Etymologies of the sky

At Christmas I bought myself Haggard Hawks and Paltry Poltroons: The Origins of English in Ten Words by Paul Anthony Jones. It’s formed into sections of ten related words usually based around their etymologies and I’ve been enjoying picking it up and flicking though it. One of the ‘ten words derived from rocks and stones’ was to my surprise ‘cloud’. We don’t usually associate clouds with the heaviness of rocks, but apparently in Old English ‘clud’ meant a mass of earth or rock (as we can still see in the word clod) before cloud adopted its current meaning. The similarity between the dense, grey lumps is thought to have suggested the relationship.

I thought I’d look up a few other common sky-related words to see how they developed:

Snow: This is thought to have roots in the Proto-Indo-European form *sniegwh, which became the Proto-Germanic *snaiwaz and then Old English snaw. I still come across people talking about how Eskimo’s have X ridiculous number of words for snow, while actually Eskimo languages have probably about the same number of words for snow as English does. One of the reasons for the myth is the Eskimoan languages are polysynthetic. This means that while English might use separate graphological words to describe a type of snow (e.g. ‘thin ice’) Eskimo languages can express the same thing by deriving a word from a base form to make a single graphological word. Therefore it looks like there are many different words for snow. So instead of ‘thin ice’ being written as two words with a space between them, it would look like one. This is hugely simplified, but really it all just depends on how you count a ‘word’, if we count each instance of these Eskimoan derived forms it would make as much sense to count every individual case of derivation in English, such as ‘ice’, ‘icy’, ‘iced’, etc.

Sun: From Old English ‘sunne’ which is derived from Proto-Germanic *sunnon. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, in Old English – when words were gendered – sun was feminine and a feminine pronoun used to be used to the describe the sun. In the 16th century a masculine pronoun began to be used, so today the song goes, ‘the sun has got his hat on’.

Sky: The word is thought to be originally derived from the Proto-Indo-European word *(s)keu, meaning ‘to cover’. This became *skeujam (also meaning cloud or cloud cover) in Proto-Germanic before coming into English from Old Norse ‘sky’ meaning ‘cloud’. The word came to mean both sky (with or without clouds) and heaven. The native word meaning the physical space above us as well as a spiritual place was ‘heofon’ (an earlier version of ‘heaven’). According to one of my university books, ‘sky’ and ‘heaven’ were in use at the same time and were synonyms. So close synonyms that it is unlikely that both would be needed in the language. In this case, sky become primarily associated with the physical space and heaven with the spiritual one.

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