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The string of athletes above is led by Roger Bannister followed by Chris Chataway and Chris Brasher at the White City Stadium, London, during an attempt at the British two miles record. It was this same trio that had earlier that year combined to break the four minute mile barrier. All strong runners! Photographer E.D.Lacey, June 4 1954.

 Follow the inquiry string of one student.There is more research to do on each word but this student has organized her thinking after gathering words from Neil Ramsden’s tool, Word Searcher. Her question, ‘Is <th> in the final position of a word, a clue that the word is a noun? This sprang from the class work on nouns and in particular the related free bases elements strength and strong. See below the etymological connections of strong, strength and string. However, before I become tangled in these etymologies and potential connections listen to the explanation and discoveries.


Aftermath, mow and meadow:

Who would have thought that a word that has come to mean the result of a catastrophe, or unpleasant circumstance has its origins in harvesting and in particular, mowing? It refers to the second crop of the season, the crop occurring after the earlier one has been harvested or ‘mown’. The free base element <math> is from Old English noun mæð : mowing. The verbal form is Old English mawan: to mow – remove that Old English suffix<-an> and you see the resemblance to present day mow. This shares the same Proto Indo European root: *me– as Old English:mæd “meadow”.The word aftermath is a compound comprised of two Old English base elements <after+math>. In her haste to describe the surprising back-story of aftermath, the student above had assumed that after referred to grass. Not so! For more etymological diversion, read Douglas Harper’s etymological summation of the preposition after and his wry comments about the obsolete afterwit. Perhaps ‘recycycle’ and ‘reuse’ should apply to this word as well material items!!

<-th>: How far do we analyze?

Our question as to whether <-th> is always a suffix, if in the final position, is still there. We know that just because it may have been a suffix in Old English  does not mean it’s necessarily a suffix in the present day. It becomes a question of how far do you go when analyzing a word. We see< warm> as a free base element so warmth is formed from <warm+th>. We read the Online Etymology Dictionary entry concerning <-th> and see that indeed it is an element that forms ‘nouns of actions, states or quality’. We see that Old English  <-ðu>, <-ð> has a long history back to Proto Indo European root *-ita. But just because it appears in words in present day English and was once a suffix, does that necessarily mean that it can be regarded as a separate morpheme in present day English? Consider death. Yes inevitable, not always desired but what are the morphemes? We see the Old English deað is an etymon meaning “death, dying, cause of death which gives us the present day noun death.  But is it analyzed<dea+th> because the <-th>, once a suffix, can be replaced by the <-d> in dead? Is dead in fact <dea+d>? Both death and dead have originated from the same ancient Proto Indo European root *dheu: to die. Read about the noun death  dead and verbal die here and consider how far do we go?

Strength, strong and string:

Strength is an attested word from Old English: strengþu, strengð  a strong feminine noun in Old English (OED). It had a sense of bodily power, vigour and fortitude but also a sense moral endurance.  Both strength and strong have evolved from a Proto Indo European root *strenk which indicated stiffness and tautness.The <-th> is from an hypothosized Proto Germanic noun suffix *itho indicating abstract nouns. It was much later, the 14th century in fact, when this noun was used verbally as strengthen. O strengthen my heart! Could there be a strong connection to string?!!

Strong and string share the prehistoric Germanic base *strang which the Online Etymology Dictionary states :strang- “taut, stiff,” from PIE root *strenk– “tight, narrow.However, the OED claims the string- strong link is doubtful.‘The pre-Germanic root *streŋk- appears not to be known in this form, but a parallel form *streŋg- is represented by Irish (and Scottish Gaelic) sreang cord, string, Middle Irish srincne navel-string, Greek στραγγάλη halter, Latin stringĕre to bind, draw tight. Connection with strong adj. is doubtful.’

Chambers Dictionary of Etymology( Barnhart) swings us back in support of the string strong connection. This dictionary claims that string is attested from 1175 developing from Old English streng meaning line or cord and links this to Proto Germanic *straŋgi-z which was from Indo European*strongh. There are several Germanic cognates such as Danish and Norwegian streng. This dictionary states that strong is ‘related to Old English streng :cord, rope, sinew’.

We saw that Skeat’s Concise Dictionary of Etymology also gave support for the string strong connection.

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The phonestheme ‘str’

We also discussed phonesthemes, another highly entertaining path of lingusitic diversion. Phonestheme is the term for the meaning association lurking behind certain sounds or sound sequences. These are not morphemes merely symbolic sound suggestions. We see phonesthemes occur in in initial letter strings in a word and or in rhymes . For example ‘ odge’ has a heavy, well, stodgy sound.  <str> is a phonestheme that has an underlying suggestion of ‘tightness’, of ‘stretchiness’. As Benjamin Shisler notes in his Dictionary of English Phonesthemes: the initial consonant cluster ‘str’ strives to struggle against stress, strain, and stricture with strength. ‘str’ straddles, straggles, strands, streams, stretches, strews, and strings out.

So much more in this list of <-th> to investigate. Our work continues!

Did you know that:

  • heartstrings, a compound word, was originally literal and part of anatomical theory in the late 15t century?
  • string can mean to deceive, attested since 1812 and that to string someone alomng has been in use since 1902?
  • to pull the strings is in reference to control alludes to puppetry and is from 1860s?
  • to hold the pursestrings as in the figurative expression to control money is attested from the 1530’s?
  • a stringer, not only referred to a maker of bow strings, attested from the 15th century but a newspaper journalist paid by ‘length of the copy’,attested from 1950’s?
  • a stringybark in Australia can refer to a particular species of eucalyptus (1801) and an uncouth person, an inhabitant of the outback, according to the OED, attested 1833: New S. Wales Mag. I. 173 The workmanship of which I beg you will not scrutinize, as I am but, to use a colonial expression, ‘a stringy-bark carpenter’


If intrigued by phonesthemes go to Benjamin K Shishler’s Dictionary of Phonesthemes. Earlier posts on phonesthemes can be found here: Enwrought by Phonesthemes and  What’s in a Name?

The last words of this post go to Marcus Aurelius: “Remember that what pulls the strings is the force hidden within; there lies the power to persuade, there the life — there, if one must speak out, the real man.”