Etymology

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No, I’m not talking about insects. That’s bugology. Etymology is the study of words, and I’m talking about the origin of woodworking tool names.

When you think of tools, their names seem pretty obvious. Most often, the name of the tool describes what it does by simply adding an “er” to the end of the action. If you want to sand, rout, joint or shape, you use a sander, router, jointer or shaper.

Almost as often as adding the “er” to turn a verb into a noun, when it comes to tools the noun form is already the same as the action form. Hence if you want to drill, clamp or chisel, you use a drill, clamp or chisel; no additional “er” required. (Occasionally, the “er” comes as part of the package, as in you use a hammer to hammer something.)

But which came first, the tool or the action? Do you call the tool a chisel because that’s the action it performs, or do you call the action chiseling because it’s done with a tool that already had the name?

Some tools don’t seem to have an obvious connection between their names and their actions. For example, I’ve not heard many people say, “Well, Bob, I adzed me twice as many logs as you did today.” Not a lot of shop foremen would ever admonish, “Doggone it Bob, I thought I told you to twybil all those beams before lunch!” And if the shop windows need cleaning, the owner probably wouldn’t say, “Bob, I want you to squeegee all those windows by the end of the day or you’re fired.”

Speaking of adzes, twybils and squeegees, where the heck did those names come from? Likewise froe, chaser, brace, hawk and gripe – although that last often describes what Bob does after work (and not its shop use as a type of clamp). My guess? The words just sounded cool, and when you’re the guy who invents a tool you get to pick the name. Not many words are cooler than squeegee.

Incidentally, when he’s not griping or worried about his job, Bob wonders why tools used to measure plumb have his name on them.

A.J.

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