These Tools Have Fascinating 'Handles'

By Rob Kyff

November 7, 2018 4 min read

During college, I spent an entire summer with a lute in my hands. No, I wasn't strumming medieval madrigals at a Renaissance fair. My lute was a rake-like tool used for spreading asphalt.

While working long, hot hours for a driveway contractor (at $2.50 an hour!), I often pondered two questions: "How long until quitting time?" and "Is there a linguistic link between the musical lute and the asphalt lute?"

Nope. The former derives from the Arabic "al-'ud," meaning "the wood," the substance from which lutes are fashioned. This same root gives us "luthier" for someone who makes stringed instruments.

The asphalt "lute" comes from the Latin "lutum" (mud), the same root that gives us "pollute" (to make dirty or defile). So, the tool used for moving around "lute" (mud, and later asphalt) is itself called a "lute." (If we named other implements in the same way, a shovel would be a "dirt" and a paddle would be a "water.")

The origins of the musical and asphalt "lutes" are unrelated, but do you know which of these other tool names do share a common origin with words of the same spelling?

1. coping saw and coping (a type of saw; dealing with problems)

2. sledgehammer and sledge (a type of hammer; a heavy sled)

3. wrench and wrench (to move with a violent twist; to sprain)

4. file and file (a steel tool; a device for holding papers or information)

5. jigsaw and jig (a type of saw; a lively dance or movement)


1. No match. In architecture, a "cope" or "coping," derived from the Late Latin "cappa" (cloak), is the top cover of a wall, which is often sloped or bent to shed water. So a saw used to cut its curved patterns is called a "coping saw." The "cope" meaning "to handle challenges" derives from the Late Latin "colpus" (a blow or strike), referring to the problem you're facing.

2. No match. The hammer "sledge" comes from the Old English "slean" (to strike). The sled "sledge" derives from the Dutch dialectical term "sleedse" (sled).

3. Match. Both "wrenches" come from the Old English "wrencan" (to twist). Thus, we can wrench (twist) our backs when using a tool that twists.

4. No match. The tool "file" derives from the Old English "feol" (metal file), while the storage "file" comes from the Middle Latin "filare" (to string documents on a string or wire), the same root that gives us "filament."

5. Match. Both "jigsaw" and "jig" are believed to be derived from Middle French "giguer" (to frolic). The blade of the jigsaw dances around erratically, as if doing a jig. Hey, we've solved a jigsaw puzzle!

Rob Kyff, a teacher and writer in West Hartford, Connecticut, invites your language sightings. Send your reports of misuse and abuse, as well as examples of good writing, via e-mail to [email protected] or by regular mail to Rob Kyff, Creators Syndicate, 737 3rd Street, Hermosa Beach, CA 90254.

Photo credit: at Pixabay

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