hjermind. J. – Iversen, M. – Kristensen, H. K. (red.). Viborg Søndersø 1000- 1300. Byarkæologiske undersøgelser 1981 og 1984-85, Viborg, 294.

Janin, Valentin Lavren (2007). Středověký Novgorod v nápisech na březové kůře, Červený Kostelec.

MacGregor, Athur (1985). Bone, Antler, Ivory & Horn: The Technology of Skeletal Materials Since the Roman Period, London.

Rejzek, Jiří (2007). Český etymologický slovník, Praha : Leda.

Stopp, Barbara – Kunst, Günther Karl (2005). Slegde runners made of cattle mandibles? : Evidence for jawbone sledges from the Late Iron Age and the Roman Period in Switzerland and Austria. In: Muinasaja teadus 15, 187-198.

Zaicz, Gábor (2006). Etimológiai szótár: Magyar szavak és toldalékok eredete, Budapest: Tinta Könyvkiadó.

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