Tuesday, April 08, 2008


Been tinkering with the old and tinkering with the new, and came across the odd fact that Czech apparently has two words for icicle, neither of which is etymologically related to the word for ice. There's one from a word possibly meaning "drip" or "flow," and another related to the word "roof."

That got me thinking about the English word icicle, which seemed odder to me the more I looked at it. -icle is familiar to me as a Latinate diminuitive suffix (test-, veh-, etc.) but ice isn't a Latinate word, it's Germanic.

Turns out, according to Merriam-Webster, that the -icle part comes from Middle English ikel from Old English gicel, meaning icicle; cognate to a German ihilla with the same meaning that's no longer extant in Modern German, which has, if I'm not mistaken, Eiszapf "ice-spike."

So somehow English ended up with a Latin-seeming but very Germanic word for icicle that means "ice-icicle." Presumably the -ikel lost some of the semantics of icicle itself and was strengthened by the first "ice." I suppose I would guess that it was due to interference from the Latin suffix that confused me.

Next post: how did stalactite and stalagmite end up with their roof-floor differentiations in meaning, since they're from the same damn Greek verb?

1 comment:

pyramus said...

Since you posted a comment on my blog posting about stalactites and stalagmites, I figure it's only fair I do the same to yours on icicles, which I wrote about earlier this year. I don't have much to add, because I came to exactly the same conclusions you did--that "icicle" doesn't have the Latin diminutive suffix and that "gicel" meant "icicle" all by itself, so that "icicle" is a word with a built-in tautology, kind of like "tuna fish", or "river Avon" (since "avon" is Welsh for "river").

As for "stalagmite" and "stalactite", the OED is not any help on why we have two nearly identical (and confusing!) words from the same Greek root for two nearly identical phenomena which would be equally well served with the same name, in my opinion, but at least it tells us that the terms were coined by one Olaus Wormius, the Latinized name of one Ole Worm.