Favourite words: Nipple

Finishing my final year of university has made me realise that soon I will no longer have university access to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) online. So, I have decided to make the most of it and will be looking up the etymologies or morphological composition of my favourite words.

Today, I am starting with ‘nipple’. I am starting with ‘nipple’ because it’s the place of the body I start with when I do a life drawing. Yes, I know it sounds immature or just plain odd to have ‘nipple’ as a favourite word, but I think that it is pleasant to say and to me just sounds exactly like the thing it denotes. Not onomatopoeia exactly, but just sounds right. I think it’s a perfect term.

The OED puts the first recorded use of the word as around 1510 and suggests that it was originally composed from the stem noun ‘neb’ plus the suffix ‘-le’. I won’t list all the meanings, but in general ‘neb’ seems to mean a protruding part and has been used to refer to the nose as well as to the nib of a pen or pencil. The suffix ‘-le’ can infuse the noun it’s attached to with a diminutive sense or give it the the sense of being a tool or appliance. The OED also suggests a possible link with the word ‘nap’ meaning ‘to suck’.

I’d prefer to think that the ‘-le’ suffix is adding the sense of diminutive and not of being a tool, although if you see ‘nipple’ as a way to get milk to a baby then I guess this might also be apt. I like that my objective feeling that the word means what it sounds like is very slightly supported here with the morphological composition giving the meaning of small protuberance. And the word ‘nipple’ has something in common with the nib of a pencil. I can’t help but like that!

Pencil nibs and nipples. This is why I love the OED.

Today I saw that Ted talks have posted a link to some videos of word etymologies. They are nice light bites of etymology and are only a couple of minutes each.


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