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Word of the day: want (mitten)

In the latest posting I discussed the word HAND which made Zsuzsa wonder about the words ‘handschoen’ and ‘want’. She wrote: ‘these words seem to have nothing to do with the English words gloves and mittens’. She also sent a lovely picture of her son Noah proudly showing us his ‘wanten’.

Let’s begin with the word HANDSCHOEN (glove). It looks like a new-fangled word created out of HAND and SCHOEN. The people who spoke Old-English knew it as ‘Handscōh’ but eventually they preferred the word ‘glōf’. Tthe Germans still use this compound, viz. ‘Handschuh’. According to Nicoline van der Sijs the word was first mentioned in the Dutch language in the year 1240. The word ‘hantscoen’ was the plural of ‘hantsco’ which meant ‘glove’.

Because hand and foot coverings usually go in pairs, our forefathers must have used the plural so often that they forgot the singular form. And that’s why Dutch now has a double plural for both ‘shoe’ and ‘handshoe’. You could compare them to English ‘trousers’ or glasses’, two words that lost their singular.

So where does the word ‘glove’ come from? From Old English ‘glof’ (which means ‘covering for the hand’ and ‘palm of the hand’) a word that goes back to an even earlier Germanic word for ‘hand’.

And the word ‘mitten’? It’s a late 14th century word derived from Old French ‘mitaine’ which means ‘half-glove’. This French word is related to another Germanic word, namely ‘mitten’ which means ‘middle’. In contrast with gloves, which have separate coverings for each of the four fingers and thumb, mittens have a covering for all four fingers and one for the thumb.

And that leads us to the fingerless pair of WANTEN (mittens) that little Noah is wearing. Again a very old word dating back to the 11th century when it was also written as ‘want’ and when it also meant ‘glove without fingers’. Etymologists ‘zitten met de handen in het haar’ (are at their wit’s end) because they have not got a clue what the original meaning of the word WANT is.

Finding the original meaning of WANT is a true linguistic challenge. ‘Wie neemt de handschoen op?’ Who takes up the gauntlet?

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