Ships and Shirts

Words often belong to etymological families. Sometimes the family relationships are obvious, but sometimes they can be surprising. In this post I will talk about two etymological families, the ship family and the shirt family. A lot of the information here comes from a wonderful book edited by Calvert Watkins, The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots. Watkins was one of my teachers in graduate school, and he was an amazing linguist. I have also plundered other reference books, especially the Oxford English Dictionary (OED).

Part I: I begin with English word ship, which is, according to Watkins, “a Germanic word of obscure origin”. The word ship goes back to Old English; the first citation in the OED dates to around 725 and the second to around 890. In these citations the word is spelled “scip” or “scipa”, and I think we can assume that it was originally pronounced with an initial “sk”. The “sh” sound in Modern English is the result of a process of softening; this softening (technically called “palatization”) is found in the history of some other Old English words—as we will see when we talk about “shirt”. At some point the spelling changed from “scip” to “ship” to match the change in pronunciation, but the spelling probably lagged behind the pronunciation.

The word “ship” can be a noun, but it can also be a verb. As a verb it originally meant to transport something by ship. A thousand years ago transport by ship was usually the most convenient way to move goods over a long distance, so “to transport over a long distance” was effectively the same as “to transport by ship”. But eventually other means of transportation were invented, and “to ship” came to mean just “to transport over a long distance” without any implication that this was done by ship. In the OED, the earliest citation with this general meaning comes from as late as 1857. I think that the word “to ship” still implies some kind of transport vessel—for example, I would say that oil could be shipped in a ship or on a train or in trucks, but I don’t think I would say it is shipped in a pipeline. I would be interested to hear if others agree.

Originally the word “shipper” could mean a seaman, a sailor, but this meaning gradually dropped out of use and a “shipper” became someone who transports goods by ship or causes them to be transported by ship—the earliest citation in the OED dates to 1755—or someone who transports goods by other means, such as by rail—the earliest citation for this general meaning is 1840.

The same word, more or less, is found in other Germanic languages, and for our purposes most pertinently in Middle Dutch, during a period when the Dutch were a maritime power. The pronunciation in Dutch kept the hard “k” sound, and English borrowed the word “skipper” with a hard “k” to mean the captain of a ship. The English words “shipper” and “skipper” go back to the same Germanic root, but because they have different pronunciations they can have different meanings and there’s no danger of confusion.

The English word “skip”, meaning the captain of a curling team, is an abbreviation of “skipper”; the earliest citation in the OED dates from 1830. (The word “skip” meaning a container used in mining or construction comes from a different source.) The word “skiff”, meaning a small boat, comes from the Germanic root, but it was borrowed into English from French, which had borrowed it from Italian which had borrowed it from Germanic. So the English word “skiff” travelled the long way around from Germanic through Romance back to Germanic; in English the two words “ship” and “skiff” can happily coexist because they are pronounced differently. The French noun “équipe” and verb “équiper” go back to the same root—in French an “e” with an accent often indicates that an “s” has been left out (compare French “étude” and Spanish “estudio” and English “study”), so a few hundred years ago these French words were probably something like “esquipe” and “esquiper”. In modern French the verb “équiper” means “to equip” and more specifically “to man a vessel” and the noun “équipe” means “a team” or more specifically “the crew of a ship”. So the English words “equip” and “equipment” come from French, which borrowed them from Germanic. So “ship” and “shipper” and “skipper” and “skip” and “equip” and “equipment” all come from the same Germanic root.

Part II: The English words shirt and skirt both refer to articles of clothing, one of which covers the upper part of the body, while the other starts at the waist and goes down from there. The word shirt goes back all the way to Old English, in various spellings but with more or less the same meaning over the centuries; according to the OED it is “inherited from Germanic”—that is, it was a part of the English vocabulary before English was English and it was retained, with changes in pronunciation and spelling, when English became a written language. The OED gives the Old English spelling scyrtan, early Middle English (before spelling was regularized) schuyrte or scurte or seorte, Middle English schert, scherte, schirte, schorte, schuirte… and many more. I would guess that in Old English the initial consonant cluster was hard, “sc-“, and at some point it softened to “sh-” as we spell it and pronounce it today, just as “scip” softened to “ship”.

The word skirt (spelled in various ways) appears only around 1400, in the Middle English period, borrowed (according to the OED) from early Scandinavian. Both shirt and skirt go back to the same Germanic root, and I suspect they were originally the same word, perhaps meaning, as the OED says, “a shorter garment in contrast with a longer outer garment.” When the Middle English shirt had become established with its current meaning and pronunciation, the Scandinavian (Old Norse or Icelandic) word skyrte, with a hard “sk-” could be borrowed into Middle English with a different but related meaning. In Middle Dutch, schorte meant “apron”; in Middle Low German schörte meant “apron”, “coat”, or “a tunic worn under armour”; Old Icelandic skyrta and Old Swedish skiurta and Old Danish skjoita all meant “shirt”. These languages used the term to denote various garments, all of which were short and covered only part of the body. English speakers used the inherited shirt with one meaning and the borrowed skirt with a slightly different but related meaning.

I must admit I had never thought of any relationship between shirt and skirt before I read about it in Ernest Weekley’s The Romance of Words; since then I’ve seen this doublet mentioned in many word books. Once I saw the relationship between the words it seemed obvious or at least not surprising.

According to Watkins (in The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots), the Germanic root of both shirt and skirt is *skurtaz, meaning “to cut”, from which he also derives the English adjective short. (The asterisk marks a reconstructed form.) A shirt and a skirt are short garments, garments that are cut off, and that’s the connection among these three words. We could also add the noun shorts, another cut off garment. (Compare the term “cut offs”.) So far we have shirt, skirt, short, and shorts as cognates all derived from a single Germanic root.

But there’s more. Watkins traces all these back to a Proto-Indo-European root *sker or *ker, which meant “to cut”. The form *sker produces several English words, all of which have something to do with cutting. These include shears and to shear, the share part of ploughshare, and to score, meaning “to cut”; you can cut notches in a piece of wood to keep score, and if you cut twenty notches you have a score. The idea of cutting is also found in the words scar, shards, and scrape (which leaves out the vowel between the “sk” and the “r”, in what is called the zero grade of the root).

The *ker form of the root gives the Latin adjective curtus, “short”, from which French gets court and English gets curt and curtail. The form *ker, or a variant thereof, also gives cortex, which means “bark [of a tree]” in Latin—probably because the bark can be cut off the wood—and thus an outer surface, for instance, the cerebral cortex, which is the outer surface of the brain—the “bark” of the brain, so to speak. The *ker root also gives the Latin corium, which means “hide”, that is, the hide of an animal, and this gives the English excoriate; the literal meaning is “to take the hide off something” but the metaphorical meaning, which I think is more common, is “to criticize severely”, that is, as we say, to take the hide off someone.

Watkins notes a variant form of the root, *kar, which gives the Latin caro (genitive carnis), which means “flesh”—I suppose the connection is that flesh is something that gets cut—and this gives another group of English words, including carnage, carnal, carnation, carnivore, carnival, carrion, charnel, and crone. These are all members of the same etymological family that shirt and skirt and short belong to, but I would say they are distant relatives.

I find these etymological families fascinating and I will continue with another family or two in my next posts. As always, I welcome comments, responses, and questions.

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