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This image by Neil Packer from The Odyssey  shows the twisting, threads of Odysseus’s journey.

A brief conversation before school with a student who wrote about Odysseus being ‘bound’ to his crew and how his story is ‘threaded through’ with that of Penelope, has sparked this week’s word investigation. I picked up on Gabi’s rope and thread metaphor and suggested she should look at the etymology of Penelope.

‘…  Even Penelope’s name is connected to thread. It’s from Greek Penelopeia, probably related to pene “thread on the bobbin.” This is an amazing connection. To add to this thread idea, the fates have the threads of lives, measuring the length, cutting it when it is time. The Odyssey is a very large and complex tapestry, the strength in the threads like the strength in the bond between Odysseus and his crew, are unraveled at times by Odysseus’s own curiosity.’ (Gabi)

I am now enmeshed in threads, panels, and knotty conundrums.


From the OED:  the name of Penelope in classical Latin was Pēnelopē , from ancient Greek Πηνελόπη (Herodotus), in Homer’s Odyssey Πηνελόπεια Penelopeia (OED). 

While the OED makes a link between Penelope and ancient Greek πηνέλοψ , which designated a species of wild duck with colourful markings on its neck,The Online Etymology Dictionary suggests a ‘possible link’ to Greek pene ‘thread on the bobbin’, which came from Greek penos: web and winds back to the 5, 500 year old reconstructed Proto Indo-European (PIE) root *pan- “fabric”. Spinning out from this ancient root is the Latin branch of the etymological family pannum ~ pannus: denoting cloth, garment, which evolves to Old French pan  to indicate the ‘part of a garment that hangs down, i.e. a flap, skirt, or tail, part of a territory (c1100), part of a vertical construction in building, e.g. a wall’.  Pane which is derived from these Latin roots was attested in 1380. It was connected with bedclothes (c1245) and this connection influenced counterpane attested in 1459. Pane also denoted the side of a cloister, quadrangle, court or town and, from about 1473 on, could refer to a pane of glass and even a piece of ground or a patch of ground in a garden.

Panel is an obvious relative. It is attested early in the 14c., from Old French panel “piece of cloth, piece, saddle cushion” from Latin panellus ‘pad or lining of a saddle’. The panel referring to a group of people called on to advise, is too from the same clothy root referring to the “piece of parchment (cloth) listing jurors”. In the 1570s panel broadens to refer to “persons called on to advise, judge, discuss,”and  by 1600 panel has the additional sense of the surface of a door or wall.

Orthographically representing the final syllabic /l/

/pan(ə)l/,  but how to represent the final syllabic /l/ ? The graphemic choices are:  -al or ‘le’, ‘el’, ‘il ‘or ‘ol’.  With the obvious relationship to pane it becomes an entertaining puzzle when considering the orthographic structure of the final syllable.

The suffix ‘al’ :

There are three functions of the suffixes  :

  1.  converts nouns to adjectives: as in bridal, ‘bride+al’, tidal ‘tide+al’. This suffix is seen in  words from the Middle English period whose etymon is French or  applied to words entering English directly from Latin
  2. forms nouns of action such as approval, betrayal– both these words had earlier noun forms, betrayment or betraying and approvance, with the suffix only applying in the late 1800s
  3. refers to an element in chemistry

/pan(ə)l/  is not adjectival. It is nominal, not a noun of action, nor  does it contain any link to chemistry. This eliminates ‘-al’ as a choice, with the possibility of  ‘le’, ‘el’,‘il’ or ‘ol’ as the remaining options for the final syllable. These elements all meet the criteria that every syllable in English must contain a vowel letter.

‘il’ or ‘ol’?

Don’t get stressed over the choices ‘il’ or  ‘ol’. As the second syllable of many words  /(ə)l/ is unstressed and represented in speech by the ever present shewa –  /ə/. However, you can use stress and call on a relative to help: petrolpɛtr(ə)l/ ~petroleum /pɪˈtrəʊlɪəm/.  Often when considering  related words with additional suffixes, the stress shifts and the graphemic choice is more obvious. In the case of /pan(ə)l/ which has relatively few relatives sharing its base, neither of these options is  an obvious choice.‘il’ and ‘ol’ are the least frequent of all possibilities.


Can the final syllabic element of /panəl/ be  ‘le’ ? It is by the far the most frequent of the options. Is it a suffix? While I have longed to see and have previously analyzed ‘le’  as a suffix -‘it ain’t necessarily so’!

‘le’   may have in the past derived from suffixes forming nouns that are instrumental and or diminutive: handle, ladle, or  from verbs that are frequentative and often with a diminutive sense :sparkle, trickle. However, just because it was particularly productive in the Old and Middle English periods, does not mean that ‘le’  is a suffix in the present day. All that can be consistently true in the synchronic consideration of today – is that it is a common, final syllabic particle. 

When is ‘el’ used?

Under what conditions is ‘el’ used? While ‘le’  is the more frequent representation of /əl/, there are circumstances where this is not permissible in present day English. There’s no *mle – so pummel, camel, trammel, no *nle  -so tunnel , no *vle  so hovel, shovel, no *wle  so towel, dowel, no *rle , so barrel.

These non-permissible forms can account for the ‘el’ of panel , the default in such situations. However, panel has a diminutive sense and this hints at the possibility that ‘el’ may still be analyzable as a suffix in this word.

‘el’ as a suffix: 

‘-el’ as a suffix  evolved ‘ via Old French -el , -elle, representing Latin -ello-, -ella-. This suffix is in classical Latin used to form diminutives.'(OED) . This diminutive sense may not always be obvious in modern English where often the word is not synchronically analyzable. Sometimes it’s a faint whisper reminding us that it was once a suffix but in modern English no longer so. However, its presence is always clue of a story waiting to be uncovered. Beneath these words, is a hint of smallness: satchel, parcel, 

There are many more examples of where ‘el’ hints at a diminutive sense and some instances where it is synchronically analyzable  such as:  cartel ‘cart+el’ ; morsel , a little bite, ‘morse+el’. Panel therefore, with its original sense of a small pane or piece of cloth, is analyzed as : ‘pane+el’.The vowel suffix  removes the non-syllabic ‘e’ of the free base element.

To understand ‘le’, and ‘el’ refer to Real Spelling :Toolkit 2,Theme 4 J: Choosing between final syllabic ‘ le ‘ and ‘-al’.


A hapless panel of jurors,”Now Jurymen, hear my advice” from Gilbert and Sullivan’s Trial by Jury, 1890 dawn by WS Gilbert.

Tunnel : And while it appears we have ventured down a long dark tunnel to chase final syllabic particles and have lost our thematic thread, fear not! Tunnel is woven from threads! In the 15th century it entered English via Old French tonnelle, a net or tonel a cask. It referred to a funnel shaped net for catching birds.  Lucky Brian Lelome of  York  inherited several in 1538 : ‘To Brian Lelome all my partrike nettes called a tonnell.”(OED). It was only in the 1540s that tunnel came to indicate a tube or pipe and by the 168Os had shifted to an underground passage.This sense first used in Britain then crossed the channel to be adopted in French in 1878 (Online Etymology Dictionary). So from France and back again!


16th century qual and partridge hunters using tunnels in their feathery hunt.

Net suggests traps, knots, threads and bindings. It is of Old English origins  denoting”netting, network, spider web, mesh used for capturing,”( Online Etymology Dictionary) Net, from Old English via Proto Germanic *natjan , is  tied to PIE *ned- to bind, twist together’.

When we untangle the Latin branch of this family  we find knotty connections  derived from  Latin nōdusnode (1391) initially meaning a lump in the flesh, later a knot or lump; nodule ( 1425) a small lump. ‘Knot’, rather than ‘loop’ is beneath noose. Noose is attested in 1450 from Old French nous or nos via Latin nōdus. But this knotty Latin family has two more surprises –  denouement attested in 1752 from Old French denouement denoting an untying of a knot (plot) and  newel attested in 1363 meaning knob or knot on the stair-post derived from Old French noel, novel “knob, newel, kernel, stone” itself derived from Latin nōdus and ultimately PIE ned-.  There is also the connection of Latin nectere and its past participle nexus : bind, tie which leads to words such as connect and annex . This means the bases in present day English from the Latin side of the family are the bound elements ‘nect’ and ‘nex’  and the free base elements  node’,’noose’newel , and ‘denouement’.

On the Germanic side of the family are the free base elements  and a stinging surprise  with nettle . Nettle , Old English netele, from the diminutive Proto Germanic *natilon is ‘perhaps’ from the same PIE source *ned-.  Nettle fibre and its hemp relatives  were used for weaving.


Net is a homophone and differentiated  in British English by a double ‘t’- nett. In American English it can be a homograph and homophone with the context providing the clue to meaning. The second net (nett) denotes that ‘remaining after deductions’.It is adjectival and derived via Old French:trim, elegant, clean, neat from Latin nitere: shining, bright, glitter  a relative of neat .


From my notes as I try to untangle the family network.

There is a lumpiness underlying knots, like nodes and nodules. Knot of Old English is attested from 1000, has a  Proto-Germanic ancestor *knudn-.  Another lumpy relative from the same Proto-Germanic source is knoll, attested from 888, and perhaps too knob, 1398. As far back as Old English, knot was also used metaphorically to refer to a problem or perplexity and when we puzzle, deep in thought or confusion, we knit our brows- this usage from the 14th century. Old English cnyttan led to knit and denoted “to tie with a knot, bind together, fasten by tying,”from Old English cnotta “a knot,”. Knitting as an “act of weaving a continuous thread by loops or knots” is from 1711. Old English ‘cn’ was replaced in the Middle English by ‘kn’ and  the consonant cluster pronunciation was gradually reduced to the single phoneme/n/ by 1750 (OnLine Etymology Dictionary).

 Tangled too has a twisted and salty story. The OED states it cannot have come from Old Norse but perhaps is still of Scandinavian origin spreading from the Orkneys like the seaweed it denotes, via Proto-Germanic *thangul. Seaweed suggests entanglement wrapping around oars and nets and is wrapped around the word itself. It is attested first in English as a verb in 1340 then nominally in 1540 to refer to a species of seaweed and later again to a more generalised ‘complication of threads, hairs, fibres, branches, boughs, or the like, confusedly intertwined or interlaced, or of a single long thread, line, or rope, involved in coils, loops, and knots; a snarl, ravel, or complicated loose knot’ (OED).Tangle has also been used to refer to a ‘dangling icicle’, a ‘tall and limp or flaccid person’, or anything long and dangling including ‘tresses of hair and plants with long, winding, and often tangled stalks’. Note the particle which hints at repeated knotting or dangling.


Penelope’s weaving ruse revolves around the pretext of  fabricating a shroud, a textile. Textile and pretext share a common free base element text from Latin texere to weave. This is a family with many relatives  – the Latin members – text, textile, pretext, context, texture with the Greek family sharing the base hinting at skill :technology, technician, technique. Both  base elements , the free and bound trace their ancestry to PIE roots *teks- “to weave, to fabricate, to make; make wicker or wattle framework” .



Note how the base takes both the connecting vowel letters  ‘o’ and ‘i’  when forming connected compounds.‘o’ is typical of  words from Greek origins ‘i’ and more usual of words of Latinate origins. Note the  digraph in the medial position of base element that here represents the phoneme /k/– reliably a clue as to Greek origins.

Ravel, like cleave is a contronym- two opposing meanings in the one word. Ravel also is a word of weaving denoting both tangles, knots, snarls and untangling. The prefix either makes the verb intensive or indicates a reversal depending as to whether it refers to tangling or untangling. Ravel is a free base element, the particle , representing the final syllabic /(ə)l/. As seen in the section exploring panel, *vle  is a non-permissable formation in English. Ravel was used verbally first  from Dutch rafelen “to unweave,” from rafel “frayed thread.”

The Art of Stitching Anguish

I was reminded of a poignant meshing of  threads and nets in the work of Norfolk fisherman artist John Craske (1881-1943).


The young John Craske , rope in hand, foreshadowing perhaps his connection with fibres.

Fisherman John Craske became tangled in ‘strange trance-like states described as “stuporous” ‘  and lasting for weeks and months. He twice tried to sign up in the first world war, but had a nervous breakdown leaving him fragile from then on.  For a short period he was institutionalised and cared for by his loyal wife. He calmed somewhat if near the sea  and when interpreting it in paintings. Every surface in his house was covered in images of the sea and sky. When he was confined to bed, he stitched the sea, boats, fish on pudding cloth, on the fabric of deck chairs in delicate threads.  Discovered in 1937 by poet Valentine Ackland  and writer Sylvia Townsend Warner,  Craske glimmered  for a moment, but afterwards was largely forgotten. The elusive artist is the subject of Julia Blackburn’s wonderful biography Threads, The Delicate Life of John Craske.


A sampler  below is of tiny red cross-stitches forming letters on a plain background by Elizabeth Parker. She begins her stitched sampler with: ‘As I cannot write I put this down simply and freely as I might speak to a person…I can fully …trust…’.  Elizabeth who was born in 1813, was one of ten children and left home to work as a nursery maid at 13. Her distress is stitched into the sampler below where she tells that employers treated her ‘with cruelty too horrible to mention’, and how she was tempted to kill herself. Her desperate text continues with the heart wrenching question, ‘…which way can I turn… wretch that I am …what will become of me…’ The sampler ends mid stitched sentence – a thread hanging in time and space: ‘what will become of my soul’.Read more at the V& A museum here


Stitched soul searching continues in the work of Lorina Bulwer (1838-1912) but her stitches are not of the delicate  and fragile despair of Elizabeth Parker. The frenetic stitched letters are filled with tirades, ramblings and rantings. She was placed in the ‘lunatic wing’ of the Great Yarmouth workhouse by her brother  at the age of fifty-five. It appears Lorina did not get over her anger and frustration at the injustice of this. Her  texts are worked painstakingly in capital letters, without any punctuation, on  vivid coloured fabric patched together with wadding. The  text  leaps and twists from its vivid background in a three metre tangled outpouring of confusion and anger. She names people, places, accuses and  and tries to connect herself as the daughter of Queen Victoria or relatives of other  well-to-do Bulwers in the area. Her palpable anguish is threaded through each panel. Read more here at Frayed : Textiles on the Edge and here.


Penelope, John Craske, Elizabeth Parker and Lorina Bulwer in their creation of textiles expiate anguish, as if the act of  composing threaded texts, woven or stitched, would steady them in their unravelling, tangled worlds.