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Economical English: the hidden connections between homonyms

English is famous for being littered with synonyms. Sometimes the number of words we have for a single thing seems almost greedy (not to mention extravagant, hedonistic, decadent, lavish, immoderate, ostentatious, and sybaritic). The dual threads of Germanic and Romance languages that form the basis of the English lexicon are largely to blame for its profligacy, as well as that cheerful habit that Anglophones have of adopting terms from other tongues.

On the other hand, English can also surprise us by being peculiarly economical, employing one word to mean several things almost as often as it uses dozens to mean just one. Sometimes, the multiple origins of the English language account for instances where two very distinct definitions are found for a single word. For example, we have the Germanic route to thank for an ear of corn (Ahre), but the Latin for the organ we use for hearing (auris). A wax seal on a document, meanwhile, came to us from Latin (sigellum), while the marine mammal owes its name to the Germanic (compare Old Norse selr).

So the examples of ‘ear’ and ‘seal’ owe their homonymy to different etymological pathways which happen to have converged on the same string of letters. There are, however, many words in English that derive from the same root, but which have two or more apparently unrelated meanings. The multiple meanings of these words are explained by the evolution of their use in English over time. Usually, one of the meanings is an early one that closely resembles the word’s usage in the ‘donor’ language, while other, quite disparate senses were arrived at via a chain of linked ideas.

For example, why is it that a beam is both a heavy piece of timber and a broad smile? In Old English, the word referred both to a living tree and to a length of cut wood such as a post or a rafter. Then Bede used it to translate columna lucis, the Biblical Pillar of Fire, and it subsequently took on the meaning of a ray of light. This was a stepping stone to the notion of a radiantly beaming smile, and, later still, ‘beam’ also became a verb for sending out rays of radio transmissions.

Wood, it turns out, is responsible for quite a few pairs of homonyms in English. One such example is the word ‘clog’, which means both a blockage and a wooden shoe. A clogge was originally a simple hunk of wood, but then was used to specifically name the practice of attaching a wooden weight to an animal’s leg in order to slow it down. By association, it came to denote any sort of hindrance or obstruction. The wooden shoe, meanwhile, also took its name from the original lump of timber from which it was carved.

Speaking of shoes, how is it that the material used to make shiny ones – that is, patent leather – shares a name with a document asserting intellectual property rights? The latter owes its name to the French lettre patent, which literally means ‘open letter’, because such a document was not private or personal and was therefore delivered to the recipient unsealed. It was via this usage that we arrived at the word’s meaning of ‘obvious’ or ‘evident’. Patent leather, meanwhile, is leather that was given a glossy finish by a patented technique. (Or at least, one that was claimed to have been patented for marketing purposes; Seth Boyden, the American inventor who popularized the style in the 19th century, never actually patented the process.)

Another word with several meanings is ‘score’. It is a verb both for winning points in a game, and for marking something with a sharpened object, and it is also a synonym for twenty. The second meaning – to cut with incisions or notches – is the oldest, from Old Norse skor, meaning a notch or tally. The connection is easily made from there to keeping a count or score. As for the third meaning, it is possible that, when counting livestock, people marked a notch on a stick for every twenty counted.

These are just a few of the many words in English that have two or more meanings that stem from a single historical root. Here are a couple more connections for your consideration. What word links a hot broth with a supply of goods for sale? How about a candle and a gradual narrowing? Or courage and a sharp tug? And, lastly, what is the connection between a swathe of cloth, an arrogant gait, and a heavy sack of loot?

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