Fun Etymology Tuesday – Abaft

Another Tuesday = another Fun Etymology!

Today’s word is abaft!

Slightly unusual in modern English (estimated by the OED to occur between 0.1 to 1.0 times per million words, nowadays mostly used in nautical terminology), this word, in its current form, is recorded from the late 16th century.

However, before that, we still see it in slightly different forms.

A native Germanic word, abaft comes from Middle English on baft, meaning “back, behind, to the rear”, from Old English on bæftan. Today, it refers to something toward the back of a ship (or at least something farther back than you currently are).

As I am sure you remember, I’ve previously talked about the element a- when it occurs in words such as these, to mean something like “on, in, into”, which indeed also appears to be true here1.

But what about baft?

Well, baft is actually a compound of two other words: be, meaning ‘by’, and æftan, meaning ‘aft’.

Old English be is Germanic too. From Proto-Germanic *bi and PIE *bhi, it came to be used as an adverb during Middle English, meaning “near” or “close at hand”.

Old English æftan is slightly more tricky. Although all the Germanic languages appear to have a similar word, the ultimate origin remains disputed.

We know that æftan shows a derivative form with a Germanic adverbial suffix. We also know that it is from the Germanic base of Gothic afta, but then… Things kinda stop.

It might be a suffixed form of the Indo-European base of an ancient Greek word (ἐπί), and might thus be the only non-Germanic element of abaft, but that remains disputed.

And that is our Fun Etymology for today!

  1. Though the a– prefix might also come from Latin – then meaning “away” – or from Greek – then meaning “not, without”.

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