Etymology Corner- Sharp

Shing! Snkt! Kachow! Oh no, it’s a knife and it’s really sharp watch out oh nooo

Nah, it’s just etymology corner. Let’s talk about sharp things! Sharp is a Germanic word from the Proto-Germanic *skarpaz. If we dial it back to the Proto-Indo-Europeans, we get *sker- meaning “to cut”. That influences a ton of words, like a screw, which cuts into wood as it is applied.

Once you’ve associated *sker- with cutting, it’s pretty easy to see some connections. If you get cut too badly you get a scar and if you use little cuts on a surface to count you’re keeping score. You may have gotten that scar fighting with bladed weapons in a skirmish, or keep score in a friendlier version of the same sort of compsetition called a scrimmage. In Italian, the sort of fools who easily got into or ran away from fights were called scaramouche. From the sense of fighting to protect things the term took on defensive meanings like screen or a cuirass. In Latin, the bark that protects a tree was called a cortex, which we then used to describe outer layers of the brain. The Romans also gave us the name for the protector of the testicles, the scrotum. Just be careful, or you may get a nasty scrape!

As words move between languages, sometimes a hard /k/ sound can soften into a /sh/, which of course happens here too. Things that get cut, say, with shears, are made shorter until they become scrap. These smaller pieces, or shards, can then be shared between people. Just don’t get a short temper or people will describe you as curt. On the other hand, if you cut pieces of fabric into garments you will have made a nice shirt or maybe even a skirt. Those will be good to protect you from rough, sheared down shrubs. Another way to describe these scruffy plants is scrub, which evolved into the meaning of a brush resembling these plants and then into the meaning of a guy that thinks he’s fly, also known as a busta. Of course, this definition is known for being unable to get no love from me. If something is cut to form an angle the Greeks would call it epikarsios, which may have evolved into Vulgar Latin *bigassius and even though that sounds fake it may have given the French the word we know now as bias.

Of course, one of the most common things to cut in both the killing and the sharing aspect is an animal, thus giving *sker- the meaning of flesh. Anybody who eats meat is a carnivore, old meat left out for scavengers is carrion and the festival where you eat all your meat before Lent (see the Journal corner for more on that word) is called a carnival. Matters of the flesh are carnal and when something becomes flesh it is incarnated.  When all of that is desecrated violently we call it carnage. And of course there were enough misogynists around to call old, haggard women carrion until it evolved into crone.

But that’s not all! There’s one more meaning to *sker- after it was elongated into another Proto-Indo-European root, *skribh-. This word took on more of a meaning of cutting into something, also known as inscribing.  A person who did this was a scribe and we get a ton of words from this, from subscribe to describe to scribble. /B/ and /p/ are very similar sounds with the only difference being whether you add air with your vocal cords, so it was easy for this to evolve into script. Another similar consonant sound is /v/, giving us the word scrivener. /V/ and /f/ have the same voiced-unvoiced relationship as /b/ and /p/, thus it wasn’t long until we got another word describing writing, serif. The relationship between consonant sounds is fascinating, but this is already getting long.

All of this isn’t even getting into the Proto-Indo-European homonym of *sker- meaning “to bend” which could of course come from an even earlier sense of altering something’s shape with a tool. For now, let’s just keep sharp and on our toes.


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